The year is 1881, a time when women’s rights are a figment of the imagination and the highest achievements didn’t go beyond the home. Excluded from most professions besides writing, women used writing as a mechanism to shift the public perception of gender norms. Journalism, for example, was an occupation women made waves in, even though it’s a male-dominated field. Female journalists gradually emerged in popular fiction novels to reflect the intelligence, assertiveness and strength that the world failed to notice in women. One of the first of its time was The Portrait of a Lady, a novel involving Henrietta Stackpole, a fictional female journalist with an ambitious personality.
The year is 2021, and the world detached itself from traditional gender norms into a modern representation of inquisitive and bold women in film – some portraying fictional journalists. Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City is a newspaper columnist and Vogue freelance writer who embodied the independence of women in the early 2000s. Rory Gilmore of Gilmore Girls is a journalist from the Yale Daily News, portraying the studious and witty nature of young girls from high school to college.
A 140-year difference. The world continues to dismantle the patriarchy in popular culture, with the fictional female journalist being one of many roles to exemplify strength. Yet one question remains unanswered 一 where are fictional Black women journalists represented on T.V.?
As women work to revolutionize their image in society, Black women work twice as hard to grapple with the identities of being both Black and women.
In an informal, self-conducted poll, 73 percent of 312 respondents reported never having seen a Black female journalist in a fictional television show or film. The remaining 27 percent shared the names of fictional journalists they had seen who were Black, such as Iris West of The Flash or Mary Jane Paul in Being Mary Jane. Other respondents within the 27 percent, however, shared that the fictional Black woman journalists they had seen in media were involved in a few episodes or not included in the main cast, such as Eleanora Poe of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
But why does this matter?
From the shows we watch to the books we read, film and media serve as a model of the real world. But when the biggest issues of journalism are apparent in fiction, we are continuing to amplify the message for communities of color in both older and younger generations that journalism is not a field within reach.
According to 2016 data from the American Society of News Editors, Black women make up less than 5 percent of print and online newsrooms in real life. The oversimplification, underrepresentation and whitewashed narratives of fictional journalists will further contribute to these statistics. The fictional world of journalism needs just as much representation as does the real one.
Further, the current portrayal of fictional journalists, where most characters are presumably white with a rich background and generational wealth, instills a surface-level understanding among viewers of what journalism currently is – a classist field solely designed for rich white main characters to succeed.
Trailblazing Black female journalists in the past, such as Ida B. Wells or Charlotta Bass, lived during segregation – a time period where Black women had no rights and faced ongoing violence. Both women were pioneers at the time and served as leaders by writing articles to expose the truth in society, most notably publicizing lynchings against Black people. They not only paved the way for civil rights in America, but were instrumental in showing how journalism can directly result in radical activism and change.
When stories of Black women in journalism such as these are not amplified in film and media, the world continues witnessing an elitist, one-sided narrative of journalism without recognizing its core components as a public service to advance society. The first step to a reformed understanding of journalism in popular fiction begins with an increased presence of fictional Black women journalists on television.
Student journalist Emmanuella Agyemang, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, shared her reflections of seeing the lack of fictional Black woman journalists, like herself, in the media. “There are a lot more young Black girls who want to be journalists than people think,” she said. “Black women and people of color will feel less inclined going into journalism if they know there is less diversity in an industry that allows white people to prosper.”
When younger generations see people of color like themselves on television, they will feel optimistic. Emmanuella added, “It will give a lot more Black children hope in seeing different careers besides the ones we are familiar with. Showing more representation of journalism on T.V. will allow kids to dream bigger and think, ‘When I get into these spaces, I am not intimidated because there are people who look like me and can do it, so I can do it too.’”