The first time I saw actress Aisha Tyler on screen playing paleontology professor Dr. Charlie Wheeler in Friends, I felt a monumental shift had happened. It was so rare to see a well-rounded representation of a black womanhood on small (or big) screen TV without any hint of stereotype or comedy.
Now that we’re all re-watching Friends on Netflix and terrestrial channels that are showing re-runs, there have been a wealth of discussions about ts lack of diversity – something most people of colour were talking about years ago.
As problematic as shows such as Sex And The City, Gossip Girl and Friends seem now because of their exclusion of people of colour, Charlie always stood out as an example of positive representation and a casting decision that was ahead of its time. So it’s a shame that the part wasn’t actually written for a person of colour.
Actress Aisha Tyler has been speaking about how she got the part, through a process called colourblind casting – where an actor is cast without considering their ethnicity, skin color and/or gender.
‘The role wasn’t written as a woman of color,’ Tyler told InStyle in an interview. ‘And when I auditioned, I read against women of every ethnic background.’
She also commented on the fact that the show’s script didn’t acknowledge that she was the first recurring black character in the series – seven seasons in.
‘There [wasn’t dialogue] about the fact that it was an interracial relationship. There was no commentary on the show about my character being black, and I think they had just written this character as this kind of love triangle between Ross and Joey.
‘They happened to hire a black woman, which — I don't know that I'm advocating for colorblind casting any more than I’m advocating for people doing a better job at making shows diverse.’
Despite this, Tyler describes her time on the show as ‘a great experience personally and creatively’, saying she’s glad the writers didn’t make the episodes she featured in into a teachable moment or clumsy race special.
‘I think why it worked was that they didn’t make it into a "very special episode of Friends," where the friends suddenly confront issues of race, or try to somehow counterbalance the previous seasons’ relative lack of diversity.’
‘I was just a character on the show, with her own appeal and quirks and foibles, and I think that’s why it worked so well.”
At the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Tyler hadn’t been cast as Charlie, would the show have completed 10 seasons without having a single recurring speaking black character? It’s no wonder shows like Black-ish, Insecure and How To Get Away With Murder have done so well, we’re finally seeing nuanced black characters on screen and we’re loving it.