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Stereotypical Depictions of African-Americans on Television

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 3962 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Communication research suggests that the images portrayed in the media are influential in forming preconceived perceptions of the world in people’s minds (Ford,1997). This influence is partly responsible for the growing research in relationships between media portrayals and attitudes toward different ethnic groups. Television plays a vital role in asserting cultural, racial and social distinctions and is also a major platform in representing social and economic inequalities, and racial relations in society. The subject of media influencing racism is significant because it explores media bias and aligns one’s personal beliefs with the media images. Television holds substantial authority in our everyday lives and it permeates our discernments and understanding with constant messages that control our principles. It is imperative to look at television portrayals impact on race relations in our society.

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Whether appearing in derogatory roles, or not being represented at all, minority groups including African-Americans and Latinos are victims of an industry that thrives on appealing to the majority. Perception is reality; and in a business controlled mostly by Caucasians, the perception of African-Americans is shaped largely by preconceived and sometimes unreasoned inclinations, opinions and prejudices (Smith, 2016). The perceptions and values held by the dominant demographic in the industry, is mirrored in the media and how television content is created and produced is determined by the views of those in control. Such preconceptions are also based on the racial history of this country where African-Americans have been treated as second-class citizens. The purpose of this

paper is to determine the extent to which the public perceptions and opinions toward African-Americans are solely as a result of their portrayal on television or a combination of the factors unrelated to television. This paper will also seek to examine if other minorities, especially Latinos, encounter similar stereotypical perceptions.

Literary Review

Historically, African-Americans have been segregated, underrepresented, and offensively and divisibly stereotyped on television, which sets the tone of the information shared with its viewers. It frames situations, events and people from the perspective of the content producer. The media tends to set the tone for the cultural morals, values, and images. Many television viewers regard as factual the negative stereotypes of African-Americans depicted on television. They do not believe it is fiction, especially those who live in areas with low African-Americans populations (Mastro, 2000).

Prejudice, disempowerment and discrimination, in respects to race relations between Caucasians and African Americans, have a long within numerous facets of mainstream media, including television, entertainment, and advertising (Kulaszewicz, 2015). During the early years of television, it was evident that with the beginning of more complex ways to advertise, report, and entertain, racial issues would be present across these mediums.

Prior to Sam Lucas’ 1914 performance in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first time an African-American actor was shown on television, mainstream America perceived African-Americans negatively. Beginning as early as 1888, American television featured white

actors dressing and “acting” as African-Americans in a practice coined “Blackface” (Samsung, 1977). Blackface acting was a purposeful act that portrayed African-Americans negatively to promote the white supremacy agenda. The genre continued to show African-Americans in an unfavorable light as thieves, unintelligent, unattractive and subservient.

In over 100 years of African-Americans appearing on television, there has been considerable improvement on how they are depicted. With many strides made in the 20th century toward equality and fair representation, from the right to vote and own land, to the desegregation of schools and neighborhoods, the end of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Era, the portrayal of African-Americans on television has changed to be more reflective of society. For example, hit shows like The Cosby Show and Blackish, both feature African-Americans in positive light reflective of their family structure and economic status. But even with these advancements, negative television stereotypes still plague African-Americans who are often portrayed in less powerful roles.

 Throughout the 1970s and 1980s African-Americans and other minorities appeared on primetime television more frequently than before (Weigel, 1995). Weigel found that that the amount of time African-American characters appeared on the screen increased from 8.3 percent of the total human appearance time in 1978 to 17 percent in 1989. The increase was, however, limited to appearances on situation comedies with predominantly African-American casts, which were shown to be more verbally aggressive, but less physically assertive or dominant (Glascock, 2003).

In the spring of 1977, “virtually all” of characters regularly appearing by African-Americans were characters on comedy shows (Reid, 1980). In 1980, three years later, it was published that over half of African-American characters on television appeared in comedies versus one-third of white characters sampled who appeared in comedies. Weigel found that by 1989 “fully one-third” of appearances of African-American characters in a sample of primetime television could be narrowed down to six situation comedies that constituted less than six percent of the overall programing time.

African-American characters are not only limited to roles in select comedies, but are also frequently based on remedial stereotypes. For instance, African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to be portrayed in menial “personal service” occupations. Only one-third of African-Americans on television are depicted as having identifiable jobs, whereas more than one-half of all white characters are depicted as having jobs. Furthermore, of the occupations that were depicted on television, African-Americans are more likely to have low socioeconomic occupations, work multiple minimum wage jobs, or rely on financial assistance (Weigel, 1995).

In programs with predominantly African-American casts, like Good Times and Sanford and Son, the stereotypical portrayal is traditionally more distinct than in television shows with a predominately white cast. The stereotypes of being clownish, fun-loving, and poor, were embodied in the characters played on such situational comedies like That’s My Mamma. Situational comedies often represent “one-note stereotypes” of buffoon-like behaviors of scheming and scraping.

There is a perception that African- American artists and actors have a less acceptable appeal in society. The media is a powerful tool that influences the masses. What many see on television impacts their perceptions and how they treat other people. Although there are some positive black characters on television, many depictions of African-Americans are degrading, stereotypical and harmful. Stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans increase the likelihood that people will perceive them stereotypically (Ford, 1997).

In his study, “Ethnicity and involvement in violence on television; nature and context of on-screen portrayals,” published in the Journal of Black Studies, Gunther says, that African-Americans have been “long portrayed in mostly low-status jobs.” Minorities, including Latinos, have long been discriminated against in their portrayal on television. However, the depiction of African-Americans on television depends on the type of program it is. (Gunter, 1998). Gunter argued, “Blacks more regularly achieved equality of status with whites in situation comedies, but in crime dramas, whites were usually more authoritative, dominant, and successful.”

Every day, people receive information from many different forms of communication medias. M.B. Oliver conducted a series of studies on the portrayal of African-Americans on television and how it relates to racial attitudes. In her paper published in the Journal of African American Studies, Oliver found that many people use television as their primary source of information. Through her studies she discovered that African-Americans are far more likely to be perceived on television as a criminal or behaving in socially unacceptable behaviors than a Caucasian person. Most studies have shown that African-Americans are more likely than Caucasians to be portrayed as a criminal suspect (Oliver, 2003).

The criminalization of people of color on television is also seen when looking storylines based on immigration. Half of Latino immigrant characters are represented in criminal acts or unlawful behavior and 38% are depicted as being incarcerated; 33% of Black immigrants are depicted as incarcerated, while only 9% of white immigrants were shown to commit an unlawful act (Barrios, 2012). Since criminal behavior has a negative position in society, these portrayals position African-Americans in unfavorable situations which causes an impact on how they are understood. These findings propose that the source in the portrayal can impact the racial attitude of the spectator. If American television viewers perceive these images as negative, then they can potentially perceive African-Americans in the same way.

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When monitoring primetime drama programming on television over a time period from the late 1960s to early 1980s, minority characters were shown to be more frequently depicted as victims of violence than were white characters. Minorities were also more often depicted as the main aggressors of violence. At a disproportional rate, African Americans and Latinos are being projected as violent, because they are being cast as violent characters and appear in a higher percentage of violent acts demographically than their white counterparts (Gunter, 1998). This enforces the stereotype of African-Americans being prone to crime and aggression.

 Since the beginning of television, the stereotypes depicted of African-Americans vary depending on gender, especially as they relate to crime, employment and sexuality. In the case of employment, both African-American men and women are less desirable employees but for different reasons. Black men are perceived as being prone to violence and hard-headed, while black women are seen as loud and not respectful to authority (Timberlake 2007). African-American and Latina women suffer multiples forms and stereotypes on television due to both perpetual racism and sexism.

  Stereotypical roles and portrayals of African-American women in modern television

continue to recur in the industry. African-American women have long been stereotyped as “jezebel”, “mammy” and “sapphire” characters. Glenn (2009) credited the history of slavery, and the need for white supremacy to control African-Americans, for these stereotypes. From slavery to Jim Crow era, the mammy image served mainstream America’s social, economic and political interest. Not only did it justify slavery, but it was also necessary to continue oppression and segregation in the post-Civil War era. Collins (2000) argued that it was vital to social structure to shape African-American women as, “the faithful, obedient, domestic servant. Created to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long- standing restriction to domestic service”. The mammy was happy, helpful and even enjoyed her roles as a slave. In a way, the mammy proved that slavery was humane and that her loyalty was evidence of African-Americans being content in their current position.

A popular example of the mammy stereotype can be seen in Gone With the Wind, with the role played by Hattie McDaniel who received the first Oscar ever given to an African-American woman. Mammy characters are often depicted as darker skinned, heavy set women who are undesirable to men sexually, hold somewhat of a grandmother identity and are a symbol of maternal care (Glenn 2009). Chen (2012) describes the Mammy archetype as being “grossly overweight, large-breasted woman who is desexualized, maternal, and nonthreatening to White people.” However, there is little historical evidence to support the portrayal of a well-endowed, nurturing mother figure during slavery. The real-life mammies of enslavement were often young, thin women who were stripped from their families at puberty and died at a young age due to grueling labor conditions and severely rationed food given to her by her white owners (Versluy, 2014).

For many years in early television, the only roles offered to African-American women were mammies (Chen, 2012). Now, even with more choices for African American women to play on television, the mammy role continues to prevail. In modern television, the mammy characters seen in Deadwood (2006), The Help (2011), and Madea’s Boo II (2017) continue to show the limited roles and portrayals of African American women as a stereotypical character. Researchers like Chen (2012) and Love (2015) have found that stereotypical mammy illustrations have been continued and enforced by the media and have lasting impressions on communities.

The mammy archetype is also seen in advertisements such as the character on Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworths products as well as the lady who represents the Pine-sol brand. This range of traits, attitudes, behavioral tendencies, and goals continues to enforce preconceptions that permit individuals to assume the validity of stereotypes without proof (Love, 2015). Years after slavery, the mammy stereotype is still widely regarded as true when describing African American women; and both simplifies and exaggerates a few characteristics that are almost solely associated with African-American women (Love, 2015).

Both the mammy and jezebel images influence people to characterize African American women negatively which can have a direct impact the evaluation of African American women as they pursue employment opportunities (Timberlake, 2007). Opposite of the mammy, the jezebel depicts African American women as hypersexualized beings. This image gives the general notion or idea that African American women are sexually aggressive and aberrant, a tool that helped white supremacist control and limit women to the role of reproduction during the slavery era (Versluy, 2014). The jezebel personifies and exemplifies in concrete form the belief that African American women have sexual appetites unable of being satisfied and are willing to behave in unacceptable and unnatural sexual behavior in order to find satisfaction.

The Jezebel stereotype depicts African American women as promiscuous women whose sexual appetites are “at best inappropriate and, at worst, insatiable” (Collins, 2000). Just like the stereotype of the mammy, the jezebel was used to justify the concept of slavery. Many African American women were forced by white slave-owners to work in the cotton fields with their skirts hiked up and topless. This practice helped them to argue the perversity of the African American women, justify their sexual abuse of slaves, and reaffirm the jezebel stereotype (Harris-Perry2011). The jezebel stereotype was especially used to justify the sexual exploitation of African women by white men who often raped their slaves. Under the perception that African American women are jezebels, and have an uncontrollable sex drive, it was perceived and believed that African American women were actually seducing the slave-owners (West, 2012). The objective realities of slavery are overlooked because people frame their beliefs based on the images they see in the media and on television.

The jezebel archetype is still embodied in modern society with many examples in the media and on television including video vixens, the women who appear in hip-hop/rap music videos as dancers, strippers, and hypersexual. In pop-culture, the jezebel also perpetuated in popular roles like Olivia Pope on Scandal, who not only can’t control her desire for a man who is married, unavailable and in many ways disrespectful to her; but is also an African American woman who cannot contain her sexual wants for a white man, like the originators of the stereotype claimed. Comparisons can be made between Pope’s persistent affair with the President of the United States (played by Tony Goldwyn) and the historical sexual relationship between white slave-owners and their black female slaves. In Monster’s Ball (2011), Halle Berry, who won an Academy Award for her role, played an African American woman who overlooked a white man’s racist background and his involvement of the murder of her husband, to have a romantic relationship with him.

The purpose of this research paper was to examine the relationships between media portrayals and attitudes toward different ethnic groups. The preconceptions of minorities especially African American and Latinos are based on the racial history of this country where African-Americans have been treated as second-class citizens. Many of the stereotypes associated with African Americans have been linked to the justification of slavery and the white supremacy agenda. Research has determined that the public perceptions and opinions toward African-Americans are a direct result of their portrayal on television and a combination of the factors dealing with society and historical race relations.

Researchers, like Oliver (2003) and Code (2014), have found that African-Americans in many instances are misrepresented on television. Some researchers have also found how the portrayals of African-Americans influence public perceptions. Communicative research continues to establish the idea that what is seen or heard on the media influences perceptions of reality. Television controls biases that society has toward African Americans and it impacts how people associate with someone’s race.

Research has established and concluded that media, television in particular, influences our surroundings by shaping our convictions and belief systems. How people interconnect with each other is based on what communication television presents to the public concerning African Americans. This communication becomes how society understands manners and develops their expectations of African Americans and other minorities. When television characterizes African Americans and Latinos as dangerous, lazy, hypersexual or criminal, then people recognize minorities as such. These perceptions of reality may then begin to influence attitudes and behaviors (Oliver, 2003). The media reaches large audiences and can reinforce racial biases towards African Americans by endorsing stereotypes and as a result influences racism. The significance of these studies is that, as our society continues to become more diverse, its social prosperity depends in large part on the success of television in promoting positive media portrayals of African-Americans and other minorities.


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