Researchers, Let’s Talk About More Than Stereotypes

My journey as a researcher has only recently begun. I make this statement while acknowledging that I have been a “researcher” since my senior year at Saint Mary’s College of California, when I was tasked with writing a senior thesis. However, I make this statement because, post-qualifying exams, I have become aware of my own perspectives in relation to prior scholarship that has been conducted in my field of study, and I have started to voice critical concerns. When you are a graduate “student” your goals are to acquire and make use of existing/established knowledge. What that has meant for me as a black feminist media scholar who studies representations of race and gender in popular culture is that I analyze and critique images within a framework that has traditionally been concerned with highlighting existing stereotypes, tropes, or archetypes. When I look back on some of my early work at USC Annenberg, this is what I did. At the time, I felt like the tools I was using to examine mediated representations of black women were a reflection of my own perspectives. Yes, True Blood‘s Tara is another iteration of Sapphire! Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Bailey is just another Modern Mammy! It is true, even when we as black women are visible it is only to reinforce and sustain these historical tropes!

I by no means want to be dismissive of this type of approach, especially because I continue to find it important and I admire many of the black women whose work inspired subsequent research in the area of black women’s media representation. However, by the time I began drafting my dissertation prospectus and preparing for exams last Spring, I had become increasingly frustrated by the limited scope of the literature I was finding about black women and television. Almost every piece of literature drew from the same theoretical orientation and analyzed and categorized images of black women in reference to “the angry black woman,” “Jezebel,” “Mammy,” etc. As someone who has written about the ways in which contemporary representations can fall into a pattern that reinforce racist and sexist assumptions about black women, I completely understood the desire to highlight the ubiquity of such tropes. However, I couldn’t help but feel like these analyses were missing something. What I ultimately decided–and what was eventually made clear through extensive research*–is that what is and has been missing is a way of looking at current depictions of black women that accounts for black women viewers’ negotiations of these representations.

As a media consumer, and as a researcher, I experience the representations I encounter in conflicting ways. I view them, interpret them, in conflicting ways. I am often able to see the “negative” stereotype, and that something else that defies categorization as such. I experience pleasure and revulsion, sometimes simultaneously. It is difficult to put into words, the multiplicity of the emotions and responses I have to what I consume. I do think my personal experiences are representative of the ways in which some black women viewers experience television, film, and other forms of visual expression. I just think that we, as researchers, need to get at that experience of viewing/consuming that I can’t quite make sense of and put into words. There may be something important there worth seeing, acknowledging, and making known.

I hope that the research I am embarking on will provide greater insight; insight that will expand our understanding of black women’s experiences both making and consuming contemporary visual representations.

*In my review of existing literature I was particularly struck by the dearth of black audience research. Robin Means Coleman’s African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy: Situating Racial Humor (2001), and her anthology Say it Loud! African American Audiences, Media, and Identity (2002), are just two of the in-depth texts that focus specifically on black audiences. There is a similar absence in scholarship that address quesstions of production or creative development of black television programs. For some exceptions, see: Herman Gray’s (1995)Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness; Kristal Brent Zook (1999) Color by Fox: The Fox Network and the Revolution of Black Televsion; and Gregory Adam (2010) African Americans and Television: Behind the Scenes. 

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