The Misrepresentation of Black Women in the Media

Updated: Feb 8

Growing up as a young Black girl, I didn’t see many women like myself (of my skin tone especially) represented in a positive light and that deeply concerned me. Seeing Black women undermined in the media made me feel insecure of my skin and identity. Many Black girls grow up feeling ashamed of their looks and appearance. This self hate stems directly from misrepresentation of Black women in the media.

Do the following labels and roles ring a bell when thinking of how African American females are represented to society in media and television? The single mother (baby mama). Unhealthy, obese Black woman. The gold digger. Bitter Black woman. Black Barbie (surgically-enhanced butt, silky weave, and curve-hugging dresses). The hypersexual Black woman. These same stereotypes flood Black women’s lives on the daily. Growing up, in movies and television I saw women of color often depicted as struggling to make ends meet, failing to find love, raising kids on their own (no husband), being the “ghetto” side chick, etc.This not so subtle portrayal of Black women along with colorism in the media resonates with Black women and even children more than we realize.

Colorism is actually a big part of misrepresentation for Black women. In the famous television show Martin, characters Gina and Pam were best friends. Gina (light skin Black woman) was in a loving relationship with her boyfriend Martin, building a career for herself, and was the peacekeeper while Pam (dark skin Black woman) was often referred to as insulting, barbaric names in the name of “comedy”, she struggled to find love or keep a man, and was portrayed as loud and rowdy. Do you see what I mean? Actress Viola Davis talked about her experience with colorism in Hollywood in an interview with The Root. “... If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn't be in the realm of anything that men should desire," Davis explained. She then talked about how many dark skinned actresses are selected to play marginalized roles like crack addicts and prostitutes.

A 2012 study on media representation found that young Black girls developed low self-esteem after watching more television. Women and children of color are continuously faced with images of what society’s view on a real woman looks like (in other words, white or fair skin women with straight hair and slim bodies). When Black girls compare themselves to society’s European standard of beauty, they find themselves lacking. I grew up seeing the previously mentioned features trending on the internet but features that most Black women possess less preferred. I remember as a little girl having a conversation in the car with my mom asking her the question I will never forget, “Do you think I’d be prettier if I was light-skin”? And before she could answer I asked, “What about my nose, what if it was smaller”? Those same insecurities followed me into middle school. And God knows social media made it worse. Raging opinions about preferences and stereotypes toward Black women was at an all time high.

Eventually time passed and I gained some confidence in myself. I began to see myself through God’s eyes. A few years after that shift in my confidence, I began to see Black women evolving in the media. Dark skin started to be embraced, natural hair and coils were being accepted, and from there things only got better. I started to notice Black women make their way into career fields like law, medicine, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), the roles of Black women in the media noticeably changed, and Black women were starting to finally have a piece of the pie. I began to for once feel empowered. Then, to put the icing on the cake, this year we elected our first Black, South Asian, female Vice President. And quite honestly I never expected to grow up to witness history like that take place.

I say all that to say this, representation for Black women in the media is much bigger than a simple request, it’s a necessity. Although times are changing and representation for Black women is getting better there is still work to be done. We should strive for young Black girls to grow up and see themselves portrayed in the media positively. We can help change the representation problem by supporting and sharing books, movies, and shows that focus on Black women who have more to offer than the stereotypical portrayal. We should be more open to replacing the traditional white role and story with a Black female voice. And when Black women begin to take up more space, use the platforms they’ve been given, and create their own, society needs to be ready to listen and take notes.

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