Invisible Women [pt 2]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

We can connect these images too, to the larger discourse about black women, their desirability when stacked against white women. Macabre perhaps, but in the context of horror films and the larger conversation—clearly significant. By that same token, black women being picked off by a psychopath with a carving knife for example, would be equally problematic. I do not want to be mistaken for coveting more race-specific depictions of violence against women, encouraging it, nor wistful for any.

Rather, I am trying to consider how our social, racial, cultural, historical, political past informs those pop cultural images inside these dark places that we voluntarily want to go to—-like those inside of a scary movie. Even at a relatively young age, when we are supposed to be psyched about safely encountering our fears and having our hair follicles prickle, like inside the pages of the Fear Street books of my youth—these always seemed to feature wide-eyed, white females on the illustrations on the covers.

I know that I am not necessarily safe from anything in this world, but so much of the discourse on certain kinds of violence against women that we hear about, when not committed by someone close to the victim (and sometimes even then), is often portrayed in the media as linked to female desirability. If the victim is physically appealing, you hear about her beauty all the time. The awful media swarm around the JonBenet Ramsey case was always underscored by the little girl’s beauty and her glamorous pageant footage ran endlessly over and over on many news programs. She was portrayed as the tragic little woman-child.

One hardly ever sees accurate linkages to power, control, other systems of oppression, pornography and other factors explored in these kinds of cases. If black women are then considered less desirable, are we any less fearful of certain kinds of violence? Along with films, mainstream media and their news outlets play a large role in the creation of a culture of fear, fear of violence against women, as well as clearly establishing exactly which women need to be fearful. Take for example, the case of Stepha Henry who went missing in May 2007.

Stepha Henry is a great example because I had often heard newscasters espouse the fact that young, attractive women who go missing in America will have a better chance at their story gaining national attention regardless of the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. Race of course conveniently being that factor that was left out and overlooked. So I wondered about Stepha Henry because she was young, about to go to law school and attractive. But then again, she was black. What message does this send to black women in America when her story is initially ignored?

This of course being coupled with the lack of options for diverse representations of black women in the media and entertainment that are positive. Missing black women are at the other end of the spectrum, voiceless, faceless to the masses because of a media that refuses to publicize their tale, forgotten and ignored by all but those who are personally invested in the story. That’s how the media works though. A story only becomes imbued in the public consciousness because of this very media manipulation.

Which is in fact why I can recite so many of the facts of the Natalee Holloway case off the top of my head as I type, little nitty gritty things like she was a straight A student and on her senior trip, she liked to dance, she was about to start university on a full scholarship. This is also why I can in fact get the unique spelling of her name right in the first draft of this piece and not type “Natalie” because I know. I do not know her but I do. She is blonde and young and missing in Aruba. Her disappearance is certainly tragic but I wonder, why wasn’t Stepha Henry afforded the same personalization and coverage? And why (if I am to be honest) am I not surprised? What happens to the other stories of black women who go missing?

Historically, black women have had to deal with a lot, both within our communities and outside of it. Between colorism, slavery and its various legacies: the black mammies on Southern plantations, slave concubines for slave-masters, colonialism, oversexualized stereotypes of black women, the so-called video vixen, good hair vs. bad hair and more. I couldn’t even begin to list them all. The Hottentot Venus exemplified the ways in which perceived black female sexuality was literally dissected and paraded to a curious European populace.

American southern states clearly placed a higher value on the lives and preservation of white women, while the lives and well being of women of color were considered expendable. Southern trees would often bear the fruit of black men who in some cases, refused to accept this disregard for their wives, mothers, girlfriends and sisters. Our collective story runs deep and is rife with complexities, some stretching back centuries, some self-imposed, some not, all being part of the rich fabric that is the black female experience. At once beautiful, painful, poignant, enduring and so much more. Yes, so I guess there has never been an easy time to be a black female.

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