Reclaiming Stereotypes. An Analysis of the Continued Struggle to Counteract Stereotyping of African-American Women in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

23 Pages, Grade: 2.3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Background Information
2.1. History of Stereotyping African-American Women in Hollywood Cinema
2.2. History of Counteracting Stereotypes of African-American Women in Hollywood Cinema

3. Analysis
3.1. Stereotyping of African-American Women in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
3.2. Counteraction against Stereotypical Depictions of African-American Women in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
3.2.1. Independent Film vs. Mainstream Hollywood: Precious (2009)
3.2.2. Other Activism

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

For the most part, America ’ s movies have built upon three centuries of stereotypical imagery to depict an Africa and Afro-America that is consistent with the society ’ s deeply engrained cultural misinformation about the origins and

future of dark-skinned people. In the process, they have elaborated on the myopic vision and embroidered upon mass psychology of racism and cultural prejudice that shows few signs of being undone. ”

- Stanford M. Lyman

“ African American women hold up the strong black woman as a shield against the shame-inducing negative stereotypes of the ‘ crooked room ’ 1. To protect against always being seen as inferior, they declare themselves uniquely capable, but this

strength is a shield full of holes; it sets up new possibilities for being misrecognized. ”

- Melissa V. Harris-Perry

The phenomenon of stereotyping in the media is covered vastly in academic research. The term “stereotype” can be defined as “ [...] a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people. ” (Cardwell 1996). In social psychology, the term is further detailed as (1) an aid to explanation, (b) an energy-saving device, and (c) a shared group belief. (McGarty et al. 2002: 2). But more importantly than knowing the concept behind the word, is to understand how this “ class of people ” is categorized. Commonly, cultural studies engage in differentiation and categorization based on the following identity markers: ideology, class structures, national formations, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, and generation, often with a wider perspective of the tendencies of, what Antonio Gramsci calls, a hegemonic society (Bates 1975: 352). Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, which, in a simplified way, refers to the dominance of one social class over others (Bates 1975: 352), can be adapted to making sense of the stereotypical categorizations in media, because of its focus on culture and ideology. According to Gramsci, it is important to identify routine structures and value systems as part of the mechanism of cultural domination (Gitlin, 1994:517). Since it is a representation of popular culture and, therefore, holds a status of being highly influential, Hollywood cinema can be categorized as such. Consequently, stereotypes supported and perpetuated by Hollywood cinema have an impact on popular culture.

African-Americans have been subject to stereotyping throughout all of American cinema history. Even the earliest films depicted stereotyped images of African-Americans. But resistance has always been strong, with political groups and activists criticizing the narrow-sighted way of representation African-Americans have had to endure. However, regardless of the many attempts and successes in counteracting this misrepresentation in Hollywood cinema, the struggle continues, especially for women. Activism has been focussed mainly on male-representation, while African-American women have struggled to find a voice behind the veil of not only racial bias, but also sexism. However, significant steps have been taken throughout the last few decades to rectify the misrepresentation of women: Independent film productions have challenged the distorted images portrayed by the media. Directors, producers, writers and other film crew members as well as actors, actresses and activists have spoken out against stereotyping in Hollywood cinema. Furthermore, organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have organized protests and challenged marketing of Hollywood films depicting stereotypical representations of African-Americans. In this way, the cinema industry has been confronted by resistance coming from the inside the industry as well as the outside.

This analysis serves to outline the continued struggle of African- American women to counteract racially and sexually biased stereotypes as perpetuated by the popular media domain of Hollywood cinema in a white- dominated, patriarchal society. Moreover, it serves to shed light on recent activism and achievements, which are now commonly referred to as ‘reclaiming stereotypes’. Resistance from within the industry will be exemplified by juxtaposing the 2009 film “Precious”, an independent production which was majorly successful, with other film productions from the same year, which serve to perpetuate the misrepresentation of African- American women. Furthermore, activism stemming from sources outside of the cinema industry will be detailed, as part of a growing mind state of contempt for stereotyping African-American women.

2. Background Information

African-American women have struggled throughout American history to find a voice due to the restrictive tendencies of a gender and race- biased society. Within that society lies the movie industry, one section of the media which tends to follow cultural patterns which seem economically suitable to the industrial agenda of increasing profit. It is common for the movie industry to identify and follow stereotypes to uphold a consumer base which bases its value system on a racially biased, patriarchal society. Consequently, the misrepresentation of African-American women in Hollywood cinema has been slow to catch on, as it is a reflection of the standards and values American society upholds at a certain point in time in which the concept of racism, although consistently being fought, continues to strive. In her book “black looks”, bell hooks asserts that

“ there is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy [ … ] and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation and overall domination of all black people. ” (hooks 1992: 2)

The following summary will detail the stereotypes and expose a history of prejudice which lies at its foundation.

2.1. History of Stereotyping African-American Women in Hollywood Cinema

As mentioned above, African-Americans have been misrepresented by Hollywood cinema ever since its beginning stages:

“ Long before white supremacists ever reached the shores of what we now call the United States, they constructed images of blackness and black people to uphold and affirm their notions of racial superiority, their political imperialism, their will to dominate and enslave. ” (hooks 1992: 3)

Considering America’s racist past, it is not surprising that African-Americans were frequently characterized as either primitive and animalistic, and thereby dependent on white people with self-proclaimed superiority, which would serve to justify the second stereotype of the obedient servant, who gratefully serves the superior white master. (Lyman 1990:67) The late 19th and beginning of the 20th century’s engrained imperialistic nature further placed the African-American woman not only within a space of racial bias but also within a narrative of patriarchal dominance:

“ This patriarchal narrative of imperialization depicts the New World through rhetoric normally ascribed to women, suggesting [Africa ’ s] passive and submissive nature, awaiting the conquest of men. ” (Holmes 2016: 1)

This is when African-American women began to be represented in what came to be categorized under the following names: The mammy and the tragic mulatta, out of which grew the jezebel and the sapphire. The mammy is a dark-skinned, overweight, unattractive servant who prefers raising her master’s children over raising her own (Ladson-Billing 2009: 89). The tragic mulatta is a woman of biracial heritage, who struggles to find her place in the world and ends tragically due to the nature of her existence (Pilgrim 2000). The dichotomy becomes clear. The African-American woman, being a subject of male gaze (Mulvey 1975: 19) based on her sex, is categorized and simplified as either sexually taboo or accessible to ‘superior men’ in nature, with miscegenation lying at the foundation of her very being, or completely asexual and undesirable, but extensively useful to men. She is a product, not only of her a marginalized race, but also of an oppressed sex.

While the mammy is still a commonly utilized stereotype in comedy movies (Love 2014: 59), the tragic mulatto has been predominantly replaced by different stereotypes, although the topic of mixed-race heritage in connection with psychological troubles is still thematized to this day. Those stereotypes are the jezebel and the sapphire (Ladson-Billing 2009: 89). Ladson-Billing describes the jezebel as a promiscuous seductress who manipulates men to get what she wants. The jezebel finds her origins in slavery, just like the rest of the stereotypes. The female slave was

“ coerced, bribed, induced, seduced, ordered, and, of course, violently forced to have sexual relations with slaveholders, their sons, male relatives, and overseers. ” (West 2008: 294)

And, of course, the objectification of African-American women, which led to this stereotype did not end there, and continued throughout a century of antipathy and prejudice towards African-Americans which often manifested as sexual abuse towards African-American women. The jezebel stereotype branded African-American women as women who could not be raped due to their perceived infinite sexual desires.

The sapphire is portrayed as being hateful, stubborn and bossy (Ladson-Billing 2009: 89), whose origins lie in times of slavery as well. Because of the white woman’s perceived superiority, it was commonplace for African-American women to look to them for standards of femininity. White women were frequently portrayed as frail and passive, which was an unattainable image for African-American women who had to spend their time as masculinized laborers. The additional truth, that it was common for African-American women to lose their children and husbands due to the horrors of the slave trade, is said to have likely caused bitterness and anger. Carolyn West theorizes in her 2008 research paper, that this is probably the origin of the media misrepresentation. These stereotypes are rarely challenged and, to this day, either accepted or, on the contrary, and mostly in academic circles, perceived as highly controversial (295).

The focus regarding the elimination of stereotypes has much more commonly been put on men. After the production of The Birth of a Race (John W. Noble, 1918) as a response to the pro-Ku Klux Klan production The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915), and the establishment of the NAACP, race movies (Benshoff et al. 2004: 83) began to become popular. After decades of white men in blackface playing black men, it was perceived as quite liberating that these movies featured black men playing roles commonly portrayed by white men. However, this step in the counteraction of stereotypes did not make a large enough dent in the fight against stereotyping for men, if any, for women. Lyman noted that

“ [ … ] the pattern of change had not yet reached the plane wherein Hollywood ’ s filmic imagination would have Negro life admitted to the full range of human characterization”. (71)

After the introduction of the Production Code, the tragic mulatto stereotype was considered too much of a taboo subject to be thematized while the mammy stereotype prevailed and entered a new era when in 1939, Hattie McDaniel, playing the role of a mammy maid in the film Gone with the Wind (1939), won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, what was perceived then as a new liberal consciousness, was merely a smoke screen for the typecasting of African-American women. In her 1992 book, bell hooks, quoting Ron Scapp, states that

“ Liberals may pride themselves in their ability to tolerate others but it is only after the other has been redecribed as oneself that the liberal is able to be ‘ sensitive ’ to the question of cruelty and humiliation. This act of redescription is still an attempt to appropriate others, only here it is made to sound as if it were a generous act. It is an attempt to make an act of consumption appear to be an act of acknowledgement. ” (13)

However, the emergence of the new liberal agenda also brought about a surge in, what is referred to as prestige movies. These movies were a way for the liberal movement to promote its own concepts and ideas (Benshoff et al. 2004: 84) while Hollywood productions still stereotyped African-American woman, such as Dorothy Dandridge in the 1950s and 60s, a period which called for media caution due to the extensive protesting against racial injustice and prejudice. (Benshoff et al. 2004: 85).

The 70s then redefined African-American cinema greatly. Blaxploitation films, charged with violence and sex, commonly featuring a male African-American hero, were considered the new great protest against stereotypical representations of African-Americans. However, this trend was sooner than later marginalized as well by exploiting African-Americans and creating a new stereotype which suited white audiences. Beretta E. Smith-Shomade states that

“ [this] mythology created by this ‘ good nigga/bad nigga ’ dichotomy lent fuel and profit to the makers of Hollywood product. Most of these Blaxploitation films characterized all African descendants as monolithic balls of anger, trapped within urban jungles and forever banished to the margins of society. ” (Smith-Shomade 2003: 27)

African-American women were introduced later in the Blaxploitation era as highly sexualized, loud and angry women. (Benshoff et al. 2004: 89) The 1980s then led the way for the stereotypical depiction of the still popular black and white buddies in Hollywood cinema , usually featuring a white hero and his black best friend as his side-kick. However, the 80s were also the era of young Spike Lee, an up and coming director, who tried continuously to counteract stereotypical depictions of ‘blackness’ by thematizing race as a real issue, which needed to be discussed. Unfortunately, the focus on African-American women was still lacking.

2.2. History of Counteracting Stereotypes of African-American Women in Hollywood Cinema

When blaxploitation films became popular, African-American women were still pushed onto the side-lines of activism. Smith-Shomade makes this clear when she states that

“ [ … ] the legitimate anger of black women - dually oppressed (within and without) through race and gender - was often belittled and ignored in all this cultural production. ” (27)

In fact, when films such as Cleopatra Jones (1973) began showing AfricanAmerican women as strong, capable heroines, some African-American activist spokesmen felt that “ [ … ] the black man had to be raised up before (and often at the expense of) the black woman ”, sometimes even claiming that “[ … ] films with strong females and weaker males were another slap at black manhood. ” (Benshoff et al. 2004: 89).

Spike Lee’s focus on the African-American community also left much to be desired in context to the struggle of African-American women. In a 1993 essay on the topic, bell hooks describes Lee’s lack of focus on women as problematic, by claiming that while being

“ uncompromising in his commitment to create images of black males that challenge perceptions and bring issues of racism to the screen, he conforms to the status quo when it comes to images of females. ” (14)

However, the 80s also brought about several movies which set their focus on the African-American experience, one of them with special emphasis on women. Perhaps the most famous one being one which is considered one of the most influential movies, to this day: The Color Purple (1985). The film explores the struggle for African-American women to survive in the South during the first few decades of the twentieth century. The movie explores themes of religion and womanhood as well as physical, sexual and psychological abuse. (Benshoff et al. 2004: 92) Furthermore, it criticizes hegemonic social structures by refusing to “ [use] patriarchal languages and logics of power to describe the emergence of a postpatriarchal Afro-American national consciousness, [ … ]. ” (Berlant 1988: 833) . Starring popular African-American actresses like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey as well as Danny Glover, the film was highly praised while suffering some criticism from the African-American community for being directed by white director Steven Spielberg, and supposedly showing signs of what was termed “male-bashing” (Benshoff et al. 2004: 92). However, to this day, the production is considered one of the big steps in African-American women setting themselves apart from the stereotypical depictions in Hollywood movies and dealing with issues of race in the media in a critical way.

The era of the struggling Black Independent film in the 1990s also set the stage for the Hollywood counter-play of Neo-Blaxploitation, which re-introduced the character of the African-American gangster with a new twist. With the often misogynistically charged rap-music experiencing a quick-paced increase in popularity, the African-American man was stereotyped in Neo-Blaxploitation movies as the violent, misogynist criminal once again, while women were still in the background. However, in her 2003 essay, Smith-Shomade explains that the era also created a new image for women, one which portrayed an aspect of femininity which had not yet been stereotyped. She calls this time the era of the “hip hop gangsta ” movie. (Smith-Shomade 2003: 24) While Hollywood crime movies commonly presented (especially white) women as mothers and housewives, who were not part of the crime-organization, hip hop gangsta movies offered a different perspective. As an opposite to the common depiction of women not being part of the family crime business in crime movies directed by African- American men from eras such as the 30s and 40s (Dark Manhattan (1937); Underworld (1937)), the 1990s integrated female characters as part of the family crime organization. Furthermore, movies such as Set it Off (1996) even showed women “ occupying spaces traditionally held by males [which helped] black women in hip hop gangsta movies uniquely affirm and reconnect to certain African American cultural practices frequently absent in presentations of ethnic life. ”

She explains further that “unlike other crime families, black crime families often integrate women into their business affairs.” (Smith-Shomade 2003: 25) This phenomenon put African-American women into positions of authority without having to adhere to any particular stereotype.


1 The crooked room is a term defined by Melissa V. Harris-Perry as the place where black women find themselves when confronting race and gender stereotypes. (Harris-Perry 2011)

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Reclaiming Stereotypes. An Analysis of the Continued Struggle to Counteract Stereotyping of African-American Women in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
University of Bremen
Analyzing Hollywood Cinema
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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hollywood, culturalstudies, english
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Aneka Brunßen (Author), 2017, Reclaiming Stereotypes. An Analysis of the Continued Struggle to Counteract Stereotyping of African-American Women in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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