by Joneka Percentie
Many people underestimate the power that representation in the media can have for young girls, and especially young girls of color–but connecting with the experiences of another person and empathizing with their stories and lives is powerful. Whenever we talk about why representation matters, I always think about this quote from actress Whoopi Goldberg:
“When I was nine years old Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Now, though, television seems overwhelmingly white. It wasn’t always this way. I grew up watching shows like Good Times, A Different World, The Cosby Show, Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, The Jeffersons, Smart Guy–I could go on and on. And there were also shows that weren’t just majority Black, but majority Black women: Moesha, Sister Sister, Living Single, and Girlfriends, and That’s So Raven, television shows that showed not only diverse Black women, but also the diverse relationships they had in their lives. These amazing shows feel like ghosts of diverse TV past. Few cable and broadcast television shows make the same statements of diversity today that Black sitcoms began to make in the 70’s. The case in major production films proves to be just as disappointing. A report conducted by the Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism Media showed that the amount of Black actors in top grossing films went from 13% in 2007 to 10.8% in 2012.
So many women, and especially women of color, struggle with their self-perceptions and self-esteem as a result of the stereotypes held of us. In a 2014 study conducted by the Women’s Media Center, Essence Editor-in-Chief Vanessa Karen Bush explains that “there is a pervasive focus in the media on the most extreme characterizations of Black women and a glaring lack of authentic, inspirational images.” This is why it’s so important to support media created by Black women. When the narratives written for Black women are so often not written by Black women, we’re doing everyone a great disservice. Allowing the voices of Black women to be heard in an industry that has so often silenced them is key in introducing new and diverse talent.
It’s not as though Black women aren’t making media–plenty are. There are thousands of Black women who are telling their own stories and who are creating complex and diverse Black female characters that are relatable and accurate, and we want to highlight their work and support their projects. That’s why we’re launching Black Women Create, a new project that will highlight the work of Black Women in the film and television industries and give young Black girls that are interested in pursuing these fields a place for advice, inspiration, and direction in navigating the careers. So far we’ve interviewed Tchaiko Omawale and Lena Waithe, who only confirmed the importance of this project and wide representation of black women on the screen. As Tchaiko explained,
If you’re an artist, who you are and how you see the world comes out in what you do. So if you have a medium where it’s a majority of one type of person making that medium, you’re gonna get that one type of person’s perspective. [...] And that’s why you need more women and just more diversity, so that when people consume films, they’re consuming the reality of the world as opposed to a really small part of it. Even within black women. I have a small group of friends who I love and admire and who do amazing things, but we all make very different films and we all have very different viewpoints of the world or what it means to be a woman or what it means to be a black woman. It’s going to be different if you’re a heterosexual woman versus if you’re queer. There are just different things that are going to come out. I think it’s just really important to allow other voices to be present.
As recent Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o once explained, “The first time I thought I could be an actor was when I saw The Color Purple. I grew up in Kenya, and a lot of our programming was from all over the world, and we didn’t see ourselves on screen. So it was rare that you would see a world populated with people that look like me. It just shows how important it is to represent everyone in our profession.”
They’re right: this isn’t just a problem for Black women, but everyone who is a part of the film and television industries and watch their content. Black Women Create is about Black women, but it is for everybody. Every month, we’ll interview Black women in the television and film industries, highlight television series and films directed, written, and produced by Black women, and include personal experiences from the SPARK girls. You can follow the project here. We’re turning the lack of representation of Black women in the media on its head, and create more opportunities to give new voices and talent the space to showcase their work.