Ankh’s posts about POC characters in media, I’m offering up my own pick for a phenomenon that we see far too rarely on TV nowadays: the elusive black female. And here I have something even rarer to share with you: the black female lead.
Sci-fi Channel (or should I say Syfy Channel…ugh) TV show Eureka debuted in the summer of 2006 and I have to say, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Salli Richardson-Whitfield appear on my screen and promptly steal the scene from the show’s protagonist Colin Ferguson (Sheriff Jack Carter). I just wasn’t expecting to see a black female lead and proudly admit that her presence—along with the fact that the show is just fifty kinds of awesome—cemented my devout loyalty over the past four seasons.
According to Salli, her character was not originally written for a black woman. She has recounted the fact that she was the only WoC in a room full of white women when she auditioned, but she was cast because the creators felt that she had the best chemistry with Ferguson. Add that to the fact that Allison is smart as hell and one-half of the show’s OTP*, and I’m sure that there have been more than a few head explosions over the years.
Spoiler Alert!: This list may contain spoilers for those who have not yet seen season 3.0, 4.0 and/or season 4.5.
1. Allison is a genius and a doctor three times over (she has an MD and two Ph.Ds). In nearly every episode, her genius IQ is on full display as she actively helps avert disasters and save lives with her awesome smarts.
2. Allison has an active onscreen love/sex life. She has been hotly and vociferously pursued by all of her love interests to the point that there have been downright contentious rivalries for her affections. She was engaged in season three (he was killed on their wedding day before the "I do's"), and after four long seasons of "will they/won't they", she is finally involved in a loving, supportive relationship with the show's protagonist (Jack Carter).
3. Allison has looked fierce every week since day one. Her hair, clothes and make-up are always on point.
4. You won’t find any stereotyping or caricaturing with this character. Allison is firm when she needs to be without any “angry black woman” vibes, is sexy without being sexualized, doesn’t put up with BS, is feminine yet vulnerable, and is treated with respect by everyone around her.
5. As Director of Global Dynamics, Allison is inarguably the most powerful person in Eureka. Everyone answers to her and respects her authority without question. (Season one - DoD* liaison; season two and three - Director of GD; season four - Medical Director/acting Director of GD...this change was due to a permanent alternate timeline plot, not a demotion.)
6. Allison is a loving mother (again shown onscreen) who would do anything for her children.
1. All of her love interests have been white. (Why do I have a feeling there's some fanboy fantasy-fulfilling here?) Anyway, as much as I adore this show, this trend is still disappointing. I know she was always meant to end up with Jack, but it would have been nice to see her pair up with a MoC for a change, even it was for just a little while.
2. As well as the show has treated it’s POC characters, it has still fallen into the trap of making race a complete non-entity (except for a notable exception where it would have been impossible not to). Co-creator Jamie Paglia had this to say about Eureka and race: "We've always been very sensitive to diversity in our casting, and made an effort to make Eureka a place where race isn't an issue. (source)" This is just a snippet of a larger quote, but I get what he's trying to say (and what he's trying to do). It sounds really nice and all...I just think it's a bit unrealistic. We’re not blind and nobody ignores blackness. Not even geniuses.
3. We haven’t been given too much of a background on Allison's character. Besides what's been mentioned in passing (her parents are scientists, her husband died before their son was born or shortly thereafter, she wrote a medical textbook in the alternate timeline, and she'd had a second marriage), we don't know much about her life before she came to Eureka. But given that the show has a pretty sizable main cast, that’s probably par for the course. There's only so much we know about any of the characters.
4. Although Allison is undeniably black, her features are European-looking enough to make some viewers feel less uncomfortable (whether consciously or unconsciously) about her lead role on the show, her high-ranking position, and her unmistakable irresistibility to her white love interests. This is certainly not a knock on Salli Richardson-Whitfield's casting (I can't imagine anyone else playing Allison), but it really, really rankles me that networks still feel the need to coddle racists. Even Salli has said that her appeareance probably makes it easier for her to get work on TV. So sad.
Allison is a generally well-rounded and well-written character, who is likable, smart as a whip, sympathetic and keeps viewers happily tuning in each week. I never have to question why her coworkers and everyone else in the town respect and care for her as much as they do. I never have to wonder what the men in her life see in her that makes them so ga-ga over her or why they fall all over themselves to protect her at all costs, even to the point of risking their jobs, jail time or their lives to do it. I get it. (Unlike a certain heroine on a vampire-themed cable show I just started watching. *cough*True Blood's Sookie Stackhouse*cough*)
Unfortunately, the positive portrayal of black women is still something rarely seen on TV. I have to give Eureka's creators and writers a nod for having the testicular fortitude to 1) cast a black female lead; and 2) buck the particularly ugly trend that Hollywood has of throwing black women under the bus every chance it gets. After four highly successful seasons, it's obvious that having a black female lead--and more than one main black cast member--hasn't driven the show's viewers away. (Unfortunately, next summer's fifth season will be it's last, but it's certainly not because of bad ratings. It's because of high production costs. Damn you, Comcast/NBC Universal merger!).
It's become patently obvious that people are craving more diversity on TV, not less. There's no longer any excuse for the massive bout of whitewashing that's currently taking place in Hollywood. None.
*OTP = One True Pairing
*DoD = Department of Defense