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Fall TV lineup rewrites acceptable notions of black womanhood

Mammy and Sapphire characters are gone with the wind, and Black women on TV have finally arrived. ScandalBeing Mary Jane, and now How to Get Away with Murder are television dramas featuring Black women protagonists at the top of their game professionally but also sexual beings with deep passions outside of work.

Olivia Pope, Mary Jane Paul and Annalise Keating are characters who are rewriting the script of acceptable notions of Black womanhood. What makes this an exciting moment in television is these compelling characters are flawed, complex and contradictory, but they are also smart, sexy (and sexual), while completely riveting. No longer limited to being asexual domestics or saintly mothers, each actress is visually stunning. No longer relegated to situation comedies, these writers can craft characters and story lines that explore issues ranging from infidelity to murder.

Whether viewers like or hate these shows, it’s time to celebrate a view of Black womanhood that celebrates the Black female body and pleasure. Black women no longer have to be confined by concerns about the punishing gaze of others whether they are Black men or white people. The women of Black Twitter such as Feminista Jones, Dr. Goddess, Black Girl Nerds, Joan Morgan and Ester Armah relish these shows by weekly/often live tweeting these shows while debating, reviewing and sometimes rebuking the antics of these deliciously engaging characters with their gorgeous handbags, 3-inch heels and multiple or…ganic veggies. Their stories include interracial romantic liaisons, infidelity (sometimes in the same plot line), kinky sex and unadulterated desire.

Until relatively recently, the Black middle-class woman (or Black lady) has not been allowed to acknowledge, let alone celebrate her sexuality. Earlier versions such as Diahann Carroll as Julia, a widowed nurse and mother of one, and Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable presented middle-class women as maternal figures whose sexual appetites were either hidden or respectable. The representation of Black woman in film, television and theater, as well as real life has been limited to images meant to uphold the race and stand as the embodiment of Black respectability.

This is not to say that working-class and poor Black women should not have healthy representations of their sexual expression in the media. Hopefully depictions of Olivia, Mary Jane and Annalise will allow for more acceptance of complex representations of our sexuality. It would be a shame for the middle-class Black women to have all the fun. While one of the current crop is married, none of these characters are mothers. Perhaps, Black middle-class MILFs may be too much for American audiences.

Lisa B. Thompson, author of Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class and the play Single Black Female, is an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas — Austin where she is a Public Voices fellow. Follow her on Twitter @playprof.

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