In recent Wonderful News, it was revealed that Shonda Rhimes, creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, just sold a comedy to ABC called I Hate LA Dudes, which will be written and co-executive produced by Hollywood newcomer Issa Rae.
Rae, who earned a cult following for her award-winning web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, created ABG to reflect the difficulties she had meeting people while living in New York City — and to counteract the absence of black female characters, particularly nerdy ones, on TV and movie screens. When networks reached out to Rae with offers to bring ABG to television, though, she was hesitant, fearing that she'd be forced to relinquish creative control. Now she has a network show. Will she have creative control? That Rae will co-executive produce IHLAD in addition to writing it seems promising, but for the show to have its best shot at success, Rae needs to be the star, too.
Whether or not a black woman will be cast as the lead in IHLAD has yet to be announced, but given Rae's experience with ABG and Rhimes's stated commitment to diversity in casting, it seems like a strong possibility. As we all know by now, black women in lead roles are sorely needed in the landscape of scripted network television. There's currently only one: Kerry Washington of Scandal, another Rhimes creation. When shows do feature black women, they get a couple of lines per show, as in Veep and Parks and Recreation. And when shows do have black main characters, they are almost always male, as in New Girl and Happy Endings. Black women, on scripted shows, are peripheral.
It's true that in unscripted television, we're seeing more black women: news anchors, talk show hosts, reality show stars. But this progress is insufficient. Black women may be gaining prominence in television overall, but a glass ceiling bars their inclusion in quality scripted television — in other words, artistic television. Women like Issa Rae identify less with NeNe Leakes than they do with Lena Dunham, who was taken aback by how much criticism she got when Girls — the sitcom she writes, stars in, and executive produces — featured an all-white cast. The backlash Dunham faced is proportional to the show's achievements; no one cares about being excluded from something crappy.
There's a reason everybody besides white males feels bad about themselves after watching TV. They don't feel accurately represented, and they don't see people like themselves demonstrating agency. Women and minorities on TV aren't in control-of anything, but particularly of themselves. Lena Dunham has fought back against this lack of agency, working simultaneously within and outside of the tradition of TV writer-star-showrunners like Louis C.K. and Larry David. Girls would be an entirely different show if Hannah were played by a model-slim actress with conventionally perfect looks. Moreover, viewers are aware that they're watching the creator — they are aware of this person's artistic agency. Dunham's body may not be perfect, but she owns it. Her life may be drifting off course, but at least she's steering the ship. She bares the best and worst parts of her experience as a young, intelligent, funny woman without flinching-and her work has resonated with many other women.
Virginia Woolf, in her feminist treatise A Room of One's Own, argued that to create great art, the artist needs two things: full creative control and a benefactor. Dunham was lucky enough to have both, with Judd Apatow taking her under his wing. Rhimes looks to be doing the same with Rae, but it remains to be seen whether Rae will enjoy the same freedom as Dunham has. Working for HBO may afford Dunham more room to experiment, but making a network-produced show hasn't hindered Amy Poehler or Tina Fey, who are the stars/writers/producers of their NBC shows. Let's cross our fingers that ABC trusts Rae.
Issa Rae isn't the black Lena Dunham. But I hope she receives the same opportunities Dunham has, opportunities that have allowed Dunham to produce interesting, unique work. I hope to see what Rae accomplishes with full creative agency, which would include the chance to enact her own vision on screen — not only to represent women who look like her, but to enrich television's artistic landscape.