Mystical geisha girls? Sexy housekeepers? Do these kinds of women reflect the role of women as a whole in our society? It seems as though minority women have two strikes against them when they are portrayed in the media: they are virtually invisible in the nearly all-white "media world," and when they are portrayed, they are represented in a stereotypical manner that makes them "easier to swallow," so to speak, by the majority population. Minority women are often forced into following a Caucasian formula for beauty when they make it big in the American media: overly thin, blonde, and light-skinned.

Shakira before she made it big in the mainstream market...

...and after. Just a coincidence?


You may be surprised to hear that African-Americans are actually slightly overrepresented in the media.  In 2001, African-Americans made up about 16% of the featured characters on television, when in reality they made up 13% of the population (Wilson, Gutiérrez & Chao, 2003). 

It is becoming more common to see African-American women in positive leading and (more often) supporting roles in films, television shows and advertising.  The traditional “Black Mammy” characters, like Aunt Jemima, have been updated to get a more “modern” look.  However, the majority of these popular shows, movies and advertisements are created by white male producers and writers.  How does this affect the portrayal of minority women?  Do you think that Black women would be portrayed differently if Black producers and writers were involved?

A more serious area of concern is the portrayal of African-American women in hip-hop and rap music.  Are men really “powerful” when all they talk about is how many women they’ve had sex with?  In her book Black Noise (1994), Tricia Rose explains how a number of rap and hip-hop videos talk about how the men prefer women with a “big backside.”  Does this mean that they’re rejecting the traditional body images of American culture, or are they just finding another way to turn Black women into objects?

When we think about positive African-American role models, a few names come to mind immediately:  Oprah Winfrey and Clair Huxtable on the Cosby Show, just to start.  Unfortunately, despite the positive image these women present, we often think of representations like this as the “exception to the rule.”  What can media producers do to show that minority women can be in a position of power? 

 

Is this really "originality"?  Watch the commercial and tell us what you think.

Even though “Livin’ la Vida Loca” is no longer on the radio, it does not mean that the Latin influence on American culture is over.  Latinos are the largest minority in the United States, and are still grossly underrepresented in the American media.  When Latina women are shown in the media, we often end up with portrayals of spicy flamenco dancers, submissive housekeepers.

Like African-American women in hip-hop videos, Latina women are also found in music videos shaking their backside.  In a recent commercial for Dr. Pepper, Paulina Rubio and Celia Cruz told viewers to “Be you” and that Dr. Pepper “promotes individuality” while the Latina dancers flaunt their torsos and “shake their bon-bons.”  Does this really promote individuality, as the commercial says?  Take a look at the commercial, and let us know what you think.

While stereotypical portrayals are a major problem for minority women, Latina women face another problem:  hiding their identity.  Because not all Latina women look the same (“Latino” is an ethnicity, not a race), many Latina actresses expand their role repertoire and play characters of different backgrounds.  While this opens up more opportunities to Latina actresses, are we losing out on the opportunity to get a better idea of what Latin culture is all about?  We need to remember that Latinos can be of any race, can have blonde hair, may not necessarily speak Spanish, may never have been to a Spanish-speaking country, and may not even have a Spanish-sounding last name. 

A scene from West Side Story, which combined the common stereotypes of Latina women as salsa dancers, poor immigrants, and involved in crime...

 

Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan...the Latina housekeeper stereotype still runs strong today

 

Although the frequency of the portrayal of Asian-Americans is nearly accurate (about 3% of all featured characters in 2001), it is difficult to draw conclusions about their portrayal because they are seen so infrequently.

 Like their African-American and Latina counterparts, the portrayals of Asian-American women tend to fall into only a few categories:  we see them as the submissive housekeeper or market worker, the prostitute/Geisha girl, or the “dragon lady” martial arts warrior.  It is rare to see television programs or movies portraying what might be considered an “average” Asian-American woman.  While the sitcom American Girl featuring Margaret Cho tried to move away from the typical stereotypes, the show’s Asian family seemed to be a parody of Asian-American culture, packaged for the majority market by White writers and producers. 

 

¨      Minority women need to be shown more frequently.  The first and easiest way to start having a more accurate representation of minorities and women in society is to show the majority public that they do, in fact, exist.

¨      There is no single “look” for members of a particular minority.  Women of the same ethnic group do not necessarily “look” the same, nor do they all agree with the American standard of “beauty.”  African-American, Asian-American and Latina women can come in a variety of skin and hair colors, and can have a variety of facial features.  Showing the minority female population as a diverse group will help the majority population gain a greater understanding of what the rest of American culture is like.

¨      Minority women need to be shown as positive role models, not just prostitutes and submissive housekeepers.  Many of the portrayals of minority women that we see in the media are based on the perspectives of White (mostly male) producers and writers.  How can a White male possibly understand what it is like to be a minority female in the United States?

¨      Minority women need to be involved in the production of media messages.  Salma Hayek took this into consideration when she produced and starred in the film Frida.  If minority women are involved in the production of media messages, we’ll be more likely to see a positive and accurate representation of the minority female experience.

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