After reading my article on the top female comedy characters on TV, a friend pointed out – very politely – that it is entirely deficient in women of colour. And embarrassingly, she was right.
In fact, the only real diversity comes in the varying shades of their hair. And though this list of glaringly white, heterosexual, cisgender women marks a huge achievement in the fight for female representation, it barely scratches the surface in the multi-layered struggles of women born outside of that – relatively – privileged position.
Admittedly, when I made the selection I paid no attention to colour or creed – I was just looking for complex, badass women in the eclectic canon of my favourite TV shows. But claiming to not to see colour is redundant when there is none there to see. The fact it was possible to unwittingly collect such a whitewashed sample is testimony to the pool from which it was gathered, and the rigged way in which we measure progress. Content to celebrate the idea of seeing characters from our own demographic, we sometimes overlook the huge mountain still left to climb. And as the 2017 Ofcom report shockingly reveals, the industry is not updating at any speed we should be proud of.
Though white women of all ages may have escaped their corsets, it is still a struggle for many of their sex to find any sort of character on screen that truly represents them. And it’s not just about putting minority women on screen; it’s about giving them the same time and depth awarded to any other role. It’s about challenging stereotypes and representing race, true and uncensored. Indeed, as well-meaning as it is to claim colour-blindness, we equally cannot gloss over deeply-rooted cultural issues with one wave of a magic wand. And crucially, this means it is vital that people are given the opportunity to write their own voices. Here are some of the sitcoms that are leading by example.
The aptly named Dear White People is Justin Simien’s refreshingly unsatisfied slice of university life. When the word spreads of a blackface party on campus, the quick-witted and fiery Samantha (Logan Browning) starts a radio show which directly addresses white students, tearing them from their high horses with the news that times haven’t changed as much as they think. And what makes her performance even more powerful is the fact that her blistering satire could equally be addressed to the TV industry itself, which has long revelled in giving itself too much credit. Though the example of cultural appropriation in the show may be a more extreme example of racism, the stereotypes rife in TV comedy have been equally wide-reaching and regressive. And essentially, when the industry gives people solace in the slightest inch towards progress as a means to flatter itself, it starts to stagnate.
This is a theme explored also in Kenya Barris’s controversial Black-ish, which questions the chasm between change as popular culture perceives it and how far society has really come. In this not-so-classic family sitcom, the moral of the story is a little counter-intuitive: a man must sacrifice his principles and work as the token minority in leadership in order to look after his own. Indeed, his pragmatic wife – played by Tracee Ellis Ross – is the driving force of the show, the one who reminds him that it’s better to be part of a corrupt system and change it than to allow others to define you. This is yet another metaphor for the industry, in which women are deconstructing the system from within, growing into bigger roles.
Indeed, the show has since launched spin-off Grown-ish, which follows the life of the family’s eldest daughter (Yara Shahidi) as she goes to college and attempts to find out who she really is. Admittedly, this show itself struggles initially to take shape. But while this show depicts a young black woman attempting to define herself, She’s Gotta Have It is a far bolder depiction of an artist who rejects definition. DeWanda Wise is unashamedly unconventional and proudly individual as she juggles boyfriends and simultaneously takes a stand against objectification at the hands of men. In Fleabag fashion, she literally looks the viewer square in the face, but in her case she does it with delicious defiance, daring anyone to try and figure her out or reduce her to simplistic label. It seems ironic, then, that this show – along with the other three I have mentioned – was created by a man.
And this is why Lena Waithe’s Emmy-winning episode of Master of None, Thanksgiving, is such a treat. Waithe’s depiction of Denise’s brave, complicated and hilarious struggle to be accepted as gay within her community is deeply personal, and yet it is a journey with which so many can identify. As her character fights stubbornly for the acceptance of her family at the dinner table, it mirrors Waithe’s own fight to help women in the industry. As she herself points out: “it’s about making sure that other women of colour not only have a seat at the table, but that they’re the best in the writer’s room”. Indeed, one could argue she should be promoted to head writer of the show, but that’s an argument for another day. Female talent also blossoms both in front of and behind the camera in Insecure, a hilariously original immersion into one woman’s existential crisis. Issa Rae’s nuanced performance shows that being a strong independent woman is not mutually exclusive with being crippled by anxiety – an inevitable product of the pressures of body image, the stigma of being unmarried in your thirties and the problematic responsibility of being seen as the all-knowing spokeswoman for your race. Coincidentally, this is the exact same problem faced by the industry, in which the burden of representation plagues the few minority women who have worked their way up into leading comedy roles.
But inversely, if the canon starts to grow, we will begin to see diversity within sexualities and cultures, not simply between them. Michaela Coel’s BAFTA award-winning sitcom Chewing Gum is refreshing in that it offers us a singular slice of working class life through familiar teenage eyes. Semi-autobiographical protagonist Tracey – a 24-year-old on a council estate – wants to lose her virginity, but has to first escape her evangelical Christian household. Coel’s endearingly immature depiction speaks to girls everywhere, yet the world she creates is wonderfully unique. This hilarious struggle to reconcile sexual freedom with a religious upbringing is a theme explored very differently in sweet and sentimental Jane the Virgin. This equally charming show charts the struggles of a young Venezuelan American who has deliberately kept herself celibate, but who finds herself – through accidental insemination – thrust into the sexual world and its consequences. Although, as actress Gina Rodriguez notes, “the industry’s had this constant notion that Latinos have a different story,” this show sets a new precedent for cultural representation, constructing a distinctive identity through the universal story of motherhood.
Indeed, the most progressive shows are those which explore specific cultural concerns but which also connect people through their bare humanity, simultaneously embracing female similarities and differences. Take, for example, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, whose precinct features polar opposites Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) – whose look could care off a serial killer – and Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) – the classic teacher’s pet. Despite facing their own issues – such as Rosa’s attempt to reconcile her bisexuality with her culture – they form a team that turns from dysfunctional to unstoppable when it really matters. And the ultimate example of progress in female comedy comes in the form of Orange is the New Black, indubitable proof that diversity is a gift. With a cast of transgender, lesbian and bisexual characters from every background and walk of life, it is a celebration of the fact that it is not just our beauty which is cross-cultural, but our flaws too. In this show, secondary characters have stolen into the foreground to overshadow the white protagonist, turning it into a rich chorus of stories.
However, you might have noticed that all but one of these shows are US-based, highlighting the lack of minority actresses in mainstream UK TV. Even more shocking is the lack of Asian female representation in the comedic output of either nation. While Fresh off the Boat and The Mindy Project have proven successful in depicting Asian American faces onscreen, they stand frighteningly alone in their respective fields. A symbol of further progress perhaps comes in the form of a new US sitcom Unfair and Ugly, which promisingly elevates the voices of female American Muslims – and which is, according to co-writer Nida Chowdhry, the product of “two women getting together and deciding to make their own stories”. It may be a small step, but it’s a step further than the UK, which, in the words of Meera Syal, has “gone backwards”. Indeed, one can only imagine the pain of having only Citizen Khan as your current on-screen voice.
But that’s exactly the issue we are dealing with: no one family can speak for a culture. Just as I cannot speak for my whole gender – nor do I want to. If all women had equal care given to their characters, we would have a whole spectrum of identity from which to create new, exciting and accessible comedy. A colourful and vibrant anthology of stories. Fighting for the representation of funny women is about fighting for representation of funny womankind. All for one, and one for all.