The portrayals of black women have changed considerably over the past few decades. As professors Jennifer Bailey Woodard and Teresa Mastin (2005) state, portrayals of black women were only relegated to “the mammy [think Hattie McDaniel], the matriarch, the sexual siren and the welfare mother or queen” (p. 266). However, now media portrayals are starting to take into account the new roles that black woman are taking on in society such as the career woman, a portrayal that I identify with personally. Nevertheless, upon examining the portrayals of black career women in the media, I discovered that while the functions of these women vary (ranging from lawyers, police officers, doctors and more), there are two commonalities that are consistently displayed among them – they exhibit some form of the “black boss lady” stereotype and they are portrayed with straight hair.
- Rules “with an iron first” (authoritative)
- Probably oversees men
- Incredibly competent as she’s had to prove her worth as “black” and “woman.”
- Generally characterized as “by the book” at first glance, but with time is revealed to be quite complex.
- Race is never mentioned (only her status as a woman is acknowledged).
- Professional dresser (almost masculine)
- Never exhibits the “Sassy Black Woman” trope
I decided to analyze three characters from three different popular shows featuring black woman as the lead: Olivia Pope on Scandal (portrayed by Kerry Washington), Jessica Pearson on Suits (portrayed by Gina Torres) and Abigail “Abbie” Mills on Sleepy Hollow (portrayed by Nicole Beharie).
Olivia Pope is a lawyer who runs her own business as a type of “fixer” and fits the “black boss lady” stereotype to a T. She is authoritative, outspoken and is a fantastic dresser (professional yet stylish). In fact there was a special line of clothing put out based on her clothing at The Limited a year ago. Olivia is both feared and admired and she does not hesitate to show her authority. For example, during Scandal’s premiere episode, Olivia showed no real regard for an employee whom she chose to hire and upon meeting the woman had no problem telling her outright that she was showing too much cleavage. Nonetheless, Olivia is professional, displaying a “business as usual” demeanor, yet in no way does she exhibit the “sassy black woman trope.” In addition, while I have not yet seen every episode of Scandal, the few that I’ve seen so far have not made mention of her race.
Similar to Olivia, is Jessica Pearson, who is a named partner in her law firm. Jessica exudes femininity yet power. Unlike typical female lawyer attire (consisting of pant or skirt suits), Jessica wears dresses with dramatic hemlines, bold prints and high heels which, already being a tall woman, causes her to tower over (at least be eye level with) her mostly male colleagues. In spite of this, Jessica is not treated like a siren. She rules with an iron fist and is the go-to person for any decisions that need to be made. She makes it known that she is not a pushover in any form and has no problem cutting anyone down who goes behind her back or approaches situations in a way that she does not like. For example, in one episode she calmly yet coldly chided a co-worker for not obtaining a client a certain way “like a man.” However, just like Olivia, she never exhibits the “sassy black woman” characteristics. In addition, while Suits has been on for five seasons, there are very few occasions where Jessica’s race is mentioned. One reference is made in the episode titled, “No Refills” where she converses with a fellow black female colleague about attending a convention featuring a well-regarded and successful black female doctor.
Finally, there’s Abigail Mills who does not quite fit the “black boss lady” in its entirety as she is not a boss, however, she is still someone of authority being a lieutenant in the police force. Abigail is level-headed and a logical thinker (in spite of encountering supernatural events regularly). She is also intelligent, outspoken, and very “no-nonsense.” She has no problem taking control of situations and people if necessary. For example, she was willing to extend investigative access to a specific event to a reporter but made it very clear that it would only happen on her terms. Even in moments of anger and fear, she always demonstrates poise and a sense of responsibility (probably resulting from her police officer training). Like Jessica and Olivia, Abigail fails to display the “sassy black woman” characteristics. In addition, despite the fact that Sleepy Hollow has a cast that is rich in diversity, Abbie’s race is only mentioned very sparingly. For the two times that it’s been mentioned on the show so far, it’s been to detail historical accuracy for the treatment of blacks in her partner Ichabod’s (a white man who is over 200 years’ old) time.
While viewing these women, the final (and most important) commonality that I linked between them is their straight hair. As a black woman I know that their texture is most likely doctored in some way either with a flat-iron, relaxers, or wigs. This relays an idea that straight hair equals “professional” and “successful” and perhaps even “acceptable.” Julia Robins, a writer for Ms Magazine also discovered this, noting the few episodes where both Kerry Washington and Viola Davis (from How to Get Away With Murder) were featured very briefly with their natural curly hair. Strangely enough, the audience only got a glimpse of this when both characters were either at home or on vacation. She suggests that “Washington’s natural curls are associated with sex and fantasy, while her straight hair has been repeatedly associated with power and success.”
It appears that the media characteristics of the “black boss lady” trope and straight hair are in fact both reflective of the real world standards that black women encounter in the professional world. bell hooks notes this in her essay “Straightening Our Hair.” She states that the “need to look as much like white people as possible, to look safe, is related to a desire to succeed in the white world.” (p. 2) bell details her conversations with other black career women where they expressed their leeriness of going natural out of fear that they’d lose the approval of others (p. 3) Unfortunately, this is not just an invention of the black culture as bell notates that while interviewing at Yale, she was advised against wearing braids or “large natural” hairstyles for the interview by other white women (p. 4). Robins also notates how NYMag categorized Olivia Pope’s hair in an article about Scandal hairstyles. The message of curly hair was “escaping my life” while her straight hair said “The Pope is back.”
Ella Louise Bell, a professor currently at Tucker University, conducted extensive research on black career women and their experiences living as black women in a mostly white world. She discovered a few interesting things: 1) In research, black women are generally placed under the categories “women” or “black,” thus “the combined category ‘black women’ is often invisible.” (p. 460) 2) black women often have to assume a “corporate identity” which is generally identified by being “masculine and white.” In fact, here are the exact words of one participant in the study:
“The white world is where I feel at the most risk. I show my white side here, which means I must be more strategic, not as spontaneous. My white side is precise and accurate. Plus, I do not want to share events from my black experience in the white world. There are no other blacks to legitimize my experiences…” (p. 473)
Bell points out the negative stereotypes of black women, mainly “aggressive, controlling, authoritarian, militant, and hostile” and that black women often find themselves falling into this stereotypes as they try to adjust in a bi-cultural world (p. 475). I see semblances of these stereotypes in the characters I observed, even Abigail, who, once again, is not in a position of power to the same degree as Jessica and Olivia, however, she is “militant,” and using the participant’s quote above, she is very strategic and precise.
I believe that these type of subliminal messages in society provide an explanation behind the somewhat stereotypical portrayals of Olivia, Jessica, and Abigail. These are black women who are striving for successful careers in a mostly white world and in order to do that with some degree of success, they must wear straight hair, exhibit certain specific corporate characteristics and never (or rarely) mention anything about race – in other words, to appear white. To break these “rules” would upset the balance of the bi-cultural world that black career women find themselves tiptoeing in on a constant basis. The commonalities reflected in these media portrayals is the need to conform in order to be accepted and succeed in a white culture.
One significant learning moment for me was our discussion on media literacy at the start of the term and the importance of thoroughly examining articles to determine (and question) their relevance, accuracy and any hidden agendas. For example, reading the article “The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in our Post-911 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media” by Diane Watt really struck a cord with me regarding media literacy. Especially when Watt pointed out pictures can actually be deceiving because they can be pulled out of context and twisted to fit the agenda of the article/author. Her borrowed image of a Muslim girl standing in a crowd of other Muslim women shrouded in black seems to signify “oppression,” but Watt points out that “these are Turkish Shia’a women observing Ashura, which is an Islamic holy day of mourning. In general, mourners are expected to wear black. In light of this information, the women’s attire makes more sense to those who might otherwise have automatically assumed it to be a sign of female oppression” (p. 6). This article made me realize that a lot of times, the media does NOT give us the full picture. It is up to us as consumers to research the sometimes hidden context. It would be folly for us to rely entirely on the media.
Another significant learning moment for me was the use of stereotypes in the media; specifically, how many stereotypes were actively utilized in the media that I was not actively aware of until this term (I was already quite familiar with the “Doltish Dad” stereotype). TV Tropes played a large part in this (I was unaware of the site until this term). For example, the article that we read titled “Star Types and their Stereotypes – Maggie Q and Lucy Liu” by Mike Hale and his summation of Asian women being either portrayed as a “sexy nerd” or “dragon ladies and ninja killers.” Being a black woman, this is not something that I really paid attention to (because I don’t identify with it). This article was eye opening, especially since it listed TV characters that I actually watch and like such as Lucy Liu in Elementary and Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy. This realization gave me a heightened awareness to stereotypes on TV (since all races and both sexes have them). And it’s also given me a desire to truly scrutinize TV characters to see if they’re only in the show to fulfill a stereotype (i.e. a doltish dad in a sitcom). As this article pointed out, some of these stereotypes are changing but while an Asian female character (for example) on TV can be more “evolved” she may still have some semblance of this stereotype bubbling under her surface.
Finally one of the most important learning moments for me was the portrayal of my identity (black career woman) in the media. Prior to this term, I was all too aware of black women choosing straight hair for a variety of reasons but reading about the bi-cultural influences for this choice and the similar personal characteristics that black female characters in a position of power portray on TV was eye-opening. As a black woman living in a bi-cultural world, I was astounded by some of things that other black women were saying in the study by Bell (1990) because many were reflective of my own experiences in a professional (mostly white) world.
Bell, E.L. (1990). The Bicultural Life Experience of Career-Oriented Black People. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 11(6), 459-477. Retrieved from http:// www.jstor.org/stable/2488489
Black Boss Lady. (n.d). In TVtropes. Retrieved July 29, 2015 from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/ pmwiki.php/Main/BlackBossLady.
Davis, A.P (2014, September 28). The Most Important Hair on Last Night’s Scandal. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/09/most-important-hair-on-last-nights-scandal.html.
hooks, b. (1989). Straightening Our Hair. In bell hooks (ed). Talk Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. New York: South End Press.
Robins, J. (2015, February 3). Kerry Washington’s “Professional” Hair. Retrieved from http://msmagazine.com/blog/2015/02/03/kerry-washingtons-professional-hair/
Woodard J.B., and Mastin T. (2005). Black Womanhood: “Essence” and its Treatment of Stereotypical Images of Black Women. Journal of Black Studies, 36(2), 264-281. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034332