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Black Women Vs. ... The Media

Updated on September 16, 2013
Image courtesy of Google search for "Michelle Obama".   Not even she is exempt from the scrutiny Black women face everyday.
Image courtesy of Google search for "Michelle Obama". Not even she is exempt from the scrutiny Black women face everyday.

Introduction

Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden and Charisse Jones' work, Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, explores the unique experiences and opinions of Black women in relation to beauty, the media, and religion. The following quote from this work is as distressing as it is revealing:

"...the reality [is] that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream white America." (p. 2)

This quote is revealing because, by all accounts, it appears that Black women are everywhere. One would think that Black women are finally being celebrated after centuries of being torn down.

Kerry Washington is receiving critical acclaim and has recently been nominated for an Emmy for her work on Scandal. Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States, is cheered for her style and elegance, as well as her Let's Move campaign. Oprah Winfrey has transitioned from a talk show host to the owner of a network. Tulane University professor Melissa Harris-Perry, Ph. D., hosts a self-titled weekend morning show on MSNBC. A majority of the degrees awarded by colleges and universities all over the country will be given to Black women. It would appear that Black omen are at long last getting praise equal to that of their White counterparts. Years, even centuries, of hard work is finally paying off.

OR IS IT?

I look at the quote again and realize how painful it is. In fact, it is absolutely distressing. Let us not forget that during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Michelle Obama was reduced to nothing more than a "baby mama" and an "angry Black woman". To this day, Obama is still being derided as nothing more than a leech and another uppity Black woman who doesn't know her place. Kerry Washington is an accomplished actress, but I fear that she may be seen as just another Jezebel for her role as Olivia Pope on Scandal. Both Winfrey and Harris-Perry have been attacked for their opinions. It never fails; as Black women power forward, achieving and getting ahead, there appears to be more and more criticism hurled in our direction.

No matter what Black women attain, no matter how well Black women get through life with the odds against them, there is always the hazard that we will be reduced to tasteless and despicable caricatures; ignored and made invisible; or, determined to be inferior. With the looming presence of the 24-hour media, Black women are not only shamed privately, we are also more easily reduced to stereotypes. It doesn't matter the form of media -- television, magazines, or film -- Black women must be prepared to be admonished from all sides.

No One Is Exempt from Media Scrutiny: The First Lady in the News

The First Lady, Michelle Obama, is not immune to such scrutiny. Melissa Harris-Perry's book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, details how the circumstances surrounding Black women (high levels of poverty, under- and unemployment, the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the Black community, to name a few) affect their political activism. Harris-Perry also explains how the media portrayal of Black women influences how we see Michelle Obama:

"Other observers comfortably framed Michelle Obama as an angry Sapphire figure. She earned the label "angry black woman" at several points during the campaign. One key moment occurred when the content of her Princeton University senior thesis was made public. In 1985, a young Michelle Robinson had written a senior research project for the Princeton sociology department in which she explored the social and personal difficulties many African American students experienced at the university. The thesis also revealed her own sense of alienation on campus. ...

...When this paper was made public, many in the media questioned whether Michelle Obama harbored resentments and hatred toward white people, white institutions, and America in general. Few questioned the veracity of her claims; instead, her complaint alone was enough to label her as angry. Some clearly believed that as a black girl from "inner city" Chicago, she should have been more grateful for the opportunity to study at Princeton, and any discomfort or criticism must necessarily be irrational and angry." (p. 274-275)

Not even the current First Lady of the United States is safe from harsh critique. Her past academic work, which sought to investigate the experiences of African American students on a predominantly white campus, was not safe from being torn to pieces by those who sought to discredit both her and her husband.

I find it funny that her claims regarding being Black in America were up for questioning, not the reality of her experiences. The logic used to discredit Obama's senior thesis is the same logic used to discredit rape survivors and feminists. The logic goes as follows: The problem of racism (or rape or patriarchy) lies not with the racist (or rapist or patriarchal figure, be they male or female), but with the person calling out the racism (or rape culture or patriarchy). Don't they know the way things are have always been this way? Why can't they just shut up and go with the flow? Michelle Obama was seen as the problem for investigating and asking other students about the difficulties they encounter while studying on a majority white campus. She also revealed her own sense of alienation, making her quite vulnerable indeed in a country that requires Black women to be strong and invulnerable at all times. Apparently, those in the media who questioned her claims felt that she should have just shut up and that she should just be grateful. And any difficulties that she may face or will face are her own damn fault.

This castigation of Obama and her subsequent classification as an "angry Black woman" serves as a warning to other black women, both privately and publicly. If a Black woman dares to question the current structure, then attempts to express how she feels while living within it, not only will she be dismissed but she will also be chastised and humiliated.

This isn't about having a tough skin (which is a strategy I feel is overrated and dangerous), or letting the opinions of others roll off your back. Actions such as those taken by media pundits who attack Michelle Obama is about keeping Black women quiet. It's about shaming Black women who speak out. The media often acts as another shaming tool, one used to maintain the social structures that place Black women at the bottom. What is said about Black women in the media is more influential than we think.

The Disrespect Continues: Black Women in Film and Television

However, it's not just what is said about Black women that can be problematic. It is also the roles presented to Black women on television and in movies that can be disappointing. "Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media" by bell hooks, from her anthology, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, exposes how some representations of Black folks haven't changed all that much. This quote is quite the eye opener:

"Many television viewers of all races and ethnicities were enchanted by a series called I'll Fly Away which highlighted a liberal white family's struggle in the South and the perspective of the black servant in their home. Even though the series is often centered on the maid her status is never changed or challenged. Indeed she is one of the "stars" of the show. It does not disturb most viewers that at this moment in history black women continue to be represented in movies and on television as the servants of whites. The fact that a black woman can be cast in a dramatically compelling leading role as a servant does not intervene on racist/sexist stereotypes; it reinscribes them. Hollywood awarded its first Oscar to a black person in 1939 when Hattie McDaniel won as Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind. She played the maid. Contemporary films like Fried Green Tomatoes and Passion Fish, which offer viewers progressive visions of white females, still image black women in the same way -- as servants. Even though the black female "servant" in Passion Fish comes from a middle class background, drug addiction has led to her drop in status. and the film suggests that working secluded as the caretaker of a sick white woman redeems the black woman. ... Mass media consistently depicts black folks either as servants of in subordinate roles, a placement which still suggests that we exist to bolster and caretake the needs of whites." (p. 113-114, emphasis added)

Nothing much has changed. Eighteen years separate this essay and this particular hooks work, which was published in 1995, and the story is still the same. From The Help to The Butler to the works of Tyler Perry, the status of Black women and film has never been challenged or questioned. I would venture to guess that a Black woman will reap more rewards for playing maids and servants than for creating and portraying complex and engaging characters.

Mind you, this is not a knock against the actresses who play maids or servants in film or television. This is a criticism of the producers, directors, and others who are unoriginal, lazy, or completely uninterested in creating work that would expose the complexity of being and Black woman in America. No one questions such portrayals of Black women as servants; instead, people (mostly in the Black community) try to spin such roles into triumphs for Black people, especially Black women. It is believed that Black women should just be lucky to have any role in Hollywood; that we should be grateful to play maids instead of actually having to work as maids cleaning houses for a living. Any representation is good representation, right?

I beg to differ.

Though Black women have progressed, the way that we are depicted in he media is more regressive than ever before. This is what makes the quote from Shifting used in the introduction so painful. As long as Black women continue to be depicted as maids, as the servants of White folks, achievements such as college graduation rates and the acquisition of a business or a network will mean absolutely nothing. Shows like Scandal should be the standard, the starting point for a wide array of Black women on television, not the exception. I can guarantee that if White women were only portrayed as whores and housewives, the media would change it's mind. I REPEAT: I CAN GUARANTEE THAT IF WHITE WOMEN WERE ONLY PORTRAYED AS WHORES AND HOUSEWIVES, THE MEDIA WOULD CHANGE IT'S MIND WITH THE FIRST SOUNDS OF PROTEST.

The depiction of Black women as nothing more than servants undercuts any efforts Black women make. The fantasy of who Black women should be -- maids, Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, etc. -- undercuts who we actually are.

Hattie McDaniel Accepting Best Supporting Actress Oscar

A Trailer for 'The Help'

Conclusion

The media is another instrument used to keep Black women at the bottom. Whether it is media pundits mocking Michelle Obama and labeling her an "angry Black woman", or the dated yet surprisingly abundant portrayals of Black women as servants, we are hounded by images that are inaccurate and the antithesis of what Black women's actual lived experiences are. And with the passive consumption of media, I doubt that any of this will change in the near future. Sure, there will always be one movie that defies stereotypes, rises above the nonsense, and manages to make money, habits are hard to break.

Works Cited

Harris-Perry, Melissa. Sister Citizen: Shame Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. New Haven: Yale, 2011. pp. 274-275.

hooks, bell. "Teaching Resistance: The Racial Politics of Mass Media." Killing Rage: Ending Racism. New York: Holt, 1995. pp. 13-114.

Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph. D. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: Perennial, 2003. p. 2.

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