Ask yourself this question before you read this article? What comes to mind when you think about breakout African-American women’s roles in hit TV shows? Who comes to mind? What is she doing in this role? Why is it so popular among Pop Culture and what stereotypes is she portraying?
“Black women encounter controlling images such as the mammy, the matriarch, the mule and the whore, that encourage others to reject us as fully human people. Ironically, the negative nature of these images simultaneously encourages us to reject them.” (Collins 75)
Black women made their first appeared on television playing “mammys” and caretakers. Today, their roles have evolved to “baby mamas” and uneducated, or if educated and powerful morally flawed with deep internal issues. Black women control the screen but only when it comes to reality shows and music videos. Aside from “Empire,” “Scandal,” “Being Mary Jane,” and “How to Get Away with Murder.” I cannot think of many shows that depict a black woman in the lead role who is strong and independent ALONE, THAT IS A HUGE PROBLEM PEOPLE! Black women are usually sassy, loud and sidekicks (see: Loni Love from “Chelsea Lately,” Nene Leakes from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” or Cookie Lion from “Empire.”) The only black women who have the opportunity to deviate from this role are usually racially ambiguous or “mixed.” This story is told and retold so many times that it has become entrenched in everyone’s heads. Little black girls learn early on that in order to be beautiful or important, they have to be white or undertake white characteristics. If they cannot, black girls have to simply accept being sidekicks or second-class citizens.(Shields)
This also affects the way others see black girls. Men and people from other races are receiving the same messages that black girls are, and they are receiving these messages at early ages as well. This creates pre-conceived notions of black women that create standards that are impossible to live up to and categorizes a whole minority. Black women face a unique form of stereotyping that combines their race and their gender, increasing the pressure they face.
Essence Magazine interviewed more than 1,200 people, who recalled a barrage of shallow stereotypes — gold-diggers, hypersexual Jezebels, and angry black women — saturating pop culture. ARE YOU SURPRISED?
Taraji P. Henson won a Golden Globe Award for her role as Cookie in Empire, and as she walked up to the stage, she calmly made a comment about her needing to play an ex-convict who sold crack in order to win the award. “Who knew that playing an ex-convict would take me all around the globe?” “It’s Cookie who spent 17 years in jail for selling crack. Okay! So, the world loves real.”
On the contrary Viola Davis’s character, Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder portrayed as a successful defense attorney and law school professor BUT not only battles alcoholism but is also so malicious that she is willing to kill someone to keep herself out of trouble with the law. Why can’t she just be a successful lawyer and professor without having deep internal and dangerous moral issues? We know people have issues but why does every popular black woman portrayed on TV play into the same old stereotypes or seen as successful on the outside but “crazy”, “unattainable”, or “sex-crazed,” on the inside? Even Kerry Washington, who has won honors in the TV show “Scandal” as Olivia Pope, is depicted as a oversexualized black woman albeit powerful, well-educated and successful in her own right.
As viewers, we must start demanding all media outlets (especially movies, television, and music videos) that allow us to view black women in all their glory. There is nothing wrong with portraying human flaws and art imitating life, but please start showcasing positive characterizations of the black woman. We are making strides in the right direction but is it enough?