Black Women’s Portrayal in Media: Who Controls Her Narrative? — MMMEDIA

Cover art by @regius4k

How much of who the Black woman is in society is up to her?

I know what you’re going to say, and yes, you’re right. From systemic racism, sexism, colorism, poverty, etc, the Black woman in America is a product of many limiting elements. In fact, Black women are the most disrespected species on earth according to civil rights leader Malcolm X. Born both Black and a woman, Black women have known little protection throughout history.

I agree. It seems irrational to argue that anything the Black woman does or is in this world is completely up to her. That said, I wonder how much of the Black woman’s image in mainstream media is perpetuated by her belief that her narrative is out of her control.

Mainstream media’s interpretation of Black women has not evolved much since the early 1900's. The first ever African American awarded an Oscar was a Black woman in 1939 named Hattie McDaniel. She won for her performance as “Mammy” in Gone With The Wind. McDaniel’s recognition opened the door for Black women to portray outspoken house keepers in television and film. They were described as “sassy,” “full-figured,” and “common.”

As you fast forward through cinematic history you begin to see how Black women have elevated to the best friend in a sitcom, the supportive counter part to the Black man, the rowdy entertainment in a reality tv show and the slut.

The transition from maid to “home-girl” was not a straight shot.

There was a brief stint between the 1990s and early 2000s where Black women led sitcoms and movies as daughters, business women, teachers, mothers, wives and friends. Productions like Living Single, Girlfriends, Moesha and Poetic Justice showcased the various journeys of the Black woman in America.

Black women were also largely represented in music at this time. The concept of the Black female popstar seems foreign today, but during the late 20th and early 21st centuries she was everywhere in the design of artists like Nivea, TLC, Destiny’s Child, Mya, Ciara and more.

Black women also dominated carnal industries like music videos during this time. Top male musicians were known to spend top dollar for Black women to appear in their videos. Rapper Mystical spent upwards of 2 million dollars for his Danger music video in 2000. The exposure allowed for models like Karrine Steffans, also known as “Superhead,” to branch into film and authorship.

That said, the need for Black female representation in mainstream media has deteriorated in present day.

Black women are rarely seen in mainstream avenues like television, film and music. However, when they do appear, they are most likely portrayed as overly sexualized, stereotypically black (according to the *dominant culture’s interpretation,) caricatures of themselves.

The Black woman’s new form takes center stage in works like Love & Hip Hop, Bad Girls Club, Baby Boy, Barbershop and Hustle & Flow, to name a few. As well, Black female popstars have taken a back seat to Black female rappers like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Rubi Rose.

I acknowledge that Black women still account for leading roles. The Zendayas, Yara Shahidis and Raven-Symonés are steps toward higher recognition. (Pop Quiz — do you notice anything about them? — yes, light skin privilege or colorism is very embossed in mainstream culture, but that’s another article.)

As well, there are musicians like Alicia Keys, SZA, Kiana Ledé and Kehlani who have secured success without being overtly sexual — though they do share the common thread of singing about heartbreak which has always been a role the mainstream media was comfortable seeing the Black woman in. That theme was even evident in the works previously mentioned during the 90s and early 2000s.

More often than not, the Black woman has found herself portrayed on screen and in music still sassy, with an emphasis on her body and stuck in her parameters.

It took 51-years after McDaniel’s Oscar win for Whoopi Goldberg to become the second Black woman in history to win an Oscar in 1990. Since then the wins and nominations of Black women at the Academy Awards have been sporadic and sparse.

Similarly, there have been no wins by Black female musicians for album of the year at the Grammys since Lauryn Hill in 1999.

But why?

Where has society’s affinity for the Black woman, be-it sexually charged and rooted in adversity, gone?

In some cases Black women are no longer the choice for traditionally Black apperances. More recently, white women and men, Latin women and men and Asian women and men who sport stereotypical Black demeanors are being booked for mainstream opportunities over Black women.

The popularity of creators such as Lando Romano, Bretman Rock and Ariana Grande show the world’s attempt to minimize the Black woman’s existence by passing her allowed description to other races and genders.

It really is astounding how little by little the Black woman’s narrative is shifting from being controlled by mainstream media to being reassigned by it.

I guess the real question is, what does the Black woman do now? Knowing what she knows about her space in mainstream culture, how does she ensure she is not erased?

Personally, I see the preservation and advancement of Black women in mainstream media rooted in collaboration. Collaboration brings various ideas, resources and connections to one place while allowing everyone involved to have a part in the process. Black women need to work together to create the opportunities they aspire to see themselves, their children and future generations of Black women in since the mainstream has taken new interests.

They should establish production houses, record labels, networks, etc. as a unit — dividing the cost, work and the benefits. Black women must be the ones to tell their stories if their stories will ever be told correctly. The time is now for Black women to completely control what they say, what they sing/ rap, what they wear, what they perform and who they are around. When Black women begin creating things they believe in, the world will believe in it too — thus changing the trajectory of the Black woman’s career.

That said, Black women that are already in high positions must advocate for Black women under them. There needs to be more of a demand for diversity by diverse women at the top!

Black women need to first advocate for each other before other women and men of all races will advocate for them.

There is no such thing as “only room for one” when the room is created by the ones benefiting from it. It is only when Black women adhere solely to the opportunities given to them by the mainstream, who have decided lifetimes ago how far Black women will go, that they are forced to operate from a place of survival.

By creating their own spaces, Black women control their image and ultimatley their value in media.

Or, Black women can continue to primarily accept “sassy,” “promiscuous,” “loud,” “ghetto,” “aggressive,” “mean,” “flirty,” “naggy,” “naive,” “slutty,” “strong,” “weak,” “erotic,” “background” and limiting opportunities. Generations of Black women to come will continue the cycle of competing for success within the markets set by the mainstream — further perpetuating the narrative that the Black woman’s narrative is not her own.

*Dominant culture equates to white culture.

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