In 2012, I sat in front of our old television, perched on the couch watching the 84th annual Academy Awards. The camera panned to a stunning Viola Davis, outfitted in a sea-foam green, floor-length gown. We were all expecting her to win, to take home the shining Oscar as a reward for her role as Aibileen Clark in “The Help”. When it was announced that Meryl Streep would take home the Oscar instead, I slumped back into the couch, disappointed but unsurprised.
Although Streep is an extremely talented actress, a win for Davis at this moment would have been truly meaningful, especially since the academy has consistently undervalued the accomplishments of women of color in film. Halle Berry is the only African-American woman to win the award for best actress in a leading role since the academy’s inception. No Hispanic or East Asian actresses have won for best actress in a leading role. Even though some other notable actresses such as Lupita Nyong’o DRA ’12 have won awards for best actress in a supporting role, Nyong’o is still one of only six black women to win in that category. And although Nyong’o played her role beautifully, that role was a relatively stereotypical depiction of a slave. Most of the black women who won for their roles in this category, including Hattie McDaniel in “Gone With the Wind” or Mo’Nique in “Precious” still portrayed broken, subservient and, in some cases, abusive characters.
In the media, roles reserved for women of color, particularly African-American women, often conform to stereotypical tropes. Mammies, jezebels and sapphires are typically the only roles we see reserved for black women on television, if they manage to find any roles at all. Only around 28 percent of speaking roles are given to women, and a fraction of that percent is given to women of color. Movies such as “Dear White People” do little to break down stereotypes when the main character ultimately is forced to conform to the tragic mulatto archetype, deciding to turn her back on the struggles of her black peers in a futile attempt to assimilate into white society. Although Shonda Rhimes is known for her groundbreaking depictions of women in the media, one of her most popular shows, “Scandal,” verges on slipping back into age-old jezebel tropes. The main character, played by Kerry Washington, is the president’s mistress, after all.
Considering the pervasiveness of negative portrayals of black women in the media, as well as the other structural barriers that black women face in the entertainment industry, I was happily surprised when Viola Davis was awarded the Emmy for best actress in a drama. It was truly a historic moment for America; she was the first African- American woman to win the award.
Davis’ character, Annalise Keating, in “How to Get Away With Murder” is dynamic and complex. As a queer law professor at a prominent university, her character has nuances that allow it to rise above the sea of mammy, jezebel and sapphire tropes.
These positive images of African-American women are necessary, because they’re lacking in most places. In academia, corporate America, the fashion industry and most other professions women of color are still underrepresented; when harmful stereotypes about women of color are so pervasive, it reinforces our conscious and subconscious racial biases. Black women must have the opportunity to be recognized for roles that accurately reflect their lives if we want to ever eradicate these biases.
Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards college. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.