We recognize this image. It looks like us, sounds like us; the physical resemblance is striking even. However, their behavior is loud, crude, and out of the norm for us. Their attire is revealing, risqué, and not something we’d regularly wear. The language they use is laced with profanity and obscene gestures that doesn’t necessarily fit our demeanor. Who is this image? Her name is the media and she’s holding up a mirror to African American women everywhere. But is the mirror showing us a reflection of our true selves or our evil twin? From movies, to music, and finally to television, we explore our portrayal in the media both past and present.
Like everything else, the media has a good and bad side. It provides us with hours of entertainment of our favorite programing that range from reality shows to movies to popular music videos. At first glance, it seems innocent enough. However, as time goes on; our portrayal in the media has been called into question. What started out as subtle instances of us not being displayed in the best light at times has turned into blatant illustrations of our reputations being dragged through the mud. Then again, is this something new or have we just overlooked the understated changes in the image the media has been showing us over the years?
Movies: Ever since we were allowed to play a part in the media, we were type casted and roles were limited. One of the first images young girls of color identified with in the media was the “mammy” image, in which the characteristics consisted of being of a darker complexion, a larger frame, and only working in domestic situations. Hattie McDaniel brought this image to the big screen in her role as “Mammy” in the famous movie “Gone with the Wind” which earned her an Oscar in 1939. Unfortunately, we are still not too far removed from roles like these. In February of 2012, Octavia Spencer wins an Oscar for her role as “Minny”, a domestic servant during the civil rights era in the critically acclaimed movie “The Help.”
Music: The same similarities can be made with music. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, music groups such as 2 Live Crew type casted young ladies as nothing more than sexual objects through their explicit lyrics and even more explicit music videos which were primarily made up of black women. The same can be said for past artists such as Big Daddy Kane and Too Short. Today, music artists such as Lil Wayne, Big Sean, and Tyga are carrying on the tradition started decades earlier of degrading females through their craft and ultimately contributing to the stereotype that has been placed on us.
Television: With the birth of reality shows, girls on the outside looking in are trying to obtain “microwave fame”, the illusion of instant success reality shows appear to provide. Now many are looking toward The Real Housewives, Basketball Wives, and Love & Hip Hop franchises to turn everyday women like themselves into household names. But at what cost?
Sixteen year old Maiah Morris of Atlanta Georgia can identify with how the portrayal of African American women in the media spills over into the real world. “There are plenty of women that feel as though they deserve respect but can't always receive it because of how Black women are perceived and portrayed” she explains. “Some say all women are not dirty and don't "back it up" on every guy in the club.”
Not all of our images in the media are negative. “I think that there are both good and bad looks of African American Women. There are a lot of beautiful black women that serve as a foundation such as Oprah, Michelle Obama, Ms. Rice, and many more” says Morris. “They portray black women as Strong, Independent, Beautiful, Talented, Loving, Peaceful, Intelligent women.” However, success did not come for these ladies overnight.
Many of the issues surrounding our portrayal in the media touches on more of the long term effects caused by the images women see of themselves in the media, specifically body images that come off as unrealistic and not reflective of the diversity of many women. “When I look on the cover of most magazines, I see light skinned, long haired, thin Black women and that is not how we all look” says Maiah. “If people saw the truth & understood that everyone is beautiful and deserves respect... I think black women would have it much better off.”
So is the media a reflection of our true selves or is it our evil twin? At the end of the day, it is up to us to provide the public with an image they want to keep their eyes on for the right reasons and more importantly a reflection of us that we can be proud of.