The idea that we as Black people are constantly reimagining ourselves within a society historically devoid of our existence reoccurs thematically throughout most artistic, entertainment, and most recently, digital media [re] presentations of blackness. In response to the continuous bombardment of what have historically been largely stereotypical depictions of our existence, much of the pushback on these mis-representations were rooted in the politics of respectability. Through early visual imagery of the Black body, activists and photographers attempted to prove humanity through the lens of acceptability.
Sojourner Truth’s self-portraits, Frances Benjamin Johnston’s documentation of Blacks in educational institutions, Arthur P. Bedou’s photographs of Booker T. Washington on his speaking tour, Addison Scurlock’s portraitures of W.E.B. Du Bois, and James VanDerZee’s images of uplift in Harlem all focused on displaying the Black body absent of struggle and resembled a style of white middle class respectability. This middle class respectability agenda was so strong during this time that activist Charlotte Forten abandoned her experimentation with bloomers because critics thought the attire to be too radical, and that wearing them was detrimental to her legitimacy as a female activist.
This self-censorship as a response to criticism of a woman’s legitimacy and acceptability is less likely to influence a woman’s behavior so easily these days, as evidenced by activist and community organizer Cherrell Brown who publicly laments men who admire her activism, but attempt to save her from her “sexually provocative ways.” An assumption these men only make about Brown based on their interpretations of the images she publishes on her social media accounts.
There’s nothing new about the way Black men police the behavior, attire and overall presentation of Black women’s bodies while simultaneously advocating for the acceptance of the Black male body as is. But is it possible that in an attempt to promote more “positive” images of themselves in media, Black women have too begun to police the representation of other Black women, by deeming what is and what is not an acceptable way to express Black womanhood?
Blavity recently published an article on Cardi B, a cast member on one of the most controversial shows when it comes to the representation of Black women. Cardi B represents everything society tells us should not be glamorized. She’s loud, unrefined, seemingly under-educated, confrontational, sexually liberated, a former stripper and completely content with not fitting into acceptable behavior standards that define middle class, educated Black women. She is everything that the white patriarchal hegemony has told us is unacceptable about our womanhood.
The pushback against the largely stereotypical media representations of Black and Afro-Latina women is understandable. It is needed. Without a doubt, our media representations are imbalanced, leaning more towards the promotion of turbocharged historically racial stereotypes that are the antithesis of middle class Blackness – thought by many as a way to shield Black people from the dehumanization of racism. We crave more “positive” representations of Black women, and are sensitive about what images are being produced, because for so long we have been under represented, misrepresented and caricaturized. Recently, Cardi B herself called out the one sided representation of her castmates Amina and Tara in their relationship to Peter Gunz, stating “She’s (Amina) a talented ass woman, and Tara is a smart ass woman and you got them looking dumb on TV!”
Diversifying the representation of Black women in the media is not about changing who is shown in the media; it is about how they are depicted. It is the consistent directing, editing and broadcasting of complex women as one dimensional stereotypes that we can no longer passively allow to be the dominant narrative of Black womanhood.
There’s no denying the impact that these narrow stereotypes have on the development of young Black girls and boys. The link between the way violence against and between Black women is used as entertainment and the emotional and physical violence used against Black women in reality is obvious. The ill treatment of Black women cannot be divested from our misrepresentation in entertainment and media because our portrayals has for many become our collective identity.
What we don’t have to agree on, however, is what the proper or acceptable way for Black women to express their identity is, because there isn’t one specific way to express Black womanhood. We need not demand “acceptable” representation of our womenhood because there is no unacceptable way to be a Black woman. Our expressions of ourselves are as nuanced as our body shapes, hair textures and hues of pigmentation. But what we must demand is a multiplicity of stories that showcase the vast variety of these expressions.
We can’t all be Clair Huxtable. To be honest, not all of us want to be. We should all have the choice of who we want to be and become. One way to ensure that is to create and produce as many iterations of what a Black woman can be as possible. The keyword here is nuance not perfection.
What we need now more than ever is the deconstruction or the “opening up” of stereotypes, not simply an onslaught of so-called positive representations to obliterate the harmful ones. This is why multi-dimensional anti-hero characters like Cookie Lyon, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating are so important. They take stereotypes like the Angry Black Woman, the Jezebel and the Sapphire and add humanity, dimension, and complexity. So much so, that the stereotype is no longer acknowledged because there are so many other aspects of that character present.
It is true that the existence of these characters means progress is being made, but there is still so much to be done. And there are things that we can do as individuals right now to combat these narrow illustrations of Black womanhood. The first is to vote with your remote (or mouse). It is the shows we continually tune into and the ratings they get that drive which shows get aired. The second is to support movements that are working to improve media literacy and the representation of women of color in the media. Truth in Reality is attempting to create change by putting out their own content in the form of a feature length documentary that illustrates the damaging real life impact of media stereotypes and the stories being told about Black and Afro-Latinas. This film is being crowd funded, which leads to my last point which is if you do fall in love with an artist, show or medium that see yourself reflected in tell your friends about it, tweet it, watch it – in other words, SUPPORT it.