Black women question their absence in media
Halle Berry was the first — and only — black woman to win lead actress at the Oscars.
She took the stage to accept the award for her role in “Monster’s Ball” in 2002 — almost 40 years after Sidney Poitier became the first black man to take the lead actor statue in 1964 — visibly overcome with emotion, thanking her forebears at the top of her speech.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she said. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me: Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
Those nameless, faceless women of color were the inspiration behind a recent panel at the Hammer Museum. Part of the museum’s Bureau of Feminism initiative, “The Not So Silver Screen: Black Women in Media” examined the “invisibility and devaluing of black women in media,” the wage gap for black women in the entertainment industry and solutions to help promote black women as creators.
Panelists included actresses Carroll (“Dynasty”), Tonya Pinkins (“All My Children”) and LisaGay Hamilton (“The Practice”), casting director Twinkie Byrd, culture critic April Reign (who started the “OscarsSoWhite” campaign last year), professor Kristen Warner of the University of Alabama, with Kimberle Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and UCLA, serving as moderator.
The Times caught up with Crenshaw to discuss the gains made by black actresses and creators in recent years and the work left to do to make the silver screen a more inclusive place for black women.
Q: With the increased visibility of entertainers like Issa Rae, Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay and others, where do you think we stand today in terms of visibility for black women?
A: I think that we have made a lot of strides, but even with that visibility, black women are underrepresented relative to their viewership, relative to their representation in the overall population. A few breakouts suggest that change is possible, but we’re interested not just in thinking about this issue in terms of breakout actors and actresses but also being able to represent and tell stories about life from perspectives that we have not yet seen regularly in the media.
Q: What kind of stories do you think still need to be told?
A: Basically, what’s happening in media is both a reflection of our society, and it also reinforces the assumption that these issues don’t necessarily impact black women directly or that if they do, we don’t need to tell stories and imagine life from their point of view. So black women are stuck in the imaginaries of the men in their lives, they’re stuck in the imaginaries of white writers, they’re even stuck in the imaginaries of white women. Part of what we want to talk about is what happens when black women can imagine themselves and tell stories from their own vantage point. And what role and what space black women might occupy in Hollywood (then).
Q: Why is it so easy for the narratives of black women to fall through the cracks?
A: Well, that’s a question I’ve spent 30 years trying to figure out how to answer. (Laughs) It is a reflection of how black women are imagined in lots of different spaces. One of the things that made (“Hidden Figures”) so exciting was that finally a story of discrimination was being told from a woman’s perspective, from a black woman’s perspective. You just don’t have that happening because race tends to be imagined from a male perspective. The same with respect to white women (being the perspective from which gender is imagined).
Q: What measures do you think need to be taken to increase the ranks of black women in media?
A: First of all, acknowledging that there is an erasure. And that the erasure isn’t incidental, it is endemic and it plays out across the industry. It’s not just a matter of who’s in front of the camera, it’s also a matter of who’s behind the camera. So it’s an industrywide conversation that all too often gets reduced to a question of “Is #OscarsSoWhite?” for example. Also being more conscious of the fact that there are some communities who consume much more media than media consumes them. In other words, there’s an imbalance between the readiness of those viewers to consume products that don’t actually reflect and represent them. And that asymmetry has been a part of entertainment for quite some time. Finding ways to better balance that is important and it’s something we as consumers have more capacity to do than we’ve often exercised.
Q: What do you say to detractors who say that black woman-led stories aren’t universal?
A: I would say black women are no more or less universal than white men are. The expectation is well, certainly, all the rest of us little people can imagine our lives through a white, male protagonist. We can imagine this person representing all of us. Well, yes, we’ve been able to do that and so can all people do the same thing with respect to men who are not white or white people who are not men and that can be extended to black people who are not male and women who are not white. We’ve been able to do that and it shows that this idea about what’s universal and what’s not is an artificial excuse, frankly, for not stretching ourselves to see the humanity in people who actually we rarely have gotten the opportunity to see and know.