Despite making up 6.5% of the U.S. population, Black women and girls only account for 3.7% of the leads and co-leads in the hundred top-grossing films of the last decade. Despite slight improvements in recent years, new research on portrayals of Black women and girls on-screen reaffirms that for Black women, representation is a double-edged sword.
The study, published by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in conjunction with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, examined the ways Black women and girls are represented in family film and family television. Some significant takeaways: in family film, Black women and girls are more likely to be portrayed as “smart” and positioned as leaders than non-Black women and girls, but it is also more likely that Black women in films are treated as less attractive and more sexual than the white women and non-Black women of color on-screen. In addition, Black female characters in film are twice as likely as other women of color to be portrayed as violent.
In family television, many of the conclusions were similar. Although Black women and girls were still more likely to be portrayed as intelligent and treated as leaders than non-Black women, they were less likely to have a job and more likely to be portrayed working in the service industry than white women. Moreover, despite the fact that Black women and girls were slightly more likely to be seen as attractive than white women in television, they were also more likely to be shown partially nude or in revealing clothing, and to be objectified by other characters on-screen.
The study also found that less than one out of every five Black family film stars or co-stars from over the past decade have dark skin—meaning that even when Black women and girls were portrayed as intelligent leaders on screen, it was primarily light and brown skin Black women who were given that more favorable representation. I’m curious how this blatant colorism played out—I’d be willing to bet that the majority of Black women who were portrayed as attractive had light skin, while dark skin women accounted for many of the more violent portrayals.
Geena Davis herself commented on the results of the study to Deadline, saying:
“This revealing new study shows we need to be more aware of the persistence of stereotypes affecting Black girls and women — and avoid repeating those mistakes when making writing, casting, and other content production decisions. While it is encouraging to see some positive trends, it’s clear that much more work needs to be done to ensure that women of all backgrounds have the same opportunities when it comes to being depicted on screen.”