Recently, my 17-year-old brother David told me the story of a group of girls from his high school hosting a party wearing only bikinis while their teenaged male guest were asked to come fully dressed in “street clothes”. As I went into my elder speech about lost girls who aspire to be video vixens, David reminded me that misogynistic music videos are only part of the problem.
He said that while his white female classmates have prime-time television shows that range from “Gossip Girls” to “Grey’s Anatomy”, young black females, due to the cancellation of shows like Girlfriends and The Game, no longer have a large variety of programs that feature a predominantly black cast nor have more than one black female character. At first, I wanted to disagree but could only come up with reality dating shows like VH1’s Real Chance of Love and For the Love of Ray J which often showcase scantily dressed women who drink excessive amounts of alcohol and engage in verbal and sometimes physical arguments, all in an effort to gain male affection.
Living in a society where life seems to imitate media and many young people emulate what they see, it should be no surprise that a studies show that teens who watch the most TV shows with high sexual content were two to three times more likely to become pregnant or impregnate someone than their peers who watched the least.
Similar to young black women my brother’s age, I am also a member of Generation Y but when it comes to television programming our childhoods couldn’t be anymore different. During my early formative years, I was vigilant about catching Fox Television Network’s Thursday night line-up of Living Single and Martin and I spent many canceled school days watching reruns of A Different World.
I remember my girlfriends and I arguing about which female character on each show we were and how we would mix and match the various traits we liked the most in order to create our ideal woman. I wanted the sharp-tongue of Maxine Shaw and free-spiritedness of Winifred “Freddie” Brooks. But I couldn’t have asked for a better compliment than when I told my college roommate’s boyfriend that I was appointed editor-in-chief of Northeastern University’s student-run African Diasporic magazine and he said that with me at the helm, the publication would be similar to Khadijah James’ Flavor magazine.
Aired during the black cultural nationalism of the early 1990s, all three television series used a diverse ensemble to not only present the lives of black young adults but to also touch upon several social issues. From A Different World’s “Love Taps” episode my peers and I learned about intimate partner violence, while Living Single’s “My Cup Runneth Over” taught us that despites Western society’s beauty standards, long lasting self-esteem must be based on more than the external. What was also common among them were the unapologetically positive images of black women, black female friendships and black romance. Growing up, these hit shows served as our reference points for life.
Though Fox is attempting to reclaim what helped bolster its brand in the ‘90s by including three shows featuring African-Americans, one being a cartoon and the other a late-night talk show hosted by Wanda Sykes, in its fall lineup, there is still very much a void when it comes to new black-led television programs that are specifically created for the young black female audience. Niche cable networks like BET and TV One that target African-Americans are lacking as well, the latter currently broadcasts episodes of Living Single every weeknight.
Sure, I agree that not every television show needs to uplift the race and some can be enjoyed simply as entertainment, but when it’s apparent that the lack of diverse black images in media has limited not only how young black females but also black youth in general express their sexuality and gender, it’s time we do much more than just entertain.