October 8, 2014

Invisible Girl: Where Did Black Girlhood in the Media Go?

I recently read an article in Essence Magazine by one of my absolute favorite women on Planet Earth, popular MSNBC show anchor, author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry (yes, I am an avid member of Nerdland) where she chronicled her daughter and niece's blasé attitude about Disney Princess Tiana. The girls explained that in an era where they have Sasha and Malia, why should they care about a Black Disney Princess? Which led MHP to the conclusion that we have more "diverse representations of us now than in previous decades." Now, while I am in agreement with most of her wonderful article, I find myself at odds with her conclusion. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that I see a drastic dearth of images for young black girls to look to in the media in 2014 way more than I did coming of age in the good ole' 90's.

When I find myself listening to the bright young girls whom I teach and mentor talking among themselves, the usual suspects come up: Beyonce, Nikki Minaj, Rihanna. While we as adults can point out the nuances that make each of these artists different from the other, if you stand far away from the painting of the three, the looks and messages can start to blur and blend into an almost homogenous, light-complexioned, twerking tornado of legs, butt, blond or multi-colored weave, and bright, uber-fame lights. Within this tornado, it's hard to believe that our girls can see themselves reflected in it, the way I and so many of my peers saw ourselves reflected in Brandy.

Or Monica. Or Tia and Tamera. Or Laura Winslow. Or Hilary and Ashley. Or Denise, Vanessa, Rudy and Olivia. Or Whitley, Kim, and Freddie. Or Lisa Turtle. Or Aaliyah. Or Ananda Lewis. I could keep going, but I think you get the point. We had such a varied array of black girlhood on display in music and television that I never felt like I couldn't relate to the stories and music of the day. And sure...one could be quick to point to hypersexual women of the 90's like Lil' Kim or Foxy Brown, but at least we had choices. We didn't have only them to look to as the representation of black femininity in town.

I love the fact that Sasha and Malia are real-life images of black girlhood. I truly do. When they came on the scene, it was like a burst of fresh, beautiful, black and proud air. Same for the fictional, animated image of Princess Tiana (although I had bit of an attitude that Disney decided unveil her after I grew up...I had to adopt Jasmine as my Princess of Color I Could Relate To, but I digress). But I also have to think that were it not for the varied images of black girls in music and on TV in the 90's, their images might not be as welcome in as many homes as they are today. Also, my idealistic side kicks into full-throttle when I hear about Keke Palmer being cast as Cinderella on Broadway (makes me nostalgic about the Brandy-Whitney Cinderella!!! I watched that non-stop as a girl! Still obsessed and can sing every song verbatim!) or when my niece shrieks when Doc McStuffins comes on. My soul soars every time I read an interview of Janelle Monae and the powerful message she sends in her choice to don her "uniform" as her foremothers did and when I listen to her music and watch her videos, wrought with colorful, multi-faceted creativity that doesn't need a heavy dose of sex to be super-fun music. But do I ever hear my young, black, female students talking about Keke or Janelle? Nope. Just the ever-present worship of Beyonna Minaj.

Let me be clear that I am not hating on the art of any of the trifecta mentioned above. What they choose to put into the world is just that...their choice. And you can find me turning up to "Partition," winding to "Rude Boy," and spitting Nikki's verse in "Monster" like a BOSS on any given day. All I'm asking for is a little balance. Is that too much to ask? For every Rihanna, can we get a Brandy-type today? And quite frankly, us former-little-girls-now-grown-women could use some balance ourselves. If I hear one more sistah spouting on about what happened on the last episode of The Real Basketball Housewives of Hip-Hop Atlanta, I'm going to pull my crochet braids out. I literally know women who base their actual love lives and lifestyles off the "principles" they learn from watching these shows without even realizing it. So it's your guilty pleasure. I get it. But when you start an argument with your boyfriend/husband because of something you saw on "Love and Hip-Hop", you really gotta give yourself a long, hard look in the proverbial mirror.

I see a glimmer of hope for some grown-woman image balance with this fabulous fall televsion line-up of leading or majorly supporting Black Women, including Kerry Washington ("Scandal"), Viola Davis ("How to Get Away with Murder"), Nicole Beharie ("Sleepy Hollow"), Alfre Woodard ("State of Affairs"), Jada Pinkett Smith ("Gotham"), Octavia Spencer ("Red Band Society"), Danai Gurira ("The Walking Dead"), and Tracee Ellis Ross ("Black-ish"). Not to mention the incredible ladies of "Orange is the New Black". The actresses are as versatile as their stories and genres, and I'd be lying if I said their awesome tv takeover (of sorts) doesn't make me walk a little taller into audition rooms as an actress myself these days.

I just want our girls to experience the same diversity of images we're starting to experience again on the womanhood front. Or like the variety we once had. I champion Bey, RiRi, and Nikki's freedom to be as sexy and sexually free as they want to be (well, I need to discuss Nikki in a separate post)...but just like a plate of only dessert for dinner, too much of one thing is not good for our--especially our girls'--health.  


January 22, 2014

Black Women: The "New" Pop (Prop) Art

Sisters...how many of you have had this moment:

While out dancing with my boyfriend a couple of weeks ago, a young, seemingly inebriated white woman with whom we were not acquainted--nor she with us--interrupted us by slapping me on my butt...out of absolutely nowhere. I didn't see her coming; didn't even see where she came from, but there she was in all her intoxicated glory, landing her drunken hand on my hind parts. As if my look of horror and exclamation of "What the hell?!" when I whipped around wasn't enough, she then proclaimed loudly, "You have the best ass! I just wanna squeeze it! Can I grab it?!"

Now...all those acquainted with me know I'm a very non-violent, non-confrontational person, but when this woman did and said this, it was all I could do not to return a slap of my own...to her face. Instead, I batted her hand away and stated firmly, "No, you can't. Please don't touch me." She then proceeded to laugh and say something to my boyfriend about me, which I could tell she thought was a compliment...again regarding my butt. I didn't hear what she said because I was too busy hearing the shrill, siren-like music from Kill Bill in my head that signals danger is extremely nigh, but my boyfriend told me she said, "Make sure you slap that ass for me tonight!"


She must have read my energy because after that comment to my boyfriend regarding me, she sashayed away to rejoin her drunken crew. I maintained my cool, as this was not the first time something like this had happened to me recently, but for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the very notion that made her feel like what she did was okay/cute/cool. And it eventually brought to mind all of the images of  White Female artists using Black Women as artistic props here of late. Images that undoubtedly reinforce the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle idea that black women's bodies are nothing more than playthings to give a heaping dose of sexual taboo and provocative color (pun intended) to some White Women's worlds.

Trust me, this is not an indictment on White Women as a whole. I have far too many White Sisters who support me as I confront these issues and probably would have offered to slap the drunken one for me. This is simply a question as to why on earth this "artistic" trend has started re-emerging, and does it have anything to do with this new-found comfort of some White Women coming up to complete strangers to touch their butts, breasts, hair, etc. (yes, I've seen similar situations occur with other body parts)? It's certainly nothing new, as the denigrating displays of Black Female bodies passing for "art" or "exhibition" dates back to slavery and the tragic, disturbing history of Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman. It's also not new in the sense that I'm sure something like what I described above has happened to a lot of you as well. However, from my perspective, two recent events have put this idea back on the world stage.

First, we had THE Miley Cyrus incident. Yes...you know the one. The one you're probably tired of hearing about by now, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, say a quick prayer/meditation to arm yourself, then watch this. Her use of black female strippers as these part-human, part-naughty, twerking teddy bear props was nothing short of ghastly, going as far as motor-boating and slapping one of the women's butts, as you may unfortunately remember. Now, that's not to say that the women in question were not complicit in their own objectification, but that's another post for another day. The point is: here is this former, real-life Disney Princess, coming-of-age before the world; asserting her sexual freedom with the use of black female bodies as the ultimate provocative props. As if hyper-sexuality is synonymous with black female bodies (faces and identities not important, as the women's faces were covered either by the enormous teddy bear costumes or partially hidden by sunglasses). Yet there were those who rushed to her defense as an artist, citing "artistic freedom" as a justification for the degrading, appropriating display. I guess it's her party, she can do what she wants.

Next up, just two days ago--on MLK Day, no less--came the photo accompanying this post. The Russian Socialite, art promoter, and Editor-in-Chief of Garage Magazine, Dasha Zhukova, did an interview with Russian online magazine, Buro 24/7 and posed for the above picture for the article; sitting ever-so-calmly, yet dominantly atop a "bondage chair" made of a Black female mannequin that appears extremely lifelike. Of course, after much deserved Internet Armageddon, the editors of Buro 24/7 have now cropped the image so that you cannot see the identity of the mannequin on the site. But the damage is done; most of us have already seen it and know, Ms. Zhukova, that you felt it was perfectly okay to pose for a magazine with this as the image you wanted people to see in the name of "art." It's really hard for me to swallow the "I didn't intend for it to be racist" pill, as the authority-on-all-things-not-racist, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian, flippantly tells us from his privileged perch as a white male in his article, "Why There's Nothing Racist About the 'Racist Chair.'" As a matter of fact, that pill doesn't even make it all the way into my system, because its nauseating and requires me to vomit it back up immediately. Because--quite frankly--how dare you tell me that me staring at an image of a Black female body being sat on dominantly by a white woman shouldn't qualify as racist--or at the very least, culturally ignorant and insensitive--to me? I guess the history of Black Women being used as exhibitions for art and science, and the history of Black Women being subjugated to the most horrific forms of sexual submission should just be struck from my consciousness, huh? We're all just making a big deal about nothing, huh? I truly can't believe he typed the entirety of that article with a straight face. I care not one iota about the original exhibit of Allen Jones (which used White Women bondage chairs); the choice was made to use a BLACK female bondage chair for THAT article...for the world to see. Which I'm sure Ms. Zhukova and Ms. Miroslava Duma--the editor of Buro 24/7--knew would draw traffic to the article because of the provocative and offensive nature of the image. Don't even try to feign as if you didn't know it would bring eyeballs, Ladies. And nothing...NOTHING infuriates me more than when an educated, privileged, White person tries to insinuate that we're all just "playing the race card" (just sit down somewhere, Sarah Palin, please...well, I wouldn't call her educated but still...); that we're all just seeing something that's not there, and now he or she is going to intelligently break it down to us less-enlightened Black folk who just can't understand the intricate, satirical nuance of what's being expressed. Nice try, Mr. Jones, but give me a break. Give. Me. A. Break.

With the advent of Miley Mania and Russian Race-Art, I find myself holding my breath for the next use of a body that looks like mine--or my mother's, or my sister's, or my friends'--as props in Eurocentric expressions of art. I also find myself wondering about the people who actually sign off on these things: the producers who felt like Miley's performance was okay to air; the editor who felt like the photo of a White Woman squashing a Black Woman was perfect for her article; the CEO who felt like it was just fine to use a white woman in black face to sell a Charcoal Dunkin Donut in Thailand. What runs through these people's minds?? Profit, I'm sure. Which is why it's vital that we keep raising our voices when our images are sold to the highest bidder. Because the more we do, maybe...just maybe...things will change. We can't be faux-intellectually intimidated into thinking we're playing some mythical, insulting race card. We are not crazy. We know what we see. The more we speak up, the more people will have to start thinking before they sign off on such craziness.

And as a result, just maybe the drunk white woman in the club will stop touching us like sex pets. Maybe.


January 8, 2014

Home is Where The Harsh Is

Disclaimer: I know it has been a heinously long while (i.e. almost 2 years...yikes) since I last posted the initial post of this blog, and for that, I apologize. Life has a way of taking off without your permission, but I promise you, The Image Monster is definitely back, and here to stay on a more consistent basis...because I have much to say.

Now, on to more important things...

January 13, 2012

"Ain't I A Woman?"

When our brilliant predecessor, Sojourner Truth, wrote those famous words from the above title in the middle of the 19th Century, I'm pretty sure she assumed that in the far future, women of African descent would no longer have to ask such a question. Pivotal strides have been made in women's equality and racial equality since she wrote those words, but any shrewd observer of society nowadays can be pretty certain that we still have a proverbial "long way to go." Now, before the sighs of  "Is this feminism talk?" begin, let me be clear that the purpose of this blog is NOT to castigate men (which is what people usually think when they think of feminism...let me tell you, it is SOOOO not that, but that's another blog for another time). It is to simply observe and examine the notion of beauty and image as it pertains to being a woman of African descent.

To be a 21st century "African-American" (I'll get to why I put that in quotes in a later post...hang with me, here) woman comes complete with all of it's beautiful complexity; inherent with milestone triumphs, soul-quaking trials, and somewhere in between the two, a series of annoying frustrations that--more often than not--have a lot to do with our image. How that image is constantly twisted, shaken together, stirred and turned into a cocktail that is usually pretty distasteful to us is something I deal with on a daily basis in my industry of entertainment. As an actor, I have never been more aware of how my image as a Black American woman affects my psyche. Don't get me wrong, having self-esteem/self-image issues is something every young girl deals with, and I was no exception, but as a full-grown adult, those issues have evolved into something much more complex...so much so, that it makes me hyper-aware of how we're perceived in the greater scheme of society. Especially here in the good ole' US of A. And if you are a black woman reading this, then I'm sure you know exactly what I mean.

Everything from our skin, to our hair, to our bodies, to our facial features seems to serve as either the basis to disregard us or to shine a white-hot, unflattering light on us. A prime example of the latter was the completely ridiculous "article" published last year (which you may have heard about) in Psychology Today by so-called evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa, originally entitled "Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” After justified hellfire swept across the Internet in a matter of hours, the publication changed the title to "Why are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?" As if that somehow lent the article more credibility as an "objective study." As if that made it any less wildly insulting. They eventually took it down altogether in less than 24 hours, but before they did, I was able to read it (and you can too--a couple of websites obtained it before it was taken down--if you click here) and I couldn't help but laugh at the sheer, unabashed ignorance of it. However, even though I--like most thinking individuals--possess the cognitive ability to know that attractiveness is not a scientifically measurable quality, there will be someone out there who will use nonsense like that to justify their own racism and bigotry, and someone else, as hard as it may be to believe, will actually wonder if there's truth to it.

While people rarely admit it, there has been a constant, systematic, almost subconscious "measuring" of black women's beauty. I see it when I scour breakdowns and they VERY frequently say they're looking for an "ethnically ambiguous" woman (I loathe that term with my whole soul...I'll go into depth on this in a later post) or it says something to the effect of this: "Casting women for this role who are Caucasian/Latina/Indian/Native American/Asian/Biracial." Yeah...that would be just about everybody BUT black women who actually look black. I see it all the time. Or it'll say, "Casting for light-skinned African-American women with curly hair." I know you see it when you just watch commercials or television: the quintessential black woman is showcased as a light-skinned, mixed-race looking black woman with a head full of carefree curls. Also let's not forget the ubiquitous "long hair, don't care" light-skinned or mixed race black woman. You see it when you go to the movies and actors who are gainfully employed are the Halle Berry's, Paula Patton's, and Zoe Saldanas of the world. You see it when you watch a series of music videos and the women who are crooning and sashaying on the screen are the Beyonce's, Alicia Keys', and Rihannas' of the world. No disrespect to all of these artists who are making their money (do your thing, Ladies), it just seems that if an alien were visiting from outer space, after watching television and movies, if it saw a dark-skinned woman with locks or a medium-brown skinned woman with a fro walking down the street, it would point and say "Okay...now who are they? I don't see them on your rectangle screens of moving light!"

Which leads me back to Ms. Truth's timeless question: "Ain't I A Woman?" I sure am, but I'm waiting on society to catch up and realize that I--and all black women--are as well. And we deserve to be seen and acknowledged in our beautiful entirety. Even if society never catches up, we owe it to our daughters, nieces, and little cousins to have these conversations and affirm to them that they are--indeed--beautiful. Because while we love her, Princess Tiana is just not enough. We must go further. Way further.

Now I don't profess to be someone with a Women's Studies degree or an authority on this topic...I only seek to offer some observation from my perspective as an actor and artist navigating these issues within my field and how they relate to the larger discourse about this subject. Why this? It's a topic I feel passionate about, because if all of our girls can see themselves as beautiful, perhaps they will make better life choices and not ones based on insecurity or low self-esteem. EVERY girl wants to feel beautiful...inside and out. I've always felt a deep responsibility to my fellow sisters on this matter, and this is my small way of trying to obey that responsibility (believe me, God...or whatever it is you call him/her, won't leave me alone about it...lol). It's not just about aesthetic itself..it's about how it informs everything underneath.

More to come, Ladies (and Gentleman, if you've been brave enough to drop by...lol). Please feel free to drop me a line at theimagemonster@gmail.com if there are topics concerning this issue you would like to see explored.

Next up: Thoughts on Bill Duke's new documentary, Dark Girls. Stay tuned...