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Why Are Dark-Skinned Black Women Portrayed Negatively in the Media?

Grace loves to write commentaries on psycho-cultural and sociocultural dynamics in their myriad forms.

Alek Wek

Alek Wek

The Often Negative Portrayal of Dark-Skinned Black Women in the Media

There are more Black actors and actresses in Hollywood today than at any point in media history. Black actors and actresses have made enormous strides in the field of entertainment. More exciting, challenging, and non-race-specific roles are available to Black actors and actresses now than in previous history.

However, if one observes very closely, there are very, very few dark-skinned Black actresses that have notable movie and television roles. The minute few dark-skinned Black actresses who have movie and television roles are often cast in the following roles:

  • The asexual superwoman
  • The thug queen/princess
  • The long-suffering girlfriend/wife
  • The jolly take-it-all girl/woman
  • The sidekick
  • The angry, embittered girl/woman
  • The tough, no tears girl/woman
  • The put-upon girl/woman

If dark-skinned Black actresses are cast into atypical roles, i.e. roles of glamorous, sexual, and high-status women of class, network executives usually remove them to be replaced by lighter-skinned Black actresses who are deemed less threatening and more palatable to the viewing public.

Denzel Washington's Advice for His Daughter

Denzel Washington, Academy Award-winning and in-demand actor, even advised his daughter, Olivia, who is dark-skinned, that it will be a tenuous road to success in Hollywood. He advised his daughter that her skin color will make it more difficult for her to succeed in the business. He indicated that his daughter has to be adept in her acting skills in order to succeed in Hollywood.

Mr. Washington held up Viola Davis, a dark-skinned Black actress, as a role model. He informed his daughter that Ms. Davis has the skills to be an enduring actress and that was what the former should concentrate on. He told her that she should not aspire to be one of the "pretty girls" for their acting shelf life is limited.

Examples of Limited Roles for Dark-Skinned Black Actresses

Mr. Washington aptly and truthfully portended how difficult it is for dark-skinned Black actresses to succeed in Hollywood.

Nina

In the movie about the songstress Nina Simone, a light-skinned actress, Zoe Saldana, was cast in the leading role. There was mass protest regarding the selection of Ms. Saldana for the leading role. Many people believe that it would have been more authentic if a dark-skinned Black actress was selected for the role. However, the casting director did not see it that way. Saldana later apologized for taking the role.

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Dark-skinned Black actresses have a difficult time obtaining prime acting roles. They are viewed as somewhat unnoteworthy for such roles. For example, in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air television series, the character of Vivian Banks was portrayed by Janet Hubert, a dark-skinned Black actress, from 1999 and through three seasons.

For whatever reason, network executives believed that a dark-skinned Black actress was not right for the role of an upscale housewife of a judge. Ms. Hubert was summarily let go, and a lighter-skinned actress (Daphne Maxwell Reid) was hired to replace Ms. Hubert. Ms. Reid was selected for the part as being lighter-skinned was deemed more palatable and a more fitting image of the upscale housewife of a judge.

New Jack City

In the 1991 movie New Jack City, there was a strict dichotomy in the portrayals of characters by Vanessa A. Williams, a dark-skinned Black actress, and Michael Michele, a light-skinned Black actress. Ms. Williams was slated to portray a character who could be described as a combination of the angry woman and thug princess while Ms. Michele's character was portrayed as the poor little rich girl.

Notorious

In the 2009 movie Notorious, the character portrayed by Julia Pace Mitchell, a dark-skinned Black actress, was the long-suffering girlfriend of the title character who had a child by him. Although Biggie's character professed to love Jan's character, he never married her although she had his child. Biggie's character instead married a lighter-skinned character whom he deemed more suitable.

School Daze

Dark-skinned Black actresses were also slated to portray somewhat negative roles in the 1988 movie School Daze. While the lighter-skinned Black female characters were portrayed as classy, happy, sexual, and upwardly mobile, the darker-skinned Black female characters were portrayed as angry, embittered, somewhat asexual, and lower class. They were further portrayed in the movie as being somewhat unattractive and being dateless on Friday nights. The only redeeming qualities of their characters were that they had high integrity and were highly interested in education and Black culture.

Deliver Us From Eva

Gabrielle Union, a dark-skinned Black actress, portrayed Eva in the movie Deliver Us From Eva. The character Eva was the asexual superwoman. Although Eva was an upwardly mobile professional, she was portrayed as being domineering and interfering without a boyfriend. However, it was decided by Eva's brothers-in-law that she must have a boyfriend in order to get her out of their lives. The movie portrayed Eva in some of the typical roles for the dark-skinned Black woman-the asexual superwoman who is a domineering shrew. The movie never portrayed Eva's more vulnerable side at all.

Breakin' All the Rules

Ms. Union portrayed another negative character in the 2004 movie Breakin' All the Rules in which she played a physical therapist who was slightly psycho (a take on the angry woman) while Bianca Lawson, a lighter-skinned Black actress portrayed a take-charge fashion model who dumped one of the film's characters.

Ugly Betty

In the television series Ugly Betty, Ms. Union portrayed an embittered psychotic woman.

Negative Perceptions of Skin Color Need to Stop

To summarize, dark-skinned Black actresses seldom, if ever, get the glamorous, sexy, and/or high-powered roles that lighter-skinned Black actresses obtain. Dark-skinned Black actresses are often cast into more lower-class, brutish, or thuggish roles because network executives believe that this portrayal is more believable to the viewing public.

A sociologist did studies on the perception of color skin and the sociologist found that both Blacks and Caucasians perceived lighter-skinned Blacks as cultured, educated, intelligent, attractive, and upwardly mobile while darker-skinned Blacks are perceived more negatively as thugs, lower class, unattractive, dirty, and ghetto. It is time that this perception stops and recognizes the talent of dark-skinned Black actresses and gives them decent roles.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2010 Grace Marguerite Williams