Finding the Balance: Portrayals of Black Women on TV

by | May 25, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture, Racism

It was on America’s Next Top Model, Cycle 3 (2004), where host Tyra Banks bluntly remarked “I don’t want another black bitch.” These comments were directed to a potential black contestant, Eva Pigford.

Tyra was referring to what had long been an underlying subtext on reality TV, where black women are represented as divas with huge attitudes in order to heighten drama—and ratings. And today, seven years later, very little has changed. We continue to see angry black women all over the television, especially on reality TV shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, VH1’s Basketball Wives, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Bad Girls Club, etc.

Many describe the depiction of black women in these tv shows as a disgrace. A fiery Newsweek article entitled Reality TV Trashes Black Women charges that “the mud-slinging makes for watchable TV, but it also highlights an unsettling new formula for the reality-TV genre: put two or more headstrong African-American women in the same room, and let the fireworks begin.”

In another article on theroot.com, Jacque Ried writes: “Despite the fact that one of us is now living in the White House and another just launched her own network, many around the world still see us as angry, short-tempered, immature and unsophisticated.”

This portrayal of black women is not just limited to reality television. For instance, take the critically acclaimed prime time show Grey’s Anatomy. This show broke down many barriers with its racially diverse cast, including a black female lead character, Dr. Miranda Bailey played by Chandra Wilson.

Some solace can be taken in the fact that Bailey is a strong character, an Attending in a leading hospital who works hard to balance a crazy work schedule and raise her child. However, watch one episode of this show and you will quickly learn that she comes across as a bitch a lot of the time. In fact, during the first season of this show the interns had a nickname for her character –“the Nazi.”

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with getting angry, being headstrong, tough, etc. For some black women, these traits come from a history of struggling and working hard, especially in light of the racism, sexism, and discrimination which continue to exist in our society. However, my point is that there’s no balance in the portrayals of black women seen on television.

When I was growing up, I often watched The Cosby Show and my favourite character was Clair Huxtable, played by Phylicia Rashad. She was a successful lawyer who was also the head of her household and worked hard to keep her five children in line.

I also watched Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, I remember the character Vivian Banks, played by Janet Hubert-Whitten. Given that it was a comedy, she was a little stuck up; however she was also a Professor of Black History and Literature who raised four children as well as her nephew, Will.

We need more positive and empowering black female characters on television! Shout it from the rooftops and, while you’re at it, consider not watching trashy reality TV shows.

-E. Cain


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  • Well said. Black women (and that doesn’t necessarily mean American women) are continued to be portrayed as either Sapphire (sassy, finger poppin’), Jezebel (well that’s pretty self-explanatory) or Mammy. Unlike yester-years that exploited Mammy in television and films, it would seem that the images today are more-so concerned with exploiting Sapphire and Jezebel.
    Well written.