When we turn our TV’s on, we typically see the lives of white men and women on every channel. These individuals fill our TV sets, most billboards and many other things that dominate this country. Very rarely do we see African American characters on TV shows and when we do, they usually hold stereotypical roles that come along with being “black in America.” Now I wasn’t really aware of all the stereotypes that go hand in hand with being black on TV but taking a closer look exposed me to some shocking realizations. Some of the common stereotypes black characters portray are sometimes obvious like how “black male actors play drug dealers, pimps, con-artists and other forms of criminals” (Nittle), or women are “portrayed as sassy, neck-rolling individuals with attitudes in television and film” (Nittle). These two stereotypes are, like I said before, very common but the ones that are less obvious do the most damage.
The show “The Vampire Diaries”is an American supernatural drama television series based on the popular book series written by L. J Smith. It premiered on The CW, a network that typically never held a show for more than three seasons, in the September of 2009. This show still runs successfully as it entered its seventh season this past November, making it one of the CW’s most popular show. It takes place in Mystic Falls, Virginia where it follows a white female named Elena Gilbert who is exposed to the white, supernatural characters Damon and Stefan Salvatore. Elena is the main character, and whom the show is based around, along with a few other characters that play a role in her life like Bonnie, her black best friend. The character Bonnie Bennett is played by the actress, model, singer, and dancer Kat Graham. Kat is the daughter of a Liberian father and a Russian Jewish mother, who at the age of twenty-six “stars” as Bonnie Bennett, in this series, The Vampire Diaries. Bonnie is known to be “the ultimate token black girl/magical negro, and is always put in a position of servitude”(Jeanna). Meaning, her basic purpose to the show is to “save the day.” As an active viewer and fan of the show, I never noticed that Kat happens to be the only person of color in the entire show. She lives in a town called “Mystic Falls”where she is the only black person that lives in town. Through her role, she is only pulled in when Elena is in need of her magical help or rescuing, otherwise this “main character”is not seen.
The fact that Bonnie is one of the main characters of this show, she also happens to be the only diverse character as well. That leads me to believe that she is indeed tokenized as the person of color every show needs. As mentioned by Shannon Jeanna in her blog, “The Problematic Treatment of People of Color on The Vampire Diaries”, she makes the issue of there not being enough people of color on the show very clear and easy to understand. She notices that only one of the nine main characters, which includes Stefan, Damon, Elena, Caroline, Tyler, Matt, Jeremy, Alaric and Bonnie, happens to be a person of color and the rest are white. Now if you think about it, what kind of message is the show trying to portray? If we take the time to think about it, it is not realistic for Bonnie to be the only black person that lives in the entire town. Statistically, it is not possible. This unrealistic portrayal of a town makes me wonder why the creators of this hit show didn’t feel the need to include more people of color in their cast. In present day, we like to believe that racism and boundaries between blacks and whites are not as apparent as they used to be but instances like these make you wonder if that is even true.
This underlying problem relates to what I learned in my African American studies course this year. We learned the concept of “controlling images”which in essence means the stereotypes made about black people by white people to bring the race down and make them seen in a negative light. As I mentioned before, if you have white skin no matter your economic status, where you live or your upbringing, you will forever and always be privileged. We learned through this course that African Americans are constantly being seen in this negative light because of the race that controls how the rest of the world sees them. Being white gives you this privilege, you can create stereotypes about other races and not effect your race one bit because it dominates this country. Controlling images was not a concept I was aware of before this course, but now understanding it and its impact on me, I can see things in a new light.
A lot of people try to diminish the problem at hand but I believe it should be brought to light. This show, is one of many examples that exhibit this problematic issue on TV today. As a young black woman, I don’t turn on the TV and see women who look just like me. Instead, I see white women who define the narrative of what beauty means and for most of my life I believed it. There were many instances where I used to wish I could pull a comb through my hair just as easily as I saw the girls on TV do. Also mentioned by Shannon Jeanna in her blog, “Bonnie bears the burden of representation not only for black viewers but for all minorities (Asian, latino, etc. alike), while white people who watch the show have at least NINE DIFFERENT CHARACTERS to represent them, all having very different personalities and aspirations!” (Jeanna). This is why diversity is a necessity on popular TV shows just like this one. Young black girls need to see people like them when they turn on the TV and have a chance to be inspired by these women.
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “Five Common Black Stereotypes in TV and Film.” About.com News & Issues. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Jenna, Shannon. “The Problematic Treatment of People of Color on The Vampire Diaries.” Rebel With A Cause. N.p., 17 July 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
Willoughby, Vanessa. “What I Learned From Token Black Characters in Teen Movies.” VICE. VICE | United States, 21 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.
“Kat Graham.” Kat Graham. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2015.