African-American Women in Popular Culture

In choosing an identity, I did not think just researching woman, or African-Americans seem to draw a complete picture of who I am. Also, the two identities, female and African-American, are seen in a different light when standing alone compared to African-American woman as a group. I decided to narrow my research to looking at just movies and T.V. shows, rather than including the news, music videos and other forms of popular culture. I chose to look at the roles actresses Drew Sidora, who plays Shaunice and Faune A. Chambers who plays Gina, in the movie White Chicks. As well as the actress Kerry Washington for her portrayal of Olivia Pope in the T.V. series Scandal, and, Viola Davis who plays Annalise Keating in the T.V. series How to Get Away with Murder. I ultimately chose to look at how the portrayal of African-American women has been evolving and changing. The portrayal of an African-American woman in popular culture has evolved from what it once used to be. Though, due to a the lack of opportunity for African-American actresses to take on more complex characters, they are typically left with secondary roles. These roles are one-dimensional and very stereotypical based, which allows the viewers to generalize African-American woman to only these negative stereotypes being portrayed, such as being loud, angry and problematic.


The first artifact I evaluated was the movie White Chicks. This movie is a comedy about two brothers, Marcus and Kevin, who are FBI agents who pose as two upper-class sisters in order to catch a kidnapper. They go from being two African-American men, to two blonde white women. The movie was released back in 2004 so it is about twelve years old but many people are familiar with the movie and quote it to this day. In the movie, Marcus’ wife, Gina and her friend Shaunice, are led to believe they are going to catch Marcus cheating with another woman when in reality it was actually his brother Kevin still dressed as a woman. Gina becomes really angry and hurt and she and Shaunice leave Marcus and the “other woman” in a hotel room after finding her in the room with Marcus. Later in the film you see Gina and Shaunice planning to fight the “woman” Marcus was cheating on her with. Also in the movie you see her being the stereotypical black woman, who is mad and problematic when she is yelling at Marcus to pay more attention to her. You see her giving him attitude and using a lot of hand gestures which can be seen as “acting ghetto” or not acting with class.


This almost suggests that if you are with an African-American woman, that she is going to have an attitude often or she is going to ask for a lot of attention. People might also assume that they fight often, or they are angry all the time when in reality, the feeling of anger is not only subjected to one racial or gender group, everyone gets mad or angry at times. Some African-American woman resort to physically fighting when angry, just like any other racial group can, and to try to say that African-American woman do more so is not only false but it is generalizing an entire group of people.
According to undergraduate students, the characteristics assigned to African-Americans in popular culture holds truth to it (Punyanunt-Carter, 2008). Meaning most of the ways in which African-Americans are illustrated on T.V. and movies, many believe to be true. Which in turn means many will take what they see in our media at face value and deem it as true. I feel this shows how powerful popular culture is.  These are the secondary roles that many women of color are left to play because of the lack of diversity in roles.

Although, as the years go on the image surrounding African-American woman has taken a turn for the better, roles available to the actresses are still very limited. The next two artifacts I researched are shows that illustrated the capabilities of a woman of color. They show that if the roles were there, they could, without a doubt, be up to the task and perform well in them. I chose the pilot episodes for both the following shows because it is the first impression you get from the characters, which is very important to the storyline that follows them.

     Season 1, Episode 1:

The first is Kerry Washington’s portrayal of Washington D.C.’s fixer Olivia Pope. In the pilot episode of  Scandal, you see the newcomer, Quinn Perkins get a job at Pope and Associates, a crisis management firm. In the beginning of the episode, you watch in awe how powerful, demanding, and strong Olivia is and how she does not take no for an answer. As well as throughout the episode you see why so many in the show think of her as a legend in a sense. Then you start to the see complexity of her character come out when her ex-boyfriend, Fitzgerald Grant or the President of the United States in the show, has a crisis of his own that needs fixing. You later see how vulnerable she becomes when around him and the effect they have on each other (Shonda, 2012).


Season 1, Episode 1:

Then there is Viola Davis who plays Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. The episode starts off with a flash-forward of the season to come. Then comes back to the now and you meet five students about to attend their first class in Professor Keating’s classroom. She is shown as strong, independent, brilliant, and someone who you do not want to get on their bad side. Nowhere in the first episode do stereotypes come out in Keating’s character. I feel the writers did a good job showing how demanding and strong she is. Though, like Pope, as the episode goes on you start to see the different characteristics of Annalise. You find out she has a love interest who is not her husband. Since I watch the show, I know that just like Pope, Keating is a very complex character who you find yourself rooting for and sometimes not (Nowalk, 2014).

These are the kind of roles many African-American actresses are after, roles with depth and complexity, not a one-dimensional character. Olivia Pope shows how African-American woman can achieve something, be strong-willed, be classy and be anything other than the negative stereotypes placed on them. Both of these characters do a great job defying these stereotypes and creating a new image for women of color, an image that says that everyone is different and women of color are all different. You get to see the set up of both Pope and Keating, then see the hard shell around them crack slowly and get a glimpse into the depth of each character. As Davis said it is because of director and writers like, Shonda Rhimes, that create opportunities for a woman of color to play these dynamic roles (ABCEntertainment 2015). It is because of the secondary roles that are given to a woman of color that they are so easily seen as being angry or “ghetto”, those roles being illustrated in white chicks.  “White women are depicted that way on television, too. The difference is that they’re also given balance. … She’s also a mom and she’s sweet. She’s also sexy, she’s also sophisticated. So, what America gets to see is a balanced woman, and that is the real human experience” (Thompson, 2013). Which is something that Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder do so well, they are starting to also be given that balance to African-American woman roles.


Overall, I found that there is a lack of opportunity for an African-American woman to play roles with dimension. More chances for a woman of color to show that there is more to this community than what is being displayed in movies and T.V. shows. Though we have T.V. shows such as Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, the opportunity for these roles is not there. It is important because so much generalization is happening and if you are not exposed to African-American woman, or all the exposure you get is from the media, or of any group of people for that matter, it becomes easy to take what you see in popular culture at face value

Learning Moments:

One learning moment that I feel has now helped me, and I believe will continue to help me throughout my college career, was learning the difference between primary and secondary sources. I honestly did not know there was a difference so I am really glad I learned that early in my college years.

Another was in week 4, the viewing of “Ways of Seeing” and the comparison of oil paintings and publicity. I found it really interesting that he pointed out that the purpose of these types of advertisements is related to the principle that you are what you have. The idea that publicity is appealing to a way of life that we want or think we want, is something I find to be true. I know first hand that feeling of, “If I could just have this one thing, my life would change drastically.” The ideas behind publicity that he talked about really opened my eyes to the world we live in as well as the value I have put and currently put on materialistic things.

Works Cited

ABCEntertainment. 2015. “Viola Davis wins Emmy Awards 2015.”. Retrieved November 7, 2016 (

Cheung, Ariel. 2015. “Black women’s progress collides with media stereotypes.” February 11.

Nowalk, P. (Writer), & Offer, M. (Director). (2014 September 25). Pilot [Television series episode]. How to Get Away with Murder. ABC. USA.

Punyanunt-Carter, N. M. (2008). The perceived realism of African American portrayals on television. Howard Journal of Communications, 19(3), 241–257. doi 10.1080/10646170802218263

Rhimes, S. (Writer), &  McGuigan, P. (Director). (2012, April 5). Sweet Baby [Television series episode]. Scandal. ABC. USA.

Thompson, A. (2013, December 17). Where are the black women in Hollywood? . Retrieved from black-women-in-film-tv/3443751/

Wayans, K. (Director). (2004). White chicks [film]. USA.

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About MiaClark

My name is Mia Clark and I am a sophomore at Portland State. I am majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology and public health education. I also really like animals, particularly elephants and dogs.

4 thoughts on “African-American Women in Popular Culture

  1. Hi Mia !
    I agree that looking at either women or african american, and african american women are entirely different spheres. I like how you looked at how you explained and showed examples on how african american women can be negatively portrayed and yet positively portrayed as well. I always find that if teens and childrens see such examples in the media it makes them what to copy and act just like it. Since the media can affect people’s opinions and actions. African American women are like any other human. They can either act obnoxious or very polite. They do not succumb to only one characteristic. Great work Mia! I enjoyed reading your piece.

  2. Hi Mia!
    I really enjoyed reading your post. You brought a lot of interesting topics to the table. I never really thought about that scene you mentioned in white chicks. But after reading your paper I really thought about it and realized what you meant! I completely agree on how there should be more African American women roles with dimension. You really opened my eyes and made me realize a lot from your paper. Great work!

  3. Hey Mia!

    I really liked how you pointed out the flaws about how the media portrays African American women, because that’s just one dimension people see, which is not often true. There are many dimensions of African American actresses but people barely see it. Like for example, Angela Bassett is one of my favorite actresses on American Horror Story, she’s super sophisticated, and plays awesome roles on that show.

    I really also loved how you pointed out Viola Davis! She’s an amazing actress, and she plays an awesome leader in Suicide Squad as Amanda Waller.

    I hope people realize that one day that not all African American women are viewed as loud, angry and problematic, because they’re not all like that. Also, I hope they start portraying African American woman on media as not a stereotype but rather who they truly are as themselves to show others to not view them as a stereotype and change their perspectives on things.

  4. Hey Mia!

    I really enjoyed reading your post, your overall topic is pretty similar to mine I looked at how black women are represented in reality TV shows. It really nice to see that there are more positive representations of African American being put out like Pope and Keating. With movies like White Chicks and all these popular reality TV shows representing black women in a negative stereotypical light we as a society definitely need more positive representations of black women.


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