Black Women & Media

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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Television and Film Narratives About the “Black Girl Curse”

A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to begin watching BET’s first original scripted drama, Being Mary Jane.* When I learned about the premise of the show some months ago, I was excited because the synopsis of  the series mirrored narratives I had been exploring in recent black women-centered/led films; narratives about successful, single, 30-something, career-driven black women who struggle not only to find an acceptable work/life balance, but also equally accomplished husbands. Though this particular narrative has circulated within entertainment media since the late 1990s and early 2000s, white women have often been the central protagonists as represented by Ally McBeal, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Sex in the City, to name a few examples. 

When I began to take an in-depth look at recent black women-centered/led films like Something New (2006), 35 & Ticking (2011), Think Like a Man (2012), and Baggage Claim (2013), I found that they each shared a thematic premise: professional, single, middle-class black women are experiencing both reproductive and marriage anxiety. As a 30-something, single, educated, aspiring middle-class black woman myself, and as someone whose friends share a similar background, I can relate to these narratives and attest that yes, the anxiety is REAL. However, with that said, I do question both the source–whether external, internal, or both–of this anxiety and the investment of the media industry in bolstering this apprehension through framing it as a “crisis.” With respect to this latter point, I am specifically referencing how, a few years ago, several broadcast news specials aired, articles were published, and self-help books were promoted, all in an effort to bring to public awareness a “crisis” described succinctly by one black woman as “the Black Girl Curse.”

I question why women that are viewed as “successful” (measured frequently by level of education, profession, and wealth) are positioned as deficient and in need of “fixing.” (On a personal level–and I know I speak for a few of my black female friends–we are more that tired of being asked by family and “attached” friends the question of “when” we are going to find someone and get married.)  I also find it infuriating that the narrative solution is often that black women must do away with their ambition if they ever hope to achieve true happiness through finding a husband and having children. Thus, although the narratives of Being Mary Jane and these other films resonate with me on a personal level, I think it necessary for many of us black women to contemplate why we are experiencing this anxiety in the first place.

*In future posts, I will say more about my general take on the series, but for now I can say I generally enjoy the show as a viewer, and as a scholar, I am very intrigued by the varied viewer responses to the show’s depictions of black womanhood.

Note: I will be giving a presentation in March at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (Seattle, WA) that will explore both Think Like a Man and 35 & Ticking.