Black people are often underrepresented or portrayed inaccurately in television shows, movies and advertisements, leading to a problematic, stereotypical depiction of black culture in mainstream media.
Oftentimes, if you see a black woman on a television show, she is playing one of a collection of clichéd roles often assigned to women of color. First there are the suburban housewives navigating a sea of hilarious high jinks and scenarios while trying to keep their families afloat. Then there are the ghetto-fabulous divas with both shade and punches to throw. Another common trope is the pregnant girl with a hard life.
Black males are also often limited to a small selection of stereotyped parts. Roles such as criminals, athletes and musicians top the list of the most common ways black men are portrayed on television.
The issue with these roles is that they are stereotypes. I understand the human brain categorizes in order to better understand and organize ideas and thoughts. Stereotypes are the natural result of the brain’s organization process. However, relying on stereotypes to portray entire groups of people is narrow-minded and lazy.
Some argue black people are underrepresented in the media because there is a lack of black actors and actresses out there, but that is simply not true. Although I take issue with Tyler Perry’s portrayal of black women in the form of his character Madea, the fact remains that he occupies an important space in the entertainment industry. The constant stream of Tyler Perry movies with completely black casts is evidence enough of the presence of talented black actors and actresses in Hollywood. Tyler Perry is one of few people in mainstream media who writes storylines about black people, for black people. His characters are dynamic and fleshed out in a way that is lacking in many television shows and movies today.
Of course, some shows like “Sleepy Hollow,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and “The Walking Dead” are doing a decent job with their portrayal of black characters. One of the most popular shows with a black presence this year by far was “Scandal” with my queen Kerry Washington playing the lead character. Her royal highness of flawless cheekbones is the first black female lead in a network drama in 40 years, a fact that is both startling and deeply unsettling.
The representation issues in media have not always been so bad. For a brief period in the 90s there were a plethora of shows featuring all or mostly black casts that catered to the black community and dealt with issues faced by black people at the time. “Martin,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Sister, Sister,” “The Cosby Show,” “Living Single” and “Family Matters” top the list. Although they were mostly sitcoms, these shows managed to cover a variety of issues and topics in an appropriate manner, without resorting to stereotypes.
Adding more black roles will not entirely fix representation issues in U.S. media if the characters are not well developed and compelling. Flooding the market with more baby-mamas is just as unhelpful as not having any black roles at all. There are tons of talented black actors who are often forced to fill lackluster roles to achieve their dreams of making it big. Adding roles that are realistic and do not rely on clichés and stereotypes will be a step in the right direction toward improving the space black people have in the entertainment world.