If I were anything like the Tyler Perry version of black women, I would be a loud, sassy, wisecracking, no-nonsense woman. However, those who know me best know I am nothing like that. I am a quiet, sometimes sarcastic, some-nonsense-talking young woman.
Although I have black friends who are amazing and fit the bill to be cast in a Tyler Perry film or cast in a show on the Black Entertainment Television network, I also have black friends who have nothing in common with this archetype we often see perpetuated in the media. Black women are either portrayed as the sassy friend, only good for delivering a supposedly hilarious one-liner, or are highly sexualized. See: Wanda Sykes in “Monster-in-Law” or any rap music video ever for reference.
It is easy to recall a movie or music video where a man is objectifying a black woman. Try to recall a movie where a black woman is in a stable and loving relationship while holding down a job. It’s a little bit harder.
The Sassy Black Woman trope originated in the 70’s as the Civil Rights and feminist movements laid the groundwork and black women in media could be more outspoken. In Blaxploitation films, movies made specifically for urban black audiences, characters like Foxy Brown became the confident voice of a severely marginalized group.
The well-known Foxy Brown character was a highly sexualized, outspoken, vivacious black woman who demanded respect. At the time, this type of character was needed to give a relative voice to the voiceless. Fast-forward 40 years and black women are not quite as voiceless, yet we are still seeing variations of this type of character in movies across most genres.
Statistics gathered by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film showed that across 400 top-grossing films released from 1990 to 2006, 27 percent of the characters in dramas and situational comedies were women with only seven percent of those being African-American.
In films directed by African-Americans, 62.6 percent of the roles were African-American. Whereas in films where the director is white, African-Americans, males and females, only make up 10.9 percent of the casting. About 70 percent of those are males.
There is so little representation of black women in the mainstream media that many praise directors like Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence because they are at least doing what mainstream media refuses to do: hire minority actors and crew members.
Is this one of those cases where any coverage is good coverage, or is the perpetuation of tired, overdone and stereotypical tropes more detrimental than anything else?
As much as we try to deny it, the media plays a major part in how we view the world around us and promotes a general sense of self.
What did a tiny African girl growing up in modern America have to grab onto in the media?
The white characters, of course.
Just by sheer volume of having so many to pick from, growing up, I began to identify with the white characters I saw on my television and movie screens.
Like I said before, I am not loud. I am not snappy. I do not fit into any stereotype the mainstream media seems to love perpetuating about black women.
I saw white characters interested in the same things I was interested in. I saw white characters listening to the same music I listened to. I saw white characters reading the books I liked to read.
So I was at once identifying with white characters and developing this internalized inferiority complex. The under representation of black women in positive roles in mainstream media sends a powerfully negative message.
It leads black girls to believe negative things about themselves. It gives them no one to relate to, and it begs the logical question: If I don’t look like those women who are elevated and revered in the media, does that mean I am not important?
Black women come in many different flavors, if you will. There is not one that is better than the other. We are just different. It is a beautiful thing. We need to move away from the stereotypical representation of black women in mainstream media in order to correctly represent what is a wonderfully diverse population.
Sanmai Gbandi is a senior psychology and journalism major from Houston. Gbandi is a staff photographer for Baylor Round Up yearbook and a reporter for the lariat.