“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”
— Viola Davis’ Emmy speech
Lately, we’ve been starting to see more women of color in lead roles on television. There’s Viola Davis as the beautifully messy Annalise Keating on ABC’s noirish legal drama How To Get Away With Murder. There’s Nicole Beharie as Abbie Mills on Fox’s supernatural investigation show Sleepy Hollow. There’s Taraji P. Henson, also on Fox, playing Cookie Lyon on the quasi-Shakespearean hip-hop drama Empire. There’s also Meagan Good on Fox’s Minority Report and Priyanka Chopra on ABC’s Quantico. Not to mention Mindy Kaling on The Mindy Project. (The irony of so much diversity on Fox is not lost on me.) I’m sure there are more that I’m not listing here, but I’m sure you get the picture.
In terms of the types of stories being told, there’s a good mix of genres. None of these shows is a carbon copy of another. All the leads are very different from each other in terms of ethnicity, personality, values and life experience. But, as I look over this, I wonder: what other genres are ripe opportunities for women of color protagonists?
We don’t see many women of color as leads in fantasy.
I’m a huge fantasy buff. If it’s got elves, dragons and magic, I will usually give it a shot. But It’s tough to find named characters who are women of color, let alone women of color as leads. Usually, the excuse is “historical accuracy.” (Remember reading about elves, dragons, witches and trolls in your history classes?)
Lana Parrilla on ABC’s Once Upon A Time does phenomenal work as The Evil Queen, but she is billed as a supporting actor, not a lead. (I would be sorely tempted to sell out one of my relatives to get her on a live-action Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? series.) Aside from her and Karen David (Isabella on ABC’s Galavant), I cannot think of a single woman of color who is a series regular on a fantasy show, let alone a lead. No, not even on my fave, Game Of Thrones.
Doing a live-action series inspired by another part of the world in the same way that Avatar: The Last Airbender was inspired by indigenous and East Asian cultures would be so cool. Wouldn’t it mean so much to put a woman of color at the center of that story? Imagine: a woman of color being the Chosen One, a woman of color being the symbol of humanity at its best, a woman of color driving the story. We got that with Avatar: The Legend Of Korra, but animated characters are not quite the same as living, breathing actors on screen.
We also don’t see many women of color in science fiction.
The Minority Report is a glaring exception that proves the rule. There’s quite a bit of dystopian sci-fi out there, from The Hunger Games to The Maze Runner and so on. Someone on Twitter quipped that dystopian lit is what happens when the government does the bad stuff to white people.
Dystopian lit is: “what if the government got so powerful that all the bad stuff that’s already happening ALSO HAPPENED TO WHITE PEOPLE?”
— Fqubed (@fqubedejb) December 18, 2013
That said, Katniss Everdeen was more racially ambiguous in the books. Speaking of dystopian futures, think about what it would mean to have a character who is unmistakably a woman of color as the protagonist of such a story. What would it mean for a Black woman to lead a rebellion against the tyrannical government? What would it mean for a Native American woman to be the character who becomes an agent of freedom and change? What about an Asian woman who challenged notions of racial and gender superiority?
Besides being great representation for women of color today, science fiction is our chance to show what a future for women of color would be like–perhaps even a future without racism, sexism, homophobia or other systems of oppression. A new Star Trek series is supposed to start up in 2017. Wouldn’t it be great to see a woman of color in the captain’s chair?
We don’t see many women of color in horror either.
Alright, fine. This one is just common sense. No, we will not read aloud from the Necronomicon. No, we will not go anywhere in the middle of nowhere where there’s no cell phone signal. We will not go check out the funny noise in the basement unarmed in the middle of the night.
What other genres would be great opportunities for women of color protagonists? Please share your thoughts.