Black Women's Empowerment

Why Media Representations of Black Women Still Matter (And Always Will)

Millions of dollars are spent on advertising to create commercials that will get people to buy a product or to create brand recognition. Thousands of people are employed in the fields of advertising and marketing–no television shows or commercials are seen on tv without first being revised and critiqued by numerous people to ensure that what you see if what they want you to see. Make no mistake–advertising and marketing are fields where people are paid big bucks to get the job done.

So when a movie like “The Help” gets made, please understand that there were many people who spent hours deciding how the characters should be portrayed and what those characters’ portrayals were intended to communicate to moviegoers. When black women are consistently portrayed in the media as being overweight (to an even greater extent than what they actually are), as Mammy, as Sapphire, as Jezebel, as the neck-snappin’-finger-poppin’ chick who loves to fight, please understand that these images are created with a purpose and with the consent of thousands of advertisers who are making money off of promoting ‘safe’ stereotypes of black women.

Too Many Stereotypes, Not Enough Time

In “The Help” we are presented with two overweight, middle-aged black maids. Actress Viola Davis packed on 25 pounds to play the role, but she still wasn’t big enough for the producers of the film, who had her wear body pads to appear even bigger.

Why would Viola Davis be asked to gain weight for her role when most of the black women who served as maids in the homes of white people were average-looking to attractive women who were not overweight?

I admit: I have never watched an episode of “Basketball Wives” (a more accurate title would be “Ex-Basketball Wives and Former Girlfriends,” but, I digress) or any of the other ‘reality’ shows where black women are encouraged–and happy to oblige–to fight, curse each other out, and spend umpteen years waiting for their baby daddies to marry them.

My problem with these shows that portray black women as stereotypes is not that the shows are on television. After all, these ‘characters’ actually do exist in real life to some degree. There really are women who love fight, women who love to curse other women out, and women who don’t mind having an open relationship–these women deserve their face time on tv just as much as a ‘Mary Poppins’.

The problem I have with these shows and movies is that they are allowed to dominate the viewing landscape; there are not enough attractive, educated, loving, healthy black women presented in the media to balance out the stereotypes. We get 3 parts stereotype to 1 part reality. Because the stereotypes dominate, they become what well-known feminist philosopher Susan Bordo refers to as a “normalizing image.”

A normalizing image is an image, character, or other type of visual representation, that is presented in the media with such regularity that what the viewer sees becomes normalized–you begin to think that what you are seeing is real and represents truth.

If what you constantly see is overweight black women, aka Mammy, or feisty-fighting black woman, aka Sapphire, then you start to think that what you see is an accurate representation of black women. “You” is the viewer; “You” is anyone who consumes these images on a regular basis. A young black girl who constantly sees Mammy or Sapphire that’s that what is looking at is the way that she is actually supposed to act, and she may being to internalize those images and begin to act that way. A white man who constantly sees black women on television playing out stereotypes thinks black women are “so strong,” even though he has never dated a black woman in his life.

How Do People Behave Who Care About Their Image?

Angelina Jolie’s most recent movie “In the Land of Blood and Honey” is about two lovers who are torn apart during the Bosnian War. Before the film was made, there was some controversy when people thought that Ms. Jolie would have a Bosnian woman falling in love with her Serbian rapist in the film. When that rumour was unleashed, a woman’s group in the Balkan’s successfully lobbied to deny Jolie a film permit in Bosnia. Jolie denied the accusations, but in order to get the permit she had to share the script with interested parties to ensure that there really was no rape scene which would lead to romance.

If black women cared about their image as much as those women in the Balkans there is no way that many of the movies and television shows which depict black women acting like fools or playing out stereotypes lacking character development would ever get made.

Images matter. And if black women care about their image they will start making their own films, promoting those films, and stop watching ‘entertainment’ where black women are depicted as walking, talking stereotypes.

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