On the latest episode of How to Get Away with Murder, the audience learns that protagonist Annalise Keating, was once the mistress of her now husband. While this detail may be casually regarded as exhibiting the necessary drama for prime time, it aligns Keating with a blossoming caricature of black women in contemporary media. Despite Keating being among contemporary heroines Olivia Pope of Scandal, Mary Jane of Being Mary Jane and now Zoe Reynard of the Addicted movie, these protagonists exude hyper-sexuality as their flaw. This Achilles heel or heroine’s harmatia, drive these women them from their own marriages, or prevents them from reaching the church steps entirely. Keating’s revelation reveals what appears to be a blossoming caricature of black women in contemporary media.
The othered women as the other woman, veils the the integral compromise faced by black bodies that dominate prime time media. While characters should certainly be as flawed as its audience, hyper sexuality as a black heroine’s harmartia is no accident, and no minuscule attribute. The othered woman, or female who treds the intersectionslity of race and gender, as a victim to her untamable sexuality, weighs down an otherwise progressive image of a black woman, with problematic projections of her past.
Shonda Rhimes’ Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington opened the door for the contemporary black heroine, Scandal introduced the world to Olivia Pope, the law school graduate turned high-profile fixer. The doors that Miss Pope should have opened for the sophisticated, and sexy black leading lady, has become a platform for the hyper sexual black female protagonist.
This new phenomena poses this seemingly impertinent question to its black female viewers: are we addicted to the hyper sexual black female as our representative, or simply addicted to being seen?
The influx of black female presence in contemporary film and television is undeniable. Despite whether you watch these television shows or movies, or if you enjoy them, the black female protagonist has established her place in contemporary prime time television. This contemporary black protagonist is educated, successful, beautiful or well dressed, emerging as a heroine for black women. This heroine’s presence seems constructed to challenge the way society has come to think about black women. Olivia Pope of Scandal, Mary Jane of Being Mary Jane, Annalise Keating of How to Get Away With Murder, and now Zoe Reynard from the Zane book turned movie Addicted, surface as a breath of fresh air among the boisterous black women of reality shows and sitcoms who have made a pretty penny donning long false locks while speaking and behaving badly.
These women embody the sexy yet sophisticated black woman, who wears a Chanel cape to save black women from the negative images that have dominated their perception since their forced arrival centuries ago. While every heroine must have her Achilles heel, it is interesting to note that all these leading ladies have an unsettling similarity their seemingly untamable sexuality.
Despite being a remarkable woman, Scandal’s Olivia Pope, engages in a secret yet steamy relationship with the president. Annalise, Mary Jane and Zoe, the leading ladies who follow in Miss Pope’s footsteps, are also philandering women. Olivia and Mary Jane are both unwed black women who engage in relationships with married men. Zane’s protagonist Zoe, like Annalise Keating of How to Get Away With Murder, are married women who seek sexual gratification outside of their marriage. Zoe, is the only one of these characters to receive a formal diagnosis of a sexual disorder. However, these protagonists mirror Zoe’s insatiable sexual appetite. Zane labeled her protagonist, in the form of a diagnosis, with the hyper-sexual caricature that has cemented itself to the flesh of black women since forced from Africa. The labeling or diagnosing of black women as hyper sexual, places all black women in a labyrinth of self-identity, where she finds her contemporary self conceptualized by the limitations of past projections.
Despite being treated as a “something new” of contemporary society, the hyper-sexual black female is not a new image. The assumed hyper-sexuality of black women excludes black women from victims of sexual abuse in both traditional and contemporary society. Depicted as oozing sexuality, the black women is seen as more likely to rape than to be raped. The myth of black women as sexual aggressors has latched itself onto the black female body, making this fallacy seem true to the casual onlooker. The perpetuation of this image in traditional and contemporary film and television, extends far beyond the four corners of the television or movie screen. The burden of these images are endured by the black women of society, who are inevitably connected to these controlling images because of our cultural connection.
With enviable beauty, success, and apparition Pope, Keating, Paul and Reynard emerge as a likely weapon to combat the subjugation of the cultural appropiation of black females. All of the modern black protagonists encompass a level of physical appeal traditionally reserved for non black women, intertwined with the education and monetary success typical for white males. Her presence proves somewhat revolutionary, embodying the promise of the black woman as the “every” woman.
Although all the protagonists deliver a different look, their general aesthetics are very similar. The protagonists all have beautiful and seductive faces, that despite producing vastly different appearances, consist of big, expressive eyes, pronounced cheekbones and full lips. However, with the exception of Annalise Keating, none of their bodies are voluptuous, or shapely. Interestingly, Keating who is more shapely, is sexualized by her status not her appearance. The bodies of her slender counterparts, however, capture the gaze of their onlookers because of their draping in expensive and eye-catching fabrics. The hyper-sexuality sexualizes an otherwise desexualized body, or a body that induces a sexual gaze in a way similar to that of a white man. While the male sexual organ may generate sexual enthusiasm, men are generally sexualized by their ability to acquire education and material goods. As seen in contemporary romance/erotica novels, the ideal man embodied in contemporary culture by Christian Grey and Gideon Cross is draped in expensive suiting, an aseptically appealing image that acts a token to his wealth and power. The contemporary black female protagonist is conceptualized in a similar way, as her body is veiled by the fruits of labor. Like white men, the black female sexuality is intensified by behavior, not body.
What intensifies the prevalence of these portrayals is that these images are constructed and distributed to the masses by black women. This appropriation of black female sexuality by black women, intensifies this menacing depiction. The deed of appropriation is veiled in the celebration of black writers like Shonda Rhimes and Zane. Their protagonists are often oversimplified as “beautifully flawed” black women. My ambitions are not to condemn Rhimes and Zane for accepting the daunting task of depicting the complicated dynamic of the raced woman. However, it is significant to note that the images believed to be constructed by Rhimes and Zane (among others), are actually not products of their creativity. These images are in direct result to the nurture of Western society. It seems the depiction of the black female protagonist is similar to fashion, existing in patterns that are regarded as cutting-edge, despite their repetitive nature. The repetition of patterns in the raced woman’s representation are of course much more severe than fashion. The repetition of traditional characteristics in depicting the contemporary black protagonist compromise the integrity of the black female body, and make her representation stationary in the faults of past projections.
The perpetuation of such images by black women suggests that the way in which they’ve been taught to conceptualize black women, including themselves, is one of few ways. Hyper sexuality was the binary opposite of asexuality- another controlling image cast into the bodies of black women. Although experiencing a variety of forms in the evolution of this controlling image, the depiction of the asexual black woman began with the mammy figure. Typically overweight, of a darker complexion and completely devoted to her white employers, Mammy was completely desexualized. The most iconized mammy figure is Hattie McDaniels in her Academy Award winning role in Gone With the Wind.
The asexual black women evolved somewhat in the decades following Gone With The Wind, birthing Juanita Moore’s character in the remake of “ An Imitation of Life.” Juanita Moore’s character had a daughter of her own, whom she raised along with Lana Turner’s daughter. Then Claire Huxtable emerged as the beautiful, successful, highly educated wife and mother who managed a career, a household, relationships with her children and a successful marriage. Claire, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad is certainly one of the most beautiful women to grace the small screen. Nevertheless, Rashad as Claire Huxtable exuded asexuality in the rendering of an integral and maternal image. In an effort to evolve from the conservative, and purity of Claire, and the restrictions of mammy, Rhimes and Zane revert to the hyper sexual.
It is perhaps of importance to acknowledge that the revisiting of hyper-sexual black female is a probable result of attempting to tread the line of asexual and overtly sexual. Images of black women traditionally stripped them of their sexuality or made them sexual beings entirely. While sex has always been profitable, the success of a drama in contemporary society is largely reliant on the presence of females as ‘eye candy.’ The myth of the hyper sexual black woman began on the plantation and was later projected onto early black actresses such as Nina Mae McKinney and Dorothy Dandridge.
Desirable women often tread the line of objectification, a concept that is especially sensitive when pertaining to black women. When pitching a show or movie with a black female lead, the task of sexualizing a woman conceptualized to be a sexual beast and not a sexual female is daunting, to say the least. However resorting back to the image of the hyper-sexual black female, seems to substantiate the internalized belief there are no sexy black women, only hyper-sexual.
Seemingly only existing in extremes, the remarkable yet sexually aggressive black woman, suggests that the hardware of an African American woman is inevitably flawed. The hyper sexual black female is seen as a worthy cultural compromise, due to the implied profit and promise of black female presence.
As black women we must contemplate ways to aid our navigation through society, rather than circumvent issues of our constructed identity by settling for depictions already decided for us. Thus, while Shonda Rhimes, and Zane have succeeded in bringing black women to the forefront, they have failed to detach her from problematic past images.
My fear is that in an effort to be seen, the raced woman will settle. Yes, our portrayals should be as scarred and flawed as we are, but it should perpetuate us in truth, not in the imagination of our oppressors. Thus what appears to be an addiction to the hyper-sexual black female, is truthfully an addiction to the visibility of black female bodies. Perhaps more significant than curbing what seems to be an addiction to the hyper sexual black female, is curbing our own addiction to being seen.