For weeks now, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” has been the center of pop culture debates within the black community. Controversy surrounding the popular film, which has already grossed $108 million since its Christmas Day release, continues to ensue. The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and other organizations have now announced a boycott of action figures based on the movie’s characters.
These “slavery toys” are not only grossly disrespectful, but they (like the movie itself) point to a larger problem. As African Americans, we have very little control over the depiction of our own history and image within the mainstream media and entertainment industries. As a result, we’re always having to boycott demeaning and inaccurate portrayals of our community. But this problem is bigger than boycotts; it’s about media reform.
This was brought to mind as a Change.org petition recently started by Sabrina Lamb of New York demanded the canceling of a reality show set to release in the spring. In the petition, Lamb urges Oxgen Media and DiGa Vision to abandon their plan for “All My Babies’ Mamas,” which she describes as a “one hour spectacle where 11 children are forced to witness their 10 unwed mothers clamor for financial support, emotional attention and sexual reward from [rapper] Shawty-Lo, the apathetic ‘father’.”
While Oxygen Media insists that the show is “a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life,” the network is clearly building off of age-old racial stereotypes. Like many other reality shows centered around an all-black cast, “All My Babies’ Mamas” will likely portray reckless promiscuity, emotional instability, substance abuse, violence and family disunity.
Some might argue that this problem is not unique to any particular community with “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” as a case in point. However, there’s balance of representation with the scale tipping heavily toward positive depictions. For every Honey Boo Boo, there are thousands of other positive portrayals of little white girls and their families that make their life experiences seem like an anomaly.
But there’s much more at stake than just representation. An Opportunity Agenda 2011 report entitled “Media Representation and Impact on the Lives of Black Men and Boys” states that “the media world can be mistaken for the real world.” Building on what scholars have long argued, the report states that the media is having a “negative impact on black perceptions of self” and leading to biased public attitudes about blacks that affect life outcomes. It reflects data that shows the effects on the lives of African Americans “include everything from less attention from doctors to harsher sentencing by judges, lower likelihood of being hired for a job or admitted to school, lower odds of getting loans, and a higher likelihood of being shot by police.”
When looked at from this prospective, the boycotts of action figures and individual reality shows begin to seem ineffective. This is a crisis of economics, health, education and criminal justice — not just entertainment. With only six corporations running 90 percent of American media, African Americans have a lot at stake in joining the fight for media reform.
All to often, we engage in reactionary activism, resisting the creation and profitable sales of products that disrespect the black community. This is often a quick Band-Aid fix to systemic problems that need long-term solutions.
Without a real plan of action on how to tackle this problem of media reform, we’ll continuously be bracing ourselves until the next time a movie mocking self-hating slaves racks up millions and a major network defends trash as entertainment.
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder/editorial director of Urban Cusp, an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT.
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