The Issue with Black Romantic Comedies

by Evette Dionne

I’m infatuated with romantic comedies. Like most cupid-crazed women seeking a soul mate, I purchase rom-coms with fervor, embracing the female heroine as she suffers through the various pangs of love. When the ending credits roll on movies from Legally Blonde to the iconic Pretty Woman, I feel satisfied, full even. These films reignite the interminable desire to stumble upon a Prince Charming worth the effort. It might seem disillusioned, but the child in me  – who assumed that Cinderella’s fairytale ending would be immediately attainable — sometimes dwarfs my conscious life experiences.

Though I wouldn’t object to channeling my inner Elle Woods and championing animal rights on Capitol Hill while organizing a wedding, I realize that life rarely bears resemblance to my beloved romantic comedies.

That derisible reality, however, never stops me from perusing the Wal-Mart movie shelves, scouring for new and older films about the trials of love. Last week I nabbed a triple feature of black romantic comedies for $7.50. The set featured Deliver Us from Eva, Something New, and The Best Man, three timeless pictures. I spent the weekend indulging in these classics, smiling and tearing up as I watched fellow black women find love and gallop off into the city skylines with their companions.

As usual, my emotional cup was runneth over. But then I began to reflect on these black rom-coms that I’ve watched repeatedly with friends, lovers, and even elders. I turned my critical analysis lens on and what I noticed was a common, disturbing trend: The black women characters fit into archetypal stereotypes that have been continually perpetrated in media.

This might not be a revelation for other black academics in media and maybe I’ve been watching these films with rose-tinted glasses until now. But I’m out of the rom-com stupor, and I’m not fond of what I’ve discovered.

We can start with Sanaa Lathan’s “Kenya” character in Something New. She is the definitive independent, black woman who is “too particular” to find a man worth falling in love with. Kenya is emasculating, particular about her weave, fearful of the judgments of her peers and relatives, and so invested in her career that she often dismisses life’s simple pleasantries. I’ve seen this character before. Actually, it isn’t much different from Sanaa’s “Andrea” in The Family That Preys.

But these overarching depictions of black women don’t end there. What about Gabrielle Union’s matriarchal “Eva” or Taraji P. Henson’s “Lauren” in Think Like A Man? Or Vanessa Williams’ “Terri” in Soul Food? Or Robin Givens’ “Jacqueline” in Boomerang? Or Sharon Leal’s “Dianne” in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married? Even Vivica A. Fox’s “Shante Smith” from Two Can Play That Game has type-A tangents that translate into her need to use rules to control her partner.

The characterization of these women falls directly into the intersection of the “independent black woman” stereotype, which is a spawn of the sapphire foremother.  The historical sapphire depicted black women as exaggerated, cruel, and emasculating, using words and body language to berate black men according to Mia Moody, PhD. an assistant professor of journalism at Baylor University.

Dr. Moody analyzed the evolution of the independent black woman stereotype in her research work, From Jezebel to Ho: An Analysis of Creative and Imaginative Shared Representations of African-American Women and The Meaning of ‘Independent Woman’ in Music. What she discovered is that over time, the pendulum of the “independent black woman” has shifted from a positive connotation that was considered admirable to something we are swearing off in favor of mainstream acceptability.

For instance, Roxanne Shanté’s “Independent Woman” impressed the need for reciprocation in relationships. Even Urban Dictionary gets it. They define “independent woman” as “A woman who pays her own bills, buys her own things, and does not allow a man to affect her stability or self-confidence. She supports herself entirely on her own and is proud to be able to do so.”

Now, independent black women are immediately connected to negative connotations that prevent us from finding and sustaining prosperous relationships. It is associated with neck-rolling, harsh words, and an untamable attitude. The perpetuation of this negativity in black romantic comedies isolates who we are from how we’re caricatured in media. It also ignores our complexities as black women. We’re too dimensional to be boxed in.

Elle Woods is different from Vivian Ward. Where is that scale of diversity for us in rom-coms?

After black Hollywood reached its pinnacle with films including The Wood, Love & Basketball, Love Jones, Brown Sugar and How Stella Got Her Groove Back, it is commendable that Tinsel Town is beginning to see the value of ensemble black casts and have chosen to financially back these projects. A lot of these successful films, however, aren’t accurate portrayals of our love.

With the exception of Love Jones and a few others, most urban romantic comedies lose sight of what makes black love beautiful. The admiration between Clair and Cliff, love between Barack and Michelle, hustle between Jada and Will, and sizzle between Jay and Bey is so dimensional that it is almost impossible to translate to the silver screen.

But at the bare minimum, can we get some realistic black women in front of the camera? Or is Hollywood not ready for that?

  • april

    This is so true and I tried to picture a movie where black women werent in these roles and I could’t!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/shawngrandy Shawn Frazier

    Thanks for this article. The same can also be said for urban literature. I avoid these books as much as possible. The “black woman that has everything but a good man” is so played. The sad thing is that we as black people were at the helm. Someone had to bring this to the attention of tinseltown or the publisher.

  • Pseudonym

    I, personally, find that “strong, independent black woman who’s strength and independence sometimes gets in the way of her pursuit of romantic happiness” to be quite accurate for a number of my go-getter friends. (I’m actually in the middle of trying to find a supportive, tactful, and inoffensive way to convey this issue to a friend of mine who’s getting to that “What can’t I find a husbaaaaaaaand??!!!!” breaking point.) Black American society is highly matriarchal, which is what created the “strong, independent black woman” archetype- proven by sociology and demographic research. So…I don’t think it’s that far off base.

  • Dani

    If life is made out to be so that a woman can’t find a man or needs a man in her life for her to be a strong, independent woman…well, uh, that’s patriarchal.

  • simplyme

    The explanation for what seems to be a matriarchal society among Black Americans requires a long and complicated review of American History, but it surely isn’t self imposed.

    And of course theres some truth to every stereotype…however, I think we all know more people that don’t fit that description than those that do. The issue is representing Black women in roles that more women can identify with… a character like the author for example a “mushy romantic” would be a nice change of pace….just thinking of people i know… the super naive one, the hilarious type B one who is up for anything, the awkward bookworm who couldn’t hold a 2 minute convo with a guy if her life depended on it, the serial relationship queen, the clingy one, the vegan natural “i only date men who smell like dirt and have dreads down to their butt” one… I may be biased but I believe Black women are interesting and diverse enough to be depicted in more that the current status quo high power career woman with a killer weave in romcoms. I think thats why the Awkward Black Girl web show has been so successful. They tapped into a market that Hollywood has been ignoring for years.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    don’t films have to present stereotypical characters in order to be be successful?

  • Pseudonym

    I never said it was self-imposed. I just said it exists. There are a million Clutch articles with a million comments supporting this sentiment.

    But argue for arguing sake if you would like…

  • mm

    And that’s why I have watched Love Jones like 101 times. It encompasses everything that most black love movies lack. I also like The Best Man for the same reason.

  • Pseudonym

    No, it’s matriarchal that many black American families are head and run primarily by women. And not women who have stronger influence than their husbands (ever see “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” where the mom says “The man is the head, but the woman is the neck?”), but rather [straight] women who are mothers and have no man counterpart in their households at all.

    That’s just a fact.

  • Cocochanel31

    I’m soooo confused as why being independent is viewed as a bad thing???? Allll of the black women and mostly men I know are highly progressive, and the caliber of men I know only date women who are usually equally progressive as them. They actually prefer and relish that kind of woman. We don’t live in the 1950′s where men are marrying right out of high school and making their woman a Stepford wife. Women work and are indpendent because we HAVE TO BE! I still have yet to find the stereotypical tongue and neck rolling woman who screams,” I don’t need no man ” nonesense, allllll of my single, smart, and independent sistas are crying to me daily about how bad they WANT A GOOD BLACK MAN! They don’t brag or boast about what they have, they are just trying to better themselvs like everyone else and prefer a man to walk the journey with them. Jus my two cents!

  • Queenpatricia

    Jacqueline in Boomerang was independent but was very sexy at the same time.

  • Pseudonym
  • Pseudonym

    (That was meant in response to Dani above)

  • Yb

    I’d like black romantic comedies to be like mainstream ones but with black characters. Portray us a multidimensional characters who lives aren’t confined by stereotypes and what’s is seen as things that “only black people do.” Just show us a people.

    I would like for black people to be in a wide array of movies: horrors, sci-fi, dark comedies, historical movies (that don’t just center around the civil rights movement, and slavery.)

  • Cocochanel31

    Yes YB! That is the dream! So many funny white movies a black actress could play the lead and race would be a non factor .That is the day when we have arrived!

  • Me

    No.

  • Bree

    Even more played is that in black literature the female lead is ALWAYS half mexican, indonesian, or some other type of exotic mix.

  • Patience

    It is viewed as a bad thing because our world still believes that women are inferior to men and for a lot of men, they can only feel good about themselves when they can exert control over women and have women be dependent on them.

  • Kristi

    Thank you for writing this! I have felt the same way about black rom-coms for a long time and frankly, I’m tired of it. People, there is nothing wrong with the portrayal of BW as independent and successful, but there must be enough variety so that we aren’t stereotyped as cold and unapproachable *itches. I watch the web series Awkward Black Girl and I think that my personality and my friends match the lead character in that show more closely than any of the characters from the black rom-coms named above (btw, if you’ve never seen awkward black girl check it out on YouTube its hilarious). Not to say that we aren’t successful or independent, but we all have different sides to us that add to how we experience and approach life as black women. Most of us are just nice “regular” girls. I would like to see that depicted on screen more often.

  • [email protected]

    “Love, Sex and Eating the Bones” is a really good urban romantic comedy. It’s a Canadian movie but it’s smart, the chemistry between the two protagonists is on point. A young Hill Harper co-stars.

  • http://soundlessreflections.wordpress.com srblogger11

    Hey. I reeeeealllly liked Robin Givens in Boomerang!! Especially since I just discovered that movie like last year!!! Someone tell me what’s archetypal about her please? For once she was a woman who didn’t want to pin her man down, and really played the guy. I really that that was different. Hmph.

  • Liyah D.

    I watch awkward black girl because for once there is a character who looks like me and does and says quirky things. ABG isn’t some video chick or rolling her neck and eyes at everyone. If only black characters could be diverse in books, tv, and movies!

  • Ms. Information

    Portraying black women in a better light does not fit into the agenda that has been developed in Hollywood for a long time…we are the angry figure, the “strong” mammie figure or the whore. Black women are not often portrayed outside of these archetypes. We all know that we come with different personalities and nuances but will Hollywood admit it’s intentional incorrect portrayal of us? Probably not.

  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    strict control of imagery is an important weapon in brainwashing a people….

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    Agreed, and I would go far to say that just because a black women is strong, successful and independent doesn’t mean she not funny, a bit nerdy, etc. There are many components to our personality and I wish they show that more along with showing different lifestyles, upbringing, etc. we have more stories to tell than the status quo. And for once ij a movie/book can the black woman lead NOT marry or date down to find love amd romance (not saying anything is wrong with that at All) but by some of these movies/books you think two successful people are allergic to each other.

  • Shirl

    What about the female co stars in these movies? There were a variety of personalities. Sweet Jesus…Complain, complain, complain, complain. Everything ain’t about bringing the black woman down. Personally I own all of the movies mentioned, enjoy them thoroughly and take them for what they are….Entertainment.

  • GlowBelle

    Oh, thanks for writing this! I am an shameless rom-com/romance movie lover myself, and it does pang me that there is something a little “missing” from some Black rom-coms. Not that there aren’t any good ones it’s just that too many are flat or just spend so much time trying not to be a stereotype, that the story and natural character development suffers and is lost. The genre as a whole can be formulaic with stereotypes abound (the woman journalist looking for love plot is overcooked for sure), but I think I wanted to see more of myself in those roles, and the ‘angry domineering Black woman’ just doesn’t speak to me.

    Not that there is anything remotely wrong with being an independent, always in control, and tough Black woman, because I sure know that is our defensive mechanism in this world, it just that I’m not like that on the daily, and it seems that screenwriters just perpetuate it too much in their material. Actually I blame screenwriters and black authors for doing this a lot whether in films or in books, it seems we feed our own stereotypes. I’m pretty much on the quirk side, which is why Awkward Black Girl worked for me, but ‘Something New’ (which is one of my favorites) also works for me, even though Sanaa Lathan’s character had several chips on her shoulder to where you wonder why Simon Baker was with her in the first place. Still I love the film as well because it was written, produced, directed by Black women with a Black woman in the lead…and that is something that should happen more often.

    I often wonder if we did a reversal, what would we say if we had a Black actress in a role like ‘Legally Blonde’ or like Molly Ringwald in ‘Pretty In Pink’? I wonder if we’ll be seeing the same stereotypes or would we get new ones?

  • Maeby

    We need to stop looking to Hollywood for black films. We shouldn’t let Hollywood set that standard for us. There are other black film writers/directors/actors etc out there. When we keep returning to the same people in Hollywood what else can you expect.

    Try looking at INDEPENDANT filmmakers of colour. There are many out there we just have to look around and stop relying on Hollywood. I know Hollywood gets things out into the mainstream but why wait for Hollywood when there are black people out there who are already trying to change things and are making fantastic art but just don’t have our support. I don’t understand why black magazines don’t promote more of them.

  • Maeby

    *INDEPENDENT

  • Maeby

    After I posted this comment, I went on to read Clutch’s “This Week’s Fabulous News About Black Women”

    and the first thing I see is encouraging support of Ava DuVernay:
    “We talk a lot about black women controlling our own images and stories and DuVernay has be a champion for taking matters into her own hands,” which is basically what I was trying to say.
    It’s not just black romantic comedies but black Hollywood films in general.

  • Fajr

    I think all romantic comedies fit a certain formula. Strong female lead, who wants love, but is distracted and ultimately falls for guy she couldn’t stand in the beginning.

    I agree that African American rom-coms tend to fit their own formula. They are entertaining and as long as we continue to support these formulas they will be what we continue to see.

    Awkward Black Girl is a purple cow, in that it set the ball rolling in a different direction. It’s definitely a start and with more AA led production companies coming into play (the Akils, Tyler Perry) there needs to be more AA writers telling our stories (love and otherwise) in more than just 50 Shades of Shanika.

  • k

    The funny thing is, a large proportion of Clutch articles overwhelmingly support the stereotypeS this article takes issue with. LOL.

  • Smilez_920

    Girlfriends was the last show I saw on network television with a very diverse cast of black women who went thought a differnt sets of love trials and tribulations .

    They all had different backgrounds and different stories. I wish I could see more black love movies with these types of women.

  • Mademoiselle

    I’m glad I bothered to click through one more page of comments before I posted mine. You made all of my points for me.

  • Mitt_Romen_Noodles

    I go to school for film (Scad) and rom-com’s are one of my favorite types of movies. I feel like the life that’s created in movies like say friends with benefits is remaining an untouched by our black directors and writers. For what reason, I have no idea, but I definitely think there’s a place for black rom-com’s. We just need writers/directors/blacks with money to produce…cough cough “Tyler Perry, Oprah, etc” that aren’t scared to go for it.

  • JJ

    HAHAHA! I loved your comment as I know ALL these women and would appreciate seeing their stories too.

  • paul

    “The admiration between Clair and Cliff, love between Barack and Michelle, hustle between Jada and Will, and sizzle between Jay and Bey is so dimensional that it is almost impossible to translate to the silver screen.”

    hmm

    always easy to keep love alive when you’re rolling in dough.

    I don’t think the characters in a movie or the love lives of elitists tell us anything important about black love.

    I’m still waiting for a black film that depicts a strong and loving black man and black woman relationship minus all the gloss, the weaves, the – on the brink of making partner in the law firm-ness, positive role modelling, hypergamy messaging, and preaching of falsehoods.

    I’ve found that the best love stories are those where the love story is secondary to some other theme. I enjoyed watching the love develop in between the Eastwood character and the Sondra Lock character in Eastwood’s film The Gauntlet. Two blue collar people brought together by adversity to join forces against a corrupt police bureaucracy.

    Their love grew out of the realisation that they were fighting the same fight, that an oppressive system system was the cause of their woes.

    This love story wasn’t about eliminating “bad” or “unworthy” prospects, it was about the ways love between a man and women can arise in the most unlikely situation, and how adversity can bring out qualities in people that we might not see or expect to find in them at first glance.

    That’s a depth rarely seen in movie depictions of romance, and even rarer in black romcoms.

    Looking for love and finding it in the “right” places, wasn’t the set up and conclusion in that film as it is in almost every tedious romcom/love story. Locke’s character was a prosititute, Eastwoods character – a washed up cop.

    Black film makers take a leaf.

  • Whatever

    The women I know that fit the same profile as these characters all have a tough time dating and finding a compatible mate, so there is definitely truth to this stereotype. Of course there is nothing wrong with being a strong, independent black woman, but please keep in mind that the women that feel the need to repeat this to anyone that will listen usually are trying to cover up major insecurities and shortcomings in other areas of their lives. Life and the pursuit of happiness will always require balance. BALANCE is key. Nothing wrong with being a go getter and having your own but what else are you bringing to the table? No one wants to date a resume…. Congratulations, you are independent and successful but what about your character is holding someone’s interest?

  • Whatever

    “always easy to keep love alive when you’re rolling in dough.

    I don’t think the characters in a movie or the love lives of elitists tell us anything important about black love.

    I’m still waiting for a black film that depicts a strong and loving black man and black woman relationship minus all the gloss, the weaves, the – on the brink of making partner in the law firm-ness, positive role modelling, hypergamy messaging, and preaching of falsehoods.”

    I completely agree with this.

  • kirk

    Well tell them to contact me coco. I’m dying to find a sweet sister.

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