Last week, I tried to start a new Netflix show. It opened with the murder of an American woman. The scene flashed back to a slim blonde sliding her feet into a pair of heels, then jumped ahead to her being chased in the woods by her captor. Her long hair snarled in branches and wrapped traumatically around her jaw.
I wanted to be drawn in, but was stopped by a random thought. I wondered why we never see black women as the “American woman” on TV. Or any woman of color, really. There are black women in America. They’re in Target, the grocery store, at work, mowing the lawn, at movie theaters. We had one as the first lady of the United States. By definition, they are American women. But rarely do we see (and I was close to saying “never,” but you know how it is with that word…) them represented as the quintessential American woman. There’s an obvious deference to a light-haired caucasian female as our image of a woman in the U.S. Would you agree that if in this Netflix show, or any show that isn’t a predominant cast of one particular race (Empire, Insecure), if a black woman slipped her feet into heels and ran through the woods with her natural afro not waving romantically tortured in the wind, your brain would hiccup?
Yesterday, a timely article went up on Jezebel.com about a project started by photographer Sarah Huny Young. The American Woman project. She explains on her website, “All of the participants in the AMERICAN WOMAN project will be Black American women, but that the project is not called BLACK AMERICAN WOMAN is intentional. This is a recasting of the mold that’s been lazily accepted. We’re not to be invisible, silent, or othered any longer. We’re not an insignificant monolith, we’re a resilient, powerful myriad.”
To be honest, I’ve swallowed the standard depiction of what an American woman looks like mostly without question. It's so finely integrated into my perception of who makes up this country that I don't think I've actively turned it over in my head. The shows I mentioned in the above paragraph have black female leads--Taraji P. Henson in Empire or Issa Rae in Insecure--but 90% of the cast is already black or of color. On shows where it’d be natural to see a blend of colors (procedurals or dramas--Law & Order, The Blacklist), the lead woman is a white woman. It’s the women in supporting roles who are racially diverse. I have nothing to say in my defense, except I guess that I’ve been brainwashed? Which is really sad since I’m biracial.
There are a lot of think pieces on this and why it’s so, and the fact is that it's TV. It's already fake. And it’s not really something we haven’t heard before. Women of all variations rail against the American standard of beauty whether the issue is weight--too big, too small; hair--short; skin--acne, blotchy. There are more body shapes that aren’t “standard” than there are “standard.” But the specific aim of Sarah’s project is to “push back against the archetype of the American Woman [...] the one you see when you Google ‘American woman’ or ‘beautiful woman.’” So, despite women noticing this imbalance, not much has changed. And that will always be the case as long as there’s racial bias. Sarah makes the fair point, “Non-Black women are celebrated for adopting style and characteristics black women get shamed for, i.e. brightly colored hair, acrylic fingernails, big lips, big asses.” Or, big hair.
Gigi Hadid recently did a Vogue shoot wearing an afro wig. It's argued that the afro has a meaningful history in the civil rights movement. That Gigi was styled (and that she accepted the styling--and she is cognizant, having mentioned racial appropriation before) while black women are still navigating the mold of white American beauty, shows that media would rather have a white version of black beauty than the actual thing itself. (Don't get me started on white woman playing Asian characters. I started writing then overwhelmed myself.)
Jezebel writes, “The project is a portrait-and-documentary series created with the aim of reframing what we think of when we hear the descriptor ‘American woman.’ But the series is not only reframing that concept—it’s also presenting black women, both cis and transgender, as the new face of the American woman.” Sarah is expanding her project to include gallery installations and video to drive home conflict between women we see everyday and what we also accept as realistic. “The women in Young’s project come from all walks of life.” For example, “There’s Patrice Yursik, whom most will recognize as Afrobella, the godmother of black beauty blogging. In Yursik’s video, she discusses the process of becoming an American citizen as a Trinidadian woman.”
I’m just a viewer. I’m just a consumer. I’m not sure how to actively address this problem outside of my .02 on Smash Up. Though, there is the idea that our dollars speak the loudest. There’s no denying media speaks the loudest in shaping culture. That we should show our support in ticket and merchandise sales for media created by and for women of color to show the powers that be their input and American experience is valuable. And not just black-produced media, but media that gives a platform to voices that are “other.” "Other" people and "other" than what we’re comfortable with.
Some places I've been able to add to my perception of American diversity are documentaries like 13th, Girlhood, and Miss Representation. Music like Anohni and Frank Ocean, or any artist who make fantastic music, but I don't necessarily understand their experience. Extend this thinking to the internet, books, and if you can, to your relationships. Befriend more people who don’t look like you. No, no one is saying force a friendship, but there's something to be said for putting yourself in specific situations where you might meet someone who isn't similar to you while sharing the same interests. An art class, volunteering, or a new job. It’s proven that our brains will relax after repeated exposure to what we initially interpreted as fearful or confrontational. We can adapt to what was once thought of as “too different.”
Make a conscious effort to redefine beauty as womanhood that accept all ranges and representations, so you don’t look twice when you see Jessamyn Stanley doing yoga, like millions of American women who do yoga all the time. So it’s not considered “out of the norm” to see interracial couples like Viola Davis’ character on How to Get Away with Murder married to a white man (even though it's kind of a plot point, but you know what I mean), instead of the somehow more acceptable black man with any woman. So those with tightly coiled hair, wide noses, large calves, or dark body hair aren’t anomalies. It’s small changes like these that will keep broadening our perspectives and break the mold of who an American woman is.