In Next of Kin, Archie Panjabi plays the lead role of Mona Harcourt in a part that bristles with grit and complexity. Panjabi, a British-Indian actress with over two decades of experience in the industry, is one of many non-white actresses with a habit of leaving audiences wanting more, be it as Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife or Reed Smith in The Fall. When Panjabi takes centre stage, there’s a sense she’s finally where she belongs.
Meanwhile in Killing Eve, which premiered last month, Sandra Oh plays Eve Polastri, a secret agent for M16 who becomes increasingly obsessed with a globetrotting assassin called Villanelle. As Eve, Oh gifts viewers with levity, gravitas and everything in between. Polastri is married but isn’t defined by her relationship; she’s intelligent but at times clueless. And Oh is finally granted the right to fully developed complexity – a right afforded to white actors, particularly men, from time immemorial.
So are women of colour finally playing more lead roles on TV?
Mindy Kaling was one of the women advancing the cause for lead actresses of colour when she created The Mindy Project back in 2012. In recent years, we’ve also had Kerry Washington in Scandal, Gina Rodriguez in Jane the Virgin, Viola Davis in How to Get Away with Murder and Priyanka Chopra in Quantico. But that's just in the US.
A search for diverse female leads on Australian TV yields fewer results, but progress is slowly being made. Nakkiah Lui plays the lead role in the ABC’s Kiki and Kitty and Kyliric Masella is the lead in Grace Beside Me on NITV. And the profiles of actresses like Fiona Choi (The Family Law), Nicole Chamoun (Safe Harbour), Miranda Tapsell (Little J & Big Cuz, Love Child), Deborah Mailman (Little J & Big Cuz, Offspring) and Sarah Roberts (Home & Away) are on the rise.
Things haven’t always been this way, though. Women of colour, if even present at all, have long been stuck playing stereotypical roles that rarely provide any narrative thrust.
In 2017, a study entitled Tokens On the Small Screen, coordinated by six universities in California, found that while Asian women are equally as likely to be on TV as Asian men, they get less screen time than their male counterparts over the season. The study also reported that Asian women tend to be "pass-through characters" or plot points for other characters’ stories. (For a stereotypical version of this, see the Community character Annie Kim, the "Asian version" of a white regular who threatens her status as the smartest student in class, making her both a model minority and a threat.)
Many high-profile actors have objected to the blatant sidelining of women of colour. In a widely shared Facebook video, Constance Wu spoke of going out for token “best friend” or “assistant” parts that served to “put some colour around the lead white person’s story”.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Sandra Oh said that after decades in the industry, she had been conditioned to assume lead roles weren’t for her. "When I got the script for Killing Eve, I remember I was walking around in Brooklyn and I was on my phone with my agent, Nancy," Oh said. "I was quickly scrolling down the script, and I can’t really tell you what I was looking for. So I’m like, 'So Nancy, I don’t understand, what’s the part?' And Nancy goes, 'Sweetheart, it’s Eve, it’s Eve.' In that moment, I did not assume the offer was for Eve. I think about that moment a lot."
Others have commented on the racism that plagues the industry. Puerto Rican actress Rosie Perez, for example, has been vocal about dealing with ageism as a Latin American actress. Perez says that for Latina actresses over 40, the industry favours those who are overweight and desexualised.
But is change finally on the horizon?
Studies would suggest that we should hold off from celebrating just yet. In late 2017, researchers at San Diego State University found that while Black and Asian female actresses are making modest gains in representation, Latina actresses continue to be dramatically underrepresented on TV, making up less than five percent of characters with speaking roles from 2016-17, while other ethnicities are barely seen at all.
Women of colour are also heavily underrepresented behind the cameras. In February this year, researchers from UCLA found that the creators of new television in the 2017-18 season are 91 percent white and 84 percent male.
So apart from some recent exemplary examples, the representation of women of colour on TV continues to be a problem, and an institutional one at that.
The good news is that it’s no longer 1994, and with the rise of online content, women of colour can increasingly bypass the traditional structures. Web series Brown Girls, for example, went online in early 2017 to gushing acclaim. Ten months ago, HBO announced a deal with creator Fatimah Asghar to develop it into a TV series.
Similarly, Issa Rae, who plays the lead in HBO sitcom Insecure, got her start on YouTube via her 2011 web series, The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are also gaining kudos for their relatively diverse casts. Netflix originals Seven Seconds (2018) and Dear White People (2017) both feature black female leads. Closer to home, Michelle Law’s Homecoming Queens, which recently premiered on SBS On Demand, offers a rare example of Australian TV led by a character who happens to be Asian-Australian.
Fantasy TV is also quietly leading the charge for diverse female leads, with recent series Sleepy Hollow, Emerald City and The Expanse all spearheaded by non-white actresses.
So while we’re hardly in the midst of a revolution, it’s safe to say women of colour are slowly being cast in more prominent roles. And with Sandra Oh and Archie Panjabi at the top of their game, chances are the industry stalwarts who may have overlooked women of colour in the past will finally see what they’ve been missing.
Watch Next of Kin on Thursday 3 May at 9:40pm on SBS.
Watch Homecoming Queens at SBS On Demand or on Thursday 3 May at 9pm on SBS VICELAND.