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A scandalous portrayal? Black women in the media


'Scandal' actress Kerry Washington

Abi Johnson
WVoN co-editor

ABC recently celebrated the finale of its prime-time television series, ‘Scandal.’

In this political thriller, Kerry Washington plays a character based on Judy Smith, a former White House aide and consultant.

What’s different about this show is that it features a black woman in a lead role. For me, the scandal is that still too few black women play dramatic leads on television.

The issue of the representation of black women in the media is one that I’ve followed closely for the last 20 years.

This is partly because I am a media professional myself, and partly because I am interested in seeing how I am represented on screen (or not) and whether my views are expressed in print (and how).

I’m hoping the two extremes of us either being invisible or stereotypically portrayed is a thing of the past.  Sadly, it seems it’s not.

Today, the same questions are still as pertinent as 20 years ago. Where am I on the television? Am I only ever a singer, an actress, a sidekick, a comedian or a sportswoman? Why, in print, am I confined to covering issues of race? 

Brittany McBryde from Pittsburg was so frustrated with the portrayal of black women in media that she made a film about it – The Image of Black Women.

“It started as an idea of bringing a new voice to the topic of diversity – my voice, specifically,” McBryde said.

And so her documentary film was made, not just to challenge stereotypes, but also to explore how black women themselves have become de-sensitised to seeing themselves portrayed in certain ways.

And if portrayal is a problem, so too is invisibility.

Victoria Coren, writing in The Guardian, says she feels a bit sad when flicking through magazines  “that all the faces are white.”

“I think we’ve reached general agreement,” she continued, “that this is weird and wrong, that black women should be more visible in all media, especially the women’s market.”

‘Don’t Tweet me this way – still sexist and not just on paper,’ a National Union of Journalists conference on women in the media taking place in London later this month, will focus on the issue on women in the media.  Participants have been asked ahead of time certain questions about their experiences.

It has also asked delegates to suggest if it has left any questions out. Yes. The issue of black women in the media has not been included on the agenda.

So, I’m putting it on the agenda here. Without diluting the focus on women, it is also important that the particular experiences of black women should form part of the debate too.

Many of the questions covered by the NUJ “pre-conference” relate just as easily to issues of race.

For example, whether your career as a journalist has been affected by being a woman, the pay gap, discrimination in old age, sexual harrasement, discrimination in redundancy, freelance female bloggers, being side-lined to features rather than financial pages, glass ceilings …the list is endless.

So, let’s take a look at television.  I’m pleased to see that there has been a proliferation of black women’s faces on UK TV recently.

But you know why? London 2012.

With so many of Team GB coming from diverse backgrounds, black women are being promoted as the face of this product and the face to promote the games.

Take for example the advertisement of the mother who proudly watches her son develop and grow from a toddler to a top athlete – all in the name of promoting a certain brand of wash powder.

And while it is good to see these images, a legacy of the Olympics should be that these adverts continue to be seen and be made long after the athletes have returned home, long after the medals have been proudly placed in display cabinets and long after the Olympics are over.

Moreover, despite the increase in the number of black women’s images in the media in the run up to the games, this continual link of black people and sport and music is outdated.

Of course, there are many strong, powerful black athletes, and in the music world it goes without saying the black presence is omnipresent. But there should be other things in the mix too, besides music and sport.

When it comes to the print world, while there are a growing number of female journalists from diverse backgrounds, too often we only see them when a comment is needed about a certain race or cultural issue.

These women have a breath of knowledge and experience in a diversity of areas, but often it’s cultural/race/ethnic issues that they are asked to give an opinion on, usually with the title ‘Cultural Critic’ or ‘Commentator.’

I know such women can certainly provide a comprehensive critique on the cultural issues of the day. But, I am confident too that they can also comment on matters of finance and economy, war and defense, education and enterprise.

And if they can’t, there are many black women behind them who can. But we are rarely asked to.

As a young journalist back in the day, I was often pigeon-holed into working in areas covering race. While those are the areas I like exploring, this did not mean I wanted to be restricted to just these domains, and so I worked on several BBC programmes covering a breadth of topics without being labeled.

That said, I will always see the world from the perspective of being a young black woman (OK not so young!). I will always see the world from the perspective of being a black woman.

Because that’s what I am.

So, 20 years on, some progress has been made, there is less of the ‘mammy figure’ or of the angry black woman on our television screens. In America, Gloria Browne-Marshall has become the first black woman to receive media credentials to cover the US Supreme Court.

We have Kerry Washington as the lead black woman in a primetime ABC television show.

For me, the fact that we can name them on one hand means it’s still too few.

We are still largely invisible.

There’s still work to be done.

I hope some of it can be continued at the forthcoming NUJ conference on women in the media.

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