Interracial Sex on TV? Scandal-ous

We're still watching, and waiting, for an interracial relationship on TV.

Posted Feb 28, 2014

One way of tapping into popular, “common-sensical” cultural discourse about persons of color and interracial couples is analyzing how they are portrayed on TV. Mass media representations of interracial relationships are integral to the ways interracial couples’ lives and experiences are constructed, and then consumed en masse by our society. It’s also how they become racialized (see earlier posts). In my book on interracial couples, Sexton (2002) eloquently discusses how interracial depictions on the silver screen and cinema are on the verge of race: “the extreme edge or margin, the border” and “the brink”, or point of no return.

Cases in point: Scandal and Sleepy Hollow, entertaining shows featuring two smart, attractive, fiercely independent black women, played by Kerry Washington and Nicole Beharie, who are living large and in charge. Kerry is Olivia Pope, top DC lawyer and political “fixer”, and Nicole is Abby, a no-nonsense police lieutenant armed with a gun, and willing to use it.

Question: How can these two characters, who are so powerful, and gorgeous, be so lonely?

Answer: The writers and showrunners have got them sublimating like crazy, and maybe for good reason.

On TV, when main characters pine for one another from not-so-far away, ratings tend to, well, rise. “Will they or won’t they?” asks the audience, with bated breath. When the star-crossed lovers finally hook up, consummate, even kiss in a garage (this is a reference to the late-80s show Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd; anyone, anyone?), the jig is up, the genie has escaped the bottle, the series has jumped the shark. The portrayal of strong black women getting the job done (saving the world, from supernatural forces on Sleepy Hollow, or even scarier, political forces on Scandal), and having no time for sleep, much less sex, makes good business sense.

In Sleepy Hollow, Abby carries a heavy burden: She’s one of “two witnesses” to the last days on Earth, and I suppose it’s tough for her to cozy up to the other witness, as charming as he is, when the fate of 7 billion people hangs in the balance. Back over at Scandal, there are two major exceptions to the no coupling rule. In the sixth episode, there is consensual interracial sex (in a flashback, so Liv’s not doing it “now”), and the second instance in Season 2 starts with Liv being yanked (against her will) into a closet by the most powerful (white) man in the world. But is this the progress we’ve been waiting for? The first white and black kiss on TV was between William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols on the original Star Trek, when Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura (whose name means “Freedom”) were coerced into lip lock (not so freely) by a bunch of telekinetic bullies. That's how they got this scene past the NBC censors in 1968. So, what was true then, may be true now: The interracial revolution will not be televised.

Part of the problem is that the US viewership, after 45 years, just isn’t there yet; they’re not comfortable with depictions of interracial sexuality in their family rooms; thus, it remains on the verge. Sexton states that depictions of black and white contact involve the “border work of racialization” and the “anticipation and teetering that characterizes the domain of sexuality”. Besides, it wouldn’t break new ground and fight stereotypes if black characters were portrayed as hypersexual or sex addicts, so, admittedly, there is a tightrope to be walked here.

We’re likely to see our stalwart heroines continue to fight the good fight, and not sleep, alone or with anyone else, for a multiplicity of reasons. But I’ll keep watching, and appreciating, that we have strong, brave, black women up on the screen, who, very much like Will Smith in his movies, also seem to not have, or need, anyone with whom to share their lives. And we’ll keep hoping that they’ll have the choice of kissing someone, really, anyone, because they want to, and we’re okay with it. We really are.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.


Sexton, J C.  (2002). The Politics of Interracial Sexuality in the Post-Civil Rights Era US. PhD dissertation. University of California, Berkeley.