July 31 marks Black Women's Equal Pay Day, a day that all of us Black women unfortunately had to wait for. This event marks how Black women had to work through all of 2016 and every day leading up to today to catch up with every cent made in 2016 by a White man. Crazy, right?! That's 19 months (!) of hard work. When thinking about this inequality, I can't help reflect on how the media impacts the way we view Black Women and their contributions to the workforce — namely, the lack of representation of Black women in professional roles in movies.
It's a harsh reality that needs to change, just like the pay gap. Because seriously: when you think about the roles of African American women in television and movies, what comes to mind? A feisty coworker? A loud and hilarious sidekick friend? A supporting part of some sort? Black women are rarely the leads, and especially not in roles where they have professional, important jobs. And this is seriously messed up.
According to USA Today, Essence reported in 2013 that negative or subservient images of Black women appeared twice as often as positive depictions of them in media. Black women are often given roles that are small and insubstantial, and have a splash of stereotypical characteristics (like being loud and sassy). We see Black women as maids, wives that have been abused, single mothers fighting to keep their children, slaves, funny supportive friends and judgmental, no "bs"-taking coworker. But what about seeing a Black women as a top business executive, or working in a Miranda Priestly-like position? Black women deserve to have their own versions of The Devil Wears Prada, Out of Africa, Working Girl, Erin Brockovich, or so many others.
“The truth is, we need more films on contemporary life to open it up and allow people to see different sides of black life,” said director Gina Prince-Bythewood in a 2016 article by Huffington Post about Black women in Hollywood. “We’re actually not a monolith.” So many Black women hold professional positions with thriving careers and lead successful lives, but it's rarely shown in movies. TV is slightly better, with the characters of Olivia Pope on Scandal and Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder, but it's not enough. Strained, stereotypical depictions of Black women shouldn’t be taking over our screens, and Hollywood needs to start spotlighting strong, independent, focused, and educated Black women instead.
The movie industry has changed enormously from when Hollywood first began featuring Black actors in film. However, Black people, especially Black women, are truly underrepresented in the variety of roles depicted. Just as we are raising awareness about the pay gap faced by Black women today, we need to raise awareness about the need for professional Black women appearing in film, in order to represent reality and give all people the recognition they deserve.