Six Annoying Women Character Tropes in Black Romantic Comedies.

There's been a recent awakening in the film business. Studio executives seem to have realized–again!–that people of color, specifically black Americans, want to see movies that reflect our cultural and individual experiences with love.

Film bigwigs are investing dollars in movies like the burgeoning Think like a Man franchise, The Best Man Holiday, and the other black romantic comedies slated for release in the coming months.

There are few women as pleased and disgusted with the sudden revival of black romantic comedies as I am. I'm infatuated with romantic comedies. I'm not ashamed to admit that I spend hours watching modern princesses claim their princes and gallivant off into the skyline of Los Angeles or New York. These days, I watch romcoms for work: I'm a media studies scholar working on a thesis about romantic comedies.

As much as I love the research I'm conducting, the problem I've found with black romantic comedies is that the genre relies on "controlling images" of women of color.  

Patricia Hill-Collins, a groundbreaking sociologist who studies women of color, defined controlling images in a 1999 essay titled "Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images." (PDF) She wrote that "portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarch, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women's oppression."

Name a romantic comedy with a woman of color in it and I can pinpoint one or more stereotypes entwined in the plot. That's no surprise—romantic comedies are a platform that reproduces all of our cultural "isms" and phobias, from sexism to racism to homophobia. Most women of color have intersectional oppressions that lie on the cusp of several "isms."

We are objectified, pathologized, and forced into stereotypes that don't represent the fullness of our humanities. I'm going to run through a short list of those tropes and how they're used specifically for women of color.

The Jezebel 

Lysterine from Booty Call

Scholar Hill-Collins defines the jezebel as a hypersexual woman with an insatiable horniness. In America's history, for example, overseers and plantation owners depicted black women as jezebels who were incapable of being raped (which kept them from serving time in prison while victimizing black women). The jezebel is prominent in romantic comedies: she's the character who'll sacrifice love for an orgasm. The jezebel is immoral and thus has no qualities worth loving, besides her hot body.

We see remnants of the trope in Lysterine, Vivica A. Fox's character in Booty Call. Lysterine loves sex and has no qualms about hitting the sheets with men she's just been introduced to, like Jamie Foxx's character Bunz. In one striking scene, Lysterine is berated by her friend, Nikki, for her sexual innuendos.

Fox's character is depicted as a woman with a voracious craving for sex that defies all logic. She doesn't utilize condoms or birth control, making her susceptible to diseases and unworthy of love.

Lysterine is still single at the end of this romcom. Bunz leaves her unsatisfied when he orgasms in two minutes. But the final credits show Lysterine exacting her revenge by whipping Bunz in a BDSM scenario. Nikki's new relationship survives, seemingly due to her decision to wait seven weeks before bedding her beau.

Jezebels are outcasts who are punished for their sexual liberation. In Boomerang, Jacqueline (Robin Givens) uses men for sex before discarding them. In the end, she's left in a cold bed when her fling decides he'd rather build a relationship with a character who is less forward about her intentions.

Therein lays the paradox between the jezebel and the "virtuous" woman. Women of color are presented with an either/or option. We can be virtuous or we can slutty. Ask Monica Calhoun's character, Mia, in The Best Man. Her fiancée was willing to end their engagement because he wasn't her only sexual partner. The same standard was set for Paula Patton's character, Sabrina, in Jumping the Broom. She was considered marriage-material because she was celibate when she met her intended groom. Sabrina was rewarded for her celibacy by finding a man to put a ring on it. 

 

The Matriarch

Pam in Jumping the Broom

Matriarchs are the heads-of-their-households – strong-willed, unbending, and asexual. They're often depicted as unattractive and overprotective of their children, which alienates men. Their lives revolve around others, leaving little room for their personal growth or happiness. The matriarch is Madea in every single Tyler Perry film. We also see this caricature of black womanhood in Loretta Divine's character, Pam, in Jumping the Broom.

Pam's fierce defense of her son, even to the point of destroying his relationship with his future bride, kept her from locating her own contentment. She appears dissatisfied with her own life, but she's overbearing in her son's relationship. This character dynamic leads the audience to believe Pam's a horrible mother.

The matriarch stigmatizes black women and their mothering abilities by reducing them to dissatisfied, sexless women living vicariously through their children.

 

Alfre Woodard filled the role of the matriarch in Something New and Love & Basketball, though her characters were married in both. She was so invested in the lives of her children and her husband in both movies that her characters had no individual impulses or desires.

The Strong Black Woman

janet jackson as patricia staring down her beau in why did i get married too

The strong black woman stereotype, referred to as SBW in hip-hop feminist scholar Joan Morgan's seminal text, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, is killing black women. It keeps us from dwelling in our emotions as we sacrifice for the betterment of others. The SBW never allows us to remove the mask of resolute black womanhood to reveal the vulnerability underneath.

It is the reason Janet Jackson's Patricia character in Why Did I Get Married Too? smashes statues and glass windows instead of communicating with her husband. Buying into the false-sell that we can take on the world's burdens without flinching or hurting kept Mo'Nique's Jasmine character in Phat Girlz from reconciling her self-esteem issues.

In romantic comedies, the strong black woman alienates and emasculates men instead of healing her own emotional wounds. Jasmine's epic meltdown at a restaurant and Patricia's self-destruction are symptoms of a larger issue that is never contextualized within these films.

The Welfare Queen

claudine, surrounded by kids and a white social worker

The welfare queen is the catalyst for all negative undertakings in Black American communities. She's responsible for the government's failure to balance state and federal budgets since she pilfers thousands of dollars from federal assistance that is then wasted on designer clothes and car rims.

The welfare queen isn't married, so her children are assumed to be fatherless criminals who would pull up their sagging jeans if they had positive male role models in their lives. She is everything wrong in society, according to the Moynihan Report, Clarence Thomas and Ronald Reagan.

No film personifies the welfare queen as much as Claudine, a film starring Diahann Caroll in the title role.

Claudine is a single mother with six children. She receives government assistance to supplement her income, but she's forced to hide her job in order to continue receiving federal funds. Claudine's love life is impacted substantially by her financial situation. She hesitates before wedding her beau because that will cause a decrease in the assistance her receives.

 

Of course Claudines's deceiving the government, just like the shiftless woman welfare queens are supposed to be. She's painted as a woman incapable of raising her children without government intervention and support. It's a falsity that pathologizes single parenthood and single parents.

The Sapphire/Independent Black Woman

Julia in Daddy's Little Girls

The sapphire, a stereotype that spawned the independent black woman, is often present in romantic comedies. We can start with Sanaa Lathan's "Kenya" character in Something New. She is the definitive independent, black woman who is "too particular" to find a man worth falling in love with. Kenya is emasculating, particular about her weave, fearful of the judgments of her peers and relatives and so invested in her career that she often dismisses life's simple pleasantries. It isn't much different than Lathan's Andrea in The Family That Preys. Or Gabrielle Union's matriarchal Eva in Deliver Us from Eva and Julia in Daddy's Little Girls. Or Taraji P. Henson's "Lauren" in Think Like A Man. Or Vanessa Williams' Terri in Soul Food. Or Sharon Leal's Dianne and Tasha Smith's in Angela Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married. Or Vivica A. Fox's Shante Smith in Two Can Play That Game. Or Gabrielle Union's Julia in Daddy's Little Girls.

The sapphire/independent black woman appears time and time again because she's a reliable trope that will generate cheap laughs for the audience. Her neck-rolling, harsh words, cruelty and lack of empathetic understanding is demonizing because it doesn't consider the dimensions of women of color.

In fact, none of these controlling images do. All of them are designed to oppress women of color by stripping us of our humanity and forcing us into labels that don't encompass the fullness of who we are.

Romantic comedies are simply a microcosm of a larger societal issue. As Hill-Collins points out, "such images prove remarkably tenacious because they not only subjugate Black women, but are key in maintaining intersecting oppressions." Though these images were orchestrated long before the success of Michelle Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Gabrielle Douglas and the myriad of other influential women of color, they are continually reproduced, even in romantic comedies.

Zora Neale Hurston famously referred to black women as the mules of the world in Their Eyes Were Watching God. These words remain relevant, even in the context of movies designed to bring smiles and optimism. We are the mules of the world.

 


Want the best of Bitch in your inbox? Sign up for our free weekly reader!

Read and buy Bitch magazine's current print issue!

Guess what? Subscriptions to Bitch—our award-winning, 80+ page print quarterly—are 20% off to help us reach our $25,000 funding goal by September 30. Pitch in to support feminist media: Subscribe today

Subscribe to Bitch


Comments

4 comments have been made. Post a comment.

TD Jakes

Don't forget Not Easily Broken for the Sapphire/Independent Black Woman trope, where independent black women are apparently solely and exclusively to blame for the break-up and demise of black marriages.

As a black female- All I can

As a black female- All I can say is this would not be a problem if these actresses didn't sell themselves and the image of thier race out for personal gain. This is evident that American individualism cannot fluidly coexist with the concept of a homogenous race. Either all balcks are one, OR we choose to follow our own indivudual pursuits of liberty and happiness, which this country affords us. So I would advise whomever is studying romantic comedies, particulary, black ones- To interview these actresses that play there roles. Ask them the hard questions.

I always have a problem with opression being put into a context that is coming from the "outside"- be it the media, patriarchy and anyu other "ism" that keeps people from accpeting responsibility and looking at thier own part in thier "opression"- What about the women who pay to see the movies?

If blacks/women were so concerned about thier image in the media, instead of going to acting school and dreaming of fame- they would instead attend business school and learn to start thier own media companies rather than whoring out to the so called white media opressors.

These women take these roles, did so by choice. But that is something that the black feminists always seem to ignore. Why is that? How can you seriously critique a film and manage to portray the WILLING actresses as victims?

I can't respect that.

Its like the argument about porn hurting women, when thousands of women willing go into each day and enjoy it.

Please, if you are so concerned, stop watching films and decontsructing them. It does no good. Build your own black hollywood, where you can be in charge and have the power. Then you wont have to worry about working for the opressor.

And on the flip

And on the flip side.......there are numerous white films that suffer virtually the same flaws (i.e. Desperate Housewives, Sex and the City, etc.). Hollywood is not good at adequately representing gender or race in films. Point blank period. It is hard to create and capture characters that are wholly equal and representative of a particular type of black woman or woman, and still garner interest in the film. That is a real dilemma. You will likely find stereotypes in ALL movies, irrespective of the races depicted in those moves. For instance, many movies with a predominately white case don't even address racism or prejudice which are alive and well in today's world. And it's not because they (Whites) don't think about us. You better believe that minorities are a hotbed topic at the dinner table in most White households. They meet, discuss, and devise laws, policies, and plans to keep minorities oppressed or used to their OWN advantage. But, its funny that there are NO white films (at least that have hit mainstream) that adequately portray White people. AINT THAT FUNNY? Now, in context, Blacks represent a small portion of the US population. Therefore, there going to be less films on the market that depict black people. Further, adequate depictions are even less of a scarcity. Many people took fault with Tyler Perry's "Temptation" movie because of the so called subliminal messages that were essential to the plot. Some of the criticisms of the movie were unwarranted. But, I think Perry was just trying to get the message out there about protecting yourself from HIV given that the rates of transmission among African American women are staggering. My advice is to take films and tv for what they are....make believe with just fragments of truth and reality woven into their plots. Society is complex, but it seems that we are moving in the direction of.....anayltical stupidity. They are just movies. Know your history and who you are. The strong, independent, and matriachal woman is not a bad represenation of black women, at all. I'm just saying. Look, at these so called reality shows like Basketball wives, Real housewives ATL, etc. are a true disservice to African American imagery. Most of the Black characters on these reality shows are loud, angry, evil, ghetto, foul mouthed, crass, ignorant, greedy, intimidating bullies. There lies a huge problem

By the way some of the better

By the way some of the better movies, or mini-series that I have seen are "The Women of Brewster's Place," "Cover," "Love Jones," "Jason's Lyric," "The Inkwell," "Love and Basketball." It's hard to create characters that are intriguing and complex, and much harder to develop plots that encapsulate an issue that is either specific to Black people or applies to all races. For one, think about our history. The Cosbys are not representative of all black people in the same way The Evans or The Jeffersons don't represent all of us. It's true that blacks' dirty laundry tends to be aired more, but just maybe whites should follow our lead from time to time. Where's the films at where the white racist upper-middle class family pretends to like all races of people publicly, but discourage their children from dating "niggers"? Where's the film where a white super powercouple climb the ladder of success by investing in the oppression (prison based companies) or by ignoring the plight of those of a lower socio-economic status? Where's the film where it shows black guppies (buppies), middle- upper class black folk who emulate white folks in their ethos, language, way of life, way of thinking, organizing their communities, schools, places of employment, and are content with their life so long as the utternmesh (lower class black folk) don't interfere? This group also somehow believe that they are better and above everyone else (even other blacks)? I would love to see a filmmaker address the aforementioned issues and types of people. But, they won't.