Just as we were basking in the Black girl magic of Taraji P. Henson’s highly anticipated best actress win at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards, we were swiftly disappointed by the absence of Black actors from this year’s Oscar nominations. Despite critically acclaimed performances from Michael B. Jordan in “Creed” to Teyonah Parris in “Chi-Raq,” the Academy selected White contenders for all 20 slots in its four acting categories, leading Hollywood heavyweights like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith to call for a boycott of this year’s ceremony.
If the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that while Black actors have undoubtedly become more visible in Hollywood, they have yet to receive equitable recognition for their hard work. For black women, in particular, it has been an uphill battle to convince mainstream (read “White) audiences to not only recognize their talent, but to provide roles that are both diverse and authentic.
Whether she assumes the cliché role of the “angry black woman” or finds her race and gender identities drowned in a sea of an all white cast, the lives of black women on television very rarely have anything to do with reality. Rather, their narratives are largely rooted in what Black female identity looks like in the white imagination, with characters carefully crafted to fit into archaic paradigms of Black womanhood. As writer and blogger, Tamara Winfrey-Harris told USA Today, “We probably have more diversity of black female characters on television than ever before… The problem is there’s nowhere near the diversity that our white counterparts have.”
Perhaps the most important cultural narrative that has been ignored by film and television studios alike is that of the young black woman. While characters like Mary Jane and Olivia Pope offer a glimmer of hope for what’s to come, there is no show on television that gives black 20-somethings an honest image of themselves in all of their confused glory. As a young black woman navigating my own constantly shifting adult life, I struggle relating to the mid-career conflicts and relationship pressures experienced by the older, more seasoned black characters on television. Sadly, I have been left starved for a glimpse of myself on the big screen.
Still, the lack of diversity of black female characters is no surprise considering the racial demographics of Hollywood’s top executives. According to a report by the Ralph Bunche Center of African American Studies, roughly 96% of executives at television studio networks are White and 71% are male. A separate report The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film similarly found that just 30% of all on-screen characters are female and only 11% of those characters are Black. It appears that within the patriarchal culture of Hollywood, women — especially black women — just aren’t on the radar.
But they certainly should be.
Black Americans en masse are slowly but surely becoming more relevant in consumer culture. Not only do they represents one trillion dollars in annual spending power, they watch roughly 37% more the rest of the population.
What’s more, psychologists have found that diverse characters on TV drive greater acceptance and understanding between the races. As these characters enter our most vulnerable living spaces, our prejudices to recede and our minds identify them as individuals as opposed to a simply a color. Hence, the more diverse roles in Hollywood, the merrier.
Nevertheless, it is not enough to simply have more characters of color on TV, we must also pay close attention to how they are portrayed. In presenting stale, one-dimensional narratives of Black womanhood, we risk neglecting the countless stories that are equally legitimate and human.
There is more than one way to be black and a woman in America. It’s high time Hollywood acknowledges it.