So, I uhhh, am blogging maybe a bit? Trying to do new things, so hopefully this will become a thing! This was originally posted at Tokens and Twofers, and eventually I will probably just cross-post the first third or so rather than the entire piece. But, here it is:
Earlier this week, Mic's Nico Lang published a piece entitled, "9 Damaging Sitcom Stereotypes that Need to be Retired Immediately". I agreed with most of this list, I was struck by the fact that only two of the stereotypes related to people of color on television. And while I wholly support getting rid of racist Asian caricatures and the forgotten black characters, I knew that I could find a few more terrible stereotypes to throw in the ring that focused on black women.
While the original blog post focused on sitcoms, let's just be adventurous and take them from across the television genre spectrum. Here are (some of) the television stereotypes I find most frustrating for black women:
Ahhh, the long-suffering black bffl. You know her. She is the one who is always around for her white best friend, applauding her successes, comforting her through her low points, and just generally being a great friend. The problem with this role is that it completely ignores the life of the black bffl whenever it doesn't involve the main white character. After all, she's not the focus of the show, she's great lighting for the white protagonist. Even more disappointing is the fact that often the black bffl herself treats herself as secondary to her best friend. And if she doesn't see herself as a person of worth in her own right, how can the audience be expected to?
The most extreme examples of the black bffl include Tara Thornton of True Blood and Bonnie Bennett of The Vampire Diaries. Both of these characters take their bffl roles to the logical extreme, having both at one time or another, literally sacrificed their lives for their white best friends. Friendship may be forever, but let's hope that this stereotype isn't.
I could have probably come up with another name for this stereotype, but let's be honest, though she's gotten a face lift and a better wardrobe, the Mammy stereotype is still alive and well on television. She is the sexually non-threatening, overweight, unattractive black woman who mother hens everyone she can get away with. Why does this stereotype need to die? I don't think I really need to explain why an image that tramples on the sexuality of black women should die, but I'll give it a try. The problem with this stereotype is that it reinforces the idea that black women are (1) unattractive/nonsexual and (2) that their function is to take care of the white characters around them. Once again, this role ignores black women until they are useful in helping others around them.
Examples of the mammy include Bailey from Grey's Anatomy and Shirley from Community. And I say this as a person who loves Shonda Rhimes and Community. One could argue that both of these characters subvert the mammy stereotype because Bailey (eventually) gets more character development and a love life of her own, while Shirley is revealed to be at odds with her matronly status. But to those assertions, I remind people that subverting is only successful when it doesn't replicate the issues they are trying to subvert.
This had to be number one. There is no universe in which this is not number one, and that is because it is just so frakking prevalent that it actually subsumes pretty much every other black women stereotype. A mammy can be sassy. A bffl can be sassy. Even though I'm not discussing them here, the "strong black woman" can be sassy.
And the sassy comes in so many different flavors for your viewing (dis)pleasure! We have the violent/aggressive sassy black woman (think of every black woman in a role where she has to deal with the antics of trifling white people, or just think of Tara Thornton from True Blood again); but we also have the fabulous sassy black woman (Donna on Parks and Recreation); and, of course, the ghetto sassy black woman (think of every black woman on 30 Rock, but think about Angie in particular).
The sassy black woman is so frustrating because it is a stereotype that truly becomes a controlling image for black women. Ask a black woman about a time when someone has snapped their fingers, rolled their heads, or used an affected blaccent in order to describe them. Ask Nicole Byer or Sasheer Zamata about casting calls in which they are told to be blacker (read: sassier). This stereotype has a real affect on real black women, and that is a reason it needs to GTFO as soon as possible.
There are more stereotypes of black women on television, but to be honest, this was much as I could handle in one go!