There’s been a recent awakening in the film business. Studio executives seem to have realized–again!–that people of color, specifically black Americans, want to see movies that reflect our cultural and individual experiences with love.
There are few women as pleased and disgusted with the sudden revival of black romantic comedies as I am. I’m infatuated with romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spend hours watching modern princesses claim their princes and gallivant off into the skyline of Los Angeles or New York. These days, I watch romcoms for work: I’m a media studies scholar working on a thesis about romantic comedies.
As much as I love the research I’m conducting, the problem I’ve found with black romantic comedies is that the genre relies on “controlling images” of women of color.
Patricia Hill-Collins, a groundbreaking sociologist who studies women of color, defined controlling images in a 1999 essay titled “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” (PDF) She wrote that “portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarch, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression.”
Name a romantic comedy with a woman of color in it and I can pinpoint one or more stereotypes entwined in the plot. That’s no surprise—romantic comedies are a platform that reproduces all of our cultural “isms” and phobias, from sexism to racism to homophobia. Most women of color have intersectional oppressions that lie on the cusp of several “isms.”
We are objectified, pathologized, and forced into stereotypes that don’t represent the fullness of our humanities. I’m going to run through a short list of those tropes and how they’re used specifically for women of color.
Scholar Hill-Collins defines the jezebel as a hypersexual woman with an insatiable horniness. In America’s history, for example, overseers and plantation owners depicted black women as jezebels who were incapable of being raped (which kept them from serving time in prison while victimizing black women). The jezebel is prominent in romantic comedies: she’s the character who’ll sacrifice love for an orgasm. The jezebel is immoral and thus has no qualities worth loving, besides her hot body.
We see remnants of the trope in Lysterine, Vivica A. Fox’s character in Booty Call. Lysterine loves sex and has no qualms about hitting the sheets with men she’s just been introduced to, like Jamie Foxx’s character Bunz. In one striking scene, Lysterine is berated by her friend, Nikki, for her sexual innuendos.
Fox’s character is depicted as a woman with a voracious craving for sex that defies all logic. She doesn’t utilize condoms or birth control, making her susceptible to diseases and unworthy of love.
Lysterine is still single at the end of this romcom. Bunz leaves her unsatisfied when he orgasms in two minutes. But the final credits show Lysterine exacting her revenge by whipping Bunz in a BDSM scenario. Nikki’s new relationship survives, seemingly due to her decision to wait seven weeks before bedding her beau.
Jezebels are outcasts who are punished for their sexual liberation. In Boomerang, Jacqueline (Robin Givens) uses men for sex before discarding them. In the end, she’s left in a cold bed when her fling decides he’d rather build a relationship with a character who is less forward about her intentions.
Therein lays the paradox between the jezebel and the “virtuous” woman. Women of color are presented with an either/or option. We can be virtuous or we can slutty. Ask Monica Calhoun’s character, Mia, in The Best Man. Her fiancée was willing to end their engagement because he wasn’t her only sexual partner. The same standard was set for Paula Patton’s character, Sabrina, in Jumping the Broom. She was considered marriage-material because she was celibate when she met her intended groom. Sabrina was rewarded for her celibacy by finding a man to put a ring on it.
Matriarchs are the heads-of-their-households – strong-willed, unbending, and asexual. They’re often depicted as unattractive and overprotective of their children, which alienates men. Their lives revolve around others, leaving little room for their personal growth or happiness. The matriarch is Madea in every single Tyler Perry film. We also see this caricature of black womanhood in Loretta Divine’s character, Pam, in Jumping the Broom.
Pam’s fierce defense of her son, even to the point of destroying his relationship with his future bride, kept her from locating her own contentment. She appears dissatisfied with her own life, but she’s overbearing in her son’s relationship. This character dynamic leads the audience to believe Pam’s a horrible mother.
The matriarch stigmatizes black women and their mothering abilities by reducing them to dissatisfied, sexless women living vicariously through their children.
Alfre Woodard filled the role of the matriarch in Something New and Love & Basketball, though her characters were married in both. She was so invested in the lives of her children and her husband in both movies that her characters had no individual impulses or desires.
The Strong Black Woman
The strong black woman stereotype, referred to as SBW in hip-hop feminist scholar Joan Morgan’s seminal text, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, is killing black women. It keeps us from dwelling in our emotions as we sacrifice for the betterment of others. The SBW never allows us to remove the mask of resolute black womanhood to reveal the vulnerability underneath.
It is the reason Janet Jackson’s Patricia character in Why Did I Get Married Too? smashes statues and glass windows instead of communicating with her husband. Buying into the false-sell that we can take on the world’s burdens without flinching or hurting kept Mo’Nique’s Jasmine character in Phat Girlz from reconciling her self-esteem issues.
In romantic comedies, the strong black woman alienates and emasculates men instead of healing her own emotional wounds. Jasmine’s epic meltdown at a restaurant and Patricia’s self-destruction are symptoms of a larger issue that is never contextualized within these films.
The Welfare Queen
The welfare queen is the catalyst for all negative undertakings in Black American communities. She’s responsible for the government’s failure to balance state and federal budgets since she pilfers thousands of dollars from federal assistance that is then wasted on designer clothes and car rims.
The welfare queen isn’t married, so her children are assumed to be fatherless criminals who would pull up their sagging jeans if they had positive male role models in their lives. She is everything wrong in society, according to the Moynihan Report, Clarence Thomas and Ronald Reagan.
No film personifies the welfare queen as much as Claudine, a film starring Diahann Caroll in the title role.
Claudine is a single mother with six children. She receives government assistance to supplement her income, but she’s forced to hide her job in order to continue receiving federal funds. Claudine’s love life is impacted substantially by her financial situation. She hesitates before wedding her beau because that will cause a decrease in the assistance her receives.
Of course Claudines’s deceiving the government, just like the shiftless woman welfare queens are supposed to be. She’s painted as a woman incapable of raising her children without government intervention and support. It’s a falsity that pathologizes single parenthood and single parents.
The Sapphire/Independent Black Woman
The sapphire, a stereotype that spawned the independent black woman, is often present in romantic comedies. We can start with Sanaa Lathan’s “Kenya” character in Something New. She is the definitive independent, black woman who is “too particular” to find a man worth falling in love with. Kenya is emasculating, particular about her weave, fearful of the judgments of her peers and relatives and so invested in her career that she often dismisses life’s simple pleasantries. It isn’t much different than Lathan’s Andrea in The Family That Preys. Or Gabrielle Union’s matriarchal Eva in Deliver Us from Eva and Julia in Daddy’s Little Girls. Or Taraji P. Henson’s “Lauren” in Think Like A Man. Or Vanessa Williams’ Terri in Soul Food. Or Sharon Leal’s Dianne and Tasha Smith’s in Angela Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married. Or Vivica A. Fox’s Shante Smith in Two Can Play That Game. Or Gabrielle Union’s Julia in Daddy’s Little Girls.
The sapphire/independent black woman appears time and time again because she’s a reliable trope that will generate cheap laughs for the audience. Her neck-rolling, harsh words, cruelty and lack of empathetic understanding is demonizing because it doesn’t consider the dimensions of women of color.
In fact, none of these controlling images do. All of them are designed to oppress women of color by stripping us of our humanity and forcing us into labels that don’t encompass the fullness of who we are.
Romantic comedies are simply a microcosm of a larger societal issue. As Hill-Collins points out, “such images prove remarkably tenacious because they not only subjugate Black women, but are key in maintaining intersecting oppressions.” Though these images were orchestrated long before the success of Michelle Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Beyonce Knowles-Carter, Oprah Winfrey, Gabrielle Douglas and the myriad of other influential women of color, they are continually reproduced, even in romantic comedies.
Zora Neale Hurston famously referred to black women as the mules of the world in Their Eyes Were Watching God. These words remain relevant, even in the context of movies designed to bring smiles and optimism. We are the mules of the world.