Media portrayal of women continues to be a topic of much controversy in the United States. Though, in many respects, better representation has occurred for women as a whole, there still exist major issues disproportionately affecting specific subgroups. A key subgroup worth noting is black women. From the rise of their exploitation in hip-hop music to controversial magazine covers, proper depictions of black women remain inconsistent. While media portrayal has many outlets, for all intense purposes we will limit the scope of this discussion to black women in film and television.
According to Adams-Bass, Bentley-Edwards, and Stevenson (2014), today we find that “a few black actors and actresses have mainstreamed into prime-time television and feature film roles that better reflect the diversity and realities of the African American experience” (Adams-Bass, Bentley-Edwards, & Stevenson, 2014, p. 80). Despite this, however, it is often that negative stereotypic representations occur, most notably in black women. Today we see black women grouped into particularly demeaning categories. These include the welfare queen, a sexually promiscuous woman who schemes for money, the video vixen, a fickle, loose woman, and the gold digger, a woman who looks to exploit the generosity of men. Another category of significance is the sapphire, a rude, loud, and overbearing emasculator. This, unlike the aforementioned categories, is a racial stereotype that has survived many decades of film and television. Arguably, today’s depiction of the angry black woman is synonymous with the sapphire.
So how, exactly, are these stereotypes found in film and television negatively affecting black women? To answer that, we must first begin with a discussion of black adolescent girls. Findings from a peer reviewed article written by Adams-Bass et al. (2014) entitled That’s Not Me I See on TV…: African American Youth Interpret Media Images of Black Females, suggest that black adolescent girls are more likely to rely on media outlets for information and learning. There is also “some indication that, unlike African American boys, girls do not consider their families as a primary source of support for stressful life events during adolescence” (as cited in Spencer et al., 1998, Adams-Bass et al., 2014, p. 83). While this interpretation may apply to a wide variety of black adolescent girls, there may be some variation depending on specific ethnic groupings (ex. adolescents of West Indian or African descent). Nevertheless, Adams-Bass et al. (2014) persist that according to psychologists and communications researchers there is a link between the socialization of youth to media exposure, particularly television, and youth development. In other words, black adolescent girls may exhibit the negative stereotypes they are exposed to when they become adults.
Film and television have also helped shaped society’s perception of black women. In a survey conducted on 1,200 women by Essence magazine in 2013 about the images of black women in media, respondents as a whole described the images as “overwhelmingly negative”. In addition to these findings, however, respondents also saw the images as compelling. This second set of responses should come as no surprise, especially when some of the most popular reality shows to date include VH1’s “Basketball Wives” and “Love and Hip Hop” and Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club”, all shows where black women are the primary stars. With that being the case, one must ask why these particular shows are seen as representative of an entire group of women. After all, there are broadcasts such as “Mob Wives”, “Duck Dynasty”, and “The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills” that depict white women in the same light.
In addition to highly rated reality television is the presence of highly rated television shows where black women are portrayed as lead characters, such as ABC’s “Scandal” and “How to Get Away with Murder”, BET’s “Being Mary Jane”, and of course Fox’s smash hit “Empire”. In these shows, black women are depicted as strong, independent, and highly successful. However, there still exist stereotypes that in this case touch on black women in relationships. The overall theme here is that black women are unable to maintain healthy relationships. If you are not too familiar with these shows, here’s a brief overview of the lead black females involved: “Scandal” centers on Olivia Pope, a crisis manager based in Washington, DC who continuously has an affair with the President of the United States. “How to Get Away with Murder” highlights Annalise Keating, a successful lawyer and college professor suffering from an unstable relationship with her husband, which eventually leads to his death. The primary star of “Being Mary Jane” is a successful TV news anchor who has difficulty maintaining relationships with both her love interests and family. Finally, Taraji P. Henson’s character Cookie from “Empire” is an ex-wife of a former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul, who begins the first season of the show in prison. So as can be seen even in shows depicting successful black women, there are still issues of great importance.
Despite the many flaws in how black women are represented in the majority of film and television, existing shows and projects that enforce negative stereotypes should not be reprimanded. On the whole, these media outlets are meant to entertain (and you’d have a pretty hard time pulling everything off the air). Instead, creators of film and television projects should be encouraged to promote more positive representations of black women. The 90s and even early 2000s saw a great influx of well-to-do black women maintaining healthy relationships in television shows such as “Living Single”, “Girlfriends” (i.e. Maya Wilkes when she was re-married), “A Different World”, and “The Cosby Show” (who can forget Claire Huxtable?). Why is it that these depictions of black women are not at the forefront anymore? Those television shows did have a successful run after all.
**We touched on television a lot in this post, but what are your thoughts about the portrayal of black women in film and television? Please make sure to leave comments and share with others. Thank you!
Adams-Bass, V., Bentley-Edwards, K., & Stevenson, H. (2014). That’s not me i see on tv…: African American youth interpret media images of black females. Women, Genger, and Familes of Color, 2(1), 79-100. doi: 10.1353/wgf.2014.0000.