With Olivia and Fitz and Annalise and Sam it has been noted that there’s a mainstream pop culture revolution happening in the representation of white men in relationships with black women.
Has post-racial dating finally trickled down to black women? Are younger people less hung-up on race and more accepting of interracial couples in media? Has powerhouse Shonda Rhimes single-handedly flipped the script on the natural superiority of white women?
I started this whole thing (and it becomes a thing) because I wondered, “just how unique is this moment of white men and black women romantic pairings on television?”
Bless my heart.
What started with an unanswered question on Twitter ended up with a five day bender. The bender took me through reference books, online databases, and into the emotionally fraught waters of assigning race to human subjects.
I am hesitant to share any parts of what I found. For one, I get in trouble every time I count something that is considered squarely in the domain of “culture”. I promise you that I am aware of the philosophical tensions around the very idea of quantifying social experiences. The personal is political and an n of 1 is a perfectly legitimate mode of inquiry. I issue all of these disclaimers to say, please, for the love of all that is holy, do not email me about counting. Go ahead and talk about me on listservs and in your homes, however. This is America, after all.
I am also hesitant to share this because there is a legitimate concern that measuring or observing white male-black female relationships reifies white men. That is fair. I can tell you all day long that I am merely interested in a social experience but the fact is, all questions and answers are political. I may get into this more ahead or, even in another post. But for now I will say that if black men mating with black women is a legitimate, if problematic, line of inquiry then so is this one. Mating with white men is not a prize or even a big political project. But, it is disingenuous to argue that power dynamics of representation and even economics do not influence with whom we mate. And, who is deemed desirable in any culture is a type of power that can circumscribe an individual’s quality of life. Also? I can ask anything I want to ask.
Having said that, let’s start with a few numbers and how I got them.
First, I actually bought the The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, 1946-Present. In fact, this step was how I decided whether or not to even start down this rabbit-hole. I said to myself, “Self, if this reference is available as an ebook, it is a sign to continue.”
It is available as an ebook.
This encyclopedic guide says that it lists:
…regular series carried on the commercial broadcast and cable networks in early evening, prime time and late night (roughly, between 6:00 PM and 3:00 AM). In addition we have included the top syndicated programs that have aired primarily in the evening hours. We cover the entire history of network TV in the United States, from its inception on a regular basis in 1994 through April 15, 2007.
If you want more than that, I suggest buying the book.
For my purposes, I used the guide’s annual list of “Top-Rated Programs by Season”. It’s drawn from Nielsen ratings and you can always read up on the strengths and weaknesses of those. I took the top 20 shows from every year for the last 20 years (1994-2014). The print/digital copy of the text runs through 2007 but the editors maintain a year-to-date list online. I pulled the same top 20 for years 2007 to 2014 from that online list.
A bit of futzing with a spreadsheet, some manual data entry, and several long talks with myself later I had 419 entries. I used wikipedia and International Movie Database and a little thing called “Google” to identify 1) main characters for every scripted program on the list 2) their major romantic relationships and 3) the race and gender composition of each relationship.
There are a lot of subjective judgement calls in this. If the fans and critics considered the relationship “romantic” and major enough to mention? I included it. I tried to assign racial categories based on how the actors presented via their characters’ context in the show, as opposed to the actor’s racial and gender presentation. For example, Vanessa Williams may present as black but did her character on Desperate Housewives present as black to either the other characters or to the viewing audience? Judgement calls. And it got way sticky with fi…uh, talented Jesse Williams of Grey’s Anatomy. In the end, I went with what people on social media said he was.
The first number is 82. That’s the total number of Top 20 shows on broadcast television between 1994 and 2014, minus reality shows (e.g. Survivor), game shows (e.g. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), and sportsball events (e.g. Monday Night Football). One way to think of this number is that there were 82 programs that could have featured a romantic pairing, i.e. a device common to sitcoms, dramas, and serials.
Of those 82 shows, I differentiated between “primary” couples and “ensemble” couplings. Basically, I wondered if you had more anti-hegemonic pairings with ensemble casts (e.g. ER) than you did with shows where the couple anchors the whole show (e.g. Roseanne).
You get more play with all couples, in sheer number and in configurations, when it is an ensemble show. In 20 years there have been exactly five white men-black women couplings (including Scandal but not How To Get Away With Murder; more later). Only one such pairing is a primary couple, i.e. the central romantic coupling on which the show’s premise hinges. That is Scandal. All of the other four white men-black women pairings are on ensemble shows, Friends and Desperate Housewives. Three of those pairings are attributed to Vanessa Williams’ character on DH.
I broke out hetereonormative couples for this count. I also counted the queer couplings for each show. There aren’t many (8 total) and they are also concentrated on ensemble programs like ER and Grey’s Anatomy although there’s a major aggregate assist from Will & Grace. The queer/non-heterosexual pairings are mostly white-on-white pairings. In the case of interracial pairings, the most common pairing is “non-white” and white. I loosely (and begging all due forgiveness to methodology, theory, politics and lives) defined “non-white” as Hispanic (-American), Asian (-American), and South Asian. Basically, Grey’s Anatomy‘s Callie Torres brought the “diversity” to this category. Interestingly enough, Callie also paired with men on Grey’s, accounting for the show’s non-white female heterosexual pairings as well.
This list does not include How to Get Away With Murder (HTGAWM). It’s too new to be in these ratings although I suspect its numbers will put it there next year. And the show’s primary couple of black attorney-professor Annalise and her white professor husband Sam has been the cause of much of the buzz on this topic. That brings me to the difference in quantity of race-gender pairings to the context of those pairings.
Someone mentioned on Twitter that Tom and Helen Willis of The Jefferson’s was one of the first and most mainstream black woman-white male pairings on television. That show aired between 1975 and 1985, which falls beyond the parameters of what I did here. However, TV Tropes (another Twitter recommendation) gives a summary history of how such pairings have unfolded on TV in the gap between The Jeffersons and when I pick up this analysis in 1994:
When these relationships are portrayed, two issues may work their way into the narrative:
- A black woman may be accused of “selling out” by dating white men. It is expected that black women will only be attracted to black men. If her lover is wealthy in addition to being white, she may receive accusations that she’s a Golddigger.
- A white man may also encounter derision. In some circles, black women aren’t seen as attractive or desirable partners so a white man may be seen as “trading down” or deviant for not wanting to date a white woman.
When white men have paired with black women on network television it has been for laughs or for A VERY SPECIAL EPISODE. Vanessa Williams’ character on Desperate Housewives is a good counterpoint. Williams joined DH after award-winning Alfre Woodard joined the cast as its first black actress. Woodard is described by critics as “motherly” and strong. She keeps her sons chained in a basement and, as far as I could discern, was the only living body on Wisteria Lane not having sex. On a show defined by sexual conquests and marital status (“housewives” is right there in the title), Woodard’s character (“Betty Applewhite”; they even made her sound like a woman on a pancake box) has no spouse, no partners, and no one on the cul-de-sac horizon. Williams, on the other hand, goes through three men like a good Desperate Housewife and even ends her run on the show by getting married. The difference is phenotypical. Woodard is dark. Williams is light. While both confirm to Hollywood body standards, Williams presents as closer to normative white beauty ideals than does Woodard. One has sex on a show about sex and the other one is motherly.
Rhimes’ real revolution may be less about the number of black women she pairs with white men and more about which black women she pairs with white men. In Kerry Washington and Viola Davis, there is more of Helen Willis and less of Vanessa Williams, only played straight rather than for laughs. The most shocking thing about Washington and Davis’ characters may be that their desirability is assumed. That would counter at least 20 years of programming.
No matter how you slice it, primetime network television has never had and still does not have a large number of black women pairings of any kind, much less with a non-black male. When you account for pairings that drive the show, aren’t “very special episodes” or played for laughs the number is pretty stable. Scandal and HTGAWM brings the grand total of such pairings to a 20 year high of…two. To the extent that this represents a major increase it is because anything is a major increase over zero.
But why does two feel so significant?
Well that’s a whole ‘nother story.
While interracial marriage has increased over the past twenty years, black women remain the least likely to out-marry. When network television has done interracial relationships it seems to have gone with the most likely pairings, i.e. black men with just about anyone else and white men with hispanic or asian women. The great statistical mis-match among black women and asian men might well be the real taboo to be broken in culture and on network television.
But, of course, white men matter in the way that capitalism matters. It’s just hanging out there representing a cornucopia of structural stuff like history, culture, and norms. I have said before that marriage may be about love but it is also about power – who has the power to define who is attractive; who is marriageable; who can be recognized as married before the State. In the game of power, desirability becomes a type of commodity judged against what power deems desirable. I sincerely do not believe that black women are pining for the great seal of white male approval. Seeing a reflection of one’s self on network television in an interracial relationship should not be misconstrued for self-hatred or even post-racial sophistication.
What is more likely happening in the recognition of this phenomenon of two is that desirability is the antithesis of the caricature of black women. That desirability is measured against maleness and whiteness is about the culture we’re in where white and male is equated with power and privilege. Who wouldn’t want privilege’s favor? I think all the waves of feminism have failed black women as it relates to desirability. Womanism and younger hip-hop influenced feminist epistemologies are getting at that, but we still have a ways to go to value the desire to be desirable. That isn’t self-hate or antipathy or even a desire for more white male attention. That’s about being human. And humanity is something often denied women, in general, and black women as a systematic imperative.
I’m still playing with this stuff. This is all preliminary. Basically, if there’s a revolution going on, Shonda Rhimes is the general. She single-handedly created two universes where desiring a black woman publicly is not deviant, funny, or abnormal enough to warrant an entire storyline. That’s a type of progress but it is fragile. One woman, one vision means that the entirety of black women’s diverse representation in popular culture can all end when Shonda does. Whether this is a moment or a change depends and can only be seen in retrospect. But it would certainly need to become more normal for more culture producers. By that standard, the Top 20 for black women as universal partners doesn’t look all that different now than it did 20 years ago.
1. Law & Order and CSI provided real empirical challenges. Because romantic relationships are not major foci of either franchise and because there so damn many of them, I only counted relationships for the season that the show was rated in the Top 20. I counted each franchise appearance in the ratings once in total show count.
2. I decided that Jesse Williams’ character on Grey’s was black. You are free to sue me.
3. Some shows either had no romantic relationships to count (e.g. Touched By An Angel) or so few episodes aired that the relationships did not develop/there’s no detailed information (e.g. Inside Schwartz). The chart totals do not include these programs.
4. TV watching has changed a lot in 20 years. It is possible that networks like FX and such have different programming and different norms. Also, there may be more diversity on reality TV shows although I’ll point out that The Bachelor and the Bachelorette both appeared on these lists and neither have had a serious interracial pairing.
37 thoughts on “When White Men Love Black Women on TV”
I’m guessing Archer did not make the cut of top 20, so I am curious as to where you would place the Lana/Archer/Cyril triangle. Even though it is animated, or perhaps because it is, I think it takes on a lot of these topics.
Yep, you’re right. If it wasn’t on the top 20, I didn’t look at it. There had to be a cut-off somewhere. But Archer, like some of the other shows being suggested, appears to run on non-network TV? I suspect that those networks might have more diversity but don’t know. And I’ve never seen it! So I cannot hazard a guess on that one.
Yeah, I had overlooked your “traditional network” focus, my apologies for that, but they lost relevance for *me* as different years ago (certainly a statement of privilege).
If you have the opportunity to watch it on Netflix or elsewhere sometime, you might enjoy it. Aisha Tyler is brilliant as Lana.
This is fascinating! It also begs the question whether TV (or any media) is causing change or simply mimicking what it observes in reality, which of course is a rather unanswerable study of its own. The bare fact that there are only two such couples makes it significant and rather laden though – as you said, one wonders whether this is still simply a ‘Rhimes phenomenon’ which could die out with her shows. It says a lot about a society when these are still so rare, and I agree that it would be disingenuous to deny the power dynamics at play. Your post has made me very curious about similar pairings on South African tv, I might just steal your idea. My main impression of SA TV, in comparison, is that a certain colourblindness with regards to romantic pairings is being sold to the public, but it still often feels forced and somewhat ideals-driven. Furthermore, I think on our TV (which is, however, strongly influenced by the shows we get from you guys), white women-black men pairings are more uncommon. I wonder why that is. Thank you for some good food for thought.
I thought about that, too and I do not know. I’m not equipped to hazard a guess about whether TV reflects demography or if it can someone shape it. I suspect its all one circular relationship without single causality. Or, at least any measurable causality.
because racist white males cannot deal with black men and white women relationships..the truth must be told
Thank you, Tressie, for taking this on with such grace, humor and aplomb. As a non-consumer of US television for many years now, my interest in this piece could have been nil. Yet, as an African-American woman who grew up watching network television in the 70’s & 80’s, TV was pretty easy to give up as an adult. I could rarely find characters with whom I would choose to identify. At some point, most of what was on offer was simply no longer very entertaining.
The analysis that you offer here brings so much of that reality home for me. There were and are multiple reasons why Sex and The City, for instance, as a cultural phenomenon was lost on me. While I have heard much about the excitement around Scandal, your findings suggest that I needn’t hold my breath waiting to see a widespread shift in mixed-race pairings in the near future.
Comparative cases are ALWAYS interesting! And South Africa would be as about as interesting comparative case as I could imagine. Talk about the ways in which culture moves differently but similarly. That would be great to consider.
I know you already mentioned “The Jeffersons” and that for historical reasons that show falls outside the survey of shows you are examining. Lemme just say — and I am sure you know it already — that one important critique of that shows interracial marriage is that White male couplings with women of color is that it reads as politically non-threatening to White privilege, and can actually read as an assertion of it. This may account for the acceptance of the Willis’ tv characters (by a certain segment of what was still a “Nixonland” America) on network primetime in the 1970s, and so quickly on the heels of the civil rights movement. I think this is part of the reason that Black women-White men couplings can find such a ready platform on tv. I am way old enough to yawn at it these days, and I have long, long since lost the feeling of (*ahem*) Scandal when teevee put it on the tube (or should I say liquid crystal or LED).
On the other hand, Black male couplings with White women still have that politically charged taboo element — even as tv commercials use them to sell digital services and breakfast cereals. White privilege still feeling threatened with that much?
It is interesting that gender can be a moment of intersectionality for race (*ahem*) relations, and vice (re-)versa.
Ah promises to keep readin’.
I’m curious how you counted Olivia’s relationships in Scandal. She has had romantic pairings with two white men, not just one.
I considered the romantic pairings that drove the story line for the year that the show appeared on the ratings list. Scandal is only on one year, 2014. According to the episode summaries during that season, Olivia has one pairing with Fitz. Do you know what seasons the other pairings emerged? I’ve been off watching it for awhile now so I couldn’t draw on my viewing of the show. I relied on external summaries.
ETA: I checked. According to the episode guide Jake and Edison are listed in later seasons of Scandal (2 and 4). So, they wouldn’t have been listed on the season 1 episode guide that used to bracket the year for which Scandal appears on the annual tv ratings. But your point is taken: Olivia continues to have relationships and they do not necessarily have a pattern.
Vanessa William’s character on ‘Ugly Betty’ also dated white men. I’m surprised that fact didn’t come up in your research. Since you are only focusing on Prime Time, I won’t mention Tom and Olivia on All My Children as another example of white men and black women (or Julian and Eve on Passions).
Ugly Betty did not make any of the annual Top 20 lists so I wouldn’t have looked at it.
I don’t know how many female writers compared to male writers there are in television… I’m imagining there is an imbalance as with every industry for women, but that aside, I’m finding between Shonda Rhimes “drama” and Tina Fey “comedy” they both pretty much pander to white male privilege and are ruining television that much more. They are being hailed because they are easy to swallow. Nothing really controversial about their work. They suit men. Non offensive albeit occasionally base portrayals of humans. Nothing mind blowing. And Shonda writing about all the doctors fornicating… is boring. If she was a better writer, she wouldn’t have to rely on it.
I think your article is interesting… and I’m not arguing your findings or stats at all… but in terms of lighter skinned females getting “better” parts or representation in roles, men are still in control of that. I do think Shonda is writing for them and selling it successfully to women. Whether or not she is conscious of this, I don’t know.
Tina Fey and Shonda Rimes are “the man”.
But, yes, the greater point being the normative tastes of white men still very much guides cultural representations. To the extent that anything veers from that in any small way, it’s “revolutionary” only when one considers how bad the baseline is.
My apologies in advance and please delete this link if the video takes up too much space.
But I thought it might interest you if you haven’t already seen the lecture dialogue between bell hooks and Arthur Jafa. They cover a lot of ground… but I think they speak about and or refer to many of the same things you do in your work(s). They may also grant insight into my style of “sting”… when I critiqued Rhimes and Fey…no offense meant btw. 🙂
VeryWhiteGuy & I made note on our podcast at the start of the fall tv season the number of NEW shows with BW-WM couples/pairings.
It was astounding to note:
Red Band Society
Add to that the numerous returning shows:
The Good Wife
The Vampire Diaries
The Mindy Project
And this is just on primetime network shows (nothing on cable for example). It seems to indicate a trend (to us) that a new shows seem to be pitched with a BW-WM pairing. And the younger the target audience, the more likely it is to have a BW-WM pairing.
Thanks! I suspected network mattered a lot. What you get at with Top 20 shows is the success of such pairings as part of shows that gain mainstream viewerships. Which is, of course, quite a bit different from shows that target different micro-demographics. You probably get at youth differences by looking at different networks. Flash also came up on Twitter. Would you know which characters were involved in Grey’s and The Good Wife? Both appear on my lists in earlier seasons with few such pairings. I’d like to pin down when the pairings emerged. And what’s your podcast?!
On The Good Wife, Cary Agos (Matt Czuchry) had a relationship with a fellow ASA, Dana Lodge (Monica Raymund) – season 3, I think?
I can’t think of the Grey’s example off the top of my head, but Audra MacDonald’s character on Private Practice, Naomi Bennett, had a few relationships with white men – including getting engaged and raising a child with one. More Shonda, but I’m not sure if PP ever hit the Top 20.
Thanks. I have a NWF/WM pairing listed for 2011 The Good Wife for that year. I believe that’s this one although she isn’t listed as a main character. I suspect I couldn’t nail the character’s racialization on the show. The actress appears to have played everything from latina to mixed race in other programs. It would probably be best to watch every episode of 419 episodes listed here to get at these discrepancies. I was not going to do that. It would be a good idea for someone, though.
ETA: And yes PP didn’t appear on the list.
A little more information about interracial relationships on The Good Wife that may or may not be helpful:
Cary Agos (WM) has had relationships with both Dana Lodge (NWF) during Season 3 (2011-12) and Kalinda Sharma (NWF) throughout the show, but particularly Season 6, currently airing. I don’t recall how the show presented Dana’s race (if at all) but will go back and take a peek. She was only in a few episodes that season. Kalinda is presented as being of Indian descent (South Asian, not NDN).
Kalinda has has other relationships that might be worth noting, including an abusive ex that appears in the series, Nick Saverese (WM). He is mentioned in Season 3 (2011-12) but doesn’t appear on screen until Season 4 (2012-13).
There’s also a one-night stand she had with Peter Florrick (WM), but it is never actually shown onscreen, as it predates the events of the series.
Last but not least, Kalinda (who is often labeled in the press as bisexual but who is pretty clear onscreen about rejecting labels) has an on-again, off-again relationship with Lana Delaney (WF) throughout the show, but particularly in Season 6 (currently airing).
I captured Kalinda’s NWF/WF relationship and one NWF/WM one. I don’t think I have all the Agos ones. Again, if it wasn’t in the episode guides, imdb, etc. I wouldn’t catch it. Thanks! This is what viewing adds.
You may also want to take a look at Into the Badlands on AMC. Not only does it consist of amazing martial arts, but the main character is an Asian man with a black woman love interest. It’s certainly not a top 20 show. It’s quite new and it may not even have a second season, but it definitely addresses that black female / Asian male taboo that you mentioned in a very serious (nothing comic about it) way.
How come the interracial couples don’t have any chemistry ie. Scandal, How to get away with murder.
That is so your opinion and not fact. I personally feel nothing but sexual tension, passion and chemistry with Olivia and Fitz and Olivia and Jake. You’re clearly aren’t a fan which is fine but spewing blanket statements when the vast majority clearly do not agree is silly.
So if my opinion isn’t in tune with the majority it’s silly lol. I thought it was a fictional TV show?
I know you’re going to get a lot of “whatabouts”, so I’m going to throw mine in the mix. On the show Ally McBeal, Lisa Nicole Carson’s character Renee Raddick dated a White man or two, I thought. Is this incorrect? Surely that show fell within the parameters of the Top 20 criterion?
And thank you for the interesting article. I think only you could have written this article with such earnest academic curiosity that it managed to sidestep a nasty reddit-esque backlash.
Whatabouts is apparently the entire theme of this blog. Thanks for giving me a term.
No, Ally McBeal didn’t make the top 20 for the last 20 years according to The Directory. The list, minus reality/game/sports shows, is linked above: https://tressiemc.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/screen-shot-2014-12-21-at-9-08-37-pm.png
But I do remember that character. Loved her and always hated to hear she had some life issues that took her away from acting.
Reblogged this on Steph's Blog and commented:
Yep. Same race/ethnicity/religion/class pairings prevail, esp among hetero white european upper class christians. For those who hype the notion of Black women/nonblack men relationships. TV certainly doesn’t reflect it. For Black men and women who crave Black relationships, they’re getting rarer every year. No Asian, Latin, Native American Arab men as romantic interests either. Post-racial, my foot
I’m a white guy who is attracted to all women regardless of color. I myself had always wondered why on network tv if they were going to have an interracial couple why was it 99.9% of the time white woman/black male? Why is there almost never white male/black female? I think those in tv land still feel like we’re in some racial hostile world and they’re being “shocking/revolutionary” by having a BM/WF couple. The reality is you can walk down the street and see four BM/WF couples before you turn the corner! But you almost never see WM/BF on tv!
i am a white female,let me just say that as long as white males and aunt jemima black women rule television and the movies,black men will always be left out when pairing with white women,,they cannot stand to see BM-WW relationships in real life,so you know that they are going to deny BM-WW romance on tv and the movies..in real life,more black men and white women are married to each other than WM-BF,as of the 2010 census count,there are 400,000 black men and white women that are married to each other,compared to only 190,000 WM-BF,,,,.racism is alive and well when black men and white women are involved,,that is why i do not watch that garbage on tv and the movies,,television does not play fair with black males and white females…just look at how the networks had to pull the cheerioss commercial that featured a black husband,his white wife and their biracial child..black women and white males complained about that commercial,,so we white women and black men should boycott television..am just stating the facts..the real facts
I am so sick of the interracial double standards, in movies and television. All you see is White Men with, and bedding ALL races of Women. Godforbid if an Attractive White Woman is with a Black Man, ALL HELL breaks loose. The poster Jessica who posted above, has this shit right down to a T. Black Women and White Men would pitch a Bitch… Especially Racist White Men.