The Heavy Weight of Stereotypes on Black Actresses

Blog Post #2

In my previously posted blog, I was introducing our research study, “Diary of a Mad Black Actor: The Real Range of Roles Being Given to African Americans” and its different components. If you did not get a chance to read the previous blog post you can read it by clicking here.  After fully diving into my research, I realized I was going to have to break the topic down into smaller categories to better understand my rather large data set. One of my prime methodologies while conducting this study is “bubble charts”. The software I use, Bubbl.us, allows the user to virtually create “mind-maps” or bubble charts that start with a single topic and expand to break that large title down to smaller topics.  The first sub-categories I created were African-American male actors and African-American female actors. With those two sub-categories, I created two different charts one for males and one for females. In this posting, I will specifically cover my findings on African- American female actors and provide insight on my data set and results thus far. The large scale data of female actresses was minimized to a smaller set for this blog post

Black Actresses and their Stereotypes

When diving into the topic of black actresses and the various roles being given to them, at first hand it seemed like there was a wide variety of roles being offered. From maids, to moms, secretaries, cops etc. It seemed as though black women were playing a full variety of roles. However, after closely studying the individual roles and the archetypes associated with them, my overall finding surprised me. It seemed as though Hollywood was writing the same role over one hundred times, with a different name and a different actress attached to it. The descriptions for some characters were so similar, it appeared a person could copy and paste the biography of another character into that space and no one would even notice. The actresses in my chart were carefully chosen in order to represent a full range of women. Laverne Cox is a transgender women which represents the LGBTQ community in my chart. The LGBTQ community represents a large portion of the acting industry as well as the world, so it definitely made sense to include it. In addition to including the LGBTQ community, my age range for the actresses is very wide. With the youngest actress, Keke Palmer, at the age of 23 and the eldest actress, Kym Whitley, at the age of 56. By using this wide variety of women, there will be a clear answer that these stereotypes are being put on all black women regardless of age or sexual orientation. The roles each actress played on this chart vary in genre. From comedies, to thrillers and dramas, a wide scale of genres is portrayed in this chart. Finally, I not only included feature films and network television shows, but streaming services shows are included as well to cover the broad spectrum of viewing experiences people have currently.

After analyzing the roles I used in my smaller scale chart shown below, it became apparent that 50% of the roles in my data set fell under an image known as the “Sapphire”. According to Dr. Carolyn West in her article “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their Home Girls”, the sapphire stereotype is an African-American women character “who is frequently depicted rolling her neck, with her hands on her hips, telling off the person who has just offended her” (West 296). 14% of the chart fell under the “jezebel”, a stereotype in which a black woman is hyper-sexualized, or is willing to use her good looks or sex to get what she wants. The rest of the chart features a variety of different characters that were refreshingly non-stereotypical. The color-coded bubble chart, which can be viewed by clicking here, displays an array of black actresses and 1-2 well know roles they have played. I used overall viewer ratings in the United States for television shows [click here for all television ratings] and overall domestic movie grossing [click here to access all domestic grossings] to determine which roles were the most well-known.

Los Angeles Times Video

The Los Angeles Times recently released a video (and an article) featuring black actresses in Hollywood talking about the roles they constantly end up playing and the limited chances they get to play other kinds of roles. This video features Kym Whitley who is mentioned in my chart as well. The video reinforces my research by showing how absolutely necessary it is. These testimonials, published just 3 weeks ago, show how current this issue of stereotypes are as well as demonstrating the light currently trying to be shown on these stereotypes by the people who feel trapped by them in Hollywood. The stereotypes are put in these characters played by these women not because of acting ability, or genre but simply because of race. The Los Angeles Times is a massive news publication as well, so this platform publishing this story gives it the large audience it needs. These testimonials provide an insider opinion, as people are able to hear straight from the mouths of the actresses themselves, the inescapable pit of stereotypes they too often find themselves in. Click here to watch the video.

Conclusion

The process of this study was not easy at all. As I continue I know there will be more challenges. In addition to being extremely time consuming, this research study was especially hard because I had to completely scrap a massive chart I had created when I realized the software I was using prior to bubbl.us (Popplet) would no longer work for me. The software crashed on my computer along with a very large spreadsheet of male and female actresses with their roles. After countless attempts to recover the data, it was very clear I would not be able to recover it and it was back to square one for me. Unfortunately, in the digital age humanities projects, or film studies projects are all generally done virtually now so I am grateful to have found bubbl.us to continue my research.  It was difficult but I hope my research has brought some light to the topic and made more people aware of the stereotypes and lack of variety in Hollywood for African-American females. At first-hand it may look like there is variety but digging into the roles made me discover otherwise

This topic is so extensive and I know there is so much more research to be done, especially for the male side of the topic. I hope to continue this research as I expand the male category with a big movie like Black Panther coming out next year with an all black cast. While I am studying the male category I hope to research not only the stereotypes put on straight men but men apart of the LGBTQ community as well. Many times in cinema and television there is an extreme overlap with female stereotypes and LGBTQ male stereotypes so I look forward to that research as well. I hope to expand my research already performed as well. I look forward to seeing what else will come my way with this study.

Thank you!

-Kezia Dacosta

Diary of a Mad Black Actor: The Real Range in Roles Being Given to African Americans

Hello everyone! My name is Kezia Dacosta, I am a rising sophomore studying Film and Screen Studies at Pace University. In addition to studying Film in school, I am an actress. As a young black actress there is a clear lack of opportunity in this industry for people of color. A chance to be seen in a significant role, or one of remembrance seems like a distant dream to many black actors. Just last year, the #OscarsSoWhite scandal was a huge story in the media, when people realized not a single best or supporting actor nominee for the year previous or that year was black. This is a time of serious pushes for equality in the media and opportunity to be given to African Americans. Dr. Lauren Cramer and I are currently working on a research study relating to this topic with the tentative title; Diary of a Mad Black Actor: The Real Range in Roles Being Given to African Americans.

Our study will focus primarily on Contemporary Black Media. Currently movies like Get Out(2017) and Black Panther(2018) have been receiving plenty of coverage with race being the clear topic of discussion. African Americans are playing superheroes and affluent characters in the 21st century so this study will focus on todays current range of roles compared to a much smaller range many years ago.  The purpose of this study is to analyze the roles African-American actors are portraying today in film and television.  I am an African American actor and from my personal observations, my current hypothesis is African American actors are not offered the full range of roles they could be. They are instead forced into playing the same kind of role repeatedly. After the study is over, I will be making a documentary on my topic using all the data I gather.

My first step in this study will be to define contemporary black media. After creating a definition, I proceed to making a list of contemporary black media which will include movies and television shows. Afterwards, I interview black actors who can give their testimony on the range of roles they have auditioned for or booked. I will then use their experiences to analyze and “code” the roles in contemporary black media. I will then expand my analysis by researching the other roles played by the black actors in my original data set over the last five years, including roles that are not considered contemporary black media. This methodology is a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.

With this list I will transfer the movies and television shows over to my primary method of approach which will be “visualizing my data” in a flow chart to observe the patterns I find. These charts consist of a series of bubbles all connecting with different African American actors, the movies they have performed in and the various roles they have portrayed. By color-coding the flow chart, I will have a clear visual representation of the range of roles being portrayed, and how wide the actual range is. After collecting all this data, I will then be able to see the high profile actors range of roles being portrayed as well as up and coming actors range of roles.

I hope you found this introductory piece informative and I look forward to the next posting where I can share some of my findings! That’s all folks!