We are proud to publish Hollywood Lens Z, a series of student essays written in partial fulfillment of Dr. Kathleen Tarr’s first-year course taught in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University, “That’s Entertainment! The Rhetoric of Hollywood’s Inequities.”
PERVASIVE STEREOTYPES OF BLACK PEOPLE IN AMERICA
If you were to ask me, a young Black woman, to paint a picture of what Black people are like purely based on primetime (8:00pm-11:00pm) television depictions, several adjectives immediately come to mind: loud, ghetto, uneducated, and unkempt. Pairing stereotypical depictions of Black people on primetime television with having grown up in majority-white spaces, I have internalized this kind of racism. I perpetually worry about being associated with negative stereotypes assigned to Blackness, an integral part of my identity. In what I imagine to be subconscious efforts to make sure that I would never align with such stereotypes, I would go through periods in which I would only wear my hair straightened, listen to more pop because my preferred genre of rap was described as “hood,” and trade out Air Jordans for Vince and Burberry. These superficial changes were part of my attempt to prove that I am above the negative images of Black people that primetime television and Hollywood at large spoon-feeds us from a young age. Unfortunately, this is not a phenomenon that only affects me; I’ve heard similar anecdotes from Black youth in contexts both vastly different from and uncannily similar to mine.
This constant pressure to assimilate may be a problem for young Black people such as myself because, unlike many of the inequalities and disadvantages that Black people had to face and overcome throughout American history, stereotypes for Black people have strengthened and persisted for hundreds of years. Most of these stereotypes have historical significance, but the negative meaning that is forcefully attached to them is what people remember. A prime example of this phenomenon is the watermelon stereotype, which stemmed from the fact that following the Emancipation, many Black Americans in the South grew and sold watermelons (“Popular and Pervasive”). While the watermelon was once seen as a symbol of economic and social freedom for Black people, many white people in the South turned the fruit into a symbol of poverty and a “feast” for the unclean (ibid.). Now, however, watermelon is simply known as a food that all Black people like just by virtue of being Black. Some more stereotypes about Black people as a whole include, but are not limited to: having a good sense of rhythm (and therefore a good sense of dance), knowing each other, liking fried chicken, and playing sports well. While dancing and playing sports well may seem like “positive” stereotypes, a negative spin is put on them once people learn that you do not conform to them.
In addition to the aforementioned, there is, unfortunately, a plethora of gendered stereotypes for Black people. For Black women, arguably the most pervasive stereotype that exists is the Sapphire. From the 1800s and 1900s, the Sapphire caricature painted Black women as sassy, aggressive, loud, and angry (“The Sapphire Caricature”). Over time, this caricature’s name evolved and modernized from the name of ‘Sapphire’ to ‘Angry Black Woman,’ which can be seen explicitly through various forms media as recently as the wildly racist cartoon depiction of Serena Williams after losing the US Open (Held, npr.org). In addition to print news publications, television played an integral role in the spreading of the Sapphire. Most often, the Sapphire appears in ‘tabloid talk shows’ such as The Maury Povich Show and The Jerry Springer Show, as well as situational comedies (sitcoms) with a predominantly Black cast including Martin, Everybody Hates Chris, and Sanford and Son (“The Sapphire Caricature”). In virtually all television shows that feature the Sapphire, the genre is not a drama, and the dynamic is the Sapphire insulting and mocking ‘weak, morally defective’ Black males in a stereotypical way for laughs (ibid.).
Unlike the stereotypes of Black women, that at their furthest extent make Black women seem undesirable through negative personality traits, stereotypes of Black men characterize them as physical and sexual threats. One of the most widespread stereotypes pertaining specifically to Black men is the ‘Black Buck,’ conjured up by the minds of slave auctioneers to promote the agility and athleticism of young Black men (“Popular and Pervasive”). This stereotype persisted through and beyond the Emancipation but evolved in the way that Black men are now seen as animalistic and brute, effectively a race of man that women are ought to intrinsically fear. A historical example that shows the implications of such a stereotype is the story of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy who was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman (“Emmett Till”). The ‘Black Buck’ stereotype does not exist in a vacuum, though; there are also are the misconceptions that Black men are poor fathers, drug users/dealers, and criminals from as early as their youth (“How the Media Stereotypes”). When watching television and live performance with these stereotypes in mind, it can be seen that both forms of entertainment play a profound role in the popularization of stereotypes pertaining to Black men and women alike.
In the early 19th century, minstrel shows were commonplace in New York. Minstrel shows were performances in which white performers put on blackface (using cork and polish to darken skin), tattered clothing, and then imitated and mimicked Africans (“Blackface”). Stereotypes such as laziness, ignorance, and hypersexuality were emphasized throughout the exaggerated performances in their entirety, reflecting the most pervasive stereotypes of Black people (ibid.). While they may not be in the form of minstrel shows, performances stereotypically representing Black people continue today. In the second half of the twentieth century, the aforementioned Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons (both co-created by Norman Lear, a White man) had one-dimensional Black characters that embodied common stereotypes (“Norman Lear,” TVGuide.com). While one-dimensional Black characters on television is still a common problem, there are now some Black women characters that break the Sapphire stereotype, a la Olivia Pope; however, this is not the case for Black men. In fact, it is very difficult to even think of a show, let alone a popular one, that is led by a Black man.
The misrepresentation of Black men in media continues to perpetuate and strengthen stereotypes of Black men in America, which lessens primetime television networks’ interest in deconstructing such stereotypes through casting Black men as leads in primetime dramas; this positive feedback cycle is difficult to break down due to various factors. When these harmful stereotypes are looked at in conjunction with the rise of multidimensional Black women leads in primetime television, it would be expected that the problem is rooted in the lack of Black male television writers. However, when you combine the physically threatening stereotypes about Black men with the fact that most publications and studies consistently fail to conflate race and gender when looking at the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s writers/showrunners, it should not be expected for there to be improvement in representation; the reasoning and awareness behind Black men’s misrepresentation in primetime television is virtually invisible. Even when examining instances in which race and gender are conflated and Black men are the writers/showrunners, the kind of representation that Black men are being given is not discussed, making it difficult to pinpoint the problem.
THE SCANDAL EFFECT
In 1974, Get Christie Love! starred the late Teresa Graves, an African American woman. The show was released in the height of the Blaxploitation Era, a period in the 70s in which producers of Black-oriented television shows and films exploited black actors and actresses for profit (“Blaxploitation,” merriam-webster.com). Some of the stereotypes most commonly portrayed throughout this era of television were the Black Buck (male sex-crazed deviants) and Sapphire (“Blaxploitation”). On IMDb, Get Christie Love! has a synopsis of the “adventures of sexy and sassy Black undercover cop Christie Love” (“Get Christie,” IMDb.com). The very words “sassy” and “sexy” used to describe a Black woman align perfectly with the Sapphire stereotype infused with the Jezebel (portraying Black women as innately sexual), described as an “angry whore fighting injustice” (“The Sapphire Caricature”).
While Get Christie Love! may seem progressive for having a Black woman as the lead, Love was still represented in a stereotypical light. This is especially damaging considering that the only other television show in which a Black woman was the lead before Get Christie Love! is 1968’s Julia led by Diahann Carroll; much like the context of Get Christie Love!, this show described Carroll’s character, Julia, as a widowed nurse that is raising her young son alone (“Julia,” IMDb.com). Interestingly enough, while the show is focused on a Black woman, it still manages to put Black men in a negative light as well; while the reasoning behind Julia taking care of her child alone may be that her husband died in Vietnam, his absence still supports the stereotype that Black men are not present to take care of their children (Blow, nytimes.com).
However, 38 years after Get Christie Love! premiered, Kerry Washington became the first Black woman to lead a primetime drama, Scandal (Obenson, indiewire.com). Her character, political fixer Olivia Pope, while a Black woman, did not fulfill the Sapphire stereotype. Rather, Washington’s portrayal of Pope delivered all of the fairly standard elements that make Hollywood, Hollywood: sex, violence, violation, and action. In Scandal, Olivia Pope is an educated and politically active woman and the CEO of a crisis management and PR firm (Evans, 3). Throughout the series, Pope’s intellect is showcased time and time again, whether it be through her confidence, ability to be articulate, or her impeccable skill of persuading high officials (Evans, 9). In addition to her intellect, Olivia Pope has a complicated, albeit ongoing relationship with the President of the United States, a White man. While this may not seem like an important detail, the idea that Black woman can be considered desirable to a White man is one that has been rarely reinforced since Roxie Roker, mother of Lenny Kravitz, starred as one half of television’s first interracial couple in 1975’s The Jeffersons. (AP, nytimes.com). In addition to Washington being with a white man, the show is a drama, so the stereotypical dynamic of the Sapphire insulting and mocking “weak, morally defective” Black males for laughs does not exist.
Unlike many television shows and films that star Black women, Scandal is a show that audiences were excited to see because of its intentions to not be a race-specific show (Evans, 3). It is clear from the 31 wins and 67 nominations for awards such as Primetime Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG awards that the show was very well received (“Scandal,” IMDb.com). And it is known that it wasn’t only a Black audience giving the show such positive feedback, too; in the 2016-2017 season, 68 percent of Scandal viewers were non-Black (“For Us By Us?”). The Olivia Pope character is very deviant from the negative stereotypes of Black women, rendering it a successful example for other shows to follow suit when looking to portray the depth and complexity of Black women that has been virtually nonexistent in television programming up until Scandal’s release.
Scandal paved the way for flawed, multidimensional black female protagonists in television–such an effect has been dubbed ‘The Scandal Effect’ (“Scandal Paved the Way”). Ever since the show’s premiere in 2012, there has been an influx of television shows (particularly primetime television shows) that star Black women, namely How to Get Away with Murder, Being Mary Jane, Pitch, and Insecure. Political fixer Olivia Pope led to Black women portraying Sapphires and Jezebels to portraying a professor of defense law/criminal defense attorney (“How to get Away,” IMDb.com) and a successful cable news anchor (“Being Mary,” IMDb.com); from the first woman in Major League Baseball (“Pitch,” IMDb.com) to a non-profit liaison (“Insecure, IMDb.com). While not all of the shows to follow Scandal were successful, Scandal truly gave creators of television shows what feels like “permission” for Black female characters to exist beyond the Sapphire stereotype. As stated by Danielle Stagger, Vice President of Stanford’s BLACKstage, at GETTING PLAYED: 5th Annual Symposium on Equity in the Entertainment Industry and Awards, what is important here is not necessarily for all shows starring Black women (or men) as leads to be wildly successful, but rather the fact that such shows are given the opportunity and space to exist (Stagger, “5th Annual Symposium”).
The aforementioned Scandal Effect led to unbelievable strides in multidimensional Hollywood representation…for Black women. Black men have no comparable phenomenon. Shows such as Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder have the cultural influence to deconstruct stereotypes for Black women; because no such happening has occurred for Black men, the aggressive, physically threatening stereotypes for Black men are more intact, making it more difficult for the creators of television shows to even consider creating shows with Black men as the leads.
WRITERS AND DIRECTORS INFLUENCE STORIES TOLD
When looking at successful shows that star a Black woman such as Scandal, one may begin to wonder whether or not the show would exist if it were not for a Black woman being the brain behind it. Both Scandal (“Scandal,” IMDb.com) and How to Get Away with Murder (“How to Get Away,” IMDb.com) were created by Hollywood powerhouse Shonda Rhimes. In addition to Rhimes, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder had one and four other Black women writers, respectively (ibid.). Issa Rae’s Insecure had a grand total of five black woman writers as well as a majority-black writers room (“Insecure,” IMDb.com). While these numbers can be counted on a single hand, they are still very significant considering that nearly two-thirds of all television shows have zero Black writers (Wolf, newsroom.ucla.edu). The social identifiers (race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc.) of a television show’s producers, writers, and crew is very important, as it directly influences the stories being told.
In the 2016 version of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study, it is found that the percentage of Black characters in 2017 films increased by 41.8 percent when a Black director was behind the camera (Smith et al., 20). In the films with a Black director, 18.5 percent of the speaking characters were Black females, compared to a mere 2.5 percent for films without a Black director (Smith et al., 2). While this statistic is for film, as well as for Black women, it can be imagined by looking at the numbers for the shows outlined above that a similar (if not the same) conclusion holds true for Black men in television just by virtue of the fact that the race of the production team plays a profound role in the stories told.
USC Annenberg’s conclusion from the aforementioned statistics was that Black directors are either more likely to direct stories about Black characters or that they themselves pursue more opportunities that feature Black characters (Smith et al., 20). The statistics behind the shows Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, and Insecure support this conjecture; these shows had seven (“Scandal,” IMDb.com), three (“How to Get Away,” IMDb.com), and seven (“Insecure,” IMDb.com) Black woman directors, respectively. The Inclusion Initiative study says that when there is a Black director, 50.9 percent of the characters are Black vs. 9.1 percent for when there is not a Black director (Smith et al., 20). However, from the 2007-2017 period, only 4.9% of all directors were Black men. For this same period, less than one percent of Black women were directors, yet there are still more examples of multidimensional Black women leads (ibid.). From this investigation, it becomes apparent that the kind of representation for Black men matters just as much as the raw numerical data.
If White writers and showrunners did thorough empirical research before writing in minority characters, it may be imagined that the minority character depictions that come out of such research wouldn’t reinforce stereotypes. However, it appears as if this research does not occur to the extent to which it should, leading to frequent misrepresentation. For example, Lena Dunham’s Girls was heavily criticized because of its focus on four white women (Holmes, nytimes.com). But, when the show’s attempts at diversity are looked at, minority characters are portrayed as incredibly simplistic; in one instance, an older Black man was written off as what was described as a ‘mouthy homeless nuisance’ (ibid.). Imagine the damage that could’ve been done if a show such as Girls kept the same writers/showrunners and attempted to write in a minority lead. This may pose a question for some: if television shows have minorities that are not represented in the writers’ room, are they supposed to run the risk of misrepresentation by trying to write in characters of the same underrepresented minorities? Rather than answering this question, though, television shows ought to employ more writers of color.
Because the number of Black male and female writers in Hollywood is so low, it is more likely for them to be misrepresented if people of other race and gender identities are writing them in. When looking at the underrepresentation of Black male writers in conjunction with the stereotypes grounded in physical aggression, it seems almost impossible for Black male leads to come to primetime television in a meaningful way.
STATISTICS DO NOT ALWAYS REFLECT REALITY
There are many publications and studies that explore the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s writers and showrunners. However, the vast majority of them fail to conflate race and gender, making the reasoning behind Black men’s misrepresentation in television effectively invisible. The studies also fail to mention the kind of representation that exists, thereby making it very difficult to make a change. Looking at the Hollywood Diversity Report conducted by UCLA’s Dean of Social Sciences, Darnell Hunt, it is virtually impossible to accurately pinpoint the lack of diversity that we are ought to improve upon at its fullest extent (“Hollywood Diversity Report”). Before analyzing the diversity of lead actors’ race and gender, we first need to understand the current representation of writers and showrunners, as the identity of those behind the camera has a deep connection to whose stories are being told.
When parsing through the Hollywood Diversity Report, it was noticed that the vast majority of the data collected for actors, writers, and showrunners are separated into the following categories: White/minority, male/female, and White/Black/Latino/Asian/mixed/Native (“Hollywood Diversity Report”). While statistics with these categories are helpful in the way that they relay information about the general lack of diversity in Hollywood, they fail to do so in a way that allows for us to understand the representation (or lack thereof) for Black men or any other race/gender combination. When further pursuing the Hollywood Diversity Report, there was one instance in which race and gender were conflated, which was when talking about Actor counts for primetime Cable, Broadcast, and Digital scripted roles (Hunt et al., 22). Interestingly enough, when looking at these statistics, there are on average 25 more scripted roles for Black men than for Black women (Hunt et al., 26). In addition, it is stated that Black men are the only minority subset that is not underrepresented. While these statistics may make it seem as if Black men are doing fine when it comes to primetime television representation, the study neglects to talk about exactly what kind of roles Black men are being given. Are these Black men in primetime television leads? Supporting? Recurring? Even with data from one of the best studies on Hollywood diversity to date, it is still unclear.
While UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report did have the rare success in conflating race and gender, it still failed to categorize the kind of representation Black men are given. One of the most recent examples of a television show led by a Black man and likely watched by audiences during primetime is Netflix’s Luke Cage (“Luke Cage, IMDb.com). The title character, played by Mike Colter, has an origin story described as beginning with “a sabotaged experiment [that] gives him super strength and unbreakable skin […] a fugitive attempting to rebuild his life in Harlem” (ibid.). In other publications, Luke Cage is described as having “bulletproof skin,” a concept that to be proven must involve shooting at a Black man practically every episode. The show’s premise is inherently problematic, especially considering that it was released in 2016, the year #BlackLivesMatter, a movement that began as a response to George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin, went global (Armitage, buzzfeednews.com). It is also important to note that the first Black superhero as the protagonist of a comic book has a superpower that is based on his skin of all characteristics. Luke Cage’s superpower, grounded in physicality, manages to reinforce the ‘Black Buck’ stereotypes of animisticality and bruteness.
Interestingly enough, the head writer and creator of Luke Cage is Cheo Hodari Coker, a Black man. He is joined by three other Black writers, two of them also being Black men (“Luke Cage,” IMDb.com). In an interview preceding the first season of the show, Coker discusses how seeing a “black man with power that is doing things” brings a “visceral thrill” similar to that of when people saw Shaft, a film starring a Black man in the Blaxploitation era; the Luke Cage comic was written in the same period (“Hip-Hop and Superheroes”). Remembering the historical context of the Blaxploitation Era, a time with films and television shows that had stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence, it is dangerous to bring a character with that context back into the twenty-first century: a time in which people more than ever are recognizing that there ought to be more racial equality (“Blaxploitation”). Considering the very premise of the show, the reaction to it tends to be two-fold in nature: yes, Luke Cage can be an empowering figure for Black people who do not typically see themselves in comic books, but he is, inherently, also a stereotype of the time in which it was created.
For a Black man himself to not recognize the potential for Luke Cage to send the wrong message to its audience may point to a bigger problem: the internalization of stereotypes. This phenomenon likely affects Black men in a way that leads them to write in Black male characters that certainly increase representation, but have the potential to inadvertently increase misrepresentation; the very idea of having a Black male as a lead of a primetime television show seems to be revolutionary to the point in which it shadows the potential for misrepresentation, especially when a creator is a Black man. Like myself, it is possible that Coker has internalized racism and stereotypes to the point in which it is difficult to not accidentally write characters that reinforce them. Making sure Black men get positive primetime television representation is a unique task due to the multifaceted nature of the deeply physical stereotypes that are so ingrained in our culture.
HOLLYWOOD INFLUENCES THOUGHT
Hollywood, including primetime television, has the power to influence its consumers thought, perception, and biases. This effect isn’t only seen through various social identifiers such as race and gender, but also other seemingly mundane factors. According to a study conducted at Elon University, “the more time people spend living in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television” (Weaver, “Analysis of Representations”). For example, according to a study done by the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism, television has the power to influence tourism motivation; US viewers are typically more motivated to travel to places that are shown in television shows as well as participate in activities that were done in such television shows (Spears et al., 1). Another area in which Hollywood influences thought is with health; there is an almost direct correlation between the amount of smoking on television and films from the 1960s to 1990s and the number of smokers (Shields et al., tobaccocontrol.bmj.com). There are numerous other contexts in which Hollywood influences our behavior, expectations, and perceptions, whether it be from sex and relationships to the demonization of sharks (Hawkes, telegraph.co.uk).
Hollywood also has an influence on how we see and stereotype Black men. The long withstanding stereotypes that affect Black men paint this subsection of the population as physically aggressive and lazy; the depiction of Black men on primetime television only reinforces such stereotypes. When looking at the Opportunity Agenda’s Media Representations and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys, some of the ways besides primetime television in which Black men are stereotypically represented in media are in the background of video games as “gangsters” and “street people” and disproportionately represented in news stories about poverty and violence (“Social Science Literature”).
There is an inherent privilege in being a man. However, the nuances of Black manhood are often overlooked and/or exaggerated by media outlets including primetime television. Generally, positive associations of Black men are limited, as they are usually associated with physical achievement and have “macho” characters, in line with the physical stereotypes of Black men (ibid.). Thus, Black men often do not play roles that audiences can relate to. While a rich set of studies, including the Implicit Association Test, make it clear that most non-Blacks have a negative, unconscious association with Black males, it is important to note that African Americans share the same negative associations, pointing to internalized racism (“Physiological and Psychological”).
Considering this almost universal bias, the lives of Black men are heavily impacted in a negative way, leading to detrimental outcomes. Purely based on life experiences relayed by my father and other Black men in my life, some of the most prominent outcomes for Black men include police brutality, walking on the other side of the street so that women are not scared of them, and struggling to find work. The racism and discrimination that Black men (as well as Black women) face can be physical in nature as well as mental; there is effectively a constant, additional stressor on African-American males that has a high association with other chronic diseases such as hypertension (ibid.).
The next time you are watching a primetime television show, or any other product of Hollywood, I encourage you to take a look at the representation of Black males. Now, knowing that Hollywood has such immense power in shaping our thoughts, biases, and in result, actions, imagine how such an effect can lead Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Black men to translate into day-to-day interactions. There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to representation of all kinds of minorities, but, when it comes to Black men, one must wrestle with the question of how to tastefully and consciously overcome all of the deeply ingrained, physically-grounded stereotypes.
This article was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Kathleen Tarr’s course “That’s Entertainment!” The Rhetoric of Hollywood’s Inequities (Winter 2019).
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