College students everywhere more or less grew up at a time where entertainment media was easily accessible due to things like TV on Demand, Blockbuster, and eventually, Netﬂix.
This has made us very familiar with common tropes used to portray some types of people and one particular group of women stands out as being problematic.
She’s big, she’s black and she’s ugly. She cleans the house and takes care of the children, but she “don’t know nothin’ bout birthin’ no babies”.
She is Mammy from Gone with the Wind. With the same name as the character from the ﬁ lm, Mammy became the quintessential stereotype for black women in the dawn of classical Hollywood cinema.
As the medium has broadened from movies in theaters to nontheatrical releases, short ﬁ lms, and television, stereotypes such as “mammy” continue to represent black women in entertainment.
“You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” said Viola Davis when she became the ﬁrst black woman to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2015.
Indeed, it took 66 years for a black woman to win the most prestigious award for women in dramatic television.
The main problem may be that Black women in entertainment are not given enough opportunities to showcase their talent. However, the most important problem is that the opportunities they do get usually fulﬁll an unimagined, predisposed mold of the Black female experience.
Visibility is important, but positive visibility results positive perception.
For example, Kerry Washington is better known for being a powerful Washington D.C. ﬁxer in the show Scandal.
With that role under her belt, she garners respect and admiration from people of all walks of life.
Then, there is Taraji P. Henson, another great actress, but in a role that is powerful, yet stereotypical in nature.
Although she has been acting for over a decade, she didn’t gain mainstream recognition until she played the role of Cookie, a loud-mouthed ghettofabulous music tycoon in New York.
When visibility in media is present, but negative, it creates this idea that all people of the group it’s representing are that one way.
Casting black women in roles that allow for individuality and growth in personality is a sure way to stray away from repetitive and derogatory archetypes.
There is always a variety of white people in one show or production, but if there’s more than one black character that automatically makes it a “black show”.
It seems that in mainstream television the only way to make a show diverse is by adding a minority as the friend.
It is very rare to see two minorities of the same race and gender on one show.
This formula for diversity raises the problem of underrepresentation of black women in entertainment.
To remedy this issue, more black women should be hired into leading and supporting roles.
When there is more representation there is more opportunity for complex roles and story lines. Additionally, having multiple types of black women in one production ensures variety in temperament, personality, and contribution to the plot of the production.
One way to reduce dependency on stereotypes and increase authenticity of the experiences of black women is to hire black women to engineer the production in some way.
Part of the reason it’s hard to ﬁnd adequate representation for black women in the entertainment industry because the industry is still largely run by white males. A fantastic example of a meaningful and positive role held by a black woman is in the show How to Get Away with Murder, created by Shonda Rimes, a black woman.
This example is perfect because it shows how a black woman can create shows that feature commendable leading women of color, while also reaching a wide demographic with a diverse cast.
Minorities can often tell when a production is written by someone completely outside of their culture.
The intent is there, but the execution is poor. This is when people start to rely on archetypes and tropes to ﬁll in the blanks.
While the mammy caricature has been updated for a modern audience, the characteristics still live on subtly or not so subtly in television and ﬁlm today. In an effort to combat the negative pattern that is received in the media, changes to the entertainment industry must be made.
Diversity in roles, creators, writers, directors, and producers are a good start to breaking away at stereotypes.
Researching the culture of the subject thoroughly is also a great way to combat institutionalized racism through archetypal characters.
While stereotypes will never fully be eradicated an increase in well-developed roles for Black women in visual entertainment is the best solution.