African Americans are also known as Afro-Americans and their ethnicity stems from them having partial or total ancestry from black groups in Africa. African Americans have had a rough history from how they were treated during the slavery period. And there has been a bone of contention on whether the media covers the African American women positively or negatively.
Con arguments on African American women’s representation by media
According to a survey by Essence Magazine and a research firm, the labels that come to people’s mind when they hear black women representation in media are fat African American woman, baby mama, an angry African American woman, gold digger and black Barbie. In this survey, 30 black women out of the 901 that took part kept diaries for 10 days where they recorded images from the television, internet and other types of media (Muhammad, 2015). For example, the reality show, “Basketball Wives” which portray black women as sassy, neck rolling with a lot of attitude problems (Moody, Hamilton-Short & Mitchell, 2014). In conclusion, they felt disrespected and saddened by how the media portrayed them and the study from essence felt like there needs to be a positive change on how they are portrayed.
Tionna Smalls’ article “Dark skin vs. light skin: The black man’s dilemma” takes us through how blacks were divided in to light skinned and dark skinned niggers by slave masters. The black woman slave would dig the plantations and pick cotton while the light skinned woman would cook and care for both the master and his children and she would even be admired sexually while the black woman was maltreated (Adams, Kurtz-Costes & Hoffman, 2016).This has come down to Hollywood movies where most light skinned women are cast as actresses. For example, Nina Mae McKinney, the first African American actress, was offered movies that had a low budget because she was black (Regester, 2010). And Freddy Washington, a light skinned black actress, could not be offered the maid position in a film since she was seen as too beautiful and instead she was given romantic leads (Yuen, 2016). These two examples show us how the media portrays the black woman negatively and also discriminates against them according to their skin tone.
Black hair has been a controversial topic in the media in relation to beauty. Black hair has been treated with indifference even through the media. Most women in the media industry appear on screen with straight hair that has been relaxed or putting on a wig or weave. This is as a result of the negative opinions that the natural black hair looks unkempt and also billboard advertisements that only promote straight hair as opposed to natural black hair (Opie and Philips, 2015). For example the dark and lovely treatment advertisements that tries to assure black women that once they use the product they will get lovely (Johnson et al, 2017). These advertisements are leading to black women being stereotyped.
Pro arguments on African American women’s representation by media
It has been said that black women should accept the fact they are not fully represented in media and therefore any representation whether good or bad is better than no representation at all. It appears as though many women have achieved and fulfilled their American dream of being successful in media, academics, business and politics. But Sophia Nelson, author of “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and discovering fulfilment in the age of Michelle Obama”, refuted the claims saying that their achievements were not being reflected enough in American Culture (Fears & Combs, 2013).This brings to light the main issue here, and that is black women should accept the fact that they are at least represented by powerful women like Michelle Obama as opposed to no representation at all.
In addition to the point above, the media has provided some positive information about black women. Based on the non-fiction book “Hidden figures”, it tells the story of three African American women; Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Jackson, and Mary Jackson who made significant changes to science, history, and technology. The three were good in mathematics and provided data as well as flight trajectories which aided in launching orbit by John Glenn in the year 1960s. The three women worked in NASA and were able to overcome the racism, segregation, and Cold War during the era of civil rights, for example, these women had a separate toilet, separate offices and eating areas and this means they were not supposed to associate with the rest (Brown & Wilson, 2017). But this does not change the fact that there was also a positive they portrayed as black women.
Black women have mostly been portrayed as weak, but Oprah Winfrey was named the “world’s most powerful woman” by CNN and FORBES. She was even listed as a woman of most influence as a woman and a black person by Life and USA Today. She has been ranked top 50 as the most generous in America (Chun, 2015). For example, she established a girl’s academy for leadership at Johannesburg in South Africa (Gibbons Poelka & Moletsane-Kekae, 2017). She has been a positive portrayal of black women in America which has obviously not gone unnoticed.
My opinion is that the media representation of African American women needs to be improved since there is still so much negative portrayal of black women that overshadows the positives. Double standard is something that is often seen in the industry. For example, Nicki Minaj’s Art Cover for her song Anaconda was attacked for being too sexual and unacceptable while models were accepted even in their nude or bikini pictures in sports magazines (Scribner, 2016). It is very hard to ignore the fact that she was attacked due to her skin colour or her curvaceous black body. The American standard of beauty comes into play in this situation. Black women are more often attacked for their body size and for being curvier than their white counterparts and are at times called fat. Black women are not comfortable dating outside their race due to them believing that they will not be attractive to the white men (Wang, 2015). Black women are discriminated against due to their body size.
The black woman has been depicted in terms that are less human (Weheliye, 2014). Michele Barrett thinks that contemporary family oppresses black women. This is where women are dependent on men financially; they are also depicted as mothers and domesticated and also maids in white homes (McRobbie, 2013). For example, in the movie “Imitation of life”, Louise Beavers’ role is stereotyped as a mammy even though her role is not overshadowed by an actor that is of white race (Rickey, 2016). Most black women are given roles such as maids, day worker, mammy and servant. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer won Awards following their roles as maids in the movie ‘The Help’ (Colbert, 2016). As much as their win was a good thing, it still proved that people prefer black women playing the stereotyped role of a mammy which portrayed black women in a negative manner.
In conclusion, the media’s positive portrayal of the African American woman has been overshadowed by the negatives. And it has been the media’s intention to force women to accept the negative representation with the argument that bad representation is better than no representation at all.
Adams, E. A., Kurtz-Costes, B. E., & Hoffman, A. J. (2016). Skin tone bias among African Americans: Antecedents and consequences across the life span. Developmental Review, 40, 93-116.
Brown, V. A., & Wilson, J. (2017). Hidden Figures No More: A Book Review of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 10(1).
Chun, S. (2015). The Oprah Effect: Leadership Secrets of Oprah.
Colbert, S. D. (2016). Playing the Help, Playing the Slave: Disrupting Racial Fantasies in Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Modern Drama, 59(4), 399-421.
Fears, L. M., & Combs, S. (2013). The Meaning of “Angry Black Woman” in Print Media Coverage of First Lady Michelle Obama. Journal of Research on Women and Gender, 6, 1-26.
Gibbons, J. L., Poelker, K. E., & Moletsane-Kekae, M. (2017). Women in South Africa: Striving for Full Equality Post-apartheid. In Women’s Evolving Lives (pp. 141-159). Springer, Cham.
Johnson, A. G., Godsil, R., MacFarlane, J., Tropp, L., & Goff, P. A. (2017). The “Good Hair” Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair.
McRobbie, A. (2013). Feminism, the family and the new’mediated’maternalism. New Formations, 80(80), 119-137.
Moody, M., Hamilton-Short, I., & Mitchell, K. (2014). Guilty by association: An analysis of Shaunie O’Neal’s online/on-air image restoration tactics. Journal of Research on Women and Gender, 5.
Muhammad, G. E., & McArthur, S. A. (2015). “Styled by Their Perceptions”: Black Adolescent Girls Interpret Representations of Black Females in Popular Culture. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(3), 133-140.
Opie, T. R., & Phillips, K. W. (2015). Hair penalties: the negative influence of Afrocentric hair on ratings of Black women’s dominance and professionalism. Frontiers in psychology, 6.
Regester, Charlene B. African American actresses: the struggle for visibility, 1900-1960. Indiana University Press, 2010.
Rickey, C. (2016). Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences In 1930s Hollywood by Miriam J. Petty.
Scribner, M. A. (2016). Perceptions of the Black Woman: Deconstructing and Reclaiming Societal Myths.
Wang, W. (2015). Interracial Marriage: Who Is ‘Marrying Out’?. Pew Research Center, 19-40.
Weheliye, A. G. (2014). Habeas viscus: Racializing assemblages, biopolitics, and black feminist theories of the human. Duke University Press.
Yuen, Nancy Wang. Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. Rutgers University Press, 2016.
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