Wednesday, 7 May 2014


How are Black British women’s identities represented in the media?

Written and Researched by J’nae Saunders
Word Count: 2,987

This essay will explore the ways in which Black African - Caribbean women, specifically in Britain are portrayed with regards to perceptions of beauty and attitudes; in the advertising industry; in television and in film. It will focus on Alverado’s key themes in the representation of Black women, which are exotic, dangerous and pitied, and how the media responds to these representations for women of colour through creating stereotypes and miss-representation. It will also look at how this effects them personally and how they are perceived through theorists Bell Hooks and Deborah King who are Black activists and feminists.

The media is a powerful outlet that allows people to see what life is like outside of their own. The television we watch, the magazines we read and the Internet, films and news we engage in, all act as a major factor in representing different cultures. Although there are some positive role models of Black women in the media, the representation of them is obscured to fit in with a westernised ideal so that a wider audience can relate to them.

A gateway for Black women’s identities to be obscured is through the beauty advertising industry. The beauty and fashion industry largely focus on white and fair skinned beauty leaving the ethnic minorities out. According to an online report from The Guardian ‘-The industry spent £150,000 on advertising ethnic products last year. But in 2005 advertising expenditure in the UK on make-up alone was worth £45m, suggesting the ethnic market is under-represented’ (Smithers, 2007). Through this under representation and a dominant focus on white defined beauty, companies will want to attract a wider, more westernised audience to fit in with societies ideal of beauty.

Jessica Ennis is seen as a positive Black British role model in the media and society, being a gold medalist in the Olympics. However in a 2012 beauty advertisement for Olay, her identity as a Black woman has been challenged through the way she looks. In fig 1, Jessica has a very light complexion and straight blonde hair. The yellow and white colour scheme in the advert makes her look even more pale and more close to a white female. The advert also states “For a winning complexion, choose the right glow for you”. Although Jessica is Black, her light skin provokes many connotations of the way Black women should look in order to obtain sex appeal, beauty, power and success. Alverado (1987, 153) explores key themes in racial stereotypical representation in Black
people. It could be argued that Jessica in this case is represented as the exotic, an exotic stereotype is seen as someone who is beautiful, desirable and in most cases lighter skinned. The Black consumers will look at the advert and will aspire to be like Jessica due to her celebrity status, which creates a sense of symbolic power for the Olay brand and also her relatable beauty which a wider audience can recognise.

This advert portrays racial themes for the audience known as the colour complex. According to Hooks (1995) “Many white folks expressed awe and wonder that there existed in segregated Black life colour caste systems wherein the lighter one’s skin the greater one’s individual social value - Issues of skin colour and caste were highlighted by militant Black struggle for rights. The slogan “Black is beautiful” worked to intervene and alter those racists stereotypes that had always insisted Black was ugly, monstrous, undesirable - in other words to be born light meant that one was born with an advantage, recognised by everyone”.

According to an online report by the Daily Mail (2014) called ‘Dying to be whiter’ Black women in the UK sacrifice their health and well being to obtain a more white defined beauty. “This month, a couple made more than £1 million selling toxic skin lightening creams - It's a taboo subject, but a cruel racial hierarchy still exists in Britain where the lighter-skinned Jamaicans, for example, is "superior" to the darker skinned Nigerian; where light brown is preferable to dark brown. Dark skin means failure; light skin is beautiful and equates to success.” The article goes on to discuss how if these creams were used for a long amount of time they could lead to liver and kidney failure. One woman described how she felt before using the products on her skin. "There were nights when I would sit in the bath chanting 'I hate myself' while frantically scrubbing my skin with soap. Other times I would scribble notes to myself saying dreadful things like: 'Why are you so ugly?' or 'Why do you have to be so black?' Nor did it help that all the best- looking black boys would only date a girl if they were light-skinned, and vice versa. I lost count of the times I heard the attractive Jamaican girls dismiss the idea of going out with a dark-skinned African boy because he was considered beneath them. Statements such as 'he's a monkey', 'far too black' and 'ugly' were commonplace."

The beauty industry changes the way we think and feel and uses human behaviour theory to manipulate women into following an ideal. ‘The advertisers depend on consumer behaviour in women that can be brought about only through threats and

compulsion’ (Wolf,1991,84). The idea of not looking attractive or desirable is a threat to women and this threat is what advertisers target to manipulate the way they feel. They have become victims to what they see out there in the media and believe it is normal or feel abnormal if they do not look

that way. The idea that Black women and society have this fixated idea about the tonal complexion of a Black woman is fascinating, arguably we could blame the beauty and fashion industry for perpetuating this false ideal upon people.

The Television is another powerful outlet for Black women to be represented. According Ofcom (2013) which is a facts and statistics company, in Britain 97% of UK homes have TV’s and on average 241 minutes are watched each day.
On Television in Britain there is a lack of Black women presented to viewers in everyday viewing. According to an online report by the Mintel Group LTD (2011). “the media is not living up to consumer expectations in the way it portrays this group. A full 80% of Black respondents indicated that their race/ethnicity is important to them and 82% indicated that it’s important to them that Blacks are viewed positively in the media. This contrasts sharply with the low 15% who indicate that the media is portraying Black men positively and 26% who believe it is portraying Black women as such. Further, less than 20% of respondents indicated that they believe the media does a good job of reflecting Black culture today. There is clearly a strong divide between expectation and execution that needs to be closed in order to gain favour with Black audiences.” This lack of representation only allows viewers to gain a small insight into what Black women are like and can only respond to what they are given.

There is a complexity for Black women lives due to the lack of positive representations in mainstream Television. Looking at British soaps it could be argued that Black women are represented as the dangerous referring back to Alverado’s theory (1987, 153).
An example of this is in Fig 2 which displays a newspaper report about actress Natalie Gumede who plays Kirsty in Coronation Street whom is represented as dangerous. The actress was typecast to the role of an abusive and violent partner to her white boyfriend Tyrone. Her character in the soap is described as “Psycho” and Natalie Gumede revealed that soap fans have been having nightmares about Kirsty”. Extensive negative vocabulary was used to describe her character such as “Corrie villain is such a demonic character” and “vicious Kirsty and her flying fists”.

When considering Black women in social settings Hooks, B. (1992) suggests that ‘It was not rare for Black women to be verbally abusive and physically violent to one another. Our most vivid memories (in the group) of black women fighting one another took place in public settings where folks struggled over men or over gossip’ these aggressive themes about Black women are known socially and is why it has transcended to the media as a stereotype for Black women. She later on suggests ‘Among black women, such deeply internalized pain and self rejection informs the
aggression inflicted on the mirror image - other black women’ From these stereotypes women will see these images of other Black women and feel bad about themselves because they are being represented in a negative way which affects how people see them and how they see themselves. Furthermore Sarup states ‘Lancan believes that how we present ourselves is always a subject to interpretation by others. On the other hand any attempt to ‘totalize’ someone else, to grasp the other completely, is bound to fall short - no description does the other justice. Moreover, one can only see oneself as one thinks others see one.’ The idea that as an individual you cannot escape what people think about you because everyone has a opinion shaped upon what they see or what they have been told. This makes it hard for Black women to get away from the stereotypes thrust upon them due to the way in which the media dictates their representation.

This is also strongly supported by another online article about a Black British actresses, Vidal. A (2014) states ‘I once remember sitting as the only black person in a room full of white writers when somebody asked “what people think of when we think of black people”. A shocking list of racist tropes were trotted out including that we deal drugs, listen to loud music, have no fathers for our children and smoke weed. When I objected very strongly to this there was a disclaimer already in place that said: “We don’t think it. It is what everybody else thinks.” - In my experience those making decisions in television are shockingly backward. They don't seem to have any idea of the world that exists outside of their very white, very middle-class bubble. The bemoaning lack of diversity on British television is not a new subject. It seems to raise its head with such regularity that you could set your watch by it.’ The idea that people within the media industry, till this present day still have these views on Black women, suggest that there hasn’t been a major shift in what needs to be represented in the media. Or a positive change in thought for the sake of Black women and the representation of their character.

The figure 2 report sensationalises the view on Black women, and being one of the main representations of a Black women on mainstream and day time British television, would make one wonder how people would view Black women as a whole.
Black British women are also portrayed as the pitied in regards to Alverado’s theory. In the media we always see African women in Oxfam adverts with not enough water or nutrients to feed their children, and their discomforting frail bodies on screen. We watch these women and pity them and the lifestyle they were born into. In a recent British film 12 years a slave, created by a Black British director Steve McQueen the same representation is brought to the forefront. 12 years a slaves is an adaptation of slavery in 19th century and the struggle people faced in their rights for freedom.
The role of Patsy played by Lupita Nyong’o is a slave girl who is raped, beaten and abused throughout the film. Although her character is sweet natured and hardworking, because she is Black, she is portrayed as an object by the slave master and is represented as a victim to audiences. According to Hooks (1995) “Coming to womanhood in the segregated south, I had never heard Black women talk about themselves as victims. Facing hardship, the ravages of economic lack and deprivation, the cruel injustice of racial apartheid, I lived in a world where women gained strength by sharing knowledge and resources, not by bonding on the basis of being victims” In her experience Hooks suggests that as a Black woman being portrayed as a victim or to be considered one by others is not something she wants to be defined by. Although there has been hardship for Black women overtime she would thrive of remembering how strong she was, and want other women to install this ideal.

In films women are dominantly portrayed as the damsel in distress or the victim. Fig 3 is a news report about the film, Mu’min (2014) states “There is a tendency in cinema to frame historical events from a patriarchal lens, connecting them with a man’s journey to fight or survive injustice. Women may be featured, but they don’t assume the role of the “hero.” Especially within films that address Black history, there’s a death in gender inclusion when it comes to telling these stories. But after seeing the depth and beauty of Lupita Nyong’o in this role, I am reminded that there’s a need for these stories, told from Black women’s perspectives, highlighting the distinct struggles that they faced.” This suggests that the same experience a Black man goes through, are different to what a Black female goes through in regards to making a change in their role as a victim. The men are seen as strong and unbreakable, whereas the women are simply typecast into dealing with the hardship and taking owner ship of needing to be rescued.

In relation to Averado’s theory all the characters are portrayed as victims, but undoubtedly the role of the women in the film is highlighted by her inability to push herself out of the role of a victim and into a heroine.

Black women in British media are scarcely or negatively represented. Is it because there are no role models that inspire black women to go further? Or is it because there is institutional racism that doesn’t allow viewers to see such women?

According to King (1995) Role models have always played an essential role in the healthy development in society. They provide positive images for both young people and their peers to aspire to. But traditionally Black women have only been portrayed in subordinate roles such as those of maids, kitchen hands or cleaners. - Black women have striven to acquire good educations
and to progress in their career, but too little of this has been acknowledged. At present in Britain, young Black people look to famous African Americans, Africans and sometimes Caribbean's for their role models. This is a good start, but young Black Britons also need role models who reflect their own specific cross- cultural identity and situation. Suggesting that it’s easy to aspire to be like someone of the same skin colour but its even more inherit if that person has come from the same background and experiences as another to gain a better understanding.

Kings is Black British author and social worker who created a book called ‘Pride of Black British women’, her book looks at women from Jacqui Harper a TV presenter, Dianne Abbot a former MP candidate and Valerie Amos a chief executive of equal opportunities. This book reflects highly intelligent black women with respectable jobs in Britain. However when put into perspective, have these women been represented in mainstream media? This doesn't suggest that there isn’t any positive Black women role models, it suggests whether we as viewers wish to see it or are given the opportunity to see them so freely as we do with white women.

In conclusion this essay has presented the ways in which the representation of Black British women are portrayed in relation to the media and through Alverado’s key representations theory. The media is a powerful tool that shapes the way in which people see Black women. But these representations do not necessarily define what these women are really like in society. Historically there has been an evident struggle for women's rights and Black People’s rights alone. But combining both these feelings of identity and otherness creates an even harder struggle for the individual.
Hooks (1995) states ‘Even though most black communities were and remain segregated, mass media bring white supremacy into our lives, constantly reminding us of out marginalized status. With the television on, whites were and are always with us, their voices, values and beliefs echoing in out brains. It is this constant presence of the colonizing mindset passively consumed that undermines our capacity to resist white supremacy by cultivating oppositional world views.’ Black women should not be defined by their hair, their skin or the expectations illustrated by the media. Black women are people and people are all individuals, with their own values, morals and attitudes.

Finally Kilbourne (1990) writes ‘There is the real tragedy, that many women internalize these stereotypes and learn their "limitations," thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophecy. If one accepts these mythical and degrading images, to some extent one actualizes them. By remaining unaware of the profound seriousness of the ubiquitous influence, the redundant message and the subliminal impact of advertisements, we ignore one of the most powerful "educational" forces in the culture -- one that greatly affects our self- images, our ability to relate to each other, and effectively destroys any awareness and action that might help to change that climate’. Arguably we can criticise the media for how they portray Black British women and the negative stigmas that collide alongside them. However until Black women take responsibility for the roles that they are typecast into they should stand up for change so that history will prevail from repeating itself and Black women can be seen in a more dignified light for future generations to come.

Source Material

Fig 1: Jessica Ennis in Olay 2012

Fig 2: Natalie Gumede in The Mirror 2013: Full article located in bibliography

Fig 3: 12 years a slave in The guardian 2014: Full article located in bibliography


Books: 6

Hooks, B. (1995) ‘Killing Rage, Ending Racism’. New York, Henry Holt Paperback. PP 51-110
Hooks, B. (1992) ‘Black Looks, Race and Representation’. New York, Routledge. PP42
Wolf,N. (1991) ‘The Beauty Myth’ 2nd ed. London, Vintage Books. PP11-108
King, D. (1995) ‘Pride of Black British Women’London, Hansib Publishing Limited. PP9
Sarup, M (1993) Post-structuralism and postmodernism Harvester, Hemel Hepstead. PP 7
Alvarado, M. (1987) Learning the Media: An Introduction to Media Teaching, Palgrave Macmillan. PP 153

Websites: 8

Vidal, A. (2014) ‘Popping the 'white, middle-class bubble': Why black actors need positive discrimination’. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: < womens-life/10600173/Black-quotas-Popping-the-white-middle-class-bubble-Why- black-actors- need-positive-discrimination.html> [Accessed 4 January 2014].
Mintel Group, Ltd (2011) ‘Portrayal of Blacks in the Media’. [online] Available at: <http://> [Accessed 4 January 2014].
Ofcom (2013) ‘Facts & Figures’. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 4 January 2014].
Daily Mail. (2014) ‘Dying to be Whiter’. [online] Available at: < femail/article-428541/Dying-whiter-The-black-women-risk-lives-lighter-skin.html > [Accessed 4 January 2014].
Smithers, R. (2007) ’Beauty industry failing minority ethnic women’ [Internet], The Guardian. Available from: <> [Accessed 20 January 2012]
Kilbourne, J. (1990) ‘Beauty... and the Beast of Advertising’ [Internet], CML. Available from: <> [Accessed 19 January 2012]
Mu’min, N. (2014) ‘Patsy’s Plea: Black womens survival in 12 years a slave’. [Internet] Availabe at: < survival-in-12-years-a- slave> [Accessed 10 January 2014]
Rodger, J. (2013) ‘Psycho thriller: Departing Corrie star Natalie Gumede reveals soap fans have been having nightmares about Kirsty’ [Internet] Available at: < previews/coronation-street-psycho-actor-hopes-1779244> [Accessed 4th January 2014] 

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