It’s a stereotype as pernicious as it is tired.
It’s so pervasive that political opponents of first lady Michelle Obama used it as a shorthand for why voters shouldn’t trust her. It’s a taunt that’s been used in recent months against women from Rep. Maxine Waters to Serena Williams to ESPN’s Jemele Hill. The angry black woman. She is unreasonable, and that gives us permission to dismiss her statements and her concerns. Perhaps not surprisingly, the label is most often used to undercut the successful professional woman—a code for saying she succeeds by being aggressive and rude.
This trope, plus other negative imagery, shows up in both TV news programs and reality shows, such as VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta” and Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” The latter had an entire storyline that revolved around cast member Porsha Williams’ “anger management.”
A growing group of 15 (and counting) ad agency executives and educators has had enough.
The informal consortium, which includes women from Publicis Groupe, SapientRazorfish and Howard University, is overseeing an initiative to quantify the impact of such imagery on all Americans, raise awareness of the issue and recommend countermeasures. That includes asking marketers who support such shows to consider what their brand dollars help to disseminate.
“We’re not asleep. We’re very much aware and awake,” says Sandra Sims-Williams, chief diversity officer, Publicis, who’s part of the group. “And other women need to wake up.”
The survey, coordinated by the American Advertising Federation’s Mosaic Center for Multiculturalism and the historic black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, should help. Being released this week at the 47th annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus and at Advertising Week, it has two sections: The first was sent to 500 (in total) African-American and Caucasian women ages 18 to 24, and a follow-up was sent to a broader sample of 500 women of all races. Some of the more startling statistics from the former: When asked how best to describe how African-American women were portrayed in the media, the adjectives most cited were “argumentative” (60 percent), “lazy” (46 percent) and “corrupt” (45 percent).
“Only 12 percent of African-American and Caucasian women believe there are positive images of African-American women in the media,” says Mary Breaux Wright, international president, Zeta Phi Beta. “Something has to be done.”
Just as disturbing, some seemed to find some of the imagery aspirational. “Our findings were alarming,” says Wright. “Our girls were being enticed by these harmful images of African-American women, some seeing reality TV and ‘social media celebrity’ as their chance for success over their education.”
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