Culture

Angry Black Woman: Media Stereotyping of Black Women

Black women have a very interesting relationship with the media. For many years, there was a lack of representation of black women on television, but there has been a shift over the last couple of years whereby more and more black women are being represented on television. We can finally say there’s progress when women like Kerry Washington is the lead actress on one of the most watched shows on television Scandal, or when a middle-aged woman like Viola Davis is playing the role of a seductive and charismatic lawyer on the hit TV series How to Get Away with Murder. So, who cares that one is a gold digger and the other is a murderer? We are seeing more black women on television!  But is this the general attitude of the black female audiences who watch these women and are not oblivious to the forms of representation black women are taking in the media. In a research survey of over 1200 black women conducted by Essence magazine in 2013, it was discovered that “the images we encounter regularly on TV, in social media, in music videos and from other outlets are overwhelmingly negative and fall into categories that make us cringe — Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies” (Walton). The representation of black women on television does not seem to fall out of these stereotypical categories. Famous reality TV shows such as Love and Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Bad Girls Club cannot seem to break out of this stereotypical mold either. But the problem with this representation as writer Ramou Starr points out is that it’s not that these types of portrayals don’t exist among women of color, but rather that the portrayals of women of color on television are so minimal that we have to “scrounge to find the positive ones”, which is not the case for white female characters on television (Starr). In comparison to their white female counterparts, black women are represented in a generally reductive and stereotypical manner. Intersectionality can be applied as an analytical tool to examine this issue, this presentation of black women gains its meaning from race, gender, class and history. It can be argued that the “angry black woman” stereotype is a way to marginalize the voices of women who have very little say in the society to begin with, this calls for a more diverse representation of black women on TV.

Black women are one of the most marginalized group of people in this society. White womanhood has always been the standard for femininity as feminist scholar Bell Hooks points out in her criticism of the documentary film Paris Is Burning. Therefore, it does carry meaning for black women to be portrayed as “angry”, since anger is not perceived as a particularly feminine trait. The long history of how black women have been treated and perceived in the society may shed some light on this 21st century phenomenon. In criticism of a New York Times article that labeled producer Shonda Rhimes an “angry black woman” for creating powerful black female characters, writer Blair Kelly gives a brief historical background as to how this image came about, she writes:

“The trope of the angry black woman first became popularized on television on The Amos ’n’ Andy Show. The program, which was first serialized as a radio show and later brought to the small screen, featured the character Sapphire, the emasculating wife of George “Kingfish” Stevens. The finger-waving, neck-snapping Sapphire complained incessantly about her husband’s shortcomings. Amos ’n’ Andy, with its dim-witted, bumbling, oblivious black male characters and angry black wife, was a clean-faced, 20th-century version of the blackface performances first depicted on the minstrel stage. It didn’t take much to see that the characters were thinly veiled versions of Sambo, Zip Coon, Jim Crow and Jezebel—stock characters made popular on minstrel stages and in sheet music in the 19th century” (Kelly).

Kelly adds that these stereotypes served the purpose of the slave regime to justify the exploitation and treatment of enslaved women and therefore this representation has outlived its purpose (Kelly). But the angry black women trope has a new agenda in today’s society, this agenda is the marginalization of black women’s voice.

In an article titled “The Truth Behind the Strong Black Woman Stereotype”, writer Tamara Winfrey acknowledged the usefulness of images such as the “angry black woman” and “the strong black woman” in black women’s history. These images speak to what they have achieved despite being arguably the most marginalized group in the society. But she also offers a criticism of the contemporary use of such phrases because they do more damage than good to the image of black women. She states, “according to pop culture and media, we are also the workhorses. We are the castrating harpies. We are the brawling World Star “hood rats.” We are the cold, overeducated, work-obsessed sisters who will never marry…. And we are angry. Always angry” (Winfrey). In other words, these phrases come with unpleasant connotations. This is why she finds the contemporary use problematic. It is interesting that although her article is focused on the “strong black woman” stereotype, she also points out how black women are portrayed as angry, “always angry” in the media. These portrayals of black women on TV in particular, overshadows the issues black women are facing in the society. It prevents the audience from seeing the vulnerabilities of these women. As Kelly mentions, it was easy for the slave regime to exploit black women by creating these images of them. In the book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, author Michele Wallace recounted her experiences with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She discusses the detrimental effect of the superwoman image of black women. She states that because of this “superwoman image”, the issues of black women were disregarded during the civil rights movement. Black women were taken advantage of because of their perceived masculinity. Similarly, in today’s society, it’s easy for these women to be marginalized by using these images.

There is no denying the enormous power of the media to shape and form perception. Television is an especially powerful medium because it makes believe that what we see is real. The media cultivation theory is the idea that people become to perceive as reality what they see on television after repetitive and consistent exposure to that particular kind of image or message. For example, “someone who watches a great deal of television may form a picture of reality that does not correspond to actual life. Televised violent acts, whether those reported on news programs or portrayed on television dramas, for example, greatly outnumber violent acts that most people encounter in their daily lives. Thus, an individual who watches a great deal of television may come to view the world as more violent and dangerous than it actually is” (Lule). In a similar manner, someone who watches black women being constantly portrayed as angry may form a perception of black women that is not real. It seems like an absurd conclusion but it is not, considering the representation of black women on television is still not as diverse as it should be. Therefore, people still do not have many diverse and multiple stories of black women as they should. Also, people have the general tendency to focus on the negatives, for this reason, they are more likely to believe what they see on television as representative of the whole.

Having experienced the sting of media stereotypes myself as a Nigerian immigrant in America, I can attest to this, people do believe what they see on television. In my initial years in America, people asked me questions such as “how did you learn how to speak English so well?” “Did you have television growing up?” “Did you fetch water from streams?” “Have you ever seen a lion?” At first I thought these questions strange considering English is an official language in Nigeria, and considering that I lived in a city. But I only had to turn to television to get my answers. I realized that Africa is generally depicted on television as poor, uncivilized and backward. There are no multiple and diverse stories of Africa on television, so people are likely to believe what they see. While there are indeed a number of uncivilized places in Africa, this is not representative of the whole. Also, television has a way of categorizing Africa as one place, whereas it is a continent with about 53 countries. But the media representation of Africa does not take into consideration that Africa is not a country.

Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie observed this in “The Danger of a Single Story” a 2009 TedTalk where she talked about how the portrayal of Africa is affecting people’s perception. She cited a particular incident in which a student at a university where she spoke said that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in her novel. And she replied and said she had just read a novel called American Psycho and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers (Adichie).  The audience laughed at this response which was obviously meant as a joke. Adichie adds that it would not have occurred to her to think that because she had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. But this is because she had many stories of America. This same principle can be applied to the angry black woman stereotype or the other stereotypes of black women in mass media for that matter. There aren’t that many stories of black women to begin with in comparison to their white counterparts and majority of the stories there are, depicts these women as “angry”. People do believe what they see on television. Black women are multifaceted, therefore it does them no good to be reduced in such a way, and this stereotype does nothing but to further marginalize these women. Adichie concluded, “the consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie). This is exactly what the “angry black woman” stereotype does, it robs black women of their dignity.

This negative media representation and portrayal of black women affect the experiences of black women in society. Former First lady Michelle Obama, Producer of the hit TV show Scandal Shonda Rhimes and the young actress Amandla Stenberg are all proofs of how this angry black woman stereotype is being used against black women. It is used to prevent black women from airing their opinions, as they are automatically labeled “angry”. Amandla Stenberg boldly calls for an end to this stereotype in a tweet after she was labeled angry for stating that Kylie Jenner was appropriating cornrow. She tweeted, “End the angry black girl narrative. It’s just another attempt to undermine certain perspectives. I have strong opinions. I am not angry.” For a lot of black women, having strong opinions have become synonymous with being “an angry black woman”, a negative stereotype that set these women apart or in Adichie’s words, a stereotype that “emphasizes their differences” from their white counterparts who are considered the standard for femininity. This image does a lot of damage to black women. In just a few words the opinions of a highly educated and intelligent woman like Michelle Obama can be reduced to nothing but the rants of an angry black woman.

The Obamas a book written by Jodi Kantor was perceived as labelling the first lady as an angry black woman, so Michelle Obama set to correct this image by conducting an interview with CBS Gayle King, in this interview, Michelle Obama said, “that’s been an image people are trying to paint of me since the day that Barack announced that I’m some angry black woman”. She rejects this image and when asked how she deals with it she said “I just try to be me.” and adds that she hopes people will get to know her and judge her for herself. This incidence took place in 2012, but just as recent as November 8, 2016. The New York Times Styles posted a tweet that called Michelle Obama an angry black woman. The tweet which was linked to an article about the first lady reads, “How @FLOTUS shed an angry black woman caricature and evolved into a political powerhouse.” The intention may not have been to label her angry, but however it did. The audiences on twitter quickly picked up on this and jumped to Michelle Obama’s defense with responses such as, “@NYTStyles @FLOTUS Since when was Michelle ever an angry black woman?” and “@NYTStyles @FLOTUS she was NEVER an angry black woman. That is what they wanted her to be from the beginning. This is so ignorant!”. The NYT tweet was later deleted and replaced with one that said “deleted earlier tweets for language that some found offensive”. But this just goes to prove how easily powerful media outlets like The New York Times disseminate this stereotype of the angry black woman without careful considerations as to how it affects the lives of black women. Aside from being a first lady, Michelle Obama is a lawyer, and a highly educated and intelligent woman, so this image of an angry woman is very reductive.

A New York Times subscriber who was offended at a Times article reductive portrayal of producer Shonda Rhimes wrote a letter to the editor, she states:

I am a black woman and a lawyer. I have worked very hard to achieve in my profession and earn respect. I live in a very nice suburban community in Maryland. And yet, none of that makes one bit of difference because a New York Times writer can make whatever offhanded, racist opinions about a successful TV producer who is a black woman she cares to make, and because she has the protection of The New York Times behind her, can publish it. Because Ms. Stanley is a New York Times writer, her story has reached a national audience. Why is Ms. Stanley allowed to characterize Ms. Rhimes as she did and get away it? Why is she allowed to characterize Viola Davis as she did in her story and get away with it? (Sullivan).

This subscriber raised a very important point which makes the letter worth paying attention to, she’s a lawyer and an accomplished black woman, but neither of those matters because of the reductive image of the “angry black woman”. This subscriber is saying the accomplishments of black women are overlooked when this “angry black woman” stereotype is used against them. All people see is the angry black woman, they don’t see the lawyer, or the classy first lady, or the brilliant producer, or the talented actor, or the successful business owner, or the educated woman, all they see is an “angry black woman”.

The offensive NYT article is called “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image”, written by TV critic Alessandra Stanley. She referred to TV producer Shonda Rhimes as an angry black woman who expresses her anger through her black female characters who are also “angry”. Stanley wrote, “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called “How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman” (Stanley). This was the opening of the article which has been widely criticized for labeling Rhimes an angry black woman. The reason why a lot of black women were offended makes sense when one reads these words “Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable. She has almost single-handedly trampled a taboo even Michelle Obama couldn’t break” (Stanley). It is interesting that in this statement, Stanley also alludes to Michelle Obama being an angry black woman. Stanley’s purpose may not have been to actually label Rhimes in any way, but whatever other agenda the article may have had, it got lost when Rhimes picked up on the “angry black woman” part and took to twitter to voice her strong disapproval in a series of tweets. Rhimes tweeted, “Confused why @nytimes critic doesn’t know the identity of CREATOR of show she’s reviewing. @petenowa did u know u were an angry black woman?”, “Apparently we can be angry black women together, because I didn’t know I was one either! @petenowa #LearnSomethingNewEveryday”, “Wait. I’m angry AND a ROMANCE WRITER?!! I’m going to need to put down the internet and go dance this one out. Because ish is getting real.” and “Final thing: (then I am gonna do some yoga): how come I am not an angry black woman the many times Meredith (or Addison!) rants? @nytimes”. Meredith and Addison mentioned in this last tweet are white female characters from Grey’s Anatomy written by Rhimes. Rhimes questions why she was not labeled angry when she wrote white female characters who like her black female characters also get angry some times. Stanley has been accused of being racist for this article. In fact, a lot of black female bloggers have written about this issue, all voicing their strong disapproval of the article with headlines such as, “New York Times Reduces Shonda Rhimes Characters to Unfair Angry Black Women Stereotype”, “There Are Just So Many Things Wrong With the New York Times’ Shonda Rhimes Article”, and “Dear New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is No Angry Black Woman”. Some even went as far as asking the NYT to fire Stanley. New York Times editor Margaret Sullivan also admitted to the article causing a “furor”, she was the one who posted the letter she had received from the New York Times subscriber who was offended by Stanley’s article.

In a Guardian article titled “Calling us angry? Michelle Obama and the angry black woman label”, a number of black female bloggers wrote about their personal experiences and frustration with the angry black woman label. But one of them said she wished Michelle Obama had used the opportunity to educate people that black women have the right to be angry. She writes:

I started my blog, AngryBlackBitch, to challenge the stereotype that black women are irrational in our anger. My inspiration was being raised to believe that one of the worst labels I could earn was that of an angry black bitch. I was taught that when channeled through a black Woman, was unacceptable. My family made it clear that black women who expressed anger were making trouble for themselves and the punishment for black women who expressed it was severe – bad school grades at school, future unemployment, and a general lack of opportunity and happiness. They spoke from experience – having grown up in the segregated south where getting angry over discrimination was often met with violence and additional discrimination.” This is a woman is saying the anger of black women is acceptable and should not be painted as irrational. This makes a lot of sense considering the long history of the maltreatment of black women in the United States. Rather than saying black women are not angry, she is saying black women are angry but they have justifiable reasons to be angry. (Merritt).

This is a woman stating that the anger of black women is justified. This makes a lot of sense considering the long history of oppression and marginalization of black women. Rather than ending the stereotype this woman is asking that it be used as a means to shed light on the issues of black women in the society. The anger should not be painted as if it were irrational, there is a reason behind the anger.

Adichie seems to have a similar argument in We should all be Feminists a book adapted from her 2009 TED Talk titled “We Should All Be Feminists”. Part of the speech was later featured in Beyoncé’s Flawless album. In the book, Adichie discusses everyday sexism and discrimination against women that the society, especially men are oblivious to. She cited a particular instance in which her article was referred to as being “so angry” and she was told that women are not supposed to express anger because anger was threatening. To which Adichie said “We should all be angry”. She believes anger has a long history of bringing about positive change. Adichie points out the ways in which women from childhood have been marginalized. Adichie writes:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. (Adichie).

Calling black women angry is just another way to further marginalize and keep them in the box created by racism and sexism. This marginalization of black women is also pointed out by writer Angela Stanley, in The New York Times article “Black, Female and Single”, in which she criticizes the media obsession with single black women. She states that the negative attention is part of a “persistent historical and present-day attack on black people in America, with black men made into deviants and black women into problems” (Stanley). She identifies racism as a motif, but what is interesting about this article is that Stanley points out how black women are silenced in the society, she writes, “when we are vocal, we are problems.” This is problematic because black men are disproportionately affected by social inequities; therefore, black women have been implicitly conditioned to be supportive and sympathetic (Stanley). But what this does is silence the voices of black women, so when they do voice out their opinion, they are perceived as being angry. The “angry black woman” stereotype is in keeping with this, it has become a way to simply silence the voices of black women, a group of people who are already much marginalized in the society.

Other than the racism identified in Stanley’s article. One may ask what other motif is behind this media focus on the negative stereotypes of black women? The same study by Essence magazine mentioned earlier also reveal that television do not show enough of these types of black women, “Young Phenoms, Real Beauties, Individualists, Community Heroines, Girls Next Door and Modern Matriarchs”. According to over 1200 black female respondents, these are the types of black women they feel more genuinely reflect them and the black women they know (Walton). Why are we not seeing more of these types of black women then? Well according to writer Tamara Winfrey Harris, the answer is simple. In the book The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, Harris denounces the media stereotypes of black women and discusses how black women are challenging these stereotypes. As the women surveyed by Essence proof, she mentions that the angry black woman image is not an image embraced by black women. But this image has been capitalized on by the media and they continue to publicize these images. Also, the American audience seems to have a fetishism towards seeing black women depicted this way on television, and reality television producers have turned this into a money-making business. Harris writes:

It is not that reality producers have mostly angry black women to choose from when casting the latest ode to consumerism and trifling behavior. It is that producers specifically search for, hire, and elevate those willing to traffic in gender, race, and class stereotypes in exchange for marginal fame. A mad black woman aloft like a Valkyrie, weave flying and eyes ablaze, gets ratings and days of viral video and lights up social media like a Christmas tree. A calm and reasonable black woman handling her life like a functional adult? Well, who wants to watch that? (Harris).

She makes a very interesting point and consumerism is a valid reason why the media would continue to propagate these images of black women. But consumerism does not explain why individuals would also boost these stereotypes. A possible explanation is that it has been used so much that a lot of people have become blind to the fact that it is a stereotype that gives black women a bad image. The Angry Black Woman’s Guide to Life is a book that makes light of the angry black woman stereotype. According to the book, being an angry black woman is a form of art. The book also highlights the history of black women and how women have made a difference by being “angry”. The book is described as “The smart, sassy guide to embracing your inner Angry Black Woman”. The book can be said to be arguing for the acceptance of the phrase rather than a rejection of the phrase. But this is problematic.

On Watchcut, a channel on Youtube, 16 black women were interviewed to get their opinion on the phrase “Angry Black Woman”. The video is part of a series called “One Word”. The women were asked what they thought about the phrase “Angry Black Women”. The responses were very interesting and diverse. A woman immediately said it’s a stereotype, and another said it’s a word tossed out whenever black women speak out for themselves not just when they are angry. And another woman said, why do you have to put race on it, “it’s just an angry woman”, another woman said everyone’s angry, so anger is not peculiar to black women. But interestingly, a woman actually said she does not think it’s a stereotype, “I think it’s a role that’s being played because it’s real, when I think of an angry black woman I think of a woman that’s been betrayed or hurt.”  I found this response interesting because it shows how some people have become blind to the fact that it is a stereotype.  But this is the response I found most interesting, “they think we are all ghetto, welfare queens, uneducated, and in real life we’re probably some of the happiest most positive people you will ever meet in your life, get to know us.” It’s interesting how as Michelle Obama called for people to get to know her before judging her, this speaker is also calling for people to get to know black women, because the media is definitely painting an unfavorable image of them. A pattern that may have been noticed by Centric, the first television station designed for black women.

Centric launched a television commercial campaign recently, featuring some of the most popular women in the black entertainment industry. Women such as Erykah Badu, Eva Marcille, Jordin Sparks, Sanaa Lathan, amongst others. These women talk about their uniqueness as a black woman. These are not the images we generally see of black women of television. They talk about being classy and ratchet at the same time, cooking in an expensive designer gown, being a beautiful mess, being silly, goofy and fun, and wearing flip flops and so on. The commercial has the obvious agenda of making the audience see black women more expansively and differently. But the fact that Centric does this, speak to the point that there is a need for a more diverse representation of black women on television. Rather than an acceptance of these negative stereotypes, writer Tamara Winfrey calls for a full and complex view of black women’s humanity, whereby black women could be both strong and cared for at the same time, and angry and rational at the same time. Kind of a similar message Centric is trying to pass across, “ratchet and classy” at the same time. The need for a more diverse representation of black women on television is obvious. Rather than accepting the stereotypes of black women in the media, we should continue to find ways in which to expand our understanding of race and gender.

 

 

 

References

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. New York: Anchor, 2015. Print.

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story”. TED.com. Jul 2009. 

Designed For You. Centric TV. New York, NY. 05 Nov 2016. Television.

Harris, Tamara. The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in

America. California: Berrett-Koehier Publishers, Inc. 2015. 

Millner Denene, Burt-Murray Angela, Miller Mitzi. The Angry Black Woman’s Guide to Life. New York: Plume, 2004. Print.

Pamela Merritt, Hannah Pool, Bonnie Greer, Bim Adewunmi, Latoya Peterson “Calling us angry? Michelle Obama and the ‘angry black woman’ label” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2012. 

Sinclair, Leah. “The ‘angry Black Girl’ Stereotype Shows Just How Little We Are Respected”

The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2015. 

Stanley, Alessandra. “Wrought in Rhimes’s Image.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2014.

Sullivan, Margaret “An Article on Shonda Rhimes Rightly Causes a Furor” The New York Times, 2014.

Stanley, Angela. “Black, Female and Single” The New York Times. 2011. 

Starr, Ramou “Seeing More Black Women on Television and in Main Stream Print is Refreshing” thechocolatevoice.com. 2013. 

TheYoungTurks. “Michelle Obama ‘Angry Black Woman’ Smear.” YouTube. 15 Jan. 2012. 

 Wallace, Michele. Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. New York: Dial, 1979. Print.

Walton, Dawnie “ESSENCE’s Images Study: Bonus Insights” Essence. Essence.com, 2013.

Watchcut. “One Word – Episode 36: Angry Black Woman.” YouTube. 21 Mar. 2016. 

Winfrey, Tamara. “The Truth Behind the “Strong Black Woman” Stereotype.” Alternet. alternet.org, 2014. 

 

 

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