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The Image of Black Women in Entertainment

March 24th, 2008 1:17pm EDT
Tyler Perry's Meet the BrownsWhere in the world are black women in today's entertainment? There is a significant dearth in quality images of African-American women in television and film. And no, Oprah's un-Godly success and stature doesn't diminish this truth.

It wasn't always like this. In 1968, Diahann Carroll starred in the ground breaking series "Julia." Heralded as being the first series to star a black woman in a non-stereotypical role, "Julia" produced 86 episodes and Carroll earned herself a golden globe.

In the 70s, Pam Grier played a character that went against the typical African American female archetype. In 1974, Grier starred as the title character in Foxy Brown, a sexy yet independent black woman who was capable of running down criminals and saving the day.

The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of the black upper-middle class in entertainment. In The Cosby Show, Claire Huxtable was the epitome of a strong, dignified, and highly intelligent black woman that rarely was seen on television before and has been noticeably absent since.

Though The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a fun, silly sitcom, the show had depictions of black females that were atypical of Hollywood entertainment. Whether it was Vivian Banks' strength and discipline in the first couple of seasons or Hillary Banks' ditzy, spoiled rich girl routine, America was witnessing a diverse spectrum of what the African American female is in this country.

Fresh Prince of Bel Air

Fresh Prince of Bel Air - © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc


But something has happened in Hollywood. A regression has occurred. Black women have been marginalized or altogether phased out in popular culture.

So why has this occurred? The obvious thought is that a white majority makes up most of not just Hollywood, but America, and therefore more roles are likely being written by whites with white actors in mind. But that doesn't explain everything. After all, Will Smith and Denzel Washington are arguably the two biggest actors in Hollywood. They are African-American males who were able to break through and cross over into the mainstream. However, examine their recent films. In 2001's Training Day, Washington's corrupt cop Alonzo Harris had a girlfriend who was played by Latina actress Eva Mendes. In the 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, Will Smith's love interest was also not a black female. It wasn't Sanaa Lathan, Gabrielle Union, or Nia Long. It was-guess who--Eva Mendes.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this at all. But casting like this demonstrates that black actresses are even having trouble getting cast as the romantic lead opposite a black male co-star.

Maybe the problem is the image of the black woman herself in mainstream culture. Though our society has become overly-sexualized in general, it seems that the depictions of black women are such that they are incapable of being seen as a girlfriend, wife, FBI agent or hero, but instead as overtly sexual eye-candy.

Though you may be hard pressed to name 10 significant black female characters in the scripted television landscape, one would certainly have no problem rattling off names that reside in unscripted fare. Black women are plentiful in music videos as they wear next to nothing and titillate male viewers during a four minute musical peep show. Black women are, too, very much in demand in reality television. Look no further than VH-1, which is home to shows such as The Flavor of Love, I Love New York, and Charm School. All of them showcase black women in raunchy, profane, and explicit abundance. The problem, it would seem, is that Hollywood is simply choosing to sell certain images of black women to audiences around the globe.

 The Flavor of Love

The Flavor of Love - © MTV Networks


One could certainly argue that this isn't a fair argument. Some may say that women of VH-1's Rock of Love with Bret Michaels are just as trashy and embarrassing. That is a fair but flawed argument. If there was more of a balance of black female expression in entertainment, it wouldn't be an issue. If there were more black female lawyers on Boston Legal, more black female nurses and doctors in the ER, or more black female detectives solving cases on Law and Order, then the loud New Yorks and Omarosas of the world wouldn't be such a big deal. The scale wouldn't be tipped so heavily to one side. There would be balance. Yet with the recent CW decision to not only cancel the show Girlfriends but to send this eight-year-old staple off into the night without a proper series finale, the scale further tips out of favor.

Due to all of this, is there any wonder why Tyler Perry is so successful? Though some will argue that his films are mediocre at best, it is undeniable that Perry has tapped into a market that has long since been abandoned by Hollywood-the appreciation of black women. Perry's audience is overwhelmingly African American females who love the fact that Perry makes movies that they can not only relate to, but that star other African American actresses that otherwise aren't getting much work in Hollywood.

This past weekend, Tyler Perry's film Meet the Browns unsurprisingly opened with $20 million at the box office, like all his previous films. Perry has created a brand that Hollywood refuses to tap into. Once again, it appears as if Hollywood is demonstrating a stubbornness to accept the fact that black women can be more than just over sexualized creatures that are available to satisfy the urges and desires of men.



Some may argue that this is irrelevant. Television and film are entertainment, after all, so who cares how anyone is portrayed as along as one is enjoying what they are watching? The problem is that entertainment can breed stereotypes. There is no denying that. There are some people who are grow up in segregated areas of the country, or world, where they are not exposed to people who look different from them. People get their information and opinions from television, whether it's the news, a comedy show, or a reality program. If what's being pounded into people's consciousness is that black women are loud, raunchy, sexually-explicit, ghettoized objects of affection, then opinions will be formed around those images that one sees on television.

The truth is that depictions of people do matter. In The Cosby Show, the show was historic in nature because it showed America that blacks can be successful. And cultured. And intelligent. And family oriented. Past sitcoms often dealt with the "struggling black family." The black family in programs like Good Times were depicted as ones that were doing their best just to get by. In shows such as Diff'rent Strokes and Webster, black children were being adopted by white families.

While interracial familial life can certainly be celebrated, the subtle implication of these programs was that black families were so broken, so poor, and so unfit to care for their offspring, that upper-middle class white families had to save these black children from their inevitable downward spiral. If one thinks that The Cosby Show wasn't monumentally important in the way African Americans were viewed in society, you are fooling yourself.

As it stands, black women appear much in need of a similar breakthrough type of show or film. A piece of entertainment that is much more than entertainment. A vehicle that carries the image of the black woman out of the small prism of just music videos and trashy reality television and into a realm that's broader with nuance and complexity. Only then can change occur. Only then can respect and appreciation for African American females in entertainment evolve.

Story by Michael Langston Moore
Starpulse contributing writer