No sooner had Doug Jones become the first Democrat in 25 years to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate than the inevitable memes ensued: After statistics revealed that 98 percent of African American women voted for Jones in Tuesday’s special election, the #BlackWomen hashtag began trending on social media. “Thank you #BlackWomen The country will be a better place because of you!” read a typical tweet, which ended with three prayer-hands emoji for good measure.
In an echo of the 2016 election, when black women voted in similarly large numbers for Hillary Clinton, both the texts and subtexts were clear: Black women can always be relied on to do the “right thing.” But beyond the triumphant “Formation” and Tessa Thompson GIFs from “Thor: Ragnarok,” a more sobering reality loomed: that, despite receiving occasional lip service to their supernatural abilities to save the country, they’re still dramatically underrepresented when it comes to actually running it, or controlling policies and resources around issues that most deeply affect them.
The election in Alabama wasn't the first time this week that the earnest but patronizing black-woman-as-savior narrative came up, if obliquely. On Monday, when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced the nominees for this year's Golden Globe Awards, the list was notable for some curious absences: Even though "Girls Trip," a raucous road picture featuring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith and Regina Hall, was the most successful original comedy of the year, raking in more than $130 million at the box office, it was scandalously overlooked in the Globes' comedy category. What's more, Tiffany Haddish, who earned early awards and Oscar buzz for her uproarious supporting turn in the film, also went unrecognized.
It would be tempting to chalk the snubs up to bad luck. But Pinkett Smith let loose later that day on Twitter, accusing HFPA members of not having even bothered to see the movie. “Girls Trip was one of the most successful films this summer & Tiff was hands down the funniest person on screen in 2017 and we couldn’t get eyes on the film or a press conference,” Pinkett Smith wrote. “How much more critical acclaim must a movie have to simply get a screening?” she asked. (Members of the HFPA were reportedly invited to the film’s premiere and an additional screening in July, but it isn’t clear how many members attended, if any.)
It’s important to note that critics and reporters for foreign press outlets shouldn’t be mistaken for the movie industry as a whole. But buried within Pinkett Smith’s tweet is a crucial truth about the twin horns on which black women are routinely disrespected in Hollywood: erasure and opportunism. During an otherwise ho-hum summer at the box office, “Girls Trip” was a major hit, its raunchy humor and touching portrait of loyalty and friendship finding a huge audience across ethnic and gender lines.
And yet, even though black women arguably helped Hollywood save face during a slow season — as they did with "The Help" and "Hidden Figures" before "Girls Trip" — the industry continues to treat them, at best, as a niche and, at worst, as a barely acknowledged afterthought. (In a one-woman cautionary tale, Octavia Spencer, who was playing a mathematician in "Hidden Figures" earlier this year, can today be seen portraying a cleaning lady in the multi-nominated "The Shape of Water.")
It’s common for Hollywood to express confoundedness when films by and about black women do well: The term of art is that they “overperform,” when in reality it’s the mostly white men who run studios who chronically disregard and underestimate constituencies who don’t look like them — at untold cost to their companies’ bottom lines.
Whether black women are “overperforming” at the multiplex or bringing a tough election over the finish line, the underlying dynamic of being ignored until they’re taken for granted is the same. In a modern-day mash-up of the mammy and “magical Negro” stereotypes that bedeviled American cinema for nearly a century, African American women are consigned to helping roles that underscore their value as workers, caretakers and miracle workers, but not as leaders in their own right — their agency appreciated only through the lens of others’ well-being, rather than their own self-actualization and interests.
Real talk, though: The white men who run political parties and structures, entertainment studios and movie sets are perfectly happy to benefit from the creativity and labor of black women, who are constantly being asked to bear the burdens of our collective salvation, without the benefit of commensurate respect and power.
It’s become easy, even chic, to celebrate strong black women in politics and culture. But absent genuine visibility, inclusion and radical structural change, these celebratory gestures are just that, and nothing more. Until the gatekeepers cede their power and make room for meaningful representation — on the ballot, in the statehouse, behind the camera and in front of it, in executive suites and on movie sets — the thanks lavished on African American women will be as empty as the middle of a hashtag.