Problematic Portrayal Of African American Women In The Media 

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Abstract

This paper will shine light on a minority group, Black women, that are often disregarded and misrepresented in the media as a result of stereotypical ideas presented to society. Black women are victims of these such acts which ultimately leads to insecurities, self-doubt and overall self-esteem issues. I will be conducting a review on literatures that examine media representation of Black Women and its true affects. Stereotypes, whom are often times seen as something comical, can not only harm those being attacked but also the rest of society who are brainwashed to believe whatever points the media advertises. This is problematic because it creates a never-ending cycle of misunderstandings in regards to the Black women.

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman” (Malcom X, 1962). When studying black women in media this quote was something that I had to reflect upon because it indicates different phases in their standing here in the US. Black Women are a minority and any lack of representation or negative media coverage plays a big role in feeding into the many stereotypes developed over the years (Thompson, 2013). These stereotypes, that are often driven by social media coverages, definitely impacts society’s views on Black Women (Thompson, 2013). Whether it’s through music videos, television shows or any other media platform, the effects of these portrayals not only shape society’s mindset but also have a direct impact on Black Women’s perspective of themselves. (Thompson, 2013). The representation of Black women in social media, music, movies and films have various similarities but there are also many differences that help bring the issue of misrepresentation to light. In order to better understand similarities and differences, this paper conducts a literature review on the representation of Black women in media.

Literature Review: Negative Approach of Black Women in Media

The representation of Black Womanhood has been exemplified in both negative and positive ways in several occasions. As stated in the first research analyzed “studying Black women exclusively is important because examining women in general does not help explain women of color” (Chen et al., 2012, p. 114). This goes to show that just studying women in general is not enough when trying to understand Black women due to historical adversity these women have been put through (Chen et al., 2012, p. 114). In terms of negative approaches, portrayals in movies have been quite controversial when it comes to accurate representation of Black women. Films such as Madea, Rasputia or Big Momma, where “mammy-like” is seen to “increase the mockery of Black women in media and heighten the stereotypes and the fact that men dressed as women to depict these roles heightened the stereotypes these images evoke” (Chen et al., 2012, p. 116). The mammy, whom historically is depicted as extremely overweight, with large breast, desexualized, nonthreatening to whites and maternal has always been an image falsely representing what it’s like to be a Black woman. Similarly, the misinterpretation of this particular group exposes how the “dominant gaze shapes and shades our understanding of Black femininity” (Griffin, 2014, p.3). This gaze, according to Griffin, is the societal views and distinction of Black women rather than the actual reality of these women. This goes hand and hand with the problematic outburst of the former first lady, Michelle Obama’s social media platform, Twitter. As a former first lady, society still holds Obama on a high pedestal regardless of whether her family is in office or not. The expression of her opinions and “reflection of Black feminism in her tweets and the representation of her identity as a Black woman” talks about the stereotypes of Black women in the United States society (Tyree & Jones, 2018, p.70). Contrary to the dominant gaze introduced by Griffin, Michelle Obama’s personal account gave us a more realistic truth of the hardships black women face in this country while still addressing the common stereotypes that the media present when talking about Black women. As a result, the mammy stereotype of Black women in addition to desexualize and objectifying their bodies not only negatively impact the perception Black women have of themselves but also makes it hard to resist systematic domination by society’s views about them (Chen et al., 2012,). Ultimately, this makes it difficult for those who are courageous, like Michelle Obama, enough to go against the stereotypical views aligned with being a Black woman especially in media.

Positive Approach of Black Women in Media

On the other hand, despite all of the negative portrayals of Black women in the media, there are too various positive outcomes put forth out there in their favor. The capability to simply being visible and existing in the media world is especially important for Black women (Thompson, 2013). Thompson concludes that “the problem with the current images is that they reflect extremity…solution is to uplift images in the “invisible middle” (2013). The invisible middle being the average Black women who are not celebrities, athletes etc. whom aren’t always remembered (Thompson, 2013). In continuation, according to Zhang, Dixon, and Conrad (2009) there is a different approach which states that, the “strong identification with one’s culture of origin could protect women of color against the unrealistic white standard of beauty” (p. 260). In media platforms such as rap music videos, Black women’s bodies are praised and a lot of times admired by those who hired them. By doing so, this ultimately influences other groups to appreciate these attributes as well, in addition to the role it has on their ethnic identity (Fujioka et al., 2009). Similarly, Zhang et al. (2009) also introduces the findings that indicate that “there was no main effect of exposure to thin-ideal rap videos on Black women’s body image disturbance” (p. 263). This finding is important since it breaks many stereotypes such as “black Barbie’s and gold-diggers (Thompson, 2013) that previously dominated the rap music industry. As a result, to this we than see that the “impact of media exposure was shaped by viewers’ strength of ethnic identity” (Zhang et al., 2009, p. 264). “For the Black women with a stronger ethnic identity” (Zhang et al., 2009, p. 264) the studies found less body dissatisfaction opposed to those women who had weaker ethnic identity. Even so, the women with weaker ethnic identity little to no self-esteem issue was observed. Fujioka et al. (2009) also approach the personal importance and fear of fat when it comes to Black women. Using race in predicting personal endorsement of thinness they found that the “highest ratings were among white identifiers in comparison to black identifiers” (p. 104). In summary, the overall media industry predicts that despite what has been said in the past, for example that a lot of media platforms’ main purpose is to sexualize Black women’s bodies (Thompson, 2013), certain platforms have continuously been advocating for Black women, such a rap music videos, even in ways that aren’t visible at first.

Discussion and Analysis

The lack of representation and or misinterpretation of Black women leads to shaping society’s views in a homogenous approach, in addition to viewpoints that are based on stereotypes. These stereotypes, whether it’s about Black woman’s bodies, attitudes or simply ways of being are harmful in numerous ways. All of the communication scholars address the impact stereotypes has on Black Women’s perspective of themselves whether these statements were true or false. These statements are often generational and something that these Black women have been accustomed to throughout their whole lives. Most importantly for the scholars, such as Zhang et al., whom decided to incorporate surveys and interviews, there were personal analysis that predicted the opposite of what most media often times present. Getting the facts from Black women themselves makes the research more valuable than analyzing previous works since the responses are peculiar. Thompson too, approaches these stereotypes as she interviews celebrities and their experiences in the media as part of their everyday lives. This approach was vital in understanding that even the Black women who have made a name for themselves still struggle to overcome and break the stereotypes put forth before them. What these literatures failed to address is the global aspect of Black women in media. No mention of how Black Women from anywhere else in the world are represented in the media were concentrated. The overall demographics could’ve had a huge impact on these papers especially in hopes of concluding what the media industry could do to have a more diverse platform for Black women everywhere. Something else that’s very important that was only mentioned by one of the communication scholars is proper solution to diversifying and being inclusive in the media when talking about Black women. Thompson purposes a minor solution, which was to uplift those black women who have yet to make their presence known in a big platform, which is a great starting point. In this same research we see how some influential Black women are using their platforms for advertise for better and more accurate representation of Black women in the media. Griffin, whom presented the idea of dominant gaze, explains societal views of Black women without specifying who exactly he was referring to. Identifying which groups of people have certain views of Black women could help put together another research as to why they think this particular way. This information would have also been useful in understanding why individuals were so bothered by Michelle Obama’s tweets on the hardships faced by Black women particularly in this country. Lastly, the research by Chen et al., 2012 on movies portraying Black women didn’t present the difference in movie representation from before versus now. They do an exemplary job comparing the “mammy-like” figure but didn’t focus on different roles Black women are given today when it comes to films. By not including this information it seems as though the role of care-taker/mammy are still the only ones available to Black women.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the communication scholars presented the different ways Black Women are shown in the media whether it’s through social media, movies/film etc. Media coverages are shown through examples of current takes on views people have on Black women in general. Social views impact Black Women’s vision of their own importance and self-image. The reviews put-forth ideas that questioned what is commonly known and also demonstrates what is not known, especially in regards to media formats such as rap music videos. The usage of specific surveys and interviews from Black Women themselves helped give personal perspectives of how these individuals feel not only about themselves but also in regards to the stereotypes they’re accustomed to hearing about themselves. These articles make it easy to understand the importance of positive representation in addition to overcoming the negative in a field so universally used, which is the media industry. What researchers should focus on next is a more global aspect of Black women’s representation in media. We know the portrayals the media puts out there in relation to Black women here, but it would be interesting to differentiate other countries views as well. What could be done next as well is analyzing the false perceptions in correlation to Black women and then presenting the accurate/true information afterwards. All in all these very diverse group of communication scholars have put-forth ideas and information about Black women in this country and for future scholars it is important to continue focusing on this subject matter in hopes of improving the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Black women in media.

References

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Chen, G., Williams, S., Hendrickson, N., & Chen, L. (2012). Male Mammies: A Social-Comparison Perspective on How Exaggeratedly Overweight Media Portrayals of Madea, Rasputia and Big Momma Affect How Black Women Feel About Themselves. Mass Communication & Society, 15(1),115-135.

Fujioka, Y., Ryan, E., Agle, M., Legaspi, M., & Toohey, R. (2009). The Role of Racial Identity in Responses to Thin Media Ideals: Differences Between White and Black College Women. Communication Research, 36(4), 451–474

Griffin, Alicia. (2014). Pushing into Precious: Black Women, Media Representation, and the Glare of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchal Gaze. Critical Studies in Media Communication,31(3), 182-197.

Thompson, Krissah. (2013). Black Women Still Poorly Depicted in Media. Washington Post, 1-2.

Turner, David. (2015). Who Taught You to Hate Yourself. Genius, 1-2.

Tyree, T., & Jones, M. (2018). Reflections of Blackness in Michelle Obama’s Twitter Account: An Analysis of Black Female Stereotypes and Connections to the Black Community in Her First Lady Initiatives. Women & Language, 41(2), 7–30.

Zhang, Y., Dixon, T. L., & Conrad, K. (2009). Rap Music Videos and African American Women’s Body Image: The Moderating Role of Ethnic Identity. Journal of Communication, 59(2), 262–278.  

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