Black women are more empowered today than any other time in U.S. history. From our African American first lady, Michelle Obama to business moguls such as Oprah Winfrey and intellectual scholars like Dambisa Moyo, black women are making a positive impact all across the United States. Unfortunately the popular cultural media hasn’t quite caught up with this progress. In pop culture media African American women are plagued by stereotypes and falsities originating primarily from slavery. For young African American women such as myself, the overwhelming majority of media portrayal, especially in music and film, is of a hyper-sexual being with questionable moral fiber. This negative image of young black women is damaging to our population by implying that in order to be successful in America, we must conform to the image that popular culture presents.
One of the most predominate pop culture media contributions from the black community is rap and hip hop music and their accompanying music videos. These genres of music are wildly popular and reach a wide range of audiences. For many people hip-hop and rap music are their primary exposure to the African American culture. Unfortunately, the message presented to the general public about African American women through this music is very concerning. Young, scantily clad, black women are generalized as money hungry opportunists who are untrustworthy and lack self-respect. It is common to hear these women referred to as “Bitches and Hos”. The documentary Hip-hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes produced by Byron Hurt is a film analysis of the reality vs. perception shown in hip-hop and the negative effects these images have on black culture. In the documentary a professor at Spellman College sums up the root of the problem as this, “One of the disappointing things about videos like “Tip Drill” and the whole genre of music videos is they have taken a view black women or women of color that’s not radically different than 19th century slave holders.” (Hip-hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes)What the professor means by this is that women in music videos are portrayed to be metaphorically bought, sold and traded between men. These are images of one or two men surrounded by women in revealing clothing (like strippers) flocking to the artists because they are throwing money around. The women in these images are shot with multiple men passing these women around, essentially going to the highest bidder.
Sarah Jones, a famous play writer and activist explains that in music videos, “the women conversely are so dime a dozen that they don’t matter and are just eye candy” which is the underlying conclusion which viewers draw from these scenes. At this point you maybe thinking to yourself, “isn’t the sexual objectification of the female form a problem for all women?” And the answer is YES! This is bad for all women however what sets women of color apart is that women of color lack enough portrayals in pop culture media to balance out the negative portrayals. Sut Jhally a professor at the University of Massachusetts explains,
“Hip-hop culture is not separate from the rest of American culture, I mean objectified female bodies and those images are everywhere as well as in advertisement, movies, and TV programs. The really negative thing is that in music videos that is the only way in which, African American women are presented and so the only way in which men are allowed to make a connection in the public culture is through sexuality and their own desires.”(Hip-hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes)
The consequences of this imbalanced portrayal of black in media are numerous. According to the 2010 US Census Bureau around 13% of US residents identify as being black or African American leaving 83% to other races. Many people in the United State have little to no formal contact with African Americans on a regular basis. Many people base what they know about black culture primarily off of the images fed to them by popular culture media. This negative portrayal of black women in Rap music may be accepted as fact by those who have no firsthand knowledge of the true nature of young, black women.
For the black community itself, these images have a profound effect on young women of color. It is easy for many to misguidedly assume that the role they have observed in popular media is their expected path. These young black women feel that in order to receive attention, notoriety and acceptance from their peers, it is necessary to conform. Black women striving for personal success have come to be seen as the exception rather than the rule. And, when the media does portray a young, successful intelligent, black woman, her skin is often several shades lighter than the average African American. This intensifies a longstanding division within the black community and further denigrates those young women whose skin is darker in tone.
In many cases the lighter skinned the person, the better portrayal they have in popular culture. This, combined with techniques such as photo editing to make stars like Beyoncé’s skin look lighter, has created a rift in black subculture. Darker skinned females often don’t feel that they are represented in popular culture media at all. They are left feeling ugly and unappreciated. The documentary Dark Girls shares the stories of many women and how they feel their skin color is portrayed in pop culture media today as well as it’s effect on the issues of colorism and internalized racism. “This backlash of racism within our own color is a direct result from slavery. You have your field n*gers and your house n*gers. Women with lighter skin were seen as more presentable and beautiful and therefore were allowed to be in the house.” This a speaker in the movie explains are the same standards under which popular culture media seems to operate today.
Personally, I am appalled by the thought that any person would draw a line between me and popular culture’s portrayal of a black woman. I am always cognizant, especially in the predominantly Caucasian community where I live, that I might be perceived as somehow less upstanding than my white peers. There are times when I wonder whether my personal and academic achievements will take me as far as they would another race of girl or if some ugly, media fueled perception will hold me back. Also, as a light skinned, mixed race female, I am saddened by the isolation I feel from my own culture.
Hip-hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes. Dir. Byron Hurt. PBS, 2006.
Dark Girls. Dir. Bill Duke. 2011.