TV’s Strong Black Woman

After reading both of David’s posts on Strong Female Characters, I was reminded of BuzzFeed’s “It’s Time To Say Good-Bye To TV’s Strong Black Woman.” It’s not what you think. The article talks about two heroines on television who are black, strong, and also allowed to feel. The article discusses the problems inherent to the representation of black women on television as, “women who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” The author of this article, Nichole Perkins, argues that although being a Strong Black Woman is intended to be a compliment, serving as a counterpoint to negative representations of black females in American culture, this “superhuman” stereotype of Strong Black Woman is just as dangerous as the stereotypes it’s meant to counteract.

Abigail Mills on Sleepy Hollow

Perkins believes that television’s typical depiction of the SBW dehumanizes black women, because they are presented without needs of their own. Perkins cites Olivia Pope on Scandal and Abigail Mills on Sleepy Hollow as characters who work against the SBW stereotype; they are strong women who also feel. These two characters are heroines, but not stoics. Personally, I find Olivia Pope the most heroic in moments when she is conflicted, when she does what she needs to do, despite the emotional hardship. At her firm, besides the “We are Gladiators” motto, there is another, which is: “There is no crying at Pope and Associates.” Olivia takes on the burdens of others, which is heroic, but what makes her more heroic, is that she has burdens of her own. The goal is to remain strong, to remain stoic, but feeling is inherent to our nature, especially when overwhelmed with the responsibility of supporting, protecting, or saving others.

Olivia Pope on Scandal

Perkins then goes on to discuss when, “Black women are practically (and sometimes literally) insensate on many other popular shows.” She cites Suits’ Jessica Pearson who uses her stoicism to intimidate her colleagues and competition and Queenie (a human voodoo doll) from American Horror Story: Coven. In the house of witches, each possesses a unique supernatural power and Queenie has the ability to physically harm herself (without feeling pain) in order to project that pain onto others. These two characters of the four that Perkins discusses mask their physical and emotional pain or feel none at all.

Queenie on American Horror Story: Coven

Perkins’ concern makes sense to me. Her article reminded me of Herbst’s “Lara’s Lethal Mission.” Herbst is also concerned with the dangers in misrepresenting female bodies within the entertainment industry, whether it is video games, television or film. Herbst writes:

On the screens that inescapably occupy our surroundings, women these days are at the receiving end of bone-shattering blows…Women are thrown about rooms and smashed against furniture and walls, wearing their bruises like badges of honor…women’s bodies are misrepresented as super tough and indestructible (37).

This image of female toughness/indestructibility fights in the same way that SBW fights against the stereotype of the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire; for Herbst, female invincibility fights against the stereotype of women as weak and incompetent (39). But just as Perkins argues, this alternative is dangerous, because it ignores reality, that women are human:

…women are far more likely to be the target of an assault because they tend to be physically weaker than their aggressors. Amidst the rhetoric of empowerment, it is often overlooked that damage done and hurt inflicted on this side of the screen is real. Women’s onscreen ability to survive serious physical assault largely unscathed inadvertently implies tolerance of violence against women (39).

We live in a world where there is violence against women. There is danger in dehumanizing female characters in entertainment so that they seem indestructible, unfeeling or expendable. When I think of male heroes, some are stoic, some are conflicted, some are emotional, and I think this is unfair. I think that since the male hero is written so much more frequently than the heroine, there is more diversity of character. I wonder if the characteristics of a stereotypical SBW would be as much of a problem if there were more black female characters on television, to a point that there wouldn’t be a single type of black heroine, but a multitude (the way it is for male heroes). For now, because there aren’t, it is dangerous to keep all strong black female characters within the confines of stoicism. Or maybe like Herbst’s argument, it is dangerous to depict women ever as something other than human, which means always depicting their vulnerability, both emotional and physical.


2 thoughts on “TV’s Strong Black Woman

  1. I completely agree. I was thinking about your post a few weeks back when Kerry Washington hosted SNL, the opening skit speaks to the role of black women in television, or more so lack of (particularly in SNL). You should definitely check it out!

    • Thanks for posting this! I never know how to read these types of things–this skit is SNL’s clear acknowledgment of public criticism, but it still doesn’t engage the criticism, or take it at all seriously–especially by having Kerry Washington, one of television’s biggest stars, participate, perhaps trying to use her as an example that television has moved past the issue of race and gender, why can’t the critics?

      I noticed something similar on the Mindy Project a couple weeks ago. Kaling has come under scrutiny, because her character Mindy only dates white men. A few episodes back Mindy’s coworkers commented on the fact she only dates white guys and it ends up getting Mindy misinterpreted as a racist in this outrageous scenario. Here Kaling acknowledges the critics and then ridicules their accusations without serious engagement.

      When Kaling has responded to this criticism personally, she shifts blame, trying to make the problem in the question itself.

      “Do people really wonder on other shows if female leads are dating multicultural people?” the poster child for our New Hollywood Issue asks EW in our cover story this week. “Like I owe it to every race and minority and beleaguered person. I have to become the United Nations of shows?”

      These two instances remind us that self-awareness is good, but thoughtful discussion and/or action is better.

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