Dear America

by Shantelle Gurley

Imagine you are a black woman. By default, you are cat-called because of your “curves.” You are expected to solve problems without complaint. You are expected to protect your community and you are known as the minority. Your voice is merely an echo in the background of a boisterous conversation. For as long as it has been available, mass media has manipulated the perceptions of groups of people in order to create a mutual relationship with viewers that provides humorous entertainment in exchange for business and money. However, in our modern age of technology, media is now capable of completely shifting the mindset of viewers due to easy access to constant information. Consequently, the line between entertainment and ethics is blurred. On average, there are 321,550 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, and sexual assault against African American women remains amongst the most underreported. For every African American woman who reports being sexually assaulted, at least fifteen do not report. This highlights the disconnect and lack of trust between black women and their communities. Media of different kinds, such as news channels, movies and music videos, use stereotypes to create a false portrayal of black women with the intent of creating an amusing form of entertainment for consumers. The humorous undertone of these media platforms perpetuates the normalization of rape culture within the black community. Often these various forms of media play with the stereotype of a black woman’s overly strong attitude, promiscuous sexuality, and protection of black men. The use of these stereotypes innately supports the silence of black women.

Cinemas and television channels use hegemonic representations of black women, specifically the ideology of “the strong black woman”. These familiar characters  are notorious for their sarcastic comments, no-nonsense demeanor, and witty backtalk. The lead African American woman is often in distress due to personal or family burdens, and is not only expected to overcome her  problems, but is usually portrayed to do so. However, to accomplish her goals, the woman must fight for her rights, work multiple jobs, and verbally suppress others’ opinions toward her. “Strong black women” are depicted as strong-willed, hardworking and wise. While juggling their own goals, they are  responsible for caring and nurturing the lives of those around them without complaints or hesitation. Most importantly, the woman is forbidden from mentioning any form of injustice like racism or sexism that she is clearly facing (Harris-Perry 2011). For example, season one of the Netflix series, Hawthorne, focuses on the life of a black single mother named Christina. Throughout the series, she is described as a woman who does not need to rely on a man. In episode four, Christina discovers her daughter is failing Spanish and to solve this issue, she brings her daughter to work, locks her into an office, and releases her daughter only under the condition that she completes her essay. The character of Christina in this comedy show sets a narrow definition of who black women actually are. Pressure to maintain composure and grace, even in the face of hardship, is supported in the media through this cliché.

  Some argue that this depiction should be interpreted  as a positive spin on the characteristics of real black women. However, I challenge you to see this portrayal  through the eyes of a black woman. Viewing this stereotypical character makes black women perceive themselves as less worthy because they cannot overcome the injustices they face as easily as “the strong black woman” in movies. This image of successful perseverance sets unrealistic expectations and “since the strong black women image is impossible to emulate, it encourages black women to believe persistent racial and gender inequality is deserved” (Harris-Perry 189). Occidental College professor Jean Wyatt centers her recent publication, “Black Sexual Politics and the Genealogy of the Strong Black Woman,” around this flaw in media. She mentions that television shows write scripts centered around black wives being “too strong” and their partners being “too weak” for comic relief. Wyatt conveys that the history of this stereotype was made to stress how black families were fundamentally different than white families in a shameful way because they did not follow what white families considered gender norms. Although the purpose behind this depiction has changed, media still chooses to use it as a marketing tool. The Oprah Winfrey Network, Black Entertainment Television, and even ABC Family, are all major perpetrators for showing movies that use stereotypes of black women for their own benefit. 

Tyler Perry’s Madea Series is televised often despite the fact that the main character and supporting actresses are the embodiment of the “strong black woman” stereotype. In Tyler Perry’s movie, “The Diary of an Angry Black Women,” the two main characters are both black women portrayed as “strong and black.” Madea, the eldest of the two, is viewed as the provider of all her family members who live in her house. Her loud comments and vivacious personality are celebrated in the movie, but her ability to ignore her brother’s condescending comments about her “fat black ass” and ability to seek vengeance on men who abused her niece is what viewers find comedy in. Additionally, Madea’s niece, Helen, is an example of the “strong black woman”. Helen suffers silently for over twenty years as her husband physically abuses her because she is afraid to disclose the truth to her family and friends due to embarrassment. Eventually, she is forced to move out of her own  house and into Madea’s home because her husband chooses to marry his mistress.. Just as Helen’s sadness and resentfulness are exposed, Madea reminds her to hide these emotions and seek vengeance on her ex-husband. This attitude attests to the notion that black women cannot show their vulnerability because they are expected to be strong in all situations. This mindset can become a learned behavior for other black women when they see this on television. Similarly to how Helen did not discuss her experience with physical abuse with anyone because of embarrassment, many black women do not report their sexual assault experiences for the same reason. The ingrained stereotype of “the strong black woman” that is so supported by the media indirectly causes underreporting of sexual assault among black women for fear that they are not fulfilling the role that is expected of them.

Music videos have also contributed to the objectification of black women since 1981, when MTV launched their first 24 hour video to the song of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. These videos subscribe to the silence of black women and force them into the isolation  of being unheard. Representations of women in current pop culture also adds to the dismissive attitude toward objectification . For example, hundreds of GIFS of Nicki Minaj, a famous rapper of color, twerking can be found under the microscope image in iPhone messages. Memes of both Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke exploded after the 2013 MTV VMA awards. It is clear that black women’s sexual freedom has been infringed on in America’s history because women were held as property during slavery. This theme is found in modern day music videos, specifically the genre of hip-hop and rap. Black women are more likely to be found in rap and hip-hop videos than any other race. Other black women gain a false sense of femininity through these videos. Men are frequently portrayed as aggressive or powerful characters (Sommers-Flannigan et al., 1993; Vincent, Davis, & Boruszkowski, 1987; Wallis, 2010), while women are presented as passive objects more often than as independent individuals (Alexander, 1999; Vincent, 1989). This depiction of black women not only reinforces the patriarchal hierarchy of men, but also reflects back to a time in American culture when black women were nothing more than property. 

Black women’s posteriors are slapped and grabbed, their bodies thrown around like rag dolls, and their sexuality manipulated. “[M]ass media and the mainstreaming of hip hop culture have teamed up… to expose young black women’s willing participation in sex escapades” (T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting- Pimps up Ho’s down book). The key to this quote is the word “willing”. Black women are viewed as willing participants because they are falsely depicted as promiscuous. Therefore, when a black woman  is sexually assaulted, she is reluctant to report her experiences to anyone including the media because of the chance that she will be viewed as promiscuous or that her voice will be dismissed because she “wanted it” as a “willing participant.” The culture of these videos emphasizes that black women are, “like wet wipes, … convenient and disposable” (Sharpley-Whiting 2008).  In fact, they are seen as objects so often that society’s media platforms are filled with invasive videos and grossly simplified,  “funny” memes of these women.

The #MeToo movement has given a voice to sexual assault survivors who were previously discouraged by media and by society at large to come forward. Although most young people believe that the founder of the #MeToo movement was Alyssa Milano, a black woman named Tarana Burke is the true founder. Although the movement began in 2007, it did not become generally recognized until over a decade later when Alyssa Milano, a white actress, posted a tweet using the hashtag “#MeToo” in 2017. This is despite the fact that studies have found, “blacks used twitter disproportionately more than other demographics groups” (Brock 2012). Even though the representation of African Americans on Twitter is greater than that of white people, the #MeToo movement is still dominated by white women.

  Following this, dozens of other white Hollywood actresses, including Lucy Hale, Anna Faris, and Jane Fonda, spoke out using the #MeToo movement as their motivation. News coverage was not focused on the stories of people like Tarana Burke, but rather the stories of white celebrities. Why? Because that is what viewers cared about. Moreover, , most of the reports made and delivered to viewers through news channels were centered on white women because black women wanted to avoid being published due to the way media portray their stories . Since the “majority of rapes are committed by someone the survivor knows and by someone of the same race (Joiner, 1997; Neville et al., 2004; Pollard-Terry, 2004; GRSW 682 11 RAINN, 2009; Sapp et al., 1999), black women are hesitant to report sexual assault out of fear that the media will portray their perpetrators, who according to statistics are also likely to be black, in a way that will reflect negatively on the entire race (Williams 2013). This distorted characterization of black men is ingrained in American culture as a result of slavery. Even long after the end of slavery, accusations of rape against white women continued to be used as a justification for  lynching black men. Just as black women gained the courage to speak out about their experiences with rape culture, their voices were silenced due to societal pressure.

 After the court hearing regarding Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault accusation against Brett Kavanaugh , President Trump responded with a crude comment. During a political rally, he stated that, “There’s an expression, but under the rules of the #MeToo movement, I can’t do it”. The audience laughed in response as the President shrugged his shoulders, not recognizing that his words impact the lives of sexual assault survivors everywhere. Years of this cultural phenomenon of complacency have caused black women to remain silent and protective over black men (Flood, 2005; Simmons, 2008). This concept has endured throughout  the twenty first century as media inaccurately depicts black community and their relationship to crimes and poverty. 

The mainstream media has reported that black families represent 59 percent of the lower income population, but in reality, black families only account for 27 percent  of the poor population. Additionally, black families are three times more likely to be depicted as welfare recipients in the media than white families. Most importantly, black people represent 37 percent  of criminals shown on the news, while in actuality, black people are only responsible for 26 percent of crime. White people are portrayed as responsible for merely 27 percent of crimes, when in reality they make up 77 percent of crime suspects (Tracy 2017). The majority of black women choose not to report sexual assault, especially when it involves a man of the same race due to their need to protect their communities against the false depiction of their race. The domination of the #MeToo movement by prominent, white  actresses does not help the situation and has left black women feeling as if they do not have a place in political discourse or a voice in the media. 

America has developed a heightened political climate where citizens are forced to decide whether to speak up about injustices that the peripheral population is facing, or to remain silent to sustain their life’s comforts. Although it is challenging to promise equality to all groups, to infringe on the basic human rights of a certain group is unacceptable. To deliver justice, another historical reform must be summoned and we must begin with how we portray one another in the media. As long as the media continues to support and manipulate the stereotypes of black women, they will always feel like strangers in their own country.   

 Works Cited

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Flood, D. R. (2005). “They didn’t treat me good”: African American rape victims and chicago \ courtroom strategies during the 1950s. Journal of Women’s History,  17(1), 38-61. doi: 10.1353/jowh.2005.0006

Herro, Steven. “Representations of African American Women on Reality Television After the Great Recession.” ScholarWorks @ Georgia State University, scholarworks.gsu.edu/communication_diss/55/.

Jan, Tracy. “News Media Offers Consistently Warped Portrayals of Black Families, Study Finds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Dec. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/13/news-media-offers-consistently-warped-portrayals-of-black-families-study-finds/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.89915fcc268d

Larasi, Ikamara. “Why Do Music Videos Portray Black Women as Exotic Sex Objects?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 2 Sept. 2013, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-womens-blog-with-jane-martinson/2013/sep/02/music-video-black-women-sex-objects.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Pimps up, Ho’s down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. New York University Press, 2008 

Simmons, A. (Producer/Director). (2008). No! The rape documentary [Motion Picture]. United States: AfroLez Productions. 

Sommers-Flanagan, R., Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Davis, B. (1993). What’s happening on music television? A gender role content analysis. Sex Roles, 28,745-753. 

Vincent, R. C., Davis, D. K., & Boruszkowski, L. A. (1987). Sexism on MTV: The portrayal of women in rock videos. Journalism Quarterly, 64, 750-755. 

Wallis, C. (2010). Performing gender: A content analysis of gender display in music video. Sex Roles, DOI 10.1007/s11199-010-9814-2. 

Williams, Kiana. “The Courage to Speak: Breaking the Silence of Sexual Assault in the  African American Community.” SOPHIA, May 2013, sophia.stkate.edu/msw_papers/275/.