The phenomenon of stereotyping in the media is covered vastly in academic research. The term “stereotype” can be defined as “[…] a fixed, over generalized belief about a particular group or class of people.” (Cardwell 1996). In social psychology, the term is further detailed as (1) an aid to explanation, (b) an energy-saving device, and (c) a shared group belief. (McGarty et al. 2002: 2). But more importantly than knowing the concept behind the word, is to understand how this “class of people” is categorized. Commonly, cultural studies engage in differentiation and categorization with a wider perspective of the tendencies of, what Antonio Gramsci calls, a hegemonic society (Bates 1975: 352). Gramsci’s concept of cultural hegemony, which, in a simplified way, refers to the dominance of one social class over others (Bates 1975: 352), can be adapted to making sense of the stereotypical categorizations in media, because of its focus on culture and ideology. According to Gramsci, it is important to identify routine structures and value systems as part of the mechanism of cultural domination (Gitlin, 1994:517). Since it is a representation of popular culture and, therefore, holds a status of being highly influential, Hollywood cinema can be categorized as such. Consequently, stereotypes supported and perpetuated by Hollywood cinema have an impact on popular culture.
African-Americans have been subject to stereotyping throughout all of American cinema history. Even the earliest films depicted stereotyped images of African-Americans. But resistance has always been strong, with political groups and activists criticizing the narrow-sighted way of representation African-Americans have had to endure. However, regardless of the many attempts and successes in counteracting this misrepresentation in Hollywood cinema, the struggle continues, especially for women. Activism has been focussed mainly on male-representation, while African-American women have struggled to find a voice behind the veil of not only racial bias, but also sexism. However, significant steps have been taken throughout the last few decades to rectify the misrepresentation of women: Independent film productions have challenged the distorted images portrayed by the media. Directors, producers, writers and other film crew members as well as actors, actresses and activists have spoken out against stereotyping in Hollywood cinema. Furthermore, organisations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have organized protests and challenged marketing of Hollywood films depicting stereotypical representations of African-Americans. In this way, the cinema industry has been confronted by resistance coming from the inside the industry as well as the outside.
This analysis serves to outline the continued struggle of African-American women to counteract racially and sexually biased stereotypes as perpetuated by the popular media domain of Hollywood cinema in a white-dominated, patriarchal society. Moreover, it serves to shed light on recent activism and achievements, which are now commonly referred to as ‘reclaiming stereotypes’. Resistance from within the industry will be exemplified by juxtaposing the 2009 film “Precious”, an independent production which was majorly successful, with other film productions from the same year, which serve to perpetuate the misrepresentation of African-American women. Furthermore, activism stemming from sources outside of the cinema industry will be detailed, as part of a growing mind state of contempt for stereotyping African-American women.
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