Colorism

What Kind of Representation?

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I came across an article this week about a television show I watched as a child, The Proud Family. In the article, the author discusses the prevalence of colorism within the television show. She ultimately argues that despite the show’s goal of depicting an African American family and community in a positive fashion, the characters that met Eurocentric beauty standards were associated with wealth, beauty, intelligence and socially appropriate behavior, while characters with more Afrocentric features were associated with the antithesis of those positive characteristics (Knight, 2016).

In the article, the author supports her thesis by contrasting the protagonist, Penny Proud, with her classmates. What stood out to me most was the author’s comparison of Penny to the Gross sisters, featured in the top right picture below, and Dijonay, the darker-skinned girl in the left picture. Knight (2016) discusses how the Gross sisters’ complexion is dark blue, which is a reference to the derogatory blue black term associated with darker-skinned individuals. Their features, with their braided hair and bigger (or smaller) body types, are not meant to be considered attractive under European ideals. Their role in the show is as the school bullies — the deviants (Knight 2016). Dijonay also has features not associated with Eurocentric beauty standards; she has bigger lips and a thicker build than Penny, the light-skinned girl in the picture with Dijonay, who better fits into the Eurocentric mold. Knight (2016) stresses that Dijonay is loud and aggressive, never receives attention from her love interests, and  is relegated to side kick status for Penny. Penny, on the other hand, is the character who is the most fully developed and has the most depth; she is seen as beautiful and the audience is meant to relate to her and like her (Knight, 2016).

This critique of The Proud Family was so interesting to read. As I mentioned above, I loved this show as a child. Other than Susie on Rugrats, I could finally see someone that resembled me in a cartoon. That was important for me, and, I’m sure, a lot of other Black girls who grew up in the 1990s/2000s. But, I never realized how this show perpetuates racist and colorist stereotypes, specifically with regards to female beauty standards. In a show arguably made for a Black audience and by a Black man, why is that only one type of Black individual is elevated? Is it internalized racism that drives this? Is it misogyny/misogynoir? It’s probably both and that’s deeply troubling. This is a show made for children, and, as Knight (2016) aptly discusses in her literature review, “prolonged exposure to television impacts [children’s] understanding and beliefs about the world” (p. 57). Even if children do not, as I did not, consciously understand the colorist aspects of this show, they may subconsciously internalize some of its ideas and themes. This can likely lead to lower self-esteem for those who are depicted negatively and the further perpetuation of damaging colorist stereotypes.

Even before reading this article, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of people of color in the media due in part to the fact that the Oscars are coming on this weekend. While we’ve certainly come a long way (e.g., Viola Davis’s amazing performance in HTGAWM), there’s so much more work to be done. It’s not enough for one type of person of color to be elevated, while others remain flat characters. I think I sometimes get so excited about any type of diversity in the media that I overlook thinking critically about what kind of representation it actually is. Representation should be about quality of characters in addition to quantity. In media studies, there is a test that addresses sexism in the media called the Bechdel test. Fiction narratives pass the test when they present two or more female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. I wonder if there’s some sort of test that exists to describe the representation of people of the color in the media. Are actors of color only token minorities or support characters? Are dark-skinned characters strictly playing characters with socially inappropriate behavior? Are all the light-skinned characters the ones with money? The list of questions could go on and on. Regardless of whether this test exists, this article reminded me of how important is to be a critical consumer of media. Even if racist or colorist messages aren’t explicitly stated in shows, the appearance, development, and role of characters often hold hidden messages about who society views as powerful and worthy.

Steele, C. K. (2016). Pride and Prejudice: Pervasiveness of Colorism and the Animated Series Proud Family. Howard Journal of Communications, 27(1), 53-67.

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