Posts Tagged ‘black women and the media’

Invisible Women [pt 1]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

“I have come to the conclusion that to a lot of people, nothing black girls do is good enough!! They get the blame for everything seem like it!!”–young black girl commenting on the demonizing of black women on a BET message board.

“I am so sick of losers like you putting black women down, like we are the lowest thing on earth.”—black female poster on another popular black message board.

It’s an interesting time to be a black female in America. The difficulties it seems are paramount. What makes it so difficult being black and female in America in this day and age? Well, lots of things. First of all, there are many more mediums out here that do more harm to the representation of black women than good. American pop culture and its ideas are so pervasive too; its images take root and reach all around the globe, far and wide. Think about the implications behind this range of the image of black women and girls, and not just on this continent.

In particular, the position of young black females who view these images (wherever they might be located) is particularly tenuous. It is this group that I am most concerned with as well as not so young ones (smile) like myself. The insistence of the media in various forms and fashions to blatantly ignore the plight of young black women wherever danger befalls them, to consistently fall short in its representation of women of color ends up sending a clear message to young women of color. One that says, you are not valued and you are not important.

If you think this message is not resonating loud and clear in the minds and souls of young black girls, then maybe you should find a cross section of them, sit down with them and see what they have to say. Or perhaps take the time to trawl some message boards where they frequent. Everywhere you go, the message is this same. Young black girls feel increasingly disenfranchised, they feel ugly, unrepresented, unimportant and irrelevant.

While young black girls should not be looking to the media to develop a sense of self worth, they still do so. Teenagers are particularly susceptible. Now there is nothing innately wrong with doing so, if there were balanced healthy images available for them to ingest and if they could consistently view these images with a critical eye. Young people must be actively given the tools with which to develop the skills that will allow them to take in these messages into a more discerning mind. Still, TV and pop culture should not be the sole outlet by any means because we all can see that MTV and BET and the like, seriously fall short.

However my central criticism is that whenever the media does send a message of inadvertent omission (or a consciously direct one), this in and of itself, is a message. One of the most powerful ones of all. If it’s not a message that black people do not exist within a particular space whether it’s as scholars, upper class, intellectuals, middle class, eclectic and so forth, because these images are nowhere near as populous as some of the other kinds. Then it’s one of dismissal. Non recognition and non inclusion makes an equally powerful statement. So it becomes an argument quite beyond that of simple inclusion and visibility. It’s also about those faces and voices that have been seen, felt, heard and still ignored. Maybe because they were not deemed good enough or worthy enough.

The significant thing about the invisibility of black women in some places despite all that I have learnt about race, gender, sexism and the like, is the strange way that I end up internalizing some of it. I feel as though I am less fearful than some of my fair headed and fairer skinned female friends when it comes to certain matters. I am not afraid of The Bad Man (whoever that is), some infernal boogeyman or strange things that go bang in the night. No looking out for suspicious vans with curtains that practically scream “serial killer inside!” But it’s not because I think that I am invincible at all, rather I have, at one time or the other, in a dark parking lot with aforementioned creepy van encroaching thought, “now who would want to grab me?” I suppose I am more fearful of specific people, places and things—more than any mysterious things out there.

Pop cultural discourse on The Serial Killer and Other Scary Things doesn’t ever seem too concerned with trying to make black women look over their shoulder but as a demographic—white women always must. Not just the actual Ted Bundys out there but all these other myriads of scary things out there, primed to get women—white women. The biggest difference we see with this message is when The Serial Killer forays into the world of sex workers or some other group supposedly on the fringes of society—then and only then, does the call to fear and fearfulness usually begin to cross racial lines.

Like Jada Pinkett-Smith’s character in the Scream 2 movie—subtextual messages in certain films, the absence of people of color in many popular horror films or the ease with which they might be decapitated early on, if there are any in the first place—all help contribute toward creating this absurd, twisted bubble of safety that I feel I sometimes exist in. These representations are further compounded by the fact that the black actresses and actor in the second Scream movie were seen by many as a way to save face for the absence of any in the first film. Black women in horror films are clearly dispensable when we even exist to be preyed upon at all.

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

May 14, 2009

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.

Invisible Women [pt 3]: The Plight of Missing Black Women and the Media

May 14, 2009

The first time I saw anything about the name Stepha Henry was when several friends of mine began joining a group dedicated to her on the social networking site Facebook, and this popped up in my mini feed regularly. If you are unfamiliar with Facebook, I simply refer to a tool on the site that notifies you when your friends do things like join new groups, add new pics and update profiles. Stepha’s cousin, a student in school in Florida, started a group called “My cousin Stepha is missing” and reached out to all of her friends in her school network and beyond and soon the word spread.

Her cousin took it upon herself to start the group in order to help publicize the details surrounding Stepha’s disappearance in the hopes that she would be found. The group’s facebook description inscribed on the front page at its inception, specifically references the media snub on the story with the observation that “unfortunately the news about her missing status is not important enough as Paris Hilton’s jail time escapades.” From early on, it was the internet that helped get the word out about Stepha and not the mainstream media. Unfortunately with the hotel heiress’ arrest dominating the airwaves at this time, it was an especially bad time for any black female to turn up missing. Not that any time is really a good time in America.

Prominent popular Trinidadian soca music artistes on my friends list were in turn, blasting the internet via myspace, sending out bulletins about her with the details about her disappearance, rewards for information, and many placed Stepha’s picture prominently in their default profile pics. Stepha was a US citizen with roots in Trinidad and Tobago and the Trinidadian community in the state of New York. Even before all this happened, my own father (himself an avid purveyor of the US media fear mongering, from his vantage point in the Caribbean) woke me up early one Sunday morning, warning me of the perils of being female and living alone in America, by urging me to be especially careful because of what he had recently read about the “missing Trinidadian college student.”

It would be several weeks before I realized that my dad was in fact, talking about Stepha Henry and several more before I had even heard any whisper of her name through my Facebook mini feed or anywhere. This was largely because it took a while for some of the American news outlets to connect her to her Trinidadian heritage. At least one of the Trinidadian newspapers had reported on the story, posted it in their online edition and followed it from early because she had connections to the island.

Sometime after all this happened, the story took off on the web with media outlets scrambling with PR sound bites explaining why it took them so long to give this story some serious attention and even then, it nowhere nearly matched the coverage of any featured missing white female in the mainstream press. Grassroots mobilization with friends, family and other concerned individuals through the internet did much more for the Stepha Henry story (as far as I can see) than any media affiliation. This kind of mobilization had been taking place before I ever saw any snippet on a major network about her story. Many major news networks were quick to do damage control as soon as bloggers and other observers critiqued the coverage of the Stepha Henry case.

Exploding beyond the person[al]—Stepha became a symbol, prompting frank discussions on race and missing black women and creating a powerful reminder about the perceived value of young black women. We go missing in the night and there is no matching furor, no outpouring of indignation far and wide, except by those concerned and within the community most likely. This creates a kind of universal currency and value for missing white women that women of color do not get. This is why we can all rally around the missing Holloway girl and others like her. We can all connect to the stories of missing white women and girls (which we should) but women of color are never afforded the same coverage, the same universality of human experience, when their stories are even told.

I know nothing more about Stepha Henry other than what I have just written. Yet I know that Natalee was a dancer. I have seen her prom pics on CNN. I have heard testimonials from the mouths of her friends. Coverage time aside, even the way the stories are told when reported are different. Do not think it does not matter. It does. It all matters because it seeps into our consciousness as viewers. In this way, Natalee becomes a full person, more than any statistic and we are all rooting for the Aruban authorities to eventually get to the bottom of this. This can only happen because she is a young white, attractive, blond female and this affords her a particular kind a privilege even in the midst of a missing person mystery and unknown circumstances.

Many in the media went on the defensive with statements online and in print, denying any blatant bias. They tried to rectify a resounding silence that sent an already resounding message loud and clear: black women, we do not care about you. When major media coverage could not be bothered to jump on the case from day one, in fact, yawned in the face of a missing young black college grad and turned to Paris Hilton updates first: a message was sent. As a black female myself, it hurts me to think that I am not as highly valued. Heaven forbid I should go missing one day. Yet still, I trod on and I hold my head high. As we strive from day to day, contemporary black women in a growing changing world, hearing echoes of the past all around us, we have to stay strong and keep going forward. Creating our own currency of self  because we know we are worth it. Even when other people do not.

[an update to this piece: in January 2008, major news outlets were able to report an arrest in the Stepha Henry case.]