Essay

How to write a Strong Black Woman(TM) in the main cast of a TV drama

I just finished a binge watching of Suits up to season 5 and in need of a new series I’ve began Scandal. I also used to watch How to Get Away with Murder, which I should probably return to at some point. I’ve noticed a lot of similarities between these three series, along with a Strong Black Woman™ characters who play prominent roles.

So I figured, hey! There’s a formula to this so-called “dynamic character” thing. I’m a writer, maybe I can learn a thing or two from these professionals. It helps that I’m a POC, I can project myself onto these Strong Black Women™ and make a great story! Right…?

Step 1. Make the Strong Black Woman™ the head of the organization which the series centres around.

jessica-pearson-suits-black-dress
Jessica Pearson. Notice her name is first on the wall behind her

That’s right, because we’ll be making a progressive, ground-breaking television drama, our Strong Black Woman™ needs to be the CEO/managing partner/unequivocal leader of the series’ main organization. She’ll often cite how hard she fought for her position, thus this will likely be a part of her character. The SBW™ will not take attacks to her position lightly and will either threaten or exact revenge. She typically has one or two close lackeys who will do her bidding or will stick with her indefinitely despite her actions or words. She will also likely have a series of ‘rivals’ or enemies who are vying for her position or an item in association with said position (money, clients).

Step 2. Make the Strong Black Woman™ beautiful to popular standards that make her appear strong and powerful.

This is very important. When writing a television drama with a Strong Black Woman™ in the main cast, we must make sure that she has straight hair. I cannot stress this enough – SHE CANNOT SHOWCASE HER NATURAL LOCKS. Only in moments of weakness (perhaps after a rough argument with an significant other) are we likely to see her remove a wig or look a disheveled.

Because the SBW™ is the focal point of the organization and part of the main cast, she needs to be dressed immaculately. She will typically have a very conservative but fashionable series of dresses and suits when working in the organization. Outside of the organization, she will still dress amazingly, but show slightly more skin around the arms and perhaps the legs, depending on the season. Her shoes are heels only.

She will mostly sport colours of white, black, beige, and occasionally burgundy. She has natural-looking makeup and rarely deviates from this look. Jewelry is optional, but never too dramatic.

4x08_-_official_olivia_3
Green? Yellow? Not in MY Strong Black Woman’s(TM) wardrobe!! 

 

Step 3. The Strong Black Woman™, despite projecting power, is very vulnerable in certain situations.

We’re making a dramatic television series, so our powerful Strong Black Woman™ needs flaws to be ‘relatable.’ This typically means friction with a past significant other (typically a man, but can occasionally be a woman). The friction usually results when the ex returns to the SBW™ with the intentions to get back together, but the SBW’s™ actions cause another riff between them.

That’s right! A Strong Black Woman’s™ powerful persona will crumble exponentially due to romantic problems. Because every woman, regardless of skin colour, needed a man (or sometimes a woman) for moral support which brought them to their current status. And that same man (woman) can take away that power for spiteful or vindictive reasons – though there are times when their actions are due to the consequences of the SBW™.

how-to-get-away-with-murder-recap-season-1-episode-13-20
How to Get Away with Murder MC post dramatic something, I can’t remember the context.

It’s important that our SBW™ does not have any other huge vices besides pride. They typically are not smokers or gamblers, but will rely on alcohol when depressed. If the SBW™ has a troubled past, they may resort to pills.

Anxiety and stress is also a paramount character flaw, but must be established early in the series. When anxiety sets in, they will become standoffish and closed off, but will typically bounce back within the same scene because a task needs to be completed due to a serious deadline.

Step 4. The Strong Black Woman™ needs at least ONE black male romantic interest.

Crazy, isn’t it, that a SBW™ cannot have non-white and non-black love interests! And here I thought Asian, Hispanic, and Arabic people were also rightly attractive. BUT, if we want our television drama to succeed, a black male love interest is necessary. If the SBW™ is tall, the love interest must be taller. They need to be big and muscular, but not too muscular – they need to look good in a suit or uniform. This love interest needs to either be in a similar field as the SBW™ or a field that benefits the actions of the SBW™.

Step 5: The Strong Black Woman™ is more than likely neutral evil.

Because the SBW™ is in a position of power and will defend said position, she will use her allies as a means to keep or advance her position/power. She has no qualms using people, going behind people’s backs, and abusing her power if it means protecting her position/organization from threats. If the SBW™ is not the main lead, her allies/puppets are the leads of the series. If she is the lead, her allies/puppets are the secondary leads.

Suits - Season 2
Jessica Pearson (left) with lackey Harvey Specter (right)

The Strong Black Woman™, however, does have a soft spot. She will either do nefarious deeds for the sake of her allies (e.g. the other leads) or to get her allies out of the consequences of their actions. She may need prodding to act, but will eventually succumb. Undoubtedly, she has broken the law more than once, but she justifies it as “protecting” her assets or doing it “for the sake of others.”

Step 6. Odds and ends of the Strong Black Woman™

With the above five steps, it’ll be cake to write in a Strong Black Woman who is also flawed, yet somehow saves the day in the end, into our television drama! Here are some other small things to keep in mind when writing the bulk of the plot.

The SBW™ is either unmarried or divorced. She should not have a steady romantic interest in the beginning so she may develop an interest over the series.

The SBW™, despite being a powerful, strong woman, will tremble at the touch of a former fling. She will also not push away an unwarranted kiss – typically succumbing within a few seconds.

TONY GOLDWYN, KERRY WASHINGTON
Sexual harassment doesn’t count when I’ve still got feelings for him!!!

The SBW™ is sassy in a powerful way, not taking bullshit jokes from her allies/lackies.

The SBW™, at some point, has to mention the struggle of being a black woman and climbing to a position of power.

The SBW™ is 9/10 a lawyer or in a position of law enforcement.

The SBW™ has a great poker face because she has conditioned herself in her position of power.

The SBW™ ends up as a mother-figure to one of the leads.

how-to-get-away-with-murder-recap-season-1-finale-43

The SBW™ typically has a traditionally Anglo-Saxon name (Jessica Pearson, Olivia Pope)

Concluding thoughts

Is there any room left for the Strong Black Woman™ in today’s television? Well, considering both Suits and Scandal have six seasons, perhaps. But there’s only so much a black female lawyer can do.

I think the SBW™ has become pretty normal at this point, but more than likely television writers will fall back onto the clichés I’ve listed today to build a character. Will there every be a powerful black woman who had a normal, non-dramatic childhood? Will their rise to the top be due to normal circumstances or, dare I say, they were an entrepreneur?? Will they ever be in a happy marriage with children because they know healthy work-life balances? These are the roads that need to be tracked.

I know it’s near impossible to write a television drama where a main lead has NO drama – that goes against the very nature of the series – but wouldn’t that be wonderfully new? Show me a series where all the leads have crazy, wacky lives and the SBW™ is the normal one, who’s happily married and freaking practices tennis on the weekend or something. Course, this would likely turn the series into the Brooklyn Nine Nine of law shows.

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