For my final project I thought it would be good to explore the topic of under- and misrepresented Black females in cinema and television in recent years. This isolated group, not only of actresses, but filmmakers, directors, producers, screenwriters, as well as personalities, and portrayals on unscripted or reality television. In the subject of misrepresented Black females in cinema, I wanted to specifically emphasize this injustice as displayed by Black males.
The three examples in cinema I feel represent the public’s knowledge of Black male portrayal of their female counterparts are those of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, and Tyler Perry. Each of these men have taken upon themselves the representation of Black adult women in offensive, stereotyped caricatures of their more realistic selves. Eddie Murphy as Rasputia, Martin Lawrence as Big Mamma, and Tyler Perry as Madea all show the image of black females as large, overweight, loud mouthed, brash, uncouth, aggressive women who tend to create chaotic situations for everyone around them. The term “mammy” has come up in many of my readings in reference to the three examples I started with, and has also been used in essays and articles that do not mention them at all, but other Black female images portrayed in the media.
They continue to release these negative representations, with intentions hopefully in a comedic manner and not a discourteous way.
Some see Tyler Perry as a voice for the Black communities, however his representation of the stereotypical caricature of the “Mammy” character do more harm than help for the identity of Blacks around the world. In a study and dissertation done by Syracuse University graduate students, they describe Perry’s character Madea as “a large Black woman and a smoking “gun-toting, sassy, buxom mother figure” who dishes out smacks and advice”. They describe the typical mammy stereotype as “grossly overweight, large-breasted woman who is desexualized, maternal, and nonthreatening to White people but who may be aggressive toward men”.
The mammy throughout history has been seen as “a stout, dark-skinned, smiling, hardworking, doting woman” – an example that Madea seems to be initially modeled after. Madea goes beyond the typical definition of a “mammy” to further degrade the identity of the Black female by having the physical appearance that is degrading and disrespectful to the real women that it is drawn from along with her negative personality traits that show themselves more than her softer side. “Mammies” in the past have been known to serve others, particularly Whites, as well as be more passive figures. Madea pushes past that and not only has aggression towards males, as previously mentioned, but a harsh and stubborn attitude towards practically anyone. In the short clip below (start at 3:07) Madea’s willingness for violent and outrageous actions is shown.
Following the revival – or continuation – of the “men dressing as black women” trend, Eddie Murphy stepped out in his big lady debut in his 2007 film Norbit. Looking at this film and the character of “Rasputia” I came back to a few questions I had in the beginning of my research.
“Why are these men dressing up as women to portray a type of person that already exists?”
“Why do these men choose to portray women of their same minority race in such a negative, offensive way?”
I also had a new question,
“Why do these women have to be fat to be funny?”
These men are offending women, who are also of the same struggling race as them through their portrayals of their personalities and also, their appearance. Body Image. Self-Esteem. Beauty. By American standards, the Black women shown here as portrayed by Black males, meet none. These overweight, loudmouthed, attention seeking ladies do not only fail to meet the standards of American beauty, but they also do not follow the idea of how a woman in general should behave – they make them monsters. There are Black women in America who would have taken these roles. The fact these roles were not even portrayed by real women desexualizes the characters even more. In the clip I’ve linked below serves to provide an example of the desexualization of black women along with a brief look at Rasputia’s unappealing personality traits such as being over bearing, aggressive, jealous, defiant, and disruptive.
Martin Lawrence dons a similar get up as the his other male cross dressers in his trilogy Big Momma. Though it is shown to viewers at the beginning of the movie that Big Momma is not supposed to be a real person, but a character that Martin Lawrence’s character, Malcolm, is becoming. As an undercover FBI agent, Malcolm must go under cover to solve a crime and comes out as Big Momma. Here, this black male is dressing up as another mammy-like character, all for fun. A problem that has been strung throughout all three of my examples is that none of the male actors here set out to do anything but show these ladies for a laugh. Lawrence in the interview below mocks a type of women who he says he knows and loves. George Lopez asks Lawrence “When you go out, do you ever see women who look like Big Momma?” Martin responds “Oh, yeah, all the time! With the muumuu dresses and all that? Yeah, I love them though, they keep it real. *does impersonation* “Hi baby hi, hi!”
It seems that even after acknowledging that Big Momma is a real kind of person living today, that representing them is nothing but a joke – and that is how everyone who sees this film will see those women.
Though they are few and far between there are some advocates for the issue of mis- and under represented black women in media and society today. Black Women Film Network known as BWFN and founded in 1997 strives to increase the number of women from all cultures in the film industry and related areas. They provide scholarships, offer membership subscriptions, and hold an annual film festival, along with other activities.
African American Women in Cinema is another organization founded to “expand, explore, and create business opportunities for minority filmmakers throughout the entertainment industry” as their websites mission statements tells. Their main efforts are through their annual film festival, held in New York City each November, which displays an array of black women’s work in cinema in all aspects throughout the past year.
My last organization is one that I appreciate in a different light, because of it’s founders. The Black Actors Guild is a small organization that was created by students at the Denver School of the Arts. They have a full website where they lay out their mission statement, (upcoming) productions, company, and other details about them. I think the fact that they are children and they see a problem in society and are actively trying to change it is amazing and they deserve respect, appreciation, and support.