Stereotypes of black women in media - Beyonce

Beyonce, who is often associated with the “sassy black woman” trait, fell victim to the trope in the movie, Austin Powers in Goldmember, where she played a character named “Foxy Cleopatra.”

After receiving a code violation during the U.S. Open final tennis match for breaking her racket, professional tennis player Serena Williams argued with the referee, calling him a “thief.”

Williams faced an innumerable amount of backlash for her outburst and was fined $17,000 as punishment.

Though her reaction was declared unwarranted by some, what others were outraged by was how her behavior during the game was met with unfair, discriminatory insults and penalization despite other players before her acting far worse on the court.

The difference between Williams and these other players? Her race and her gender.

The insults Williams was exposed to had a lot to do with the stereotype of the “angry black woman” that is presented numerous times in movies and shows.

Williams’ experience on the court and the backlash she faced off the court showed black women are not only demonized on-screen but this can also carry this stereotype into real-life situations.

A more lighthearted form of the “angry black woman” stereotype is the “sassy black woman”. This woman is often used as a type of comedic relief in movies and films and usually has a few snappy catchphrases that put someone in their place while still maintaining the overall good nature of her character.

While the stereotype of the “sassy black woman” seems to be the lesser of two evils, what one must understand is both of these stereotypes, projected by the media, work to perpetuate discrimination in a sense that makes black women seem unapproachable, short-tempered and ill-mannered.

It also supports the idea that black women cannot speak their minds or experience the emotion of anger without being negatively stereotyped and looked down upon.

Tropes like these in the media have more of an impact on our real-world views of society than we might think.

According to the Huffington Post, 70 percent of black women fear that their coworkers perceive them as the ‘‘sassy black woman” in their workplace and therefore, they “attempt to change their personalities to fit in” and dispel this stereotype.

As a young black woman who is often hyper-aware of the way I react in situations due to these stereotypes, I have found it is easy for others to villainize a black woman because the media has shown we are inherently sassy or angry.

Some notable portrayals of the “sassy black woman” include Beyoncé Knowles in the 2002 movie Austin Powers in Goldmember. Knowles portrayed "Foxy Cleopatra" who delivered flippant, sardonic lines throughout the film.

The “angry black woman” character has been portrayed by Viola Davis in ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. Davis acts as Annalise Keating, who is shown to be cynical, temperamental and callous.

While the actresses themselves are talented and the roles are iconic, what these performances did, unknowingly, was create a hypothetical box that future black female actors have to fit into, thus creating a barrier that makes it harder for them to be cast unless they fit the “sassy” or “angry” trope.

Comedian and actress Nicole Byer has experienced typecasting due to these stereotypes when auditioning for roles as a black woman. In an interview with CBC Radio, Byer mentioned that she would often go into casting calls and would be directed to act “more sassy” and “more black”.

Furthermore, these stereotypes preserve the idea that a black woman’s anger is always irrational or her “sass” is always unnecessary. It also diminishes our natural emotions and our reason for being angry, boiling it down to an “attitude.”

It’s okay to be angry. Anger is a natural human emotion, experienced by all. Being sarcastic or outspoken is not a trait that is exclusive to black women and it's not fair to pin a universal emotion or characteristic to one particular group of people, especially if that emotion is used in a negative way.

Aside from the fact that there is an under-representation of black women on television and in movies, according to The African American Policy Forum, it doesn’t help that the little representation that black women do have is negative.

What these stereotypes can teach young black girls is that they should avoid showing negative emotion lest they be reduced to a stereotypical version of themselves, just because of the combined quality of their gender and race.

Black women are more than this stereotypical, side-character that contributes nothing but attitude to the overall plot.

Black women can be shy, noble, kind, bubbly--and yes, they can also be angry or sassy. But that is not the end-all-be-all of their personality or their emotional depth. There should be a better and broader depiction of black women in the media, that does not include these demeaning “angry” or “sassy black woman” tropes.

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