Where Are All the Women and People of Color on Television? 5 TV Characters Done Right

Photo credit AMC.com. Click for source.
Photo credit AMC.com. Click for source.

Photo credit AMC.com.

(Spoilers from “The Walking Dead” season 3 finale ahead)

Andrea’s death on the season 3 finale of “The Walking Dead” left my fists clenched and my teeth gritted. Another episode, another woman on the show whose story arc ended entirely too soon. And without merit. And without warning. And unnecessarily.

In Hollywood, it’s no secret that women and characters of color often don’t exist at all or are poorly written. Just the other day, Jezebel asked: why aren’t Asian actors getting leading roles? And how about the whitewashing that occurs in movies like “Argo” (where Ben Affleck, a white man, played a Latino) or “The Hunger Games” where Katniss turned out to be pale instead of “olive-skinned” like the books said?

But I’m talking about “The Walking Dead,” which more than 12.4 million people watched on Sunday. In a show that attempts to elicit empathy for a man who kept a collection of zombie heads, stored his undead daughter locked in a closet, and sexually assaulted a woman in order to exert his power, I ask: where are the well-developed women and people of color?

I have to wonder. Why am I supposed to identify more with Merle, who had been in just 17 episodes, than Lori and Andrea combined, who had been in 35 each? Why do I know more about Dale (19), The Governor (14), and Milton (10), than I ever knew about T-Dog, who appeared in 20 episodes? Why are Lori and Andrea dead, while The Governor lives?

Thankfully, comic book creator Robert Kirkman has alluded to the fact that he was not on board with Andrea’s death and promised women will be more prominent in season four. But that doesn’t bring back the characters that are already dead, the stories that will go untold, and the “I’m glad she’s dead”s that fans will utter.

Why can’t “The Walking Dead” get it right? Why can’t they write a woman and a person of color (or, God forbid, both) and do them justice? Why, instead, do the writers simply give up on characters like Lori (who did little but fret over her son until her sad death during childbirth) and Andrea (who also died because she just wanted everyone to get along — typical woman, amirite?) and T-Dog (who we literally know nothing about)?

It’s possible to write women or people of color. In fact, here are five characters — women, and people of color, sometimes both — that I think are well-written and totally great.

Troy Barnes and Abed Nadir from “Community”

troy-abed-morning-show-community

Photo credit Alt News Media. Click for source.

I’m totally counting these friends as one because they’re both done so well (and they’re from the same show). Abed and Troy are quirky and adorable and funny and it’s got nothing at all to do with their race. Troy and Abed are just BFFs, and they do everything together, including sharing an apartment and watching “Inspector Spacetime” and going to geeky conventions and hosting a fake talk show. They undoubtedly have the deepest friendship on “Community,” and fail to fall victims to any racist stereotypes or TV tropes. Troy is a former football player who’s sensitive and not-always bright, but has a good heart; Abed is a television and movie obsessed “nerd” who is learning how to have friends. As individuals, they’re strong characters, and together, they’re even better. (You only need to watch an episode of “Troy and Abed in the Morning” to know that.) Mostly, Troy and Abed are well-rounded characters not because they are Troy the Black Guy and Abed the Palestinian Guy. They’re just Troy and Abed.

Mindy Lahiri from “The Mindy Project”

Mindy

Photo credit Hyphen Magazine. Click for source.

There’s something to be said about seeing a hilarious, smart South Asian woman, who openly discusses how she’s not “Hollywood thin,” as the star of a primetime TV show. Mostly because stuff like this never, ever happens. That’s partially why I’m so obsessed with Mindy Kaling’s show, “The Mindy Project,” and the character she created, Mindy Lahiri. (Fine, I’m also just plain obsessed with Mindy Kaling, but pretend you don’t know that.) Mindy Lahiri is a thirty-something woman who runs her own OB/GYN office with several co-workers. She’s super funny, charming, smart, and a hopeless romantic. She’s also self-obsessed, judgmental, occasionally talks too fast, fails in love, and sometimes says the wrong thing. In other words, she’s like you and me and that’s why she’s so wonderfully endearing.

Winston Bishop from “New Girl”

Winston

Photo credit Cemetery Tires. Click for source.

I’m in love with Winston and his characterization on “New Girl.” He’s one of the three boys Jess Day (Zooey Deschanel) lives with following his return from Latvia, where he played basketball. (Okay, fine, the basketball thing is stereotypical, but hear me out.) Over the course of the show, we’ve easily learned just as much about Winston as we have about the other characters. He’s weirdly good at playing the bells. He is afraid of the dark. He likes musical showtunes. He is oddly bad at pranks. Winston spends some time working as a nanny and then he becomes involved with a radio show. His race is mentioned in funny and relatable ways. One episode focuses on Schmidt’s belief that Winston needs more black friends and experiences. It’s essentially a guide in How Not to Behave Around Your Friends (Who Happen to Be Not White).

Joan Watson from “Elementary”

Joan

Photo credit Racebending. Click for source.

The creators of “Elementary” really went out on a limb with their modern-day Sherlock Holmes in that John Watson is now Joan Watson. And she’s amazing. Played by Lucy Liu, Joan is brilliant and funny and also complicated and has her own demons. That’s what makes her such a great character. Lyndsey, who named Joan as one of her top five underrated ladies in television, pointed out that Joan even has the guts to call out Sherlock on something misogynistic. From Lyndsey: “Sherlock suggests she is upset due to her period but he has worked out her schedule and she responds “couching it as a scientific observation totally negates the misogyny.” Yes! We need to call people out on jokes like that. (Also, using the word “misogyny” in mainstream media is pretty great.)”

Tom Haverford from “Parks and Recreation”

Photo credit Rachelle and Cinema. Click for source.

Photo credit Rachelle and Cinema. Click for source.

So, it was almost impossible for me to choose which character to mention from “Parks and Recreation.” The truth is that the show does a pretty excellent job of developing all of its characters. Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones) is a half-black, adorably funny nurse. Donna Meagle is a black, FAT (!!) woman who’s got a healthy love life and is obsessed with her Mercedes. April Ludgate is a Puerto Rican who hates everything, but uses that to make herself seem oddly endearing. Leslie Knope is walking perfection. That said, Tom Haverford is also a seriously wonderful character. As a small business owner (Rent-A-Swag), entrepreneur (Entertainment 720), and professional style guru (Tom’s biggest faux paus would be looking frumpy), Tom is the antithesis of a television trope. Although Tom pretends to be kind of dumb and vapid, he’s actually pretty smart and business-savvy, perpetually looking out for his next business adventure. He’s also hilarious and super quotable.

Who are some really great women/people of color on TV? Or some of the worst?

13 Comments

  1. Amazing as always. I will have to check out Mindy.

  2. Great list, although even Mindy can’t save The Mindy Project for me (the show itself is just not funny or engaging to me). I love all the characters you listed though and all the other shows. And even though I understand the fans of The Walking Dead who are constantly frustrated with Andrea, I am really bummed she was offed because even if she was kind of annoying, she was still a pretty full character to me and I really admired that she did try so hard not to give into the power plays of other characters. I just hope Michonne and Tyreese continue to become developed (thank god Michonne has started talking and not just badassedly wielded her katana) because I already really like both of them and I already liked Danai Gurira and Chad Coleman before they got on the show.

    • oh and I’d also personally add Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) from Scandal to the list because she’s such a strong, well-rounded character and it’s a friggin blessing to see a WOC be the lead on a primetime network show. Overall, the women on the show are pretty brilliant, but Olivia’s the best.

      • I absolutely need to watch that. My best friend loves that show and highly recommends it, and I’m a huge Kerry Washington/Shonda Rimes fan — can’t wait to check it out. Thanks for the rec 🙂

    • I totally get it — I have had a few people tell me “The Mindy Project” is just not their cup of tea. It has been a little all over the place, with episodes airing out of order/characters being written off, etc… but I am hoping it finds its stride in season 2, much like Parks & Rec did!

      I am STILL super bummed about the loss of Andrea. Yes, she made some poor decisions, but Rick also makes some poor decisions and we don’t all want him offed! She was a strong character and to me was a core member of the group, even if she was in Woodbury for this season. I always hoped she’d make it back to her friends. Thankfully, like you said, Tyreese, Michonne, AND Sasha all seem to be getting some decent treatment. Hopefully they’ll get major love next season!

  3. The actor who plays Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) was born and raised in South Carolina so I have to imagine this exchange from Parks & Rec comes from personal experience:
    Leslie: You’re not from here, right?
    Tom: No, I’m from South Carolina.
    Leslie: But you moved to South Carolina from… Where?
    Tom: Uh, my mother’s uterus.

  4. Jessica Pearson, played by Gina Torres, is a great character on USA’s Suits. Awesome acting for a fierce character.

    • Ooh, I have not watched that show. Love Gina Torres though, she’s fantastic.

    • Gina Torres was the first person I thought of when I read the title! Her Firefly character Zoe Washburne is by far one of my favorite strong female roles. On that note, Joss Whedon deserves props for actually being able to write well-rounded, believable women. Most writers have no idea how to even start.

  5. Yesssss!!!! Love this article so much. I agree that so many female and non-white characters on television are under-developed or just fall to gender and racial stereotypes. I totally need to start watching Community and Parks & Rec. I’d also definitely add various Shonda Rhimes characters to this list….I think she has done so much as far as portraying women and diverse characters. Bailey and Christina from Grey’s Anatomy come to mind, same with Olivia Pope from Scandal. Love this so much!!

    • I was soo close to putting Bailey or Christina on my list, but I haven’t watched Grey’s in so long that I didn’t feel I could really speak to their characters anymore! When I watched Grey’s though, yes, I totally agree. Because of you Scandal is on my must-watch list! <3

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: