The Issue of Colorism and the Gradual Improvements to the Portrayal of Black Women in Media
In the forthcoming film, Nina, a biopic of the singer Nina Simone’s life, actress, Zoe Saldana was cast to play Nina Simone. This came as a surprise to many because Nina Simone has dark brown skin and very thick natural hair and Zoe Saldana has light brown skin and straight hair. This casting decision forms a question in the minds of many people, Is Saldana a good fit for this role or does the American entertainment industry have a habit of choosing lighter actresses over darker actresses because of their skin tone? Many believe that this casting decision and other similar decisions support the idea that lighter skin is more desirable than darker skin, especially when it comes to women. Many times on TV shows or movies, women who were dark skinned are casted as lighter skinned women with light eyes and loose curl patterns. This makes it hard for women with dark skin to find jobs in the entertainment industry.
The way that black women have been treated by Hollywood over time is a serious issue that still has a large effect on women with dark skin today. The topic of colorism, is a complex one. Colorism is defined as prejudiced attitudes or prejudiced treatment of people based on the relative lightness or darkness of their skin in comparison to others of the same race. Though colorism is mainly an issue within the black community based on skin it can affect black people differently based on their gender, hair texture, and eye color. Black women are affected by colorism the most in America especially when it comes to their portrayal in the media.
Darker women are usually portrayed negatively while lighter women are portrayed in a more positive way. In many cases women with dark skin will be replaced on a TV show with a woman with light skin. For example, in TV shows such a The Fresh Prince of Belair, My Wife and Kids, and Meet The Browns, women with dark skin were replaced by women with lighter skin and a straighter hair. Also in many TV shows, if a girl is pretty or high maintenance she has light skin. Colorism in the entertainment industry is having an effect on the way that society sees black women. With slavery in the US brought race mixing between black and white people. This race mixing lead to many different shades of black people in the US ranging from very light skin that is almost white to very dark skin. In order to control race relations during the times of slavery, colorism was born in order to enforce white supremacy in the US so slaves would not be able to rebel. Even in 2015, colorism still causes a divide in the black community. Black women in the US are the most receiving of the effects of colorism.
The beauty industry, social media and the TV industry are very common in perpetuating colorism in today’s society. Colorism can be very damaging to young black women especially when there are very few places a black woman can go and be free from colorism. That colorism even follows some of the most beautiful black actresses and may even have effects on their careers. Popular 90’s TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-air can be used as an example of a show with colorist stereotypes and colorist casting. For example, Hillary Banks, played by Karyn Parsons, was portrayed as a classy, high-maintenance, rich-girl. She was fashionable and had no trouble getting men. Some may feel that the casting for Hillary was just a coincidence and has nothing to do with skin colors but others may recognize that Karyn Parsons is not the only light skinned woman who is portrayed as every man’s dream.
Many other TV shows have similar portrayals of light skinned women and while this may seem like the most desirable portrayals they often come with some negative portrayals of light skinned black women. Hillary and many of the other light skinned TV characters are often portrayed as being stuck-up, rude, and impossible to please. Light skinned black women are often portrayed as being weak and very feminine. For example, Hillary’s only skill is shopping and it is often mentioned that she needs to find a rich man to take care of her. Also, many times in TV, light skinned women are sexualized. Light skinned black women are usually either portrayed as being promiscuous or just being every male character in the show’s romantic interest. An example of this is how Jazz (Will Smith’s best friend) and many other male characters in the show were in love with Hillary. Hillary also was always shown sneaking men in the poolhouse and jacuzzi or using her charm and looks to get her way. These portrayals of light skinned black women in the media create separation in the black community and also perpetuate colorist ideas in society. This is harmful to all black women.
When having a conversation about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it is very common to hear someone say “I miss the old Aunt Viv” or “What ever happened to the dark skinned Aunt Viv?”. These comments refer to the drastic change of casting Daphne Reid as Will’s Aunt Viv who had been previously played by Janet Hubert. The first difference that most people notice is the obvious difference in skin tone between the two Aunt Viv’s, Daphne Reid (the new Aunt Viv) is significantly lighter that Janet Hubert (the old Aunt Viv). Some think that the difference in skin color between the two is just a coincidence but it can be argued that the change in skin tone was intentional because the characteristics of Aunt Viv changed as well. The dark skinned Aunt Viv was sassy and outspoken, and wore very flashy outfits her “no bs” personality caused fans to fall in love with her character.
The new Aunt Viv had a much softer personality and seemed to step back and let her husband take control. The new Aunt Viv also dressed much more modestly than the old Aunt Viv. The switch between Aunt Viv’s was not the only time a dark skinned character got traded out for a light skinned character. In shows such as My Wife and Kids and Meet the Browns, similar situations occur. This change in characters may be a coincidence or it may be a result of colorism within the industry. Many people in the industry feel that light skinned black women are more attractive than dark skinned black women and would rather cast a light skinned woman so that people will accept the show.
This colorism in casting affects dark skinned women the most, Many dark skinned women have trouble finding roles unless they are specifically made for a dark skinned woman. This has an effect on their career and further perpetuates colorism in our society. Though people may only see the negative side of colorism for dark skinned women, colorism affects all black women negatively. Since colorism is based off of the idea that the closer to white a person is, the better they are, people often forget about the negative effects of colorism on light skinned black women. There are many negative stereotypes of light skinned women in the media.
Light skinned women are often shown as being stuck up or cocky. Though they are usually portrayed as being the girl that all the guys want, they are also usually shown as having terrible attitudes and being very hard to approach. Some examples of this stereotype are Hilary Banks (from The Fresh Prince of Belair) and Whitley Gilbert (from A Different World). Both of these characters are wealthy, beautiful, and stuck up. Often in these shows, these characters were known to act like they are better than everyone else. This stereotype is harmful to black women because it creates a negative image for light skinned black women which changes how society views them. This idea that light skinned women are stuck up and ride has become common in the black community and the media perpetuates it. Light skinned women are also shown in the media as being weak and helpless.
In the media, there is a popular “strong black woman” trope but roles like that are almost always given to darker skinned black women rather than light skinned women. Not only does this portray light skinned women negatively but it also takes away the femininity of darker black women. Fox’s new show Empire, has examples of this stereotype. The light skinned woman, Anika Calhoun (played by Grace Gealey), is shown as being very prissy and weak while the darker woman, Cookie Lyon (played by Taraji P. Henson), is shown as being strong and powerful. In one episode, Cookie and Anika actually get into a fight and Cookie is obviously the winner as she knocks Anika to the ground. The main problem with this stereotype is that it causes a divide between dark and light skinned women in the black community.
One other issue with the portrayal of light skinned women in the media is that they are often heavily sexualized. In many instances light skinned women are portrayed very sexually. Many times, light skinned women are dressed much more sexually and pursued more by men. Light skinned women also are sometimes shown as being promiscuous. Hilary Banks is also an example of this stereotype. This stereotype causes light skinned black women to be sexualized in society and gives them a very negative reputation. Another negative portrayal of light skinned women in media is that they are dumb or incapable of doing much more than looking pretty. Often light skinned characters are told to “just be pretty” rather than relying on their brains. Some examples of this are Claire Kyle (from My Wife and Kids) and also Hilary Banks (from The Fresh Prince of Bel air).
This stereotype of light skinned women is harmful because it causes light skinned black women to be taken less seriously. Though all of these stereotypes might be seen as being “not that bad” the long term effects that they have on light skinned black women is harmful to the whole black community. Colorism in the entertainment industry has carried over to social media which continues to harm the black community. Colorist ideas on television have led to hashtags on Twitter such as #DarkSkinnedGirlsBeLike and #LightSkinnedGirlsBeLike. These things are very harmful to dark skinned and light skinned women and cause even more division in the black community. As colorism spreads into social media, colorism grows rather than it ending which would allow the black community to grow.
Colorism is having a large effect on all black women and if media continues with colorist stereotypes it will be hard to end the division between light skin and dark skin. Though colorism is still a major issue in today’s society, there are steps being made toward change in the portrayals of black women in media. With the rise of pro-black movements such as the natural hair movement and #blacklivesmatter and also the rise of black writers and directors, there are changes being made to how black women are portrayed. For example in Shonda Rimes’s popular shows Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder the main characters were both strong black women and for the most part have positive characteristics.
Olivia Pope from Scandal (played by Kerry Washington) is a black lawyer who is powerful, respected, intelligent and also sexual. This is seen to be a more accurate portrayal of black women than some of the previously named black characters. Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder (played by Viola Davis) is portrayed very similarly and also is shown in the show with her natural hair which is very new to the media. This is a step in the right direction for black women in media. The media is growing and more positive portrayals are being shown for black women. Though colorist portrayals still pose a threat to black women in the entertainment industry, as the media continues to grow, black women are being given more opportunities to prove colorist stereotypes to be wrong.