African-American Representation In The Media Essay

In Jacqueline Bobo’s article, The Color Purple : Black Women as Cultural Readers, she discusses the way in which black women create meaning out of the mainstream text of the film The Color Purple. In Leslie B. Innis and Joe R. Feagin’s article, The Cosby Show : The View From the Black Middle Class, they are examining black middle-class responses to the portrayal of black family life on The Cosby Show. In their respective articles, Bobo, and Innis and Feagin are investigating the representation of race, particularly African American race, in the mass media. The chief concerns of their investigations lie in how African Americans deal with the way these representations portray them individually and their social group as a whole. In this paper I will compare the issues in each study, analyze the larger sociopolitical implications of the media representations and apply a similar framework of concerns to my own reception analysis project.

In Bobo’s article, the chief concerns of the author are the savage and brutal depiction of black men in the film, black family instability, and the way that black women embrace the film and use their own reconstructed meaning of it to empower themselves and their social group, (90,92). Film as a medium starts out with many potential limitations and problems when it comes to representing a whole race of people. No two people are exactly alike no matter what race they come from so there is no way one film can represent all peoples. Unfortunately, many people believe that a certain depiction of black people characterizes all black people, which is certainly not the case. This is very dangerous because this perpetuates stereotyping and discrimination. The viewing public pays for movies and therefore movie directors have to tailor their product so that the majority of viewers will enjoy, and agree with the ideas behind the film. The majority almost always means white America so even African American based movies are made for white audiences. Because of this, the representations of blacks in the medium of film are almost always white ideas of who black people are, not who they really are.

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The film The Color Purple has been the center of controversy since it was made in 1985. Many people feel the film is a terrible portrayal of black family life and that it is stereotypical in its depiction of black men as evil and brutal tyrants who imprison and mentally and verbally abuse woman. Consequently, most men despise the film and can not believe that so many women love it. The main purpose of Bobo’s article was to find out why black women loved it so much and what they saw as good about the film. What Bobo found out was that though many women loved it, they also saw that there were things inherently wrong with the way black males were portrayed. However, because black females were mostly portrayed in a positive light, the black female respondents felt that the film was good in that respect. According to Bobo, Black women have demonstrated that they found something useful and positive in the film, (101). The women enjoyed seeing a woman rise up against abuse and take control of her life. They identified with the search for power and their own identity. The Color Purple presented a new type of feminism to black women who were used to seeing black female characters depicted as slaves, maids or mammies. Bobo found that though black women were aware of the oppression and harm that comes from a negative media history . . .[they] are also aware that their specific experience, as black people, as women in a rigid class/caste state, has never been adequately dealt with in mainstream media, (102). This was the main reason why the women liked the film so much. They were able to take their own past experiences and use those as a basis for their interpretation of the text. In this way, the black women didn’t see the film as all bad, they saw it as a little bit of truth wrapped in a blanket of a few stereotypes and as a touching story that needed to be told.

The larger sociopolitical implications of The Color Purple are very serious. Black family life is presented in this film as dysfunctional. Women are seen as fragile and easily abused by their savage and brutal men and everyone acts lower class even if they are supposed to be middle-class. Just about all black people were in fact lower class during the time period of the film so the fact that the family is middle-class creates an unrealistic feeling. The ideas that are presented throughout the story seem trivialized by the fact that the characters act like minstrels, singing and dancing, as fodder for jokes. This presentation perpetuates the stereotype of the black person as an idiot, savage, simpleton who knows no better but finally just can’t take the abuse anymore and rises up against it. This could foster a sense of hope, especially for young, abused women, however, more likely than not it could just be used as an other excuse as to why white people don’t take black people seriously. The Color Purple may be an uplifting tale about triumphing over abuse but it is also a dark look at the way society thinks black men, women and families act. Of all the black people I know, this is a far cry from the truth.
In Innis and Feagin’s article, the chief concerns of the authors are how the black middle-class views The Cosby Show, and what influences their decisions about what they see. Unfortunately television presents many potential representational problems. Because it is watched by such a wide variety of people, there has to be some identifying characteristics to tell people who is being presented and what they stand for. Usually this identifying information consists of stereotypes and minstrel-like bufoonish characters for comic relief. Also, due to the nature of sponsors, television is unable to tackle pressing issues and challenge the majority. Instead it uses stock characters and scenes to tell the same story over and over again without stirring up any controversy. This leaves little room for showing reality.

In conducting 100 in-depth interviews with middle-class black Americans from 16 cities across the US, the authors received responses concerning the show that were vastly different. The responses varied from harshly negative to extremely positive depending on how the black person identified with the show, if in fact s/he did at all. The people who felt the show portrayed African Americans negatively had no similar experiences to the Huxtable’s and therefore felt it was unrealistic. These respondents felt the show was too white and did not present the real-life living situations of everyday middle-class blacks but instead an extreme case that represented none of the black people they knew. The Cosby Show also made respondents feel that real problems suffered by blacks on an everyday basis, such as racism, classism and lack of opportunity, were deemed irrelevant because they were not even mentioned on the show. According to Innis and Feagin, the show’s popularity has set back race relations because its view of black assimilation fails to take into account the context of the world outside of the four walls of the Huxtable household, (692). However, respondents who did like the show and felt it portrayed blacks positively shared similar experiences with the Huxtable family or how they dealt with certain issues. They felt the show portrayed blacks in a decidedly positive light, as human beings that are civilized, not savages who are gang-bangers and live in ghettos .
There are many larger sociopolitical implications of the media representation of black family life in The Cosby Show; however, the dominant and most frightening of these implications is the idea that the American Dream is real for anyone who is willing to play by the rules, (709). It presents easy upward mobility and no sign of discrimination at all – hardly what anyone would call the typical black experience. If after watching The Cosby Show, White America takes the above statement as truth, blacks will have an even harder time gaining equality because whites will think that blacks are just lazy and don’t want to better themselves when in reality it is a great struggle and an enormous challenge to overcome oppression. However, it does foster a sense of hope which is probably the center of black peoples’ ambivalence towards The Cosby Show.

In trying to apply the framework of the above studies to my own reception analysis study, I have found that concerns such as sexism, ageism, and standard of beauty all figure in deeply with my respondents. My project consists of working women’s perceptions of the way women are portrayed on the TV show Ally McBeal. All of the respondents mentioned something about the sexy, young, pretty, skinny stars of the show. According to these women, if you don’t fall into all of the above categories, you’re not a good person. Only people who fall into the above categories are presented on TV and film, and when people outside of the norm are presented, it is for comedy or sympathy. Hardly ever is there an old, fat woman as the heroine. There is some exception such as Cameron Manheim on The Practice, but by and large it is a model’s world. The standard of beauty today is a very scary thing. It is encouraging young girls to starve themselves, exercise themselves to death or throw-up after every meal. If you don’t look like what society dictates you’re headed straight for nowhere. I think sexism also figures deeply in the way women look at TV because all of the respondents pointed to the fact that women are regarded as sex objects on Ally McBeal. None of them enjoyed seeing the women portrayed this way, but they did say it seemed realistic. I think this alone tells us a lot about where our society is and the problems people face everyday. Adding this framework to the scope of my study could lead to some very interesting conclusions.

In analyzing Bobo, and Innis and Feagin’s studies of how black people respond to their representations on television and in movies, we can see that there is a lot more ground to be covered in the areas of equality and political correctness when it comes to media. We can see, however that people are not just sitting blindly in front of the TV or movie screen accepting what they see as truth but are really thinking and analyzing the images presented to them. This shows that people can be good media consumers and can make choices about what is and is not good media. I don’t think TV or movies will ever be a rainbow colored nation that represents us all but a lot more could be done to make it fairer. Hopefully one-day people will be able to get some satisfaction out of seeing representations of them on television and in film.

Cinema and Television


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