DIVERSITY ON DAYTIME: Part #2
Part #1: Mariann Aalda
We continue our series on Daytime Diversity with the thoughts of Kyra Davis, longtime soap fan and current best-selling author of romantic suspense novels featuring Sophie Katz, a half-Black/half-Jewish protagonist (like Kyra herself).
KD:I started watching Guiding Light with my grandmother when I was a kid in the 80s. Eventually I discovered the ABC soaps that some of my friends watched. Back then I didn't question the lack of "color" on daytime TV because at that time the only ethnic characters on TV were pretty much regulated to "black shows" like Cosby or before that The Jeffersons.
The few black characters daytime did have didn't impress. They had storylines with the other black characters and romances with other black characters but they never got to really interact or have romances with the white characters. And since the white characters were already established as the main characters of the shows (Reva on Guiding Light or Erica Kane on AMC, Viki and Dorian on OLTL) and soaps are all about having romances with the main characters... well, it just ended up feeling like the black characters were sort of a token nod to the soaps' black viewership.
RJ on One Life To Live was the first black character who really caught my attention. They didn't try to make him a token black role model. He got an actual meaty role as a villain and he rocked it. Oh, and there was Nora (OLTL's Jewish character) and her black, ex-husband Hank, her biracial daughter and her "history" with RJ.
That said, it did not escape my attention that the interracial relationships all happened off screen and were over before the characters were even introduced. Now, as far as I can tell, OLTL has decided that it's okay for black characters to have interracial relationships as long as the mix is black and Latino (with the notable exception of RJ's brief tryst with Lindsey). All My Children had earlier gone down the same path with Noah and Julia. While Keith Hamilton Cobb was undeniably the young leading man of the show, his love interest, while played by white actress Sydney Penny, was a Hispanic character. Would Keith and his dreadlocks have been nearly as well-accepted if, instead of Julia, he'd ended up with the say, very blonde, very blue-eyed Hayley as played by Kelly Ripa?
These days, I spend more time watching nighttime soaps like Desperate Housewives and True Blood. I appreciate what those shows have done with their ethnic characters. They're not just token-role-models. Two of the juiciest roles on Desperate Housewives are currently played by Eva Longoria and Vanessa Williams. It is safe to say that it is the ethnic characters who currently make that show fun. Most importantly Longoria and Williams get to play the characters in a way that makes it clear that while their ethnicity is part of who they are, you can't define them by it. That's rather refreshing. On the flip side, True Blood has taken a different but equally admirable route. Tara Thorton (played by Rutina Wesley) and Layfayette Reynolds (played by Nelsan Ellis) are not only main characters on that show with major storylines but they clearly identify as black and that in no way stands in their way of interacting with the rest of the cast or having romantic relationships with them. That in and of itself is particularly satisfying.
As a black-Jewish woman, I've heard people complain that while there's little antisemitism directed at assimilated Jews in the US, it's still a bit "taboo" to be too "ethnically" Jewish (in other words, don't wear a yarmulke and don't use more than one yiddish word for every two hours of conversation).
I think the same can be said about blacks. If you look and talk like Obama or Condoleeza Rice no one has a problem with you. But a black person who listens to hip-hop and wears braids is viewed differently.
The character of Tara could not be more different from Condi, and yet Tara's fully embraced by the other characters regardless of their ethnicity, and Wesley's portrayal of the role is nuanced and not stereotypical. Layfayette, in addition to being black, is probably the most interesting gay character on TV. So yes, we've come a long way. Hopefully the next step will be to have a lead role in a multiracial cast played by a woman of color.
When we have a black Erica-Kane-type character we'll know we've made it.
Kyra Davis is the author of the best-selling books, Sex, Murder and a Double Latte; Passion, Betrayal, and Killer Highlights; Obsession, Deceit and Really Dark Chocolate; Lust, Loathing, and Little Lip Gloss, and her latest, Vows, Vendettas, and a Little Black Dress. Learn more at her website, http://kyradavis.com/.
Do you agree with Kyra's assessment of multiracial characters and relationships on soaps (daytime and primetime)? Do you have examples of shows that have done better? Worse? Please let us know below!