“Media, Sexuality and The Myth of Black American Male”
Since the early days of film and television, the various portrayals of Black men as sexually aggressive and deviant has become one of the American media’s most prevalent myths.
In television and cinema, a popular stereotype is the “buck,” a stock character often large in stature who is violent against women, particularly white woman, and unable to control any sexual urges (Jackson 41). This stock character often perpetuates the idea that Black men are naturally sexually deviant, partially due to having a large phallus, and that they are also inherently violent. One of cinema’s earliest examples of the buck is the character Gus in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Played by a white actor in black face, Gus is a man accused of raping and killing a white woman. The white townspeople, after being attacked by some of Gus’ fellow deviant Black men, save the day and avenge for the woman’s attack, by killing Gus while dressed in full Klan regalia. Some argue that King Kong also shows an image of a “buck,” with the titular giant gorilla represents a Black men sexually obsessed with a White woman and destroying White men. “King Kong’s death at the end of the movie remasculinizes the White man, not only through his conquest of the Black menace but also through regaining the woman” (Dines 453).
Some moments in media have included a more stylized version of the buck. In the 2004 Wayans brothers’ comedy White Chicks, Terry Crews’ character is a beefy, hyper-sexual man with an intense, possessive even violent obsession with white women. Every woman (or man) he has sex with ends up in a wheelchair the following morning. In the case of a 1997 advertisement for Hanes underwear, it is the opposite; it is White women who lust after and desire the black body because the women find the man’s color and stature intriguing. Onscreen, a pair of White women sits on a bench guessing if the men passing by are wearing boxers or briefs. Then NBA superstar Michael Jordan enters the frame, the women freeze, the camera briefly but purposefully pans over Jordan’s crotch and Jordan says “They’re Hanes; and let’s just leave it at that.” The women giggle as Jordan passes by.
In modern television and cinema, the Black male as a sexual miscreant may be represented through a range of other stereotypes, such as the goofy, fun-loving “coon.” This archetype of the unintelligent, childlike, unlucky Black man is used for comedy (Jackson 26). One example is the character “Darrel” in MADTV’s famous “Can I Have Your Number?” sketch who continuously sexually harasses a White, or fair-skinned non-White woman, to no avail. As Darrel moves as close to his newfound love, Yvonne, as he can, his eyes bulge and legs spread apart, calling to mind the image of the coon that has been around for centuries. What many viewers may not realize at first glance is that Darrel is actually played by a female comedian in drag. It is hard to say what impact having a male play Darrel would have had any impact. Some also argue that Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) also perpetuates the coon stereotypes, while others argue he’s just playing a somewhat exaggerated version of deviant-prone Morgan, himself. Morgan’s “I wannna take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant” line does, however, imply stereotypes about black, male sexuality
In addition to hypersexualized straight men, film and television has a long history of perpetuating stereotypical images of Black male homosexuality. Images of gay, bisexual, queer-identified or men presumed straight who have sex with men are typically either portrayed as sassy, flamboyant charicratures or, in some cases, as queer equivalent of bucks, as in the film School Daze. During the 1970s, the stereotypical stock sassy Black gay character emerged in the film Car Wash, with the character of Lindy, who serves as a foil to the hyper-heterosexual characters in the film. “Lindy is tolerated as part of the public world but only because he reinforces the purity of heterosexuality by presenting homosexuality as defiled and deviant” (Jones qtd. in Hill Collins 172). On Queen of Jordan, the fake reality show within the television series 30 Rock, the character, D’Fawn (Titus Burgess) perpetuates the stereotype of the sassy Black gay male. D’Fawn seems representative of an image that many Americans have of gay and other same-sex attracted Black men that is prevalent on reality television. On America’s Next Top Model, coach and judge Miss J is a fashionista with cutting humor On RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul and his contestants, many of whom are Black or of color, to become America’s Next Drag Superstar are often displayed as catty and obsessed with sex. While neither television series is homophobic or necessarily negative, they still represent the dominant image of Black male homosexuality to the point where other Black LGBT Americans are almost completely erased from the foreground of media.
While American film and television has been progressive since The Birth of a Nation, mainstream, dominantly white-controlled, media continues to perpetuate stereotypes of Black men as sexually deviant and aggressive. What is necessary is more images of sensuality and fully developed characters that do not fall into stock categories. The media has a large influence on society and without changing media, society cannot move forward.
Dines, Gail. “King Kong and the White Woman: Hustler Magazine and the
Demonization of Black Masculinity.” Gender Race and Class in Media.
2nd. Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2003. 451-467.
Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the
New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Jackson II, Ronald L. Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and
Racial Politics in Popular Media. Albany: State University of New York
Press, 2006. Print.
Since it first launched in 2005, YouTube has been a hub for video blogs or vlogs, many of which consisting of individuals humorously making observations, offering advice and portraying multiple characters. Some of the more popular female vloggers include Laci Green and Jenna Marbles. However, these women do not represent the only prominent faces on YouTube as female vloggers of color such as Chescaleigh, Hartbeat, Superwoman and Anna Akana have made their mark on the web.
Franchesca Ramsey and her comedy channel Chescaleigh first garnered world wide fame with her video “Sh*t White Girls Say to Black Girls,” a sweet and sharp satirical piece that “currently has over 10 million views and has been featured on MSNBC, ABC, The Daily Mail and the Anderson Cooper talk show, to name a few” (franchesca.net) and is partially inspired by interactions with one of her close friends. Chescaleigh’s comedy videos have covered topics ranging from racism to family and social life. Some videos involve impressions, creating characters or spoofs of popular songs. Franchesca’s Chescaleigh channel also includes videos more serious in tone, namely the video “How Slut Shaming Becomes Victim Blaming,” which partially consists of Franchesca recounting her personal experience of being raped and blamed for it at age 18.
HartBeat, a young black lesbian videographer hailing from California, makes humorous videos addressing sexuality, gender and everyday experiences. Her most famous video “Watermelon…” playfully addresses her experiences with homophobia and gender policing. Some videos also include the characters Michellé and D’Monté, who Hart portrays herself.
Superwoman (née Lilly Singh) a Canadian of Punjabi parentage, became a YouTube star not long after graduating from college with a degree in psychology. Many of her videos show a sort of stylized rants follow themes such as dating, annoying people, gender and race. Similar to Chescaleigh, Superwoman includes some impersonations based off of people and situations that she knows well, such as her parents and white peers. In her videos, Singh exudes a larger than life personality, but she never shies away from honesty.
Anna Akana, a Japanese-American actress, comedian and writer, speaks openly about mental illness dating, self-esteem and growing up. Her skills and success lead her to write and star in a five-part mini-series, Riley Rewind, directed by fellow YouTube vlogger Ray William Johnson, inspired partially by her sister’s suicide.
All of these vloggers have garnered fame to their honesty, humor and many talents. In addition to popularity on YouTube, Chescaleigh, Hart, Superwoman and Anna Akana also use their personal websites, Twitter accounts and tumblr to keep friends and fans updated on their observations, opinions and endeavors.
Final Multimedia/Research Project Proposal
This documentary project, “Media and The Myth of the Black American Male” will tell the history of black American male in film and media and how media has influenced mainstream perceptions of black men in the U.S. This project will present a range of connections between black American masculinity and the media from early racist cartoons to President Obama’s use of the Internet that brought him to the forefront of the 2008 presidential campaign. I will explore how the media is used as a tool used by black men for social or political reasons as well as a force that may be used to perpetuate stereotypes. The documentary will include various clips from film, television news reports and video clips as well as information about other media and technology that has shaped the various portrayals and perceptions of black American men. I will cover topics such as power, humor, masculinity, sexuality and, above all, racial divides.
The pre-conceived notion of young men of color as inherently dangerous has been an issue amongst law enforcement for centuries. In New York City, the practice of “stop and frisk” where members of the NYPD stop and investigate pedestrians that they deem suspicious, the majority of whom are innocent men of color. Many who are stopped and frisked face brutality and harassment. As such instances of police brutality continue, so does the evolution and popularity of technology. In 2012, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) announced the launch of “Stop and Frisk Watch,” a free app for Androids and iPhones that allows a bystander observing someone getting stopped and frisked to record what is going on while the phone has the appearance of having been turned off. The app also alerts members of the community when a street stop is in progress.
“Stop and Frisk Watch” was developed by software developer and visual artist Jason Van Anden, who had previously developed the “I’m Getting Arrested” app for protesters at Occupy Wall Street. According to ACLU’s website, the Stop and Frisk watch app has three main functions: record the encounter, alerts app users when someone in their vicinity is getting stopped and frisked and prompts a survey to report any nearby police interaction.
What makes the app such a timely innovation in technology is that the problem of racist assumption-based stop and frisk is a problem that is getting worse not better. In 2011 alone, the NYPD made 685,724 stops up from about 97,000 in 2002. In 2011, only 780 guns were found. Targeting young black and Latino men, it seems clear that the NYPD’s work is measured more on racial profiling and making quotas then it is on protecting New Yorkers. Although the police department has complained that using the app is an invasion of privacy and likely to attract more criminals, this is exactly what “Stop and Frisk Watch” is trying to prevent. In this case, it is not Big Brother who’s the omnipresent force that’s always watching the people, it is the people observing the powers that be and holding them accountable.
As beneficial as this technology may be, however, it is not free of its disadvantages, namely that in order to have access to “Stop and Frisk Watch,” the bystander needs to have a smartphone. Stop and frisk investigations are more prevalent in lower income areas where such an expensive technology, may not be a valid option for everyone. Also, since many in the NYPD are aware of the app, police may be more likely to know when someone is using the app, even if a person’s phone has the appearance of being turned off. One can only hope that there comes a day when “Stop and Frisk Watch” becomes a thing of the past and city police officers nationwide truly protect and serve the city’s people instead of being the ones many citizens have to be protected from.
Ah, autumn. The time when leaves change colors and everything’s pumpkin-flavored. It’s also the season of three popular holidays in the United States that have historically been problematic in perpetuating stereotypes of Native Americans; Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving. While many school districts and work places have stopped celebrating the beginning of mass genocide in the Americas (or simply don’t want to deal with an extra day off), many people still dress as Native Americans for Halloween and Thanksgiving festivities. These costumes appropriate from, bastardize and often sexualize members of a race that has faced centuries of persecution. But for the past couple of years, there has been a group that has used new media to challenge and argue against ongoing red-face and other signs of systemic racism against Native Americans, to educate non-Natives and to empower Native people. “The 1491s is a sketch comedy group, based in the wooded ghettos of Minnesota and buffalo grass of Oklahoma. They are a gaggle full of Indians chock full of cynicism and splashed with a good dose of indigenous satire” (1491.com/about).
The 1491s have several videos on YouTube, many satirical, but some have been very controversial, notably the “Halloween Responsibly PSA” and the two companion videos that followed it, “1491s on Black Face” and “The Tailgating Tale of Apache McLean and the Utah Utes,” which compares dressing up as Native Americans to black face. The first video was particularly controversial as it ended with the white man presenting the PSA in black face. Many people, mainly non-Native, who commented on the video argued that black face, even as satire and making a socio-political statement, was unacceptable. The 1491s responded to this in the two videos that followed and allowed for a wider discussion on racism in the United States.
The 1491s also have some videos that aren’t satire in the least bit such as the reading of the poem “To an Indigenous Woman” written, performed and directed by Ryan Red Corn, that is a call to action against the epidemic and stigmas of sexual violence against Native women.
In addition to the group’s YouTube channel, the 1491s also have a Twitter that is updated frequently with tweets about upcoming performances and satirical political statements. The group also has a Facebook fan page that, like the group’s Twitter, is frequently updated by the group itself. Through the use of new media, the 1491s have gained a huge following and have successfully educated, empowered and entertained thousands. As new media continues to grow, hopefully so will support for the causes of the 1491s and other groups using technology in the fight against systemic discrimination.
It’s a pretty common joke amongst Generation Y that everyone’s gay on tumblr (to the point where there’s a humorous tumblr that answers advice for queer and questioning people called everyone’sgay). It is important to note, however, that the very large LGBTQ presence on tumblr is just part of a strong history for the presence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, genderqueer, asexual, intersex and other queer identities on the Internet.
The 1990s saw a cultural boom with two important innovations in Western society; the Internet and queer theory. Although the innovations are seemingly distinct entities, the two are very closely connected as the Internet became a hub for queer visibility and community. Gender and sexual minorities were one of the earlier major groups to flock to the Internet, because it allowed a space for queer people to be themselves. In the 90s, chat rooms as well as newsgroups, bulletins and individual blogs chronicling LGBTQ made their way to public viewing. The Internet became a place where queer people could discuss discrimination on an institutional as well as individual level, explore queer visibility in the arts and media, both independent and mainstream, discuss intersections of different aspects of identity, ask others for advice, share their experiences and meet romantic and/or sexual partners.
As technology has evolved over the past two decades, so have online queer communities. Websites such as Queerty, queerattitude, emptyclosets, The Backlot, After Ellen, Autostraddle, The Asexual Visibility and Education Network and, of course, various blogs and blog posts on tumblr all contribute to the Internet being a safe space and networking site for LGBTQ individuals and communities.
If a certain minority group has historically faced oppression or lack of access to a voice, the Internet can provide a space for awareness, support and activism. It is a space for educating allies and strengthening communities within the minority group. The Internet is known as the World Wide Web for a reason; it allows people to connect from across the globe. For instance, a young transman who faces harassment at home and at school or even on Internet sites because of his gender identity and expression can join a forum or a chat room to talk to someone going through similar experiences on a different continent. The Internet may never change the young man’s family’s or classmates’ attitudes, but it may allow him to have a respite in knowing that he is not alone and that there are people out there to support him.
When satire and new media get together they can literally reach millions, making people laugh, think or just question society as a whole. One of the most popular YouTubers making videos on the subject of race is Atlanta-native and former American Idol contestant Todrick Hall who burst onto the scene with the Disney-inspired spoof “Beauty and the BEAT!” (Not to be mistaken with the Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber song of a very similar name)
The video opens with sweet-voiced Belle (another former Idol contestant Katie Stevens) skipping outside of her cottage-esque California home dressed in familiar folksy garb and singing the first few lines to the opening number from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Everything is familiar until a host of black caricatures begin shouting out “what’s good?” and Belle merrily makes her way through the ghetto. Glowing-white Belle is desired by the guys and hated by the girls. A host of familiar black faces (which, unfortunately, might as well be people in blackface) from YouTube land make cameos. She’s a “chocolate chaser” and a “bougie girl” who’s in the hood for no apparent reason. Poor Belle’s tired of her “hood-rat” life, but being the good white girl she is, she keeps pressing on.
Of course it was Todrick Hall’s deliberate decision that the video be laden with stereotypes and the video is meant as satire. But satire of what exactly? During the course of the video, a host of familiar black faces (which, unfortunately, might as well be people in blackface) from YouTube, such as GloZell, DeStorm, VonZell Solomon and Miles Jai make cameos.The video portrays a sort of attitude adopted by Hall and many his fellow black YouTubers best described as “well at least I’m not that kind of Negro.”
What many viewers, black and otherwise, don’t realize is that this attitude does not alleviate racist behaviors, but perpetuates them and makes them acceptable. Popular new media allows viewers a way to continue holding onto racist beliefs and not feel guilty about them. When something hits the mainstream, it becomes socially acceptable, whether or not it should be. As the Autotuned version of the infamous Antoine Dodson interview (also a sick excuse for perpetuating rape culture, but that’s another issue) and racially ambiguous comedian Anjelah Johnson’s alter-ego Bon Qui Qui prove, it can be easy to laugh at portrayals of lower-class black people in a certain light. In these videos, lower-class black people are portrayed as “dumb” and “sassy” and their living situations are often painted as careless choices, rather than the only available option. New media can bring humor to the masses, but shouldn’t it bring society forward as opposed to perpetuating stereotypes of minority groups facing systemic oppression?
I am a current college student with a particular interest in how media and the arts affects perceptions of diverse people and places. Aspects of identity such as gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and dis/ability can be overlooked or scrutinized by the media, even as technology evolves. However, media and technology also have the power to let voices and opinions be heard. It is my hope that the so-called “Fourth Estate” can be progressive, especially when outdated opinions and false “blurred lines” continue to make their way to the forefront of media. I wish to explore the ways ,both negatively and positively, that media and technology affects our perspectives of one another.