Iris West, one of the protagonists of the TV show The Flash, is a strong, independent black woman. I’ve been inspired by her — something that doesn’t usually happen to me as a young, black woman, being used to seeing black females as their typical stereotypes. But seeing characters I can fully relate to, like Iris West, gives me hope that there will be even more like her in the future.
I’m a quirky, introverted black female. It’s not easy for me to make friends and talk to people. So television and media have always been an outlet for me, seeing other quirky girls gave me a reassurance I wasn’t different. But I was still different than the girls on TV, they are white and I am black. Then, characters like Iris West come in, and I feel reassured again and I don’t feel like an outsider. Instead, I feel like a normal person.
Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me on television. When I did, they instantly inspired me. Characters like Raven Baxter on That’s So Raven and Penny Proud on The Proud Family were major influences on me. When I was 11, I decided to play the violin because I saw Chyna Parks on A.N.T Farm do the same. I practiced for weeks because I was so inspired by the fact that she could do it too. Recent shows with protagonists of color — like Doc McStuffins, KC Undercover, and Stuck in the Middle are continuing this legacy by showing kids that diversity is normal and that kids of color can be central to a story rather than the odd one of the bunch.
For years, Hollywood failed to create good roles for people of color. If people of color had roles in mainstream TV shows at all, they more often than not depicted racial stereotypes, like the “loud ghetto female,” the “neighborhood thug” or even the “housekeeper”. It seemed people of color were only accurately represented in the media in the relatively rare circumstance that we were given the opportunity to create our own shows and channels like BET and OWN. Some shows featuring people of color — like The Cosby Show, Fresh Prince, and In Living Color — made it to mainstream networks, and set an important standard for even more of these shows to get their shot.
But there is still a problem in the industry. While people of color may have had some past and current successes, we still have to fight for complex and accurate representation. Issues like 2016 being the first year we’ve had representation in each leading acting category in the Emmys or the casting of a white female instead of an Asian female in the Ghost and the Shell. The rise of reality TV has only created even more disappointing portrayals.
But it seems that people are speaking out against this now more than ever. Hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite last year has brought awareness to this issue, as have comments made by celebrities like Will Smith boycotting the Oscars and Constance Wu calling out The Ghost and the Shell. Current, mainstream TV series like The Flash and Agents of Shield, offer more racially balanced casts while series like Black-ish and Fresh Off The Boat put more diverse families in the spotlight.
Yara Shahidi, the 16 year-old actress on the show Black-ish, summarized the need for diverse representation on TV well in her Art + Activism speech, stating, “How can there be parody or the belief that we are valued similarly if we are still being perceived or perceiving others as a tired stereotype or as one-dimensional?”
“How can there be parody or the belief that we are valued similarly if we are still being perceived or perceiving others as a tired stereotype or as one-dimensional?”
Art+Activism= the degradation of harmful stereotypes and tropes (thank you for the love) pic.twitter.com/KK2br6RDA3
— Yara shahidi (@YaraShahidi) July 13, 2016
All in all, we need more Iris Wests — more realistic and even aspirational representations of people of color on our TV screens. I just hope when my future children turn on the TV screen, that’s exactly what they see: people who look like them rather than stereotypes.