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African-American Women: Misrepresented to the Masses

Since its premiere on April 5, 2012 ABC’s Scandal has challenged the way mainstream American media stereotypes black women. If viewers were expecting another primetime drama featuring a sassy, promiscuous, and submissive African-American woman they were in for a wake up call. The shows protagonist, professional “fixer” and PR legend Olivia Pope is emotionally strong, professionally powerful, and personally complicated redefining stereotypes for black women throughout pop culture. The shows writer and producer, Shonda Rhimes has created a groundbreaking role considering “Pope is the only dramatic protagonist role played by a black woman on American network television since 1974, when Teresa Graves starred as Christie Love in Get Christie Love!.” Fast forward six years and six seasons later, and audiences everywhere have fallen in love with a character as relatable and complex as Olivia Pope. However, has the media truly evolved in the way that they portray black women? Or do stereotypes continue to permeate society? The continued success of Scandal demonstrates that in many ways American audiences desire progressive television, but entertainment as a whole has a long way to go before it can break the historical stereotypes surrounding the idea of the female African-American experience.

 

Background

To understand the cultural significance of Scandal we must first look at the history behind the stereotyping of Black women in the media. From their introduction into American society, African-American women have been negatively stereotyped throughout mainstream media. Labels such as the Mammy, the Sapphire (angry black woman), and the Jezebel have emerged in pop culture as social norms for black women. Duke University Libraries stated, ““Even the roles (in film) for African Americans might be seen as more positive—such as loyal servants, mammies, and butlers—reinforced a belief that the proper social position for Blacks was that of a servant who was unswervingly devoted to his/her White masters, and to upholding the current social order” Their representation throughout history has completely shaped and molded the way Americans, regardless of their race, value and identify with Black women in general.

The origin of the misrepresentation and stereotyping in the media lies within the institution of slavery. African-American slave women were considered property, and were ultimately at the mercy of their male masters. In these dark circumstances women were either viewed as exotic sexual objects (the Jezebel) responsible for their master’s pleasure, or as the submissive Mammy who was historically described as, “Obese, old, dark-skinned, and she always wore a bandana. These physical traits were intended to protect the myth that White men did not find Black women attractive, and that there was no sexual contact between them within the intimate confines of the antebellum plantation.”

As a result of this, black women intentionally made themselves as unattractive and undesirable as possible in an attempt to avoid sexual harassment. Following the abolition of slavery, America entered into the Jim Crow Era where the “mammy” stereotype began to thrive in mainstream American culture. During this time period the “mammy” was used as a domestic icon for in advertisements for household items. The most popular mammy images that emerged were Aunt Jemima and Mammy played by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind (1939). When analyzing the origin of the Mammy stereotype, one scholastic essay explained, “Black women may have over compensated in their devotion and sexual neutrality for fear of the previously stated repercussions, therefore creating the breeding ground for this stereotype to be born.”

Following the Civil Rights Movement, the social unrest and race riots that occurred resulted in the film/television genre known as Blaxploitation. The Mammy stereotype of a submissive soft-spoken black woman had now evolved into the Sapphire, or angry black woman stereotype. Ferris State University went on to explain, “She is tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing, violently and rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men for offenses ranging from being unemployed to sexually pursuing white women”. The media portrays this woman as bitter, abusive, loud, and stubborn, who targets anyone who insults or disrespects her. This aggressive stereotype emerged with the Amos ‘n’ Andy show in the early 1900s with the character Sapphire Stevens who is constantly berating her husband as a failure. This stereotype has continued into modern entertainment with shows such as Good Times, The Jefferson’s, and Everybody Hates Chris. In the context of the Sapphire caricature, white women who are independent and fight for social justice are praised, while black women who possess these same characteristics are labeled as bitter complainers, or Sapphires.

An additional stereotype that emerged during this era of African-American film was the Jezebel, or the innately promiscuous and over-sexualized black woman. From the colonization of America to the present, black women of all shades have been portrayed as “hypersexual bad-black girls.” These beliefs date back to imperialism when Europeans misinterpreted African’s semi-nudity as eroticism, which led to a fascination with African sexuality, thus permeating the “Jezebel whore.” This stereotype constantly appeared in the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s, which depicted Jezebels running around as sexual deviants most likely carrying a gun. This portrayal of African-American women has become the dominant image in American pop culture.

African-American Women in Television

African-American did not begin appearing as themselves in television until the early 1950s with ABC’S premiere of Beulah (1950). Initially starting as a CBS Radio show Beulah is considered the first network show to star a black actress. Fulfilling the traditional Mammy stereotype the show is about a maid whose life is centered on fixing her employer’s problems. Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel most famously appeared in this show until its cancellation in 1952. The show received widespread criticism for perpetuating the Mammy stereotype and encouraging the belief that black women are domestic servants who enjoy nurturing whites. NBC’s Julia (1968) became the first network television show to feature a black actress in a non-stereotypical role. The program was centered on a widowed nurse raising her young son, marking the first time American audiences were seeing a black woman as a working professional outside of the role as domestic servant. However, this program premiered during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and received backlash for not accurately portraying the struggle of being a women of color during in the United States during this turbulent time period. Diahann Caroll who played Julia said herself, “I’m a black woman with a white image. I’m as close as they can get to having the best of both worlds. The audience can accept me in the same way, and for the same reason, I don’t scare them.” This quote accurately describes that although Black women were appearing in television, the American public was still holding to the negative connotations connected to women of color. ABC’s Get Chrisie Love! (1974) Premiered at the height of the Blaxploitation movement and focuses on a female police detective who goes undercover to thwart a drug ring. Christie was subliminally presented as the stereotypical Sapphire proving that although Americans would allow Black women to appear in lead roles on network television, their characters were consistently limited by stereotypes.

It wasn’t until the premiere of The Cosby Show (1984) that Black women would begin to appear on television as fully functioning and influential members of society. The Cosby Show was one of the first positive introductions of black culture to the American Public. A thesis written by Anson Ferguson explains the climate of American society at the time The Cosby Show aired, “The United States is a country that is still emerging from a deeply racist history, a society in which many white people have treated (and continue to treat) black people with contempt, suspicion, and a profoundly ignorant sense of superiority. With the American public still struggling with the effects of the Civil Rights movement, television became an outlet for people to experience other facets of life, which included an experience of “black culture.” Centered around an upper- middle -class black family living in Brooklyn, the show presented a hardworking, successful, traditional American family, who for the first time in television history, happened to be black. The content of the show generally avoided race based subject matter in order to remind the audience that prosperous African-American families are the rule, and not the exception. One of the most iconic television mothers Claire Huxtable appeared as the matriarch of the Cosby family who not only raised a family of five children while working as a successful lawyer, but defended her decision to anyone who questioned her ability to do so. The success of The Cosby Show gave a new image to the public of black American families breaking many racial stereotypes of the past, and paving the way for a new era of black women in television.

A progressive character such as Claire Huxtable, paved the way for ABC’s Scandal featuring Shonda Rhimes character, Olivia Pope. This groundbreaking character is loosely based on the life experiences of Judy Smith, a well- known crisis manager in the Washington D.C area who infamously handled the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the late 90s. Comparable to Judy, Pope works with her team of former CIA agents, lawyers, and political operatives to fix scandals involving her influential clients. Among these high profile clients are various congressmen, candidates for public office, the President, and corporate executives who find themselves in messy situations while working in the capital city. However, don’t assume that she is a submissive Mammy who is devoted to solving other people’s problems without a reward because Pope and Associates demands compensation for their work. Pope does not allow her gender or race to limit her to domestic servitude. She uses her intelligence and drive to become one of the most sought after and respected Public Relations Professionals in the country. Olivia Pope is the definition of a “lady boss” making working- women everywhere proud, regardless of their ethnic background.

For the first time in almost 40 years a black female has the lead role in a network television drama. Since the premiere of ABC’s hit show Scandal in 2012 audiences everywhere have been introduced to a strong, intellectual, and independent black woman who is played by Kerry Washington. While Olivia Pope is tough and intimidating, she is not the stereotypical malicious black woman usually labeled as a Sapphire. In a city as high-strung as Washington D.C Pope is necessarily tenacious while working in the middle of national and international politics and crisis management. In a recent interview with The New York Times Washington stated, “I’d never seen a woman like this on television before. And I wasn’t even thinking about race or the fact that I’d never seen an African-American woman as the lead of her own network show, but I knew that this smart, sophisticated, powerful and vulnerable woman was a tremendous opportunity.”

Olivia Pope is the most complex black female lead America has seen in prime time television not giving audiences an archetype, or a stereotype, but a fully fledged human being. One moment audiences will see her as a fast-talking fiery business woman, and the next moment she is a vulnerable and emotional woman in a complicated relationship with a married man who is not only white, but happens to be the leader of the free world. Herein lies the core debate of Scandal: is Olivia Pope a modern day Jezebel hidden in a tailored Chanel pantsuit? Although she is not a prostitute or over sexualized deviant, she is in a relationship with a white married man who happens to hold the office of the President of the United States. Fans have taken both sides of the argument some saying yes, such as Tom Burrell advertising veteran who has fought to promote positive portrayals of black women in the media calls Olivia Pope “Hot-to-trot, sexually aggressive trop as old as the institution of slavery itself in the character.” Others brought up the unavoidable similarity to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings one of the most scandalous secret presidential affairs in American history. However, Olivia Pope escapes the degrading stereotype of the Jezebel due to the fact she owns her mistake of committing adultery and takes charge of her own destiny by leaving her job as White House Press Secretary while attempting to end her relationship. Although adultery is unquestionable wrong and immoral, Olivia Pope cannot be so easily stereotyped as a Jezebel considering she is a self-sufficient desirable professional who is romantically involved with someone based off of much more than exotic lust.

Scandal continues to break barriers while remaining widely popular with audiences. Huffington Post further explained, “Shonda Rhimes has written a character that depicts black women as they see themselves and more importantly how they’d like society to view them.”

Conclusion

Although the United States is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, the media and entertainment industries continue to misrepresent African-American women, and the country’s changing demographic. A 1997 study discovered that “ethnic minority groups make up 15.7% of prime time drama casts, even though they represent 25.4% of the population; 26% of major characters in movies are women, although they comprise 51% of the population… When people of color, women, seniors and other social groups are portrayed, activist groups contend, these images are often stereotypical, inaccurate and not reflective of the individual diversity that exists in real life.” It is clear that minorities are not only underrepresented in the media, but they are also frequently placed into categories that most likely generalize and belittle their racial background. In 2015 USA Today wrote, “Well-formed characters such as Olivia Pope in Scandal have broken ground in recent years, but even so, black roles are more often limited to one-dimensional stereotypes or eliminated from the picture altogether.” Despite the fact that stereotypes are based upon some form of truth it is undeniable that black women have been limited by the negative labels placed upon them by the media. Their representation throughout history has completely shaped the way Americans, regardless of their race, value and identify with Black women in general. An article published by the Washington Post stated, “The problem with the current images is that they reflect extremity. There are high profile celebrities and athletes on one side, and the impoverished, crime-ridden, and down and out on the other. This flawed perception results in the rest of us—The Invisible Middle—being ignored and marginalized.” If the entertainment industry is going to move past limiting African-American women to stereotypes, it must focus on accurately representing the majority of black Americans in this country.

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