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Essence: Black women still poorly depicted in media


Essence Magazine Essence Magazine

Pop quiz: When you think of media representations of black women what comes to mind? Recognize any of these labels?

Angry black woman. Baby momma. Black Barbie. Gold-digger. Unhealthy fat black woman.

They are stereotypes that a research firm partnered with Essence Magazine uncovered in a survey of 901 black women to be released Thursday at the magazine’s upfront presentation. Thirty of the women surveyed kept visual diaries for 1 1/2 weeks, logging the media images they saw. Stereotypes were pervasive.

“Black women haven’t really defined themselves,” author Sophia Nelson, told me in 2012 when The Washington Post released its own survey of black women, which found that black women felt stereotyped by the media.

After a 10-day cycle of recording the images they viewed on the Internet, television and other media, the black women in the Essence report — which was conducted by the research firm Cheskin/Added Value — described themselves as feeling saddened and disrespected, among other emotions.

Such expressions came even from younger black women, those ages 18 to 22. That cohort, who described themselves as larger consumers of media than their older counterparts, is also an important part of the viewing audience for shows that portray black women in a negative light, including reality television series such as “Bad Girls Club.”

“Younger Black women are more exposed to the extremes. They are more likely to see the negative typologies due to their higher media consumption in general, their higher tendency to look into popular culture for cues and their interest in broad self expression,” according to the report, which will run in the magazine’s November issue. “Surprisingly, their viewing support for the extremes do not negate the adverse emotions that come from it or their strong interest in positive typologies. They too reject the negativity, even more so than the older group, and are uncomfortable with people from other cultures seeing it.”

Essence plans to continue the conversation Thursday with a Q&A with actress Viola Davis at its advertising sales meeting. Davis, who has bucked Hollywood trends with her natural hair style and has often discussed the roles available to black women in cinema, will talk about about images of black women and her own journey of self-acceptance.

“We felt compelled to bring more attention and definition to this important topic … [and] to explore how black women see themselves and contrast that with how they are depicted in the media,” Essence Communications president Michelle Ebanks said in an email.

The magazine’s study differs from other assessments of the portrayal of black women in the media in an important way: It proposes a solution.

The problem with the current images is that they reflect extremity, according to the magazine and the researchers. The solution is to uplift images in the “invisible middle.” Those include figures such as, “the acculturated girl next door,” “community heroines,” “young phenoms” and “modern matriarchs.”

Marketing expert Pepper Miller, who was interviewed by researchers for the report, wrote in her book “Black Still Matters” that “there are the high profile celebrities, entertainers, and sports figures on one side, and the impoverished, crime-ridden, and down and out on the other. This flawed perception results in the rest of us – The Invisible Middle – being ignored and marginalized.”

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.

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