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.  


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