More than just mammies and jezebels

Sahra Magan writes about why depicting complex women of colour on TV matters

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The depiction of subversive and engaging women of colour on television is a belated move forward by an industry in which women of colour are still underrepresented and undervalued. The complex and challenging women of colour depicted on the small screen such as Annalise Keating, Dr. Mindy Lahiri, Olivia Pope, Mary Jane Paul Jane Villanueva and Dr. Joan Watson, all transcend the archaic, sexist and racist tropes that inform the portrayal of women of colour in media.

The dynamics of structural gender inequality are reinforced through the underrepresentation of women in the media. This year alone, two of the biggest children’s movies (The Jungle Book and Kung-Fu Panda 3) failed the Bechdel test. From an early age, women are confronted with the reality that our stories and experiences are deemed less worthy due to systemic gender inequalities which are subconsciously  reinforced in every facet of our lives.

For women of colour, gender inequality is complicated by the pervasive structural and institutional dynamics in society that place whiteness at a premium and marginalise people of colour. The representation of women of colour in film and television largely conforms with these institutional dynamics and, as a result, the depictions of characters that conform with dehumanising tropes of women of colour dominate mainstream TV.

For black women, the reductive character tropes of the ‘jezebel, mammy and sapphire’ that have framed our depiction in media reinforce the pervasive structure of White Supremacy that simultaneously sexualises and desexualises our bodies, creating pale caricatures of the vibrancy of our lives and experiences.

The experiences and lives of women of colour need to be represented through narratives that transcend these reductive tropes. The depiction of high powered defence attorney Annalise Keating,  a middle aged, successful, intelligent, bisexual, black woman on primetime, goes a long way to normalise the representation of the complexity of the lives and experiences of black women. By depicting a morally ambiguous woman of colour who exercises free agency over her sexuality and life, How to Get Away with Murder subverts the conventional polarisation of black women in television in film and television as nurturing, sexless ‘Mammies’ or hypersexualised, deviant ‘Jezebels’. Annalise Keating transcends the limits of these tropes and reflects a movement away from the depiction of black women in the Academy Award-nominated and  winning roles of ‘Mammy’ (Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, 1939) and ‘slave’ (Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, 2013).

Similarly, Dr. Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project subverts the reductive tropes that limit the representation of Asian women on television and film. As a successful Ivy League doctor, Lahiri is the star of the witty sitcom and her characterisation reflects a level of complexity that could not be achieved within television tropes that limit the role of women of colour to the witty/nerdy/sassy sidekick of the main (white) character. The unashamed characterisation of Mindy as a superficial, and sometimes racist, woman of colour may be problematic for many reasons, but her flaws accentuate her complexity and humanity in a way that is denied to women of colour by reductive and polarised tropes. Mindy Lahiri dresses immaculately, is well-versed in pop culture and actively challenges white beauty norms, whilst also working as a successful OB-GYN. Mindy is multifaceted and as an audience we watch her succeed and fail in a way that makes her a complex, relatable and realistic character that reflects the diverse experiences of women of colour.

It is relevant that the two shows are produced by influential and successful women of colour (Shonda Rhimes and Mindy Kaling, successively) who recognise the underrepresentation and reductive representation of women of colour in media. The concerns of women of colour about our representation in television and film need to be understood within the context of a culture and society in which masculinity and whiteness are held at a premium. As a distinctly marginalised group, women of colour need representation that reflects the unique challenges we face in a realistic and nuanced manner. Reductive narratives and tropes undermine our agency and our lives as human beings in a world that is institutionally structured to reinforce the message that we are unworthy and our stories are unimportant.

The portrayal of Analise Keating and Mindy Lahiri is a promising sign that although women of colour are still woefully underrepresented, stories are  shifting beyond racist and sexist tropes, and towards characters which reflect the diversity of  our experiences and lives. The success of their respective programs and numerous other programs that are led by complex women of colour characters reflects the urgency of women of colour and other consumers of media to view stories that are challenging and realistic.