Talks at the Schomburg: Portrayals of Black Women in Media

IMG_0007The Schomburg hosted a Women in Media chat a few nights ago and I decided to attend. I believe this is an extremely important conversation, especially for someone like me who wants to break into the field. The panelist consisted of one of my favorites, Demetria Lucas of Belle in Brooklyn blog and book; she’s also on Bravo’s Blood Sweat and Heels; Vanessa K. DeLuca Editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, Farai Chideya journalist and host of One with Farai and moderating, journalist Akisa Omulepu. So many interesting topics were brought up and I would love to share some of their discussion points as well as my takeaways.

Misogyny: Do men hate women? After watching shows like Love and Hip Hop you begin to ponder this. Sometimes it makes my heart jump when I hear a man use the B-word to address a woman, attack a woman, or even as a term of endearment. These shows allow women to be disrespected all the time. Being called a B**** is degrading. Historically, in hip hop culture, women were not viewed as queens, we were/are viewed as a man’s B****, their subordinate, or a sexual object. Women like Joseline Hernandez, allow her partner, Stevie J to degrade her because of her past as a stripper or Mimi, who allowed her boyfriend to exploit her by releasing their sex tape when she has a little daughter, are just some of the examples of misogyny illustrated on mainstream television, and it’s detrimental to our image as a whole.

Modern Mom: Sitcoms are a prime example where you see black women in modern mom roles. Most famous Clair Huxtable, yet most recently Rainbow Johnson played by Tracee Ellis Ross on the ABC hit show Blackish. She’s an eccentric and quirky doctor, and I can almost see her being that type of mom in real life. But is that the only story we have to tell? Is the modern African American mom, a pretty and a professional doctor or lawyer, with 5 children?

Breaking paradigms of black women in media: There are many people in the field now who are going against the grain and creating and producing stories about women that they want to see. The genius of this is that their platforms are not on huge media networks, but on Youtube and Vimeo. Most famously, Miss Awkward Black Girl her self Issa Rae (although now she’s becoming mainstream, producing a series on HBO), had humble beginnings on her Youtube platform and created a genius web series that was both comical and relatable.

One of my other favorites, though not discussed at the event is Andrea Lewis’s Black Actress series, which is a show that highlights the struggle of being an actress and getting note-worthy roles as a black woman. She begins each episode with a black actress who hasn’t received the acclaim they deserve, including Essence Atkins, Jennifer Lewis, and Tatyana Ali.

Recreation of paradigms:

Black women doing things outside the lane of what society thinks black women can accomplish.

Once this quote was said by one of the panelists (to be honest, I don’t recall who said it), almost immediately Olivia Pope and Mary-Jane Paul came into the conversation. These women are powerful, they stand up for what they want, they are warriors in this world and they demand the respect that they deserve. Yet sometimes all we do as a society is focus on the negative. We focus on the fact that both of them have affairs with married men (which is wrong and I also questioned why just about every black woman on TV is an adulterer), however, what it reveals, and I guess what the writers are trying to illustrate is that these characters are flawed. They are humans, they make mistakes and I believe that’s what I love about modern-day television; the characters are flawed and relatable. When I watched Full House growing up, if one of the kids lied or did something wrong, it would always come to light at the end of the episode. I hated that even as a kid because that’s not reality. Sometimes, we lie and get away with it. So in a sense, there’s a certain rebirth of characters in the media, where not only are they powerful but they are extremely flawed, and that’s okay.

Relatable characters:

Speaking of relatable characters, there’s an influx of relatable African American women characters on TV. I still love how real the first season of Being Mary Jane was when she smelled her bra after she took it off. I love how Cookie on Empire, although a bit exaggerated, is a real mama from the hood, who will beat you with a broom if you get out of line but will love you with all her heart at the same time. However, there are still some farfetched or unattainable stereotypes of women that people don’t necessarily relate to (i.e. Basketball Wives or Bad Girls Club ).

Global Representation

American culture is ubiquitous. For many people around the world, encountering a black person may only happen through the images on television. People abroad sometimes parallel the images they see on TV with the people they meet in real life. So we should actually question, What do the images of black women on American television say to the rest of the world?

I believe Farai took the lead on this by saying since American media is not going to showcase our own culture and stories, we have to seek it out ourselves (or create it ourselves). She also brought up an excellent point, that while our sisters are watching us, we are not watching them. For example, Demetria went to South Africa and told a story of being on the bus with a bunch of local women who could not stop talking about Real Housewives of Atlanta, however, as pervasive as American culture is, the bigger question is, what are our African brother and sisters stories? Why aren’t we just as curious about their lifestyle as they are about ours?

The panelist proceeded to tell stories of their time abroad where they were misjudged because of the images portrayed on television. One of the questions that were addressed was, Are reality shows doing a grand disservice to black women in media? And to be honest there’s no correct answer. We claim we want positive television but then complain that it’s too boring to watch and we get excited when there’s hair pulling and cursing at one another, so who’s to blame? The networks that want to make money? Or the audience that doesn’t demand change?

Something is invested in giving black people negative images of themselves- Demetria

Probably the best point of the night was made by Demetria when she mentioned from the first big Hollywood film ever, called Birth of a Nation to the current Kevin Hart movie in theaters now Get Hard, there’s something invested in making black people, especially black women look bad. It’s just more profitable.

Black Twitter

The conversation was led finally to the power of Black Twitter. Black Twitter is basically African Americans who tweet and weigh in on issues going on in real-time. Whether it’s roasting Damon Dash for that unreasonable interview he did with the Breakfast Club or weighing in on the verdict for Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, black twitter enforce change. It’s a collective and it’s very powerful to see the things that we can accomplish when we come together. The question now is how do we actually stick together on all facets?


@schomburglive @abrandnewworld @abelleinbk @vanessa_kdeluca @farai


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Twitter @bykyblogs

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