Black Female Representation in Mainstream Media

The topic of black women in mainstream media is very salient one. Just recently Hollywood has been buzzing with the movie Girls Trip, raking in a cool $30.4 million in its weekend debut. The movie is said to be the funniest comedy of the year, and while it is incredibly lighthearted this film’s depiction of black women carries a lot of weight. Very rarely are black women, especially black women that are 30+ yrs of age, shown to be fun-loving and carefree. They haven’t been given the space to have narratives like that. Similarly, black women are rarely given the screen-time to express, and have full agency in, their sexuality. This film does both!

Historically, (with the exclusion of tv and films largely viewed and marketed toward black audiences, many of which aired in the 90s – think Living Single, A Different World, etc.) mainstream media has given black women very restricted roles to play. We are often relegated to the “mammy” or “jezebel” stereotypes. The mammy is dehumanized and devalued as a lesser intelligent, and often humorous, character. The jezebel’s dehumanization happens through her hyper-sexualization. She’s the lure, the beguiling homewrecker that draws men into her trap, destroying “good” (read: white) marriages and “good” (read: white) families.

Even contemporary depictions of black women tend to fall into this tired trope, one such example being Scandal. Many could say that Olivia Pope is one of the most empowering black female roles we’ve seen in recent mainstream television. Yet and still, her relationship with the president, a white man, is shown to break apart his marriage and be a risk to the continued success of the country as a whole (seeing as Fitz is shown to, time and again, run away from his duties to be with Olivia). His wife is still the victim, and Olivia is still a villain, not given the rights or respect she deserves as his long time lover.

Black women are often portrayed as one dimensional characters, painted with broad strokes. One of the better portrayals of a black woman I have found that defies the mammy stereotype is Annalise in “How to Get Away with Murder”. Annalise is a middle aged black woman, well established as a high powered lawyer (which is, in itself, immediately defiant of expectations). She is incredibly intelligent, ruthless, and cutting. She cheats and uses people, and she does it in a world where that is expected and venerated. Far from falling into the “overly passionate angry black woman” stereotype , she is portrayed as calculating, almost cold.

However, she is also vulnerable at times; she gets hurt, she gets tired, she cries. She is at once cunning, conniving, and compassionate, at least to some. She’s given the space to be all of this, and more still, a sexual being with agency.

See, Annalise also happens to be bisexual, and is shown in canonical sexual relationships with both men and women. In both situations she knows what she wants and is able to express it. She isn’t desexualized in the least, which would be expected for a character in her age range. Whatever my other issues with the show, and the show’ s other characters, Annalise remains one of the most candid and complex black female characters I have seen in mainstream media, period, and I applaud HTGAWM (and Viola Davis) for that.

Black actresses have a difficult time finding roles in Hollywood because people in the business still buy into these stereotypes of type casting. Yet, it is so important that we have dynamic representation. Not only for those young women looking out into the world to see positive images of themselves reflected back at them, but also to challenge long held stereotypes of what black women are and who black women can be.

I’m glad for Girls Trip’s success and hope that we see much more success like it in the near future.


Silencing Black Girls: A Texas Schoolgirl’s Story

Silencing Black Girls (Link)

Colleen Winn

I am a child of the sixties and seventies with my social consciousness starting to take cognizance by the late 70’s. My experiences with my surroundings were colored and shielded by the lenses created by my parents which were in direct opposition to each other. My world was monochromatic and the effect of our relationships were nuanced by our social, educational, and gender stature.

The fallout from the U.S. Supreme Courts 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision had not really trickled down to many of the schools in Texas so they remained virtually segregated. Rather they were equal or not, I had no sound basis for comparison. My reality was not affected by the debate of equal access or separate but equal. My reality was affected by the fact that I was growing up in the 5th Ward section of Houston, Texas and even more real; I was growing up in the “projects.” I realized years later that teachers, and others not from this reality, saw me as damaged goods with not much of a prosperous future.

Continue reading “Silencing Black Girls: A Texas Schoolgirl’s Story”

Historical Spotlight

Dorothy Lavinia Brown (1919-2004)

“Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown was the first African American woman surgeon in the South. ….There were no other black women in general surgery in the South and she had to forge through almost universal resistance. She said that “Dr. Matthew Walker was a brave man” because he accepted her into the program despite advice from his staff that a woman couldn’t withstand the rigors of surgery.

Brown worked through a five-year residency at Meharry and George W. Hubbard Hospital to become Assistant Professor of Surgery in 1955 and the first African American woman to be made a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

From 1957 to 1983 Brown was chief of surgery at Nashville’s Riverside Hospital, clinical professor of surgery at Meharry Medical College, and educational director for the Riverside-Meharry Clinical Rotation Program. She also served as a consultant on health, education, and welfare for the National Institutes of Health (National Advisory Council Heart, Lung, and Blood) in 1982.

Brown’s determination, beliefs, and values helped her to break through barriers in various aspects of her life.”

Read more about Dr. Dorothy Lavinia Brown: HERE


Mosaics Make Beautiful Murals


mural mosaic

At times the Black community seems so disparate it’s a wonder to me that we identify ourselves as a community at all. We were separated from our origins (African ancestry) as a whole, and that brings its’ own loss. But, furthermore, our community was ravaged by the very systems that brought it into being. White supremacy was about subjugating one “group” of people (Black people) to placate and control another (poor white people). The construction of race as a social category was about power, money, and control.

It was never meant to allow us the space to build a collective identity. And yet, here we are, left to pick up the pieces and sew them all together to form one as yet unrecognizable patchwork quilt.

Race is a social construct, which means our community has no biological basis to tie it together. The history of the African-American community is young, and inevitably tied to marginalization. This means our community has very little positive historical basis of connectivity. We’ve had to build a culture from the ground up. It makes so much sense to me that in trying to do this we’ve neglected to acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that the Black American community encompasses.

We’ve forgotten how different we really are.

We’ve forgotten the beauty in that difference.

I understand survival, but I don’t think it’s healthy or productive to paint ourselves in broad strokes to seem more cohesive. Mosaics make beautiful murals.

So, you might ask now: what does recognizing and accepting difference entail? At the most basic level I believe it means being willing to listen, to see your own experience as just one of many valid experiences, to use inclusive language, to disregard generalizations, and to acknowledge your own privilege.

I myself have had to do some unpacking of my own identity to really parse out how I relate to the world, and how very individual my lens is.

I am:

  • Middle-class
  • cisgender
  • Able-bodied and nuerotypical
  • Born in America

And these are only a few ways that I embody privilege. Few people consider the circumstances of their birth to be a privilege, but these are things to consider when analyzing how my experience as a Black woman in America may not be the same as someone else’s.

Too often we hone in on race as the defining factor of our identity. Maybe it’s because it is a very visible marker of difference (both in an everyday sense, and in a wider societal sense, race has been so visible). There is so much more to people, though, and one aspect of identity does not disappear just because the group of people we’re with can only identify and identify with another.

There’s this  idea that only one identity can be important, recognized, or prioritized at any one moment. I think this happens naturally in in-groups. Intersectionality, as defined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, addresses this misconception and unpacks it.

Intersectionality is a term coined by American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity.[1] These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.”

In simpler terms, we’re all complex beings. None of us are one dimensional, and there should be space made for the fullness of that. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to the narratives we’ve been told about who we are as Black people.

Black people are queer. Black people are Muslim. Black people are autistic. Black people are bipolar. Black people are trans*. Black people are deaf. Black people are of Puerto Rican, Haitian, and Caribbean descent.

The time has come to open ourselves up to the conceptualization of Black people, Black Americans, as relating to one another in all of these ways, because we cannot create safe spaces within our community if we disregard our whole selves.

Read more on Intersectionality: Article__Mapping_the_Margins_by_Kimblere_Crenshaw