In the media one thing that I notice is that there is a lack of representation of black females in the visual industry, this includes tv shows/series, movies, cartoons and more. If there is any representation at all, black women are subjected and used as the ‘butt of the joke’ the ‘angry black woman’, the over sexualised sex goddess who is left alone and pregnant or the self-isolating baby mama who has an attitude problem and won’t accept the kind and generous flirtatious advancements of men. Another factor to weigh in is the education system.
There has definitely been a march of progress in what we learn and digest in textbooks and the general curriculum depending on what subject choice a student takes but we are still far behind. Especially in the UK many aspiring black actors and actresses struggle to find work and have found better success in America because of this.
Although we can clearly see in the media the abusive and terrifying treatment of black people’s engagement with the police. It seems as if America is far more ahead at bringing up uncomfortable discussions regarding race.
In compulsory history lessons we got taught about slavery. It is something important, a heart-breaking ground-breaking reality that doesn’t only affect the past but the societal and mental effects long lasting in how we represent black people in the media. In school it is rare that we are ever shown positive images of black people only ever in chains or getting whipped with their backs covered in scars.
There is an international market for black trauma, a mental manipulation to keep us in ‘our place'. In Hollywood there is an abundance of slavery films and in the UK, there are multiple films or tv series that showcase black people doing drugs and being in gangs.
But I can’t help but ask....
What about the heroes? The ones who pushed and slammed at the walls that a white dominated society put up? That was almost impossible and still feel impossible to pull down. Even when these heroes were/are mentioned they were only reserved for ‘black history month’ which seems to not be taken seriously especially in the UK. An excuse I hear for this is that black people only take up 3% of the population which clearly means that representing them doesn’t hold as much importance. To me that makes representing black people especially black women. The need for well-rounded (fictional) minority characters is even more important because when people are not accustomed to diverse people, they will subconsciously make negative assumptions.
My own viewpoint on black female representation is how in the media there seems to be an image of the ‘acceptable black girl’ meaning a main character who is most commonly of a lighter skin tone. They are not seen as ‘too black’ to disturb the mainstream audience reactions and viewership. When I was younger there was a phrase that was used often ‘if you're black you are burnt but if you're mixed you are just right’. I remember reading my favourite book at the time ‘The sun is also a star’ a book written by Nicola Yoon. I recall being either thirteen to fourteen or it being the very first time reading a book where I could see myself in the character in terms of identity.
The main character Natasha Kinsley, is a Jamaican immigrant living in New York with her younger brother, mother and father. I could relate to the family dynamic and the cultural influences of Jamaica. But that wasn’t all it was the first book I read (since I was very little) where a dark skin black girls features were described as beautiful and not a statement to fight racism, Online and in real life there is a clear distinction between African features and Eurocentric features meaning light eyes, straight hair, blonde, blue eyes and there is also a clear separation of what features pass as attractive.
I was told many times in my life that I should hide my natural hair or that my eyes were boring and unappealing because they are brown. So, reading the sun as a star was refreshening and enlightening. Natasha’s afro was described as a ‘halo’ , her hair not a political statement; her dark eyes were seen as gorgeous instead of boring and dull; page 334 ‘Daniel is trying to find the right words to describe her eyes. They’re light and dark at the same time. Like someone draped a heavy black cloth over a bright star’.
However, when there was a live adaption of the book many fans were upset at the fact that the main character Natasha was played by a lighter skinned actress. It wasn’t out of complete coincidence but more out of laziness.
The mother was cast as a dark-skinned woman and so were the rest of the family but it again links with the phrase “mixed is just right” there have been many films and tv series where the original female lead was a dark-skinned woman and then altered to be acceptable to white beauty standards. Lighter skin, looser curls etc.
However, it is important to note that my recent points aren’t to segregate light and dark, I am revealing the obvious and toned-down parts of society that we ignore. One thing I pick up on is that mixed women in films or visual media are seen as a fetish they are a bridge between the black guys and the white guys. They are not too much.
I witnessed this in ‘dear white people.’ Where the main lead Samantha White was trapped in a love triangle between her white boyfriend and her black childhood crush this audience positioning is metaphorical to what many (not all) mixed women face.
There is an unspoken question ‘which side will you choose’. Why can’t mixed women or individuals of dual heritage be seen as human beings a whole, not as cartoons or a board for people to project their fetishes onto?
Here is a comment which sums up my own feelings on black female and minority representation in the media: “POC culture when represented in media, gets watered down to be consumable. Like we're an aesthetic...”
More (anonymous) comments
“I think stereotyping works because people aren’t exposed to people of different cultures and sometimes people choose not to go out of their way to be exposed to different cultures. If they meet people from those cultures and those people don’t fit in that box, then that shell or bubble of ignorance cracks.”
“Victims being trapped in the stereotype is powerful. I feel like it’s like you are trying to break out of the system however you are only allowed or able to work within the system. So whichever side you choose to fall in you are still held within the confines of the stereotype.”
“In my experience, I have had a very hard time relating to characters in movies and shows. When a character in a movie or show is seen as being ace, they are a murderer. Psychopath, or deemed to be ‘mentally disabled’ (about asexuality)
I also asked a few other people to give their response to some of my questions regarding this comment.
1) “Do you believe that there should be more representation for black and minority women in general. If so and if not, Why?”
Tropes I often see in the media given to black women is the mammy stereotype. The mammy was black woman that was a nanny for white children (Authors note: gone with the wind is an example) and its tropes are still seen today in a less overt way than it's seen in "the black best friend" trope where the black woman is just a side character that only exists to serve the interests of their white counterparts. They're typically viewed as undesirable and just peripheral characters that have no other purposes or hobbies but to help the main character in a film for instance.
2) “Do you think the media’s representation of black women leads people to carry on these stereotypes in real life?”
Yes, I wholeheartedly believe that there should be more representation for black and minority women in general because the entire world consumes all types of media and the small slivers of representation we get matters so much because it's all we see. Ever wonder why so many people still think the entirety of Africa is poor? It's those adverts about "saving a life", "give clean water" to a malnourished African child, or movies that star black people only being about slavery or the plight of poverty.
All those representations feed into the narrative that there's only one idea of us and that idea is us in pain. A big percentage of the representation we do get in the media is based on stereotypes like; Asian women being submissive, black women being side characters or loud or aggressive. When we start to challenge those stereotypes and offer more representation (good representation, not just any!) People won't have to internalise those things about them and not have to worry about being a stereotype.
3) “Can you think of a film/tv series which reinforced negative stereotypes of black women?”
Yes, completely. The media's representation of black women is so integral to how people see us. In a way it almost decides whether we're desirable, beautiful or smart. When you view whiteness as the default and hardly ever see a black woman portrayed as beautiful, you're not going to find them desirable. The depictions of us in the media as loud or aggressive or masculine, made me so scared to speak up, laugh loudly, be angry or even look/be masculine...
I internalised those stereotypes and resented my blackness to a degree. I was hyper feminine to avoid being masculinised and I became quiet, in fear of "feeding into it". Now I don't fear those stereotypes and I embrace my identity because of years of
unlearning those harmful stereotypes from the media that's still being produced to this day.
Author's note: I fully relate and witnessed this in my old school and even felt this way myself. Many young and old black women feel as if they have to be hyper feminine to not come across as ‘manly’.
4) “Why is representation important to you?”
Representation is so important to me because it's so amazing to see yourself on the screen portrayed in a positive light. Growing up, only getting white barbie dolls as gifts, never seeing someone like me, a dark-skinned little black girl can really distort your image. I wanted to be lighter, thinner, blonder so I could be accepted into a society that told me I had less value as a black girl, less innocence, less beauty because of my skin. I hated my thick, coily hair - I wanted thin, soft, straight hair that didn't break combs or get frizzy. As a young girl, if I see people like me, it would have changed how I felt about myself for years. Even seeing a woman like Meghan, thee stallion is so empowering because a black woman is comfortable in her femininity.
Author's note: As someone who was judged immensely for black features ‘wider nose’ ‘textured tight curly hair’ the lack of seeing someone on screen made me feel more isolated at such a young age.
Being in a white dominated school and once having a boy say that I could not afford the cake sale because of all the black people he sees on Tv (continually showing Africa as deprived and poor. Fundraising for children in Africa etc) are poor and hungry so I would not be able to buy anything at the cake sale. That is one of many reasons and examples as to why representation is important.
5) Can you think of a film/tv series which reinforced negative stereotypes of black women?
A movie/tv series that reinforce negative stereotypes of black women, is a massive chunk of Eddie Murphy's entire career.
Don't get me wrong, he's funny and a joy to watch with my family but, rewatching Norbit made me realise how awfully that film has aged. It's about a meek orphan "who rediscovers his love for his childhood sweetheart, but his mean wife not to let him go till she wrestles control of a restaurant from his Foster father".
Keep in mind, his "mean wife", is a plus sized, loud, abusive dark skin woman that is played by Eddie Murphy. And of course, his childhood sweetheart is a much lighter, kinder, quieter and thinner woman. The entire movie is horrific fat jokes that I don't even know how they were considered comedy at the time. It's just overall bad and if that isn't enough, I think the 9% rating on rotten tomatoes says enough.
We also saw this with how an Australian Newspaper company presented Serena Williams as aggressive and violent.
“Are there any positive examples of black women in the media that you’ve noticed?
If not, what would a good representation look like to you?
6) For the last question, the positive examples of black women in the media I can think of are Twenties and Insecure. I personally resonate with the twenties so much because it feels so great to be properly represented. It's about a black lesbian in her 20s navigating work and love and it's so hilariously astute, I love it.
Up until now I've never seen anyone like me being represented in such a perfect way, the main character has her flaws and embraces her identity proudly. Insecure is so great because it perfectly encapsulates the essence of being a "weird" black girl and I can't get enough of it. Issa Rae does her character justice by making her so human, the existence of this show challenges all those regressive stereotypes and allows the space for black women to be individuals not as a monolith.
Tropes they are given are always of her suffering, nanny trope which I think derived from slavery, angry black girl trope, funny side character etc.
In Vampire diaries there’s this character called Bonnie and throughout the seasons she is literally given the worst sufferings. They even made her love life die for no actual reason; a lot of other viewers have noticed this too. I think the representation should obviously mirror real life without it ONLY centring around racism and oppression.
Maybe I just want to watch a film about a minority just having fun. It’s ok to include aspects of oppression but we’ve seen and watched enough.
Yes. In African American representation sometimes I've been called intimidating without even speaking, I remember this girl I met randomly asked me if I could twerk...only me...only black girl. I feel like people think I'm really intimidating because in the media that’s how we are shown.
I don't think there is any good or bad stereotype. For example, the “strong black women"; stereotype is still harmful because not every black woman is strong, some are soft and gentle, some fragile and that is ok.
1) “Do you believe that there should be more representation for black and minority women in general? If so and if not, Why?”
I feel like there are much more black people in tv and commercials but i feel like they are just there to be a token character.
2) “Do you think the media’s representation of black women lead people to carry on these stereotypes in real life?”
Yes 100% black people and other minority groups need good accurate representation to feel better about themselves.
3) “Can you think of a film/tv series which reinforced negative stereotypes of black women?”
Couldn’t think of any but....
The loud black girl thing is in many films I have watched.
4) Why is representation important to you?
It shows that we exist and that it is ok not to be white. Also gives other people confidence and happiness knowing that other races can be perceived as beautiful or the main character. It also teaches children at a young age to be more accepting and understanding of other cultures.
5) go to questions three’s answer
6) “Are there any positive examples of black women in the media that you’ve noticed?
If not, what would a good representation look like to you?
There are many but I can’t name them from the top of my head. There is one about this black woman at Nasa. Author's note: Hidden figures.
Other contributors (anonymous)
Black women can be in all types of media but the majority are in background roles. Yes, because diversity helps educate people and live in a more accepting society. No because you don't need to follow your label and most of the time most of the stereotypes given to black women are not generally true.
Representation reflects how I’m perceived and treated in real life
and I think everyone deserves to see someone like them in the media that they can relate to and with. I think it can build self-esteem as you can be more accepting of yourself and not try and look like a race you’re not or act a specific way because the media tells you to.
In education, we often talk about how women are presented in society, but we often neglect black and ethnic minority women.
My last example of this is Love Island especially the audience is either made to pity the one and only black girl they could find. I cannot recall what season it was (I'm not a fan of reality tv especially one’s where I am poorly represented) but there was a woman called Maura she was sassy, feisty and what mainstream feminist’s call ‘the independent woman’.
However, I came to a sudden realisation if a black girl would have behaved this way she would be labelled as dramatic, loud and unattractive. To finish off white women in the media are allowed to be loud and feisty while black women are told to be hyper feminine in risk of losing their natural femininity and being deemed as undesirable.
How do we change this?
Positive/ pivotal representation and uncomfortable discussions.
Eurocentric: The Euro- pean beauty standard is the notion that the more closely associated a person is with European features, the more attractive he or she is considered; these standards deem attributes that are most closely related to whiteness, such as lighter skin, straight hair- From ‘the beauty ideal’ written by Susan L. Bryant
Ideologies: a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. (Oxford languages)
Colonialism: the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. Example the British empire
Colorism: prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. (Oxford languages)
Asexuality ‘ace’: Asexuality is the lack of sexual attraction to others, or low or absent interest in or desire for sexual activity.
Microaggressions: a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.
indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.
(Definitions from Oxford Languages)
Other websites and channels to check out for more information.
Khadja Mbowe - Informative yet easily digestible analysis videos about media. Diversity stereotypes and more
Written by Charis.Clarissa CE