Now if you’re familiar with my articles, you’ll know that proper representation especially for marginalized communities is something I’m always rooting for. To feel seen whether it be on screen or on your favorite novel’s pages doesn’t seem like a lot to ask. Still, as our art progressed there are some tropes that sadly refuse to be erased. Throughout the decades, the strong black woman trope has been nothing but resilient. On the surface she seems to be an empowering depiction of black women, but in actuality she’s far from it. This Women’s History Month, we explain the strong black woman trope and look at not only how played out it is, but why it’s extremely dehumanizing.
Modeled after women such as Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, in addition to being a rebuttal to other harmful racist tropes such as the ‘mammy’ or ‘jezebel’, the strong woman trope was born. Now the strong black woman trope has key characteristics such as: not taking any foolishness, a strong moral compass/holding others accountable, and most likely had to outperform her mostly white and/or male peers in order to get where she is. Most importantly this character has endured extreme hardships in her life and overcome them. The adversity she’s lived through has become a source of her inner power and helped define her code of personal ethics. The strong black woman can be seen as selfless strength personified, the human embodiment of the maxim that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. By now you should have a mental list of characters who fit this description; frankly because pop culture has worn this depiction of black womanhood to the ground. Since we’re friends, I’ll give you a few examples in case you’re drawing a blank, besides what else are friends for? In the 1985 film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple, Whoopi Goldberg played Celie, a black woman who endures a life of assault at the hands of her father and husband before finally becoming self-sufficient. The women in The Color Purple are some of the earliest mainstream examples of this trope. 2009’s film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, sees Precious face abuse from both of her parents before eventually finding out that she is H.I.V. positive. Though only a teen, Precious embodies the maturity of the strong black woman through her unselfish pursuit of a better life for her children, even when she has very little hope for herself. Are you seeing a trend?
Now it’s worth noting, that these roles tend to be recognized by award shows. Of the 12 black women ever nominated for the Best Actress Academy Awards, at least eight of them were for roles that could be characterized as strong black women and these accolades. What this does is subconsciously encourages movies to keep showcasing this unrealistic and tired narrative. Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for her depiction of Patsey in 12 Years a Slave; Patsey’s strength is illustrated both physically as she outperforms every other slave on the plantation and emotionally, as she endures violence plus sexual abuse. Not to be outdone, 2011’s The Help while well-received, both critics and members of the black community pointed out that Aibeleen’s, played by Viola Davis, strength mostly served to inspire the film’s white protagonist, played by Emma Stone. But you can check out my feelings on this topic here.
Now if you’re saying things like: ‘Yes these roles aren’t ideal, but at least award shows are noticing minorities isn’t that a good thing?‘ or ‘if you don’t like these movies just don’t watch them‘. You’re missing the point entirely. We watched these films because for decades that’s all we had. Black artists shouldn’t have to habitually settle for movies that showcases trauma to be seen and accepted by mainstream culture. Trauma isn’t the only defining factor of the black experience plus black creatives should be able to explore a diverse palette of genres and not be boxed in. It’s a lot to ask of black women to save the day, be a sidekick and be inspirational figures who are able to endure extreme suffering and still be okay. Many of us, like myself, aren’t strong all the time and that’s normal. It’s because black women experience racism and sexism regularly, why this attitude is so deadly. To put it bluntly: we shouldn’t be normalizing black women routinely undergoing trauma for the entertainment of others when this country has history of rationalizing our trauma. Our lives are affected by police brutality plus systematic oppression, as we’ve seen women like Sandra Bland’s and Breonna Taylor’s lives cut short due to it. As well as facing misogynoir, harassment and physical assault from the men in our community, even though we relentlessly fight for them. Hollywood needs to let go of this dehumanizing portrayal of black womanhood and realize there isn’t one way to be a black woman.
Feature image via bestcolleges