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?