The Portrayal of Black Women on TV by Black Producers

 

Introduction

Historically black women have been stereotyped by white media as the angry black woman, welfare baby momma, unhealthy fat black woman, Jezebel, crack addict, and prostitute. For my blog post I chose to analyze 3 different prime time TV shows; Scandal, How to get away with murder, and Being Mary Jane to determine if shows created by African American women still held negative stereotypes. For a long time, African American women have had to take a backseat to star roles because shows were not written, produced, or directed by African Americans (Strong). And even worse, the roles they do take are typically very demeaning and embarrassing for me, as an African American female, to watch. Shonda Rhimes is an award-winning writer and producer who is the first African-American woman to create and executive produce a Top 10 network series; Greys Anatomy. She is also the producer of Scandal. Mara Brock Akil is also an African American TV writer and the producer of Being Mary Jane. So, did these producers get it right? Does their characterization of black women truly represent today’s black woman? Are they characters that the black female audience can feel proud of? The black characters depicted in all three shows can be described as strong, assertive, professional black women who are more than qualified to compete with their white counterparts. The shows leave the black female audience feeling empowered and connected to the characters as a true reflection of the struggles of African American women as they rise to power in corporate America. Unfortunately, since many white American’s continue to correlate the definition of Strong Black Woman to be synonymous with Angry Black Woman or believe that to be powerful a woman has to sleep her way to the top, both producers find themselves under scrutiny as a perpetuator of the continued negative stereotyping of black women in media.

Scandal

Shonda Rhimes                                                 Kerry Washington 

First airing on ABC television network April 5, 2012 , this political thriller series is partially based on press aid to the Bush administration Judy Smith. Smith’s character named Olivia Pope is played by black female actress Kerry Washington. Olivia is a professional “fixer” for the moneyed, powerful, and even president of the US. The targeted audience is women of all ages, liberals, and more specifically, African American women. The purpose of scandal is to show the many political and social issues faced daily by political figures as well as those in power.

Olivia Pope is a very powerful figure on Capitol Hill. She is very confident in her abilities as a fixer and is known for her work ethic. Olivia has formed a team of gladiators who are all broken from past experiences. Each gladiator has a personal relationship with Olivia that ties them to her. Her gladiators are loyal to her to a fault and would risk death to protect her.

Olivia has had several unsuccessful relationships with some very powerful and influential men. She does not discriminate on race and dates white as well as black men. The men in her life fight for her attention and this includes her own father who is also very powerful and known as command.

I find it interesting that Olivia’s team consist of persons that she has rescued from some horrible event in their lives. It’s as if she seeks out others who are just as broken as she is so that she can feel needed, important, or connected in some way. By rescuing them, there is a debt that can never be repaid and so their loyalty to her is unto death. Regardless of the dynamics of the relationship, she truly cares for each member of her team. She is a single black female with no children and yet she mothers each member of her team. It is almost as if she is their savior and they literally worship her. The men in her life worship her also as if she is some Goddess. Not only those that she has been in a relationship with but even those who are just members of the inner circle have shown that they are willing to sacrifice the life of others to save her.

Olivia Pope’s character always leaves me feeling very proud and empowered as a black woman. Even her wardrobe has become a fashion statement that sets the standard for many conversations with my peers. I believe that the creator believes that black women are powerful both professionally and sexually and have the sexual prowess to seduce the most powerful men in the world. Olivia is not afraid to get in the ring with the best and is highly respected among her peers. I think that creator Shonda Rhimes wanted to portray black women as powerful for the purpose of dispelling other media depictions of black women as prostitutes, uneducated, crack addicted, baby mommas. However, in showing the black woman as powerful, she has been communicated as being angry with corporate America, out for vengeance, and ruthless which might cause white audiences to continue to fear or be intimidated by the drive of the black woman or corporate America to be hesitant when considering allowing the black professional to have a place in the corporate boardroom. By depicting the character of Olivia Pope as a sexual goddess, Rhimes continues the negative Jezebel stereotype that black female characters have historically been depicted as. These negative portrayals of Olivia Pope are nothing but reincarnations of old stereotypes and although it may be viewed as just entertainment, media can powerfully influence the identity of young black women (Strong).

How to Get Away with Murder

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Viola Davis 

This is a Drama TV series first airing on ABC 09/24/14 Starring Viola Davis as Annalise Keating, a prestigious law professor. This series appeals to young and middle aged adults and primarily women. The purpose of this series is to show how the legal system can be manipulated by those with knowledge and power.

This suspense TV series is produced by Shonda Rhimes who also created Scandal. The main character, Annalise is an African American law professor who has hand selected a team of law students who will intern with her. Each student has something in their background that they keep secret but Annalise is aware of. Annalise is widowed and has no children. She lost her son during her eighth month of pregnancy. The circumstances surrounding the death of Annalise’s husband has put her in a position where she has had to protect her intern’s from prosecution for murder. This changes the relationship from that of professor to that of protector and at times mother figure. As the series evolves, the students become the protectors.

Annalise is a very well- known and powerful attorney who has made a few enemies throughout her career. She is very outspoken and feared by her students, co-workers, and even members of the DA’s office. Annalise has two employees who have troubled histories that she has rescued them from and they now are loyal to her even unto death. Annalise’s father left home when she was a teen leaving her feeling abandoned. Annalise was sexually assaulted as a child and as a result has had unsuccessful relationships with both men and women and 1 failed marriage. Annalise is also a functioning alcoholic.

Annalise is portrayed as two characters. A very beautiful, caring, and well put together professional as well as very mean, ugly (inward and outwardly), and falling apart.

I find it very interesting how the character of Annalise Keating has a dual personality that is shown on the screen. At times she is shown in designer clothes, a well put together attorney and professor who cares about the education and lives of her interns. She goes above and beyond to protect them but within a matter of minutes she can switch to a very ugly person who says mean and ugly things to those who are loyal to her and those she loves. This is the angry black woman character that most are familiar with and even expect. She goes from designer clothes and beautiful make up to a bath robe, no make-up and even removes her wig to reveal a very ugly and/or vulnerable individual. This vulnerability takes her from her goddess status to an ordinary individual with the same concerns, fears, and demons as those that she is working so hard to protect. I must say that when the characters ugly side is shown, I feel a tinge of humiliation. There are certain aspects of being a black woman that are not shared with the public for instance, the wig only comes off behind closed doors. It almost feels like our secrets are being exposed during Annalise’s vulnerability.

I believe that once again producer Shonda Rhimes depicts the black woman as being in charge of her own destiny. Much like scandal, Shonda reflects that when the layers are peeled back, underneath you will find a woman who is broken and afraid. It’s as if she believes that black women wear two faces. One that the world sees which is strong, fearless, and has it all together and then the one that only her closes confidants see where she is vulnerable and at times very weak. I can relate to this portrayal as an African American woman because I have always been taught to be strong and to not show any weakness. But there are times when you just want to be free and vulnerable and let others be in charge for once. But when black women are portrayed in this manner it usually comes across in media as lazy and complacent. When the main character Annalise has her moments of weakness and vulnerability, she proves that black women can’t take the pressures associated with success and will always turn to liquor or drugs. White audiences might draw the conclusion that we are not capable of handling success and will always revert back to what is familiar whereas black audiences might draw the conclusion that you can never afford to be vulnerable. Although the character of Annalise is depicted as a competent professional, according to Kretsedemas, the role of black professional or boss isolates the character within a mostly white cast thus producing social distance between whites and blacks. This portrayal of the isolated black professional is the perfect backdrop for the stereotype of angry black woman. “Some of the most well-known depictions of angry black women are connected, in some way, to the professional work world” (Kretsedemas). Therefore, according to Kretsedemas, the depiction of the upwardly mobile black professional is associated with aggressive and flamboyant behaviors.

Being Mary Jane

Mara Brock Akil                                                                               Gabrielle Union 

Airing on BET, this drama TV series first aired as a 90 minute pilot series on 07/2/13. Produced by Mara Brok Akil, the series stars African American actress Gabrielle Union and is intended for a young African American female audience. The series follows the personal and professional life of a young, ambitious, and successful TV news anchor Mary Jane Paul with a purpose of showing the struggle women of color endure as they attempt to climb the white American corporate ladder.

Mary Jane is young, beautiful, ambitious, hard-working, educated, intelligent, and family oriented and yet she is single, over 30, unable to sustain a serious relationship, and childless. Mary Jane desires a serious relationship, she desires a child, and she desires to be lead anchor at work. Although she comes from a two parent middle class home she has still endured the many stereotypical hardships known to inner city African American families. A brother who is a drug addict and a niece who was a single parent before the age of 18. Mary Janes success comes at a price as her family members see her as their cash flow and other members of the black community see her success as a sell-out.

Mary Jane’s closest friend, confidant, and producer is a Latina female character Kara. The only African American men on the show are the men that Mary Jane meet in the night clubs and have brief relationships with or other professional men who are direct adversaries. Mary Jane and Kara are always vying, most times unsuccessfully, to produce and be the face of the TV station against their white co-workers.

Once again, we have an African American producer depicting black women as competent professionals trying to compete in corporate America and grab ahold to the American dream that has escaped most of the African American community.

I find it very interesting how the show interprets the manner in which African American relationships are forged. Mary Jane has to resort to club hopping in order to meet a potential partner and each time he is either intimidated by her success, unsuccessful in his own professional life, or only looking for a one night stand. The only time she does find someone who is as successful professionally as she, he is either married or white which doesn’t seem to matter to Mary Jane either way. Mary Jane is portrayed as so desperate for love, marriage, and baby that she is willing to go to any length including stealing an ex-boyfriends sperm. Many African American professional females can relate to Mary Janes plight because they too find themselves living in a world where there is a shortage of professional black men, the good ones are already married, and the blue color workers are intimidated by the strength of the professional black woman not understanding that she had to build this strength to get where she is. I believe that the young African American audience will relate to Mary Jane but the show is still full of the stereotypes of old like Jezebel, angry black woman, and ghetto. In one scene Mary Jane loses her cool and behind closed doors let’s a ratchet Latina girl know that although she is a professional, she can get ratchet also. This scene could be interpreted that all black women are ghetto deep down inside, no matter how well dressed, or how far up the corporate ladder.

I the family dynamics created by the show to be very interesting. To give this young professional a drug addicted brother and incorporate teen pregnancy both with Mary Jane and her niece is top loading the show with all types of situations allowing the audience to be able to better connect to the show. Since the shows audience is young African American women, there aren’t many of us who have not been directly affected by the drug addicted family member, abortion, or teen pregnancy within our family. And there is always that one family member who has made it out and now is obligated to give everyone in the family the “hook-up”.

Although many might see the new depiction of black women in television as successful professionals unrealistic, according to Jewell Jackson McCabe, president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, this is not the case but the issue is that many can’t see beyond the image of the black woman as maid (Strong).

 

 

Conclusion

Although there is a big difference in the way that African American producers depict black women on TV, many of the old stereotypes have a way of creeping in. These stereotypes can have real life consequences not only affecting how black women are treated but also affecting the negative expectations of how black women should act.

Although it has been a long road and they don’t always get it absolutely right, black female producers Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akl has put forth a valiant effort to change the image of the black woman on television giving black women both young and old hope that they can be more than the stereotypes our mothers have had to suffer through and fight to overcome.

 

 

Learning Moments

A very significant learning moment for me in this course was during week 5: reflections on Hollywood films. The class was assigned to read a study done at USC called Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, and LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014. When looking at the stats I found it very odd that it did not surprise me that only 5.3% of actors in the top 100 films of 2014 were African American, and of that only 4.7% of directors were black. These finding are what lead me to my thesis for my Big Picture blog post. In my blog post for week 5 I correlated USC research finding with on going controversy with the Grammy award show. I pointed out the debate people have been having in regards to the lack of diverse in this award show, even though there have been many renowned films with black actors and directors to go through Hollywood.

In other courses throughout my years at PSU I have learned many interesting things, intro to sociology was the one course that opened my eyes, especially in popular culture. It has been very gratifying to take sociology and learn the sociological aspects of popular culture and then to then come in an actually popular culture class and be able to go more in depth with my learning of this subject. In sociology we studied the term “The Glass Ceiling” which is a barrier that prevents women and minorities for obtaining higher-level achievements. We discussed why these hierarchies were in place and ways to break through the glass, the first start to a breakthrough is by discussion and education.

Resources

“Strong black women on TV still portrayed by racial stereotypes – The Collegian.” UWIRE Text, 13 Dec. 2013, p. 1. Educators Reference Complete. Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Kretsedemas, Philip. “‘But she’s not black!’ viewer interpretations of ‘angry black women’ on prime time TV.” Journal of African American Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, 2010, p. 149+. General OneFile, Accessed 26 Feb. 2017.

Smith, Stacy L., Dr. “Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014.” N.p., n.d. Web. <http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Inequality%20in%20700%20Popular%20Films%2081415.ashx&gt;.

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One thought on “The Portrayal of Black Women on TV by Black Producers

  1. Hello:
    You have a very interesting topic, and your title and your beginning attract me stay with my attention to your paper. It is hard to how black woman was presenting their characters in society, and we have to look at how different think of these black woman. You made a good point of how white media were describing these back woman in their ways, and you are making comments on that. I think it was a more effective way to express your feelings on the top of that since you can put you agreement or disagreement on it.

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