Looking in the Pop Culture Mirror: Black Women in Entertainment

Modern Black feminist thought often times asserts the idea that though the widespread recognition of Black women in the workforce, popular culture, movies, TV, and music is certainly a testament to societal progress, much of it complies with a white patriarchal power system where institutionalized oppression and societal assumptions stigmatize Black women for stereotypes that were imposed upon them, while simultaneously requiring that Black women hold true to those stereotypes in order to be deemed entertaining enough for the mainstream. Black women in all forms of media are chastised for their unapologetically loud voices, sexual identities, and their socioeconomic standings. They are laughed at, mocked, stared at in awe and confusion, and are usually completely without control of how they are presented to the rest of society.

The idea that Black women are inherently aggressive both violently and sexually seems to be incredibly pervasive in much of mainstream media that is consumed by people of all genders, classes, and races. The assumptions made about Black women throughout society about their reliance on welfare, hypersexuality, and inability to get along with people are what have formed and helped bolster the “celebrity” status of the few Black women in positions of cultural relevance today.

These ideas can be found specifically in TV media, specifically “reality” TV. Shows like Bad Girls Club, Basketball Wives, etc. have been popularized for featuring fights between Black women, scenes that showcase their sexual indiscretions, infidelity, violent behavior toward others, loud voices, and rude demeanor – all of which are stereotypes about Black women that are perpetuated constantly.

Bad Girls Club, a cable TV show, is wildly popular in many social groups, and uses fight scenes to draw viewers in and consequently make more money. This fact, that the Oxygen Network’s goal is to make money, informs how the show is constructed in a way that is meant to draw people in. Surely, like in a lot of TV and movies, the antagonist is just as scary as it is entertaining. Because the makers of the show are interested in getting more people to watch, it makes sense for them to rely on socially accepted and exploited notions of what Black women are like. This reliance on Black women for the sake of entertainment goes back hundreds of years to when Black women were put on display for their “freakish” bodies, and it doesn’t take much to see that the audience, probably not cognizant of this history, will therefore be entertained. Even the way the show is filmed is entertaining: dramatic music, quick scene cuts and highly intense drama that victimizes white cast members and demonizes their Black counterparts.

Another type of media, which is uniquely 21st century, is YouTube. Specifically, videos from the Internet craze around parody videos has lead to a glaringly obvious show of how strong stereotypical views can be, and how viewers react to these stereotypes by seeing them as comedy. In a music video from 2012 two men created a song called “Ratchet Girl Anthem” with lyrics and a video that used highly exaggerated stereotypes about Black women to create a “funny, catchy” song:

Girl, let me tell you what I got my mister mister (girl what)
A baby boy and it came with a sister (uh uh)
Girl, yes, I’m pregnant, but I still hit the club I’m in the middle of the floor, no shoes, WHAAT’S UUUPPP!!!
I had to get cute today, apple bottom jeans, fur boots today
I had to keep it looking ’cause my baby daddy just made bail
He a thug, you know he’ll shoot today
New baby need new shoes today, child support check get today
Got the tracks yesterday, girl did you get the glue today (you know it)
Gone beef it up, mooove tramp
It’s the 15, I got food stamps
Got a brand new piercing, brand new tatt, I paid 95 dollars for this weave plus tax, BOW

This parody relies solely on the exploitation on typical stereotypes of the Black woman as a welfare queen, baby mama, gold digger and violent aggressor. It was literally made to make people laugh, and is a glaringly sexist caricature of Black women as these men—and arguably the rest of our culture—see them. The techniques used to launch this parody in the mainstream include extremely exaggerated costumes, body movements and mannerisms, slang, and of course a catchy hip hop beat. It goes without saying that this video was meant to cast “ratchet” girls in a negative light, as the newly popular “ratchet girl” character is only popular when being ridiculed and laughed at.

Though people who enjoy this video possibly find it amusing because they already have deeply ingrained hatred toward Black women whether implicit or explicit, the video only strengthens those opinions. Audiences approaching the video from a complete outsiders’ perspective might come to believe that this is how all Black women are, which wouldn’t be a stretch considering a lot of other mainstream media that isn’t marketed as comedy or parody uses these same tropes and stereotypes in more inconspicuous ways. There is little to no representation of Black men in the video (besides the men playing women), which also supports the idea that Black women are against other women and doesn’t acknowledge the possible tension between genders in these situations.

Stereotypes about Black women can be traced back to several sources that combined together into forming very strong “characters” that people think of when they think “Black woman.” Black women during slavery were raped endlessly and used as sex objects that white slave owners saw as less pure than their white wives, and assumed to be primal in their sexuality because of their “jungle roots.” Additionally, capitalist economic systems that do nothing to mend generational inequalities surrounding social mobility and economic conditions stick negative stereotypes on Black women who sometimes rely on government assistance for food stamps or other benefits. If traced back, these ideas all have a concrete source that prove their falseness, however as stereotypes do, after so much perpetuation of beliefs, the ideas are more prominent than the proof at this point.

The ways in which black women are portrayed in our media outlets, whether music, movies, TV, or the Internet, are not simply coincidental. They follow in the footsteps of strong stereotypes about black people, women, and the combination of the two. This is important to consider in looking at why we find certain things entertaining, and how these portrayals directly socialize our young people to believe certain things about themselves and others around them.