by Jasmin L.K. Smith
Black women are the least protected group, I would argue, in the world. They are expected to be strong caretakers, and many view them through a lens of strength and survival through hardship. The latter, however positive, is more regressive than progressive, since it creates an idea that Black women should be viewed as a one-dimensional monolith.
Black women have been discriminated against for centuries, not only by the misogynistic and racist outsiders within society, but in their own community, suffering at the hands of Black men and those that have more privileges than them due to lighter complexions. Black women are less likely to be attended to in hospitals, they are more likely to be viewed as aggressive and angry, and, most pressingly, they are less likely to be believed when they come out as victims.
On the night of the shooting between Tory Lanez and Megan Thee Stallion, I was involved in a groupchat of nearly 100 black women that were attending the same university as I had been. Within minutes the groupchat had gone from a simmer to a full-on kitchen fire, everyone sending details of what had happened and what the news had been saying. Over the following weeks, when discussing the case, our topics strayed away from Megan herself in favour of addressing the responses to her victimhood. Megan, a dark-skin Black woman, was called a cockroach, online personalities began to speculate that she was a man, and others simply said that she had made it all up. The responses were disgusting and abundant, and many of us in the groupchat were exposed to the true colours of our peers and loved ones; nobody was defending Megan like they had when white women cried ‘MeToo’, nobody was sympathizing with the pain that she must have felt, and she had been stripped of her identity in favour of people referring to her as a caricature.
Black Women as Caricatures
In slavery-era minstrel shows, white people would portray Black women as one of two stereotypes: the Mammy, or the Jezebel. The Mammy is a character that possesses no personal life of her own, sacrificing everything to take care of a white family’s home or children, and she was supposed to be grateful for the space and privileges granted to her by the family that she ‘worked for’. A modern example of this caricature would be Viola Davis’ role in The Help, a film that, rather than focusing on the complex relationships of Black caretakers and the children that they watched over in the early 20th century, told the story of a white savior that ‘felt terrible’ for what she had to witness. The image of Aunt Jemima is also an example of the Mammy in popular culture, an image, and a false story, that was only changed after outrage in 2021 (Diaz).
During slavery, it was not rare for white women to express jealousy towards the slave women that would be sexually assaulted at the hand of white slave masters. This was not romance, yet it was interpreted as such by wives that longed for the attention of their husbands. The caricature of the Jezebel originated from such circumstances as these. White women believed that their husbands had been seduced by Black women and their sexuality, thus leading them to be victims of sexual assault. This, of course, is not the truth, and Black women suffered overwhelming abuses from slave owners, which is not reflected in the Jezebel stereotype. The Jezebel’s only influence is her body, which she offers in exchange for something that she desires, and though it is no longer common in media, the Jezebel caricature has left lasting traces in Hollywood films and series.
In the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the caricature of the Sapphire rose to prominence, and the public believed this to be a true representation of Black women. The sapphire is the stereotypical ‘sassy Black woman’, she is loud, overbeating, hard-headed, and rude, and has directly contributed to the stereotype of Black women being angry and aggressive. The Sapphire is the ‘Angry Black Women’ that the public is regularly exposed to, and she is masculinized by portraying her as the dominant person in her relationships. The most common caricature of Black women in modern media is the Strong Black Women, also a product of the usage of the Sapphire stereotype. The Strong Black Women is a two-dimensional, emotionally incompetent character that very rarely gets to express an emotion aside from determination.
With a handful of ways to portray Black women, “the audience, and the creators alike, are going to constantly think that [they] have represented Black women in the way they are. When really, they have represented the same racist caricature over and over” (3:38 Al Jazeera). Having played the role of another Black woman stereotype, the Welfare Queen, Babirye Bukilwa sees herself as having been complicit in propaganda targeting Black women (Al Jazeera 6:40).
These stereotypes, even when put together, do not create a real character with personality and understandable motivations. None of these stereotypes or caricatures will ever be honest to the experience of Black women, because they lack depth and dimensionality. While there have been a few shows in recent years that have come out with honest stories about Black women, like Scandal, Insecure, and The Photograph, the startling lack of colour in media production has kept century-old stereotypes and caricatures alive, and these caricatures and stereotypes continue to thrive and work themselves into public opinions.
Defeminizing Black Women
Michelle Obama is successful, her birth name must be Michael; Francine Niyonsaba has a hormonal disorder, she must be competing as a woman to cheat her way to a gold medal; Megan Thee Stallion has taken agency and embraced her own sexuality, she must be .Marcus Thee Stallion’. Do you recognize a pattern? Successful, dominant Black women are constantly torn down and defeminized, and Black women that identify with traditionally masculine traits are rumored by the masses to be men themselves.
The defeminization of Black women began, again, with minstrel shows and slavery. When Black women were stripped of their agency, or when they were only portrayed as being voiceless, or mothering, their ability to embrace their own sexualities ceased to exist. Black women, in the sense of the Mammy trope, were seen as being nurturing, without desire for anything themselves. At the same time, the only sexual experiences of Black women in slavery were those defined by their slave masters, creating a culture that connected victimhood and sexuality when examining relationships of Black women.
Non-Black society has attributed masculinity as a whole to Black communities. They attribute perceived hypermasculine traits, such as violence and likelihood to commit a crime, to Black men, and both Black men and Women suffer as a result. Black men are more likely to be targeted by police violence, while Black women must suffer as they must prove themselves as being feminine beings to those around them. The default for femininity is the white damsel in distress, a character like Snow White, thus assuming Black women to lack femininity since they lack a light complexion (Blake). Even men in the Black community portray and discuss Black women as if they are lesser than because they have dark skin or because they have been brainwashed by the stereotypes of white society.
During the Womanism Movement in the 60s and 70s, Black women coined the word ‘misogynoir’ to encompass the extremely specific circumstances of which they are discriminated against. ‘Misogynoir’ is a word that not only captures the racism and misogyny that Black women endure at the hands of society as a whole, but also addresses, arguably, the biggest perpetrating group of stereotypes against Black women, Black men.
Issues faced by Black women are usually not as bothersome to Black men as they should be. In Why Are Black Men So Quiet About the Things That Matter to Black Women?, Allison Wiltz talks about Black conservatism and how it directly affects Black women. Black conservative men have, for decades, described abortion as being a tool for Black genocide, however, they do not speak on the fact that Black women are more than three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women (Wiltz). Often times, these same men claim that Black women are living off of welfare or cheating the system, but they never bother to comment on wage disparities between Black men and Black women, or even Black women and White women.
In recent years, books like Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall have addressed the way that ‘ratchet’/’hood’ women are viewed as ‘ghetto’ or ‘uneducated’. Books such as these suggest that Black men view Black women as being less than white women because they have chosen to use AAVE, or because they wear certain clothes. These mentalities and styles invented by Black women often end up in mainstream media, by which point they are deemed as being socially acceptable while Black women are still being labeled as ‘ghetto’ for trendsetting.
Black men have, in the past, picked up many of the stereotypes towards Black women that have been created by non-Black communities. Rather than speaking out against them, many Black men have, instead, chosen disbelief or complacency in order to advance in life.
In one apology addressed to Megan, a Black man said that he initially could not believe it, and that is why he chose to be hateful towards her. The “everyday violence that [Black women] deal with“sounds so crazy”as to be met with incredulity,” but this is the type of violence that they are faced with everyday of their lives, including from their very own community (Lane 295).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines parasociality as “Designating a relationship characterized by the one-sided, unreciprocated sense of intimacy felt by a viewer, fan, or follower for a well-known or prominent figure” (“Parasocial” O.E.D). In other words, a parasocial relationship is one in which a fan believes that they have a realistic, everyday relationship with a celebrity or creator because of the accessibility of their content.
Parasocial relationships can be dangerous, as the person that perceives a parasocial relationship may defend the celebrity, creator, or character, as if they are a friend, and they are unable to decipher that their relationship is one-sided. In a study published in Psychology and Marketing, Siyoung Chung and her team discovered that, the more a celebrity tweeted or interacted with fans online, the more likely they were to be endorsed by their audience (Chung). Not only is this excellent branding, creating falsified, and seemingly personal connections with an audience, allowing for significantly more successful marketing, but it is also a wonderful PR tool.
When celebrities with large, parasocial audiences get into scandals, any bad publicity can be easily overshadowed by their fanbase spreading other information, or simply polluting related hashtags with unrelated events/media. For Tory Lanez, his parasocial audience mixed with racism, misogyny, and misogynoir from members of the Black community, created a perfect storm to distract from Megan’s retelling of the events. Rather than finding conversations about what happened on the night of the shooting, or seeing evidence on your timeline, it is much more common to come across tweets calling Megan a liar, or claiming her to be a man.
In the midst of her trauma, Megan Thee Stallion was forced to relentlessly explain herself, blame and insults being spewed on every platform. At the time of the shooting, it is reported that she lied to a police officer regarding what had happened. Many ridiculed her for this decision, overlooking the historic relationship between Black men and police departments, especially in the United States. Others called her a snitch for saying anything at all, “as if she were involved with some crime ring with Tory Lanez” (The Takeaway 4:45). Megan, like other Black women, could not win, and this trial has grown to be as much of a minstrel show as the ones that took place 100 years ago. If Megan is a Sapphire, she can’t feel pain, right? If she is a Strong Black Woman, then she must not be a victim.
If you have gotten this far, and you feel anger towards my defense of Megan Thee Stallion, towards my defense of Black women as a whole, let me remind you: Tory Lanez is not your friend. Why are you defending him? Why are Black women stripped of any talents and education, viewed as even subhuman, once they reach fame? Why must Black women suffer no matter their position in life?
This trial is about Megan Thee Stallion and Tory Lanez, but it has never been solely about Megan Thee Stallion and Tory Lanez. This trial is about society and Black women, about Black men and Black women, this trial is about Black Women and pain. Nobody believes Black women, because society, including Black men, do not view them as people. If Black women are supposed to be protectors, who will protect them?
Al Jazeera. “Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire: Stereotyping Black women in media | The Listening Post (Feature).” Youtube, uploaded by Al Jazeera English, 26 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2teqoyPe3TU&ab_channel=AlJazeeraEnglish.
Blake, Arana. The Masculinization of Black Women. Nubian Message, 14 April 2022, https://www.thenubianmessage.com/2022/04/14/the-masculinization-of-black-women/.
Chung, Sarah., & Cho, Hichang. “Fostering Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities on Social Media: Implications for Celebrity Endorsement.” Psychology and Marketing, 34(4), 481-495, https://doi.org/10.1002/mar.21001.
.Diaz, Jaclyn. Aunt Jemima No More; Pancake Brand Renamed Pearl Milling Company. NPR, 10 February 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/02/10/966166648/aunt-jemima-no-more-pancake-brand-renamed-pearl-milling-company.
Jim Crow Museum. The Sapphire Caricature. Ferris State University, 2023, https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/antiblack/sapphire.htm.
Lane, Nikki. “Ratchet Black Lives Matter: Megan Thee Stallion, Intra-Racial Violence, and the Elusion of Grief.” Linguistic Anthropology, 31, 293-297, August 2021, https://anthrosource.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jola.12323.
“Parasocial, adj.” OED Online, Oxford UP, 30 March 2022, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/99961331?redirectedFrom=parasocial#eid.
Wiltz, Allison. Why Are Black Men So Quiet About the Things That Matter to Black Women?. Zora, 3 March 2022, https://zora.medium.com/why-are-black-men-so-quiet-about-the-things-that-matter-to-black-women-a8a5a865ec35.
Vega, Tanzia. “Megan Thee Stallion and Misogynoir in the Music Industry.” New York Public Radio, uploaded by The Takeaway, 31 August 2020, https://www.proquest.com/docview/2731268096?accountid=14771&parentSessionId=2YDtk50apX1Ex6Vp%2BiEgCQaImk5TT6JR8lJQanuITJQ%3D&parentSessionId=Q4gzv5f48uqTqetjiEQTYWS5JbSyG3BbLCKXgUIib0k%3D.