For African-American people, getting apt representation has been a long standing struggle. Until recently, there was an overall lack of black characters in the media, cinema, and television. According to UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, minorities make up 39.4% of the population, yet remain underrepresented in industry employment.
All representation isn’t good representation.
The 1941 version of Dumbo contains a stereotypical portrayal of African-Americans, which take the form of crows. These crows go by the names Fats, Deacon, Dopey, Specks, and ironically, Jim Crow, who is dressed similarly to the historically racist theater character who shares the same name. In a different scene, faceless black characters hammer railroad tiles while singing “Song of the Roustabouts,” a song with extremely racist lyrics, including one that says“grab that rope, you hairy ape.”
The crows and faceless black figures were intended to represent African-American people, but in an extremely stereotypical way. This portrayal reinforced the idea that all black people were lazy and unintelligent.
In defense of Disney, other films, including notably racist 1946 film Song of the South, will not be streamed on the corporation’s new platform Disney Plus. The app also warns its viewers of the potential offense that some may experience when viewing material may be seen as culturally insensitive or as outdated cultural depictions. Regardless of this warning, the films remain available for streaming.
Another example of poor representation is shown in The Birth of a Nation, which was quite possibly the most anti-black movie ever created. Sure, black people were represented, but by white people with their faces covered in black paint, according to a report published by the History Channel. In the film, these white actors portrayed African-American men as sexually aggressive and cruel, which was an obvious generalization and served as a defamation to the reputations of African-Americans as a whole.
Even in the genre of horror, black actors have traditionally been consigned to roles in which they meet their end first. In popular franchises like Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the supernatural slasher or villain generally sets the tone of the film in dispatching a black character first. If the villain can ultimately destroy even the “biggest, baddest” character in the film, what chance do the white teenagers stand against the same fate?
Tyler Perry’s Madea films also perpetuate negative stereotypes, showing that Perry places monetary gain above the empowerment of his own people. Madea, or Tyler Perry dressed as a woman in a fat suit, is the head of a black family that is constantly plagued with problems. Madea’s over-exaggerated negative traits are strikingly similar to the traits of characters in minstrel shows, which were shows that exploited African-American characters for comedic effect. According to the Daily Beast, Madea is “buffoonish, lazy, and greedy, to ostensibly comical effect.” These movies, by highlighting and glorifying negative traits, serve to aid in the maintenance of racist generalizations.
In an attempt to dispel the stereotypes that racist films like this created, “race films” grew in popularity. Race films featured an all black cast, and were intended to address issues that African-Americans face in the community. They covered topics like poverty, ghettos, and crime, which were all relevant to the African-Americans of the time period. These movies typically showed the journey of African-Americans from difficult backgrounds, like being raised around drug use and in poor conditions, and difficulties they had along the way. The movies were intended to empower the black community, and at that time, they did.
Although these portrayals of black people originating from poverty were apt representation at the time, a large amount of African-Americans have moved beyond that. BET, despite claiming to represent all black people, fails to. By sticking with one unchanging narrative of black struggle, the network holds us back, forcing us to continually address issues we’ve left in the past. The portrayal and sexualization of African-Americans on BET is not only detrimental because it is repetitive, but also because it upholds the black stereotype that we have been trying for years to dispel.
Rewind: BET’s impact on the perception of African-American’s in the past
BET was created in the 1980s to not only provide people with insight into black issues, but also to give African-American musical artists a place to perform. This intention was overshadowed as shows and films began to be produced, some of them largely focused around sexuality and violence. People in the African- American community became outraged after watching graphic music videos, most of which were filled with half naked black girls dancing provocatively. In a 2010 interview, Sheila Johnson, the co-founder of BET, said that she “[doesn’t] watch it,” and she “suggests to [her] kids that they don’t watch it.” She also said she was ashamed of the direction that the network was going, and that she “didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”
The Boondocks, which was a popular animated series that was created for Cartoon Network’s “adult swim,” was extremely outspoken about their distaste for BET and it’s portrayal of African-American people. Aaron McGruder, the creator of the comic series and subsequent television show, was very vocal about his belief that BET has a negative influence on black people and their culture.
In an episode titled “The Hunger Strike,” the main character, Huey Freeman, begins to protest BET by voluntarily fasting. In the episode, which was aired in 2008, BET is run by villians Deborah Leevil (made to parody the real CEO of BET Debra L. Lee), and Wedgie Rudlin (made as a parody of the real BET President Reginald Hudlin). These characters claim that they hate their own race, which was African-American, and set out to “destroy black people.”
This is one of many instances in which the black community has spoken out against BET and the stereotypes it perpetuates. Felicia F. Lee from the New York Times wrote an article in 2007 about people who were protesting outside of Debra Lee’s Northwest Washington Home. The protesters were standing in the belief that “foul-mouthed pimps and thugs are now so widespread … that they infect perceptions of ordinary nonwhite people.”
In response to this disdain from the African- American community, BET attempted to tone down some of the graphic imagery, beginning to censor inappropriate content. They have made strides in the right direction, which I applaud them for.
They do, however, have a long way to go.
Press Play: BET’s present day exploitative practices
BET originals, although they are centered around black people, typically focus on popular culture, or, similar to “race films,” on people who originate from difficult backgrounds and find their way.
Growing up in a difficult background is obviously a struggle in the black community. According to The State of Working America, 27.4% of all Americans living in poverty are African-American. But what about the people who aren’t? The people who worked their entire lives to get out of poverty? Or people who weren’t even living in poverty to begin with? Why does it seem as if coming from hardship is the only narrative we are afforded? There are so many other things that black people face.
I know that the narrative of coming from negativity and moving to greatness is inspiring, but it has already been told. As a community, we need to reinforce the idea that not all black people are impoverished, because we have worked hard to build our communities and our wealth. The constant perpetuation of African-American backgrounds being full of poverty and struggle provides the idea that every black person must struggle to achieve greatness.
As for the reporting side of BET, the only news being featured is gossip. One show, entitled BET Breaks, is riddled with headlines ranging from “Zoe Kravitz Secretly Married,” to “KeKe Palmer talks about her abortion.”
Although this is reporting on news, it isn’t meant to empower the community, nor is it meant to educate anyone on our culture. Frankly, it is meant to do the exact opposite. It essentially invades the privacy of public figures, holding the number of views at a higher value than the image of African-American people as a whole.
Fast Forward: Strides BET can make for betterment
Although BET has made strides in the right direction as far as the representation of African-American’s goes by censoring certain inappropriate content and occasionally airing empowering programs, the network still has a long way to go. The use of black faces and stories to garner views instead of to empower the black community is a misuse of their platform.
Some easy ways to fix this would be to use positive and empowering stories of real successful black people. Instead of focusing on celebrity gossip, BET could use it’s large audience to give artists who are otherwise overlooked a platform.
Rap is not the only genre of music that African-Americans are capable of mastering or enjoying, but it is the most played genre of music on the network. There are plenty of successful African-American musicians whose genre of music is underrepresented. For example, Angel Blue, a 35 year old African-American Opera Singer, has performed in over 35 countries in only six years. Another example is Soloman Howard, another African-American Opera Singer who has sung all around North America and Europe.
BET will not be the Black Entertainment Television it claims to be until it has the ability to entertain and represent the interests of all members of the black community. By perpetuating stereotypes and holding us back from growth and change, they seem to be exploiting their perception of our culture for monetary gain. By adding more things that would interest a larger part of the community, the network would become more empowering, and could spark growth and change.
Making these changes to BET could positively benefit the black community in the ways that it was intended to when it was created.
Troi Howell is a Co-News Editor for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl