It may seem strange, but it wasn’t so long ago that interracial marriages were illegal in America. Despite there being more interracial couples than ever, the number of interracial couples you see on TV and in films is still relatively low. There are, however, a number of fictional couples that have made such an impact on pop culture, the admiration for their on-screen love endures over years or even decades.
Lucy and Ricky (I Love Lucy)
The real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz played happily married couple Lucy and Ricky Ricardo in the six-season TV sitcom I Love Lucy. Lucy, a vivacious, red-haired white woman, is married to charismatic Cuban-American bandleader/singer Ricky from the beginning of the series. While their cultural differences rarely make for conflict, other than the fact that Ricky sometimes struggles with English, the sitcom is notable for featuring the first interracial couple main characters. Ball actually campaigned for Arnez to play her fictional husband when offered the sitcom and CBS executives refused, claiming no one would “believe” the marriage between an “All-American girl” and a Latino. Ball and Arnaz persevered, launching their own comedy act, until they were offered the chance to make the show together.
West Side Story took Shakespeare’s tragic romance, Romeo and Juliet, and added an interracial element to the tale. Instead of the warring families of Capulets and Montagues, the conflict is between two rival New York City street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Sharks are Puerto Rican and Maria, the sister of their leader, falls in love with the white Tony, the best friend of the Jets’ leader. Although their love sets the bulk of the plot in motion, they are as doomed as Romeo and Juliet. Although there have been many adaptations on stage and on screen in the years since the most famous version of West Side Story was produced, both Tony and Maria are played by white actors, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood.
John and Joanna (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner)
One of the most iconic fictional interracial couples is Dr. John Prentice and Joanna Drayton from the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier and white actress Katharine Houghton, portray John and Joanna returning from vacation to announce their engagement to Joanna’s parents, played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. These liberal-minded parents are faced with their own biases when they have a visceral reaction to the fact that their daughter is marrying a black man. Interracial marriage had been illegal in 17 states just months before the release of the film. Loving v. Virginia, a Supreme Court case which overturned the law, inspired a more recent interracial romance film, Loving.
As pop culture reflects a more rounded and diverse society, more and more people delight in seeing people like themselves represented on screen. Diversity also ensures more realistic stories, even if you don’t personally identify with the characters and situations you watch. The more frequently interracial couples appear in pop culture, the more reflective pop culture will be of the reality we live in.