Once upon a time, most women on television all looked like Donna Reed. Today, it’s a great time to be a woman of color working in television.
Last season, three women of color — “Scandal’s” Kerry Washington, “Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara and “Steel Magnolias’” Alfre Woodward — were nominated for Emmys — lead actress in a drama, supporting actress in a comedy and supporting actress in a movie or miniseries, respectively. And this season, the broadcast networks rolled out show after show featuring African- and Asian-Americans and Latinos in lead roles. Half of ABC’s 12 new shows star actors of color.
“Pilot season hasn’t been this diverse in a long time, specifically as we are talking about women,” says Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i, CBS’ vice president of diversity and communications.
That said, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
In 2013, out of six categories featuring actresses — lead and supporting in drama, comedy and movies or miniseries — only three of the 36 nominated women were African-American or Latina. And no woman of color has won the award for lead actress in a drama since the inception of the Emmy Awards in 1949.
Still, today there are many more opportunities for women of all shapes and sizes to shine on TV than there have been in the past, whether those are for plus-sized actresses such as Melissa McCarthy of “Mike & Molly” or “Saturday Night Live” player Aidy Bryant; lesbian performers, such as Ellen DeGeneres or “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon; or blacks, Asians or Latinas across the TV landscape.
“In general, diversity has been woefully lacking in primetime,” says Darnell Hunt, director of the Ralph Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, who each year leads a team to author the Hollywood Diversity Report, which has found that shows featuring more diverse talent both behind and in front of the camera tend to perform better. “From the look of it, it appears that there will be quite a bit more diversity in primetime this fall,” says Hunt. “What remains to be seen is the quality of the shows, the actual on-air diversity and the prominence of the diverse characters who have been featured.”
That diversity is showing up in primetime is not an accident and it’s not a trend. All the networks have been hosting all sorts of diversity events — including workshops and showcases — for years. ABC’s diversity talent showcase found this year’s Oscar winner for supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o in 2007, years before she attended Yale and then was cast in “12 Years a Slave,” says Keli Lee, ABC’s executive vice president of casting. This season, ABC cast a more-than-usual six actors it identified in talent showcases in pilots.
Shonda Rhimes, one of TV ’s first black female showrunners, has done a great deal to advance the cause of color-blind casting.
Much was made of the diverse casting on Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy,” which premiered with two other huge hits, “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives,” on ABC in the 2004-05 TV season. All three of those shows featured diverse casts, but “Grey’s Anatomy” — with Sandra Oh playing Type-A+ surgical intern Cristina Yang, Isaiah Washington playing the hotshot surgeon Yang falls in love with and Chandra Wilson the doctor that’s keeping the pressure on — gained particular notice.
“We’ve had this approach to color-blind casting for quite some time,” says Lee. “Shonda has always been a champion of diversity and shows such as ‘Grey’s’ and ‘Scandal’ have really broken through and found success.”
Over its past three seasons, “Scandal,” starring Kerry Washington, has grown into a soapy pleasure for millions of viewers. While the Emmy-nominated Washington has made the part of political fixer Olivia Pope her own — and all while being sartorially elegant in Prada, Gucci and the like — the role “could have been played by any amazing actress,” says Lee.
This fall, ABC will launch another Rhimes-backed series, “How to Get Away With Murder,” starring African-American Viola Davis, who was nominated for an Oscar for “The Help.” The show also stars such up-and-coming talent as African-Americans Billy Brown and Alfie Enoch, plus Latina Karla Susa.
ABC next season also is offering “Black-ish,” starring Anthony Anderson; “Cristela,” starring Latinas Cristela Alonzo and Carlos Ponce; “Selfie,” starring John Cho; and “Forever,” starring Alana De La Garza. “Fresh Off the Boat” stars Hudson Yang, Randall Wang and Constance Wu, based on the book by Eddie Huang, whose family immigrated to America from Taiwan. It’s the first Asian-American comedy to air on network primetime since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl,” which aired for one season in 1994.
“This season we set out to develop passion projects from world-class storytellers and showcase the faces and voices of America,” said ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee in a statement during upfronts in mid-May. “Both plans unleashed a wave of creativity and we’re extremely excited about the new slate.”
Diverse casts are showing up on all the Big Four networks and that’s largely due to the networks needing to do everything they can to win viewers. Part of that is creating shows and casts with which today’s diverse audiences can identify.
“It’s not like people only want to see themselves on the screen, but they do want to see themselves included,” Hunt says. “Audiences want to see characters and story lines that resonate with their own experiences.”
“When TV stops reflecting the world around us, it becomes obsolete,” says Smith-Anoa’i.
CBS has women of color in lead roles in several of its shows. This summer, Halle Berry, the only African-American woman to win a lead actress Oscar, will star in CBS’ limited series “Extant.”
CBS also has thrown its support behind Polish-Irish-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q, bringing her over from the CW to star in her own series on the Eye, “Stalker,” from Kevin Williamson, creator of “The Following” and “The Vampire Diaries.” And CBS also features Lucy Liu in “Elementary” and Emmy winner Archie Panjabi on “The Good Wife.”
“Television is probably the best medium in which to publicize changes in society,” says Smith-Anoa’i. “People often identify with TV shows and look to them to define social norms.
NBC this fall will debut “State of Affairs,” starring Alfre Woodard as the president of the United States, and it’s got “Mr. Robinson,” starring Craig Robinson, on tap for midseason.
Fox’s returning hit, “Sleepy Hollow,” cast African-American actress Nicole Beharie as the co-lead, and found that the chemistry between her and Tom Mison, playing Ichabod Crane flashed-forward to the future, worked well. Mindy Kaling, who is of Indian descent, writes, produces and stars in “The Mindy Project” and the network’s “New Girl” features a multicultural cast, including Lamorne Morris, Damon Wayans Jr. and Hannah Simone.
Next TV season, Fox is bringing “Empire,” starring Terrence Howard as the patriarch of the family music business, to the smallscreen.
While progress has been made, the next step is getting diversity on television to the point where it’s not something anyone needs to talk about.
“Hopefully at some point we’ll have gone so far that we won’t need to have this conversation anymore,” says Keli Lee. “Color-blind casting is our goal.”
Come August, we’ll see if that’s Emmy’s goal as well.