Steepin’ It Real: Sipping Tea at Tired (Mis)Representations of Black Women

Eric, MSC Student Life Intern

In the media today, the presence of black women as main characters or lead supporting characters is more prevalent than ever before. However, we still receive repackaged stereotypes of what society at large believes black women are supposed to be. These over the top portraits of black women are what Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times recounts as, “the bossy, sassy, salt-of-the-earth working-class women who have been scolding and uh-uh-ing on screen ever since Esther Rolle played Florida, the maid on “Maude.”

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Ester Rolle as Florida Evans in “Good Times”

In 1972, for Esther Rolle to receive an acting job portraying a maid rather than playing the role in real life was quite uncommon. Her longstanding television popularity on Maude and Good Times were evidence that she did her job wellBut it seems quite ridiculous for Stanley in her recent article to expect every character played by a black woman to be a reflection of this “uh-uh-ing” archetype. While Stanley does allow us to consider another kind of woman by referencing the “benign, and reassuring” Claire Huxtable, these limiting portrayals keep us from getting a clear picture of what black women are really like.

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Phylicia Rashad as Clair Huxtable in “The Cosby Show”

We can see the impact of the dedication to archetype in the way critics comment on one of the most popular TV shows today–Scandal–which is Executively Produced by Shonda Rhimes. Stanley calls these complex characters “intimidating” just days after she praised white characters by calling them “TV’s Mighty Women” for possessing those same traits inherent in Rhimes’ characters, traits that led her to say Rhimes’ biography would be entitled, “How to get Away with Being an Angry Black Woman.”

Shonda Rhimes questions why her two prominent (white) leading ladies never insited conversation about her as an "angry Black Woman"

Shonda Rhimes questions why her two prominent (white) leading ladies never incited conversation about her as an “angry Black Woman.”

It is important to recognize this difference in language because it gives a clear representation of how media portrayals can shape our opinions of black women. If she is powerful, she is intimidating, if she is frustrated, she is angry, if she is strong willed, she is stubborn. These misrepresentations and misinterpretations of character traits make it difficult for us to see that black women as human beings with a full range emotions accessible emotions from sadness and vulnerability, to anger and aggression.

In order to raise your consciousness about the issue search for examples of how the media talks about black women differently. After that, critically observe the media you intake and try to really analyze what you see in regards to archetypes and representation of black women and think about how it shapes your interaction with them.

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Kermit wants you to Steep it Real

Once you’ve engaged with this topic come out to the first event in a the new MSC series called Steeping it Real. This Tuesday, October 7th, we’ll be discussing black women’s representation in music videos. Come to Steepin’ it Real: Get Me Bodied, enjoy tea and community engagement with people who care about this as much as you do.

We hope to see you there!

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