Black Voices

The Images Of Black Women In Media Still 'Only Scratch The Surface,' Essence Study Finds

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Character's like Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope on "Scandal", and Nicole Beharie's Lt. Abbie Mills on "Sleepy Hollow" are a breath of fresh air for many black women, according to a recent study.

Essence surveyed 1,200 women about the images of black women in media and found that respondents felt the images were "overwhelmingly negative," falling typically into categories including: “Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry Black Women, Mean Black Girls, Unhealthy Black Women, and Black Barbies.”

Black women ages 18-29 in particular reported seeing more negative images, with 89 percent of respondents saying they regularly see baby mamas in media and 87 percent reported seeing gold digger images, while just 41 percent reported seeing images of "real beauties."

“What we’re trying to say in the study is that, if there were balance, if we saw more diversity, and it was more multi-dimensional there would be a truer picture of who we really are,” explained Essence magazine Editor-in-Chief, Vanessa K. Bush, in an interview with Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC. “You would see our complete humanity. What we’re seeing now is just a scratch of the surface.”

But perhaps most disturbing was not just young women’s awareness of those images, but the study's finding that the women were “also more likely to find them compelling.” And in a world where some of the highest rated reality shows include Oxygen’s “Bad Girls Club” and VH1’s “Basketball Wives,” this discovery sadly isn't too surprising.

Perry explored the issue further in her segment with Colorlines publisher Rinku Sen, who said change must come from both the content creators and the stakeholders.

“Consumers have to demand something different,” Sen said. “Hollywood keeps giving us this because we watch it and the ratings are high, so they don’t test very often what else we might like, or what else we might watch.”

While the numbers are alarming, the study doesn’t only focus on the problem. It also presented categories the women felt more accurately portrayed who they are. The categories included: “Young Phenoms, Real Beauties, Individualists, Community Heroines, Girls Next Door, and Modern Matriarchs.” However, these images are more often categorized into a group called the "invisible middle."

Perhaps the most reassuring news, was that although media’s images affect women heavily, “both black and white women reported that the strongest influence for boosting their sense of worth is themselves.” The second biggest influence black women reported was their mothers.