By Tyanna David for Writing 101: Writer’s Workshop at The College of New Rochelle, Fall 2014
Due to the influence of pop culture on gender roles, many people look to the media for guidance on how they should look, behave, or act; for women this is especially true. The depiction of black women is a prime example of how the media generates a set of standards for a woman, specifically women of color in regards to their skin and hair. The influence that the media has on black women is damaging because it causes confusion and, in some cases, self-hate. The media dictates how black women, especially younger women, should look, and because their youth makes them easily influenced, they tend to adapt destructive ideals about self-image.
When watching movies and TV shows starring black women, it is rare to see their hair in a natural state. Their hair is usually pressed with flat irons, permed with straightening chemicals, or braided and sewn over with weaves and extensions. “Kinky” hair is what many people refer to the tight-curled 4a/4b hair (it does not have a loose curl), and is found on many African American women. When a young black woman is watching TV and sees women with 4a/4b textured hair that’s always either straight or in a weave, she may begin to feel under the pressure that her hair is not good enough to be shown the way it actually is.
The reality is that black women do not get as many major roles on TV as white women do, and it has an even worse impression on young ladies when they barely show their natural hair. This gives young ladies the idea that their hair is looked down upon, when most white women on TV are wearing their real hair in a natural state.
Examples of the weaves and chemically-processed hair being favored in Hollywood can be seen on two popular ABC television shows by an African American woman, Shonda Rhimes. In the show How To Get Away With Murder, the main character played by Voila Davis is a middle aged black woman who lives a stressful life as a lawyer and Professor, while coming home to her suspicious husband who plays a big role in one of her cases. Throughout the show, Davis is seen in different kinds of wigs, while teaching at the school, while in court, and outside with associates. It is only late at night does she take off her make-up, her wig, and she begins to cry and let out all the stress she feels.
This may seem like a small scene, but it was powerful and sparked a lot of controversy because many people were so surprised and pleased to see a black woman in a movie show her natural hair, in a very natural state, clearly not being combed, detangled, or touched. During an interview with the Huffington Post by Caroline Frost, Viola Davis spoke about her role and why she chose to do such a powerful scene:
“I pushed for that to happen.” says Viola. “I said, she’s not going to bed with her wig on.”
“It could be powerful and liberating, but she’s got to take her wig off. Because who Annalise is in public is a big fat lie, and we have to see her taking off the armour, which is so thick, it becomes all the more dramatic when she removes it, and you see all the pain.”
“I did feel vulnerable,” (Frost 3).
The big question is why was her wig only off in the home scene? Is her hair not good enough to be worn around associates, or at her work place? These are all valid questions that speak to feelings about the state of African American women’s natural hair.
In another TV series Scandal, the main character is another African American woman named Olivia Pope played by Kerry Washington. Throughout the show, she is working in the White House while having an affair with the President. She is also heavily involved with another man, Jake Ballard, and at the end of the third season, they flee to the islands to escape Washington.
In this scene, and only in this scene, do viewers see Kerry Washington’s natural curly afro while she is prancing about on the beach, carefree and relaxed. In the next scene, when Olivia is back in Washington, she is more serious, and her hair is back to the straightened look viewers are used to seeing her in.
Rhimes uses these scenes to bring up a major point that is sometimes ignored, which is that black women tend to wait until they are home, or away from a group of people to reveal their natural hair. Some people may believe it is due to shame for not having the ideal straight and long hair or soft bouncy curls that white women naturally possess, and because of this they do not show it off. Others think it is because “black hair” is looked at as unprofessional.
While Shonda Rhimes brings up a valid point through her TV shows, there are real life instances in which many African American women, or women with thicker and curlier hair has been giving a hard time in the work place because of the way their hair looks. According to the book Racism, Sexism, and the Media by Clint C. Wilson II:
“As a news anchor and reporter she found that station management would enforce hair and dress codes that would essentially mute her African American heritage. When she wore her hair naturally she was told that it was ‘unprofessional’, and that she needed to ‘Angilicize’ her hair” (Wilson 218).
This was about a former NBC and CBS news anchor named Libby Lewis who spoke on the struggles of being an African American in the professional world. Media plays a big part in this because people are so used to seeing what looks professional and normal on TV in professional scenes that they incorporate that into everyday life and give people with thicker, and curlier textured hair are a hard time for something that should not be frowned upon being that they are born with it. Libby Lewis is one of the many women who get called out at work for having issues they cannot fix. Even in the army, a woman must wear her hair only two inches above their head or in buns. However, the way 4a/4b natural hair grows, it is very hard, almost impossible at times, for a woman’s hair to grow downward so that it isn’t two inches above her head. The thickness of 4a/4b hair also gives women a difficult time putting their hair in buns, which is a style seen as professional.
Another issue that African American women deal with is their skin tone. African American skin color tones range from very light, to very dark, causing a lot of controversy within the black community also because of the big deal that has been made about their skin complexions. Pop culture has also played a role in this due to the negative things being said about black women of darker skin tones, and the excess attention and screen-time that women of lighter skin get. This has led to an on-going inner battle that many black women with darker skin go through because of their feelings of lack of acceptance by other people in the media.
Hip Hop and R&B music plays a big role in the black community, and when watching videos and listening to lyrics, it is noted that derogatory statements are sometimes made about “ dark skin women” and most women of lighter skin, and Latinas get more roles in these music videos as opposed to darker skinned black women. In the song “Right Above It” by rapper Lil Wayne, he raps, “Beautiful black woman / I bet that bitch looks better red” (Lil Wayne 42-43). When the rapper says “red” he is talking about what people call a “red-bone,” which is a woman of yellow, or lighter skin. These lyrics are offensive because they bring down darker skinned women. Why can’t darker skinned women be just as beautiful as lighter skinned women? In the book The Three Dimensions of A Magnificent Black Woman: An Inspiration To Succeed, it states that:
“Society and regard the European standard for beauty, which is light skin, thin lips, thin nose and straight hair, as standard; therefore, it is hard for some our black women to feel good about their natural appearance. Beauty is so diverse that no particular characteristic personifies it. Have we regressed in our culture to a time when it was thought that whites were superior because of the color of their skin? Have we gone back to a time of the Willie Lynch idea that the house slave was regarded as better because he/she was lighter in skin color than their darker skinned field hands?” (Nealy 36).
This quote describes the characteristics that many black women today feel are beautiful because it is what is force fed to them through magazines, television, and music. When a person sees less of themselves, or people like them, and more of a certain kind they start to question their own beauty, and begin to want to look more like what they see.
Black women sometimes have a hard time being taken seriously in the entertainment industry because it is harder to land prominent, well-respected roles. Women can earn a role sometimes based on how they look putting African American women at a disadvantage since white women, and women with lighter skin are seen as most popular and more desirable in films. In the book Cultural Impact Of Film’s Imaging of Black Women, the author Norma Manatu speaks on the problems African American women face in the media, especially in films. She states:
“The inclination has been to feature an abundance of lighter-skinned black females in films, advertisements, videos, and the like. Same- race color bias is one indication of how female polarization, itself employed to drive the stereotype of black female hyper sexuality, is ubiquitous in media offerings” (Manatu 93).
What the quote is explaining is that is it easier for a light-skinned woman to get roles on TV because they are most of the time looked at as attractive. While Manatu goes on to say that black women usually have to be over sexualized to earn roles in over sexualized movies and videos. “On the narrative level, humor functions to “mask” the sexual stereotype assigned to darker skinned actresses even as the oft times pseudo-sublimated visual images perpetuate the lurid stereotype” (Manatu 93). This is damaging to black women as a whole because the younger generations, and even women of age who watch these shows and TV and see the roles that darker women play, will feel obligated to have to act that way or play those roles in real life to get attention or be famous one day. Black celebrities, like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Gabourey Sidibe are “white washed” all the time in order to appear lighter skinned and more desirable:
The typical woman chosen to act, sing, or represent famous brands creates a story for viewers about what type of women is most beautiful. In the book Tenderheaded: A Comb Bending Collection of Hair Stories by Pamela Anderson, Anderson speaks on a doctor’s opinion of black women image: “One doctor blames the media for Africans’ desire for lighter skin: Although they push the ‘Black is Beautiful’ slogan, the models and the pin-ups they choose are often light skin women with a Western appearance” (Anderson 218). The only way to put a stop to this is to not just say that black is beautiful but to show the beauty of all shades. Hollywood must stop typecasting darker skinned women in roles that are derogatory or less than desirable, instead tell truthful stories using realistic women; real women come in all shades, shapes, and sizes, with a variety of hairstyles. Light-skinned black women with blonde hair are the respected minority of an already unrepresented minority.
It is already hard enough being a woman because of the looks and behavior they have to uphold but singling out a special type and making another feel bad about themselves adds on to the issue.
Popular culture continues to ignite a skin color and hair texture battle among black women. In order to combat these issues, it is important to acknowledge them; by acknowledging that there is rift between light and dark skin women, the potential to improve will be created and lead to the truth: that all black women are beautiful in their own ways. There is much more to black women than the thickness of their hair that is frowned upon, and the darkness or lightness of the skin that has played a major role in the separation of the black community as a whole. It’s time to take off the armor and just be.
Harris, Juliette, and Pamela Johnson. Tenerheaded: A Comb Bending Collection of Hair Stories. Washington Square Press, 2001. Print.
Frost, Caroline. “‘How To Get Away With Murder’ Star Viola Davis Explains Why Annalise Keating’s Wig Has To Come Off.” Black Voices. Huffington Post. 29 October 2014. Web.
Lil Wayne. “Right Above It.” I Am Not a Human Being. Young Money Entertainment, Cash Money Records, and Universal Motown, 2010. Mp3.
Manatu, Norma. Cultural Impact of Film’s Imagining of Black Women. Web.
Nealy, Marie A. The Three Dimensions of a Magnificent Black Woman: An Inspiration to Succeed. AuthorHouse, 2013. Print.
Wilson II, Clint C, Felix Gutierrez, and Lena Chao. Racism, Sexism, and the Media: Multicultural Issues Into the New Communications Age. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.