Where Are All The Adventurous Black Women In Chick Flicks?
I love chick flicks, but I hate most black chick flicks.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I actually like black chick flicks, but I can not bare to see another film about a black woman on the hunt for Mr. Right. If I can be honest, I’m talking specifically about the ones with Paula Patton because she has become the poster child for the humdrum two-dimensional robotic character, whose only appeal is her cute face and pleasant smile.
I really hate to start with the “white women do it…” discourse, which is usually brought on by a case of the racial envies. But it’s true: In chick flicks, white women do get to do – and be – more than their black chick counterparts. In Look’s Who’s Talking (both parts I and II), a white woman gets to humorously spin the tribulations of single motherhood with a magical baby. Laughter combined with empowerment have been at the center of just about every film involving white single mothers. Yet the closest a black woman gets to delivering anything funny when it comes to a relationship or single parenthood in a black film was when crazy Mary told Precious to take her “a** down to the welfare” – and that was unintentional. In Beaches, we cried alongside the emotional and heartwarming story of two friends from opposite sides of the track, working through a friendship, which spanned more than 30 years. The last time two black women attempted a long-term friendship in a film, Celie was shrieking through tears and a snotty nose to, “Let her stay” as Mista ripped Nettie from her arms and threw her off his property–and they were sisters. In Julie & Julia, a young married white woman had the chance to contrast her life to that of the life of chef Julia Child by cooking all 524 recipes in Child’s cookbook in 365 days. However, in the black version of that film…well, there isn’t one, now is there?
Matter of fact, black women just don’t seem to be interested in doing anything as whimsical and silly as cooking for fun and blogging about it in films (even as recent news reports might suggest that some of us are willing to do this very thing in real life). Instead, on-camera we’re too busy suffering and being oppressed and searching for Mr. Right. Yet white women have been cinematically freed to engage in all aspects of frivolity, as well as the much more serious fare of introspection, including the every popular international hunt to “find herself.” Scarlett Johansson goes on a hunt for herself in Lost in Translation, where she gets to tour adventurously through Tokyo streets with stranger Bill Murray. In the film Under the Tuscan Sun, Diane Lane breaks up with her boyfriend in the United States and goes off to rediscover herself in Italy. And even the Big Apple-representing ladies of Sex in the City got to do some self-reflection, as well as glamorous clothes shopping, in two overseas excursions–once in Mexico and for a second time in Abu Dhabi. And where have black women gone in film? The farthest our passports have taken us to is Jamaica, where Stella Got Her Groove Back and the Phat Girlz could find and then bring back to the States an African prince – all without having to leave the resort.
The limitations of black women in film just doesn’t stop us at the border. According to Hollywood (and black Hollywood for that matter), we’re limited in our roles as saviors as well. Oh, we can certainly serve society, and we have done just that in films like The Help. But I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen a film about a black woman who has gone outside of the kitchen to teach society a thing or two about itself while actually leading it more into an equal and just culture. Moreover, we are not allowed to rescue, adopt and and then save a little white boy from his drug addicted prostitute mother. There is no black woman version of the caring suburban mother, who helped nurse a homeless and traumatized boy into an All-American football player and first round NFL draft pick. Black women can’t pick through, reshape, and inspire the dangerous minds of those reared in the tough and economically depressed Appalachian Mountains. Let’s face it, when it comes to black female characters in film, we are kind of boring.
In a piece called Six Annoying Women Character Tropes in Black Romantic Comedies, writer Evette Dione writes about the often sterile and dispassionate ways in which black women are represented on-screen, particularly the filmmakers’ insistence on using “controlling image,” or archetypes, such as the Jezebel; the asexual matriarch; the strong black woman; the welfare queen; and the sapphire, which has spawned the final category of the independent black woman. Writes Dione:
“That’s no surprise—romantic comedies are a platform that reproduces all of our cultural “isms” and phobias, from sexism to racism to homophobia. Most women of color have intersectional oppressions that lie on the cusp of several “isms.”We are objectified, pathologized, and forced into stereotypes that don’t represent the fullness of our humanities.”
The worse thing about these portrayals is how stoic and uninspired these black female film characters are about life in general. Even in films where our sister-girl appears to have everything going for her, including all the material status symbols of what is supposed to represent success, she doesn’t ever appear to be engaging in it or even happy in any of it. Yet there is little self-reflection and self-discovery to be found in any of her dialogue. We don’t get to witness a black woman grappling with how she might be suffocating under the weight of societal pressure to acquire things; to be a good wife and mother; to be respectable; to be complimentary to her “man” while holding it down as a successful professional. In films where black women are lead, there is no manic pixie girl or free spirit. There are no black women leaving the law firm to open a bookstore in a small country town, or black women divorcing their unappreciative husbands and finding themselves in Paris, or India, or even South Africa. Our black female characters are contained and devoid of such complexities in thought. Instead, the message of these films has always been that the solution to the black woman’s unhappiness comes in the form of the introduction of Mr. Right.
Movies which speak to the scale of diversity of black women are hard to come by. I wish I could lay this solely at the feet of white Hollywood, but the truth is that many filmmakers of color too have engaged in these limited representations. While Elle Woods was fighting for animal rights on Capitol Hill (while simultaneously planning a wedding), black women are sitting cinematically on the sidelines, unengaged and disinterested in the actual world around them. Ironically, this film version we see of us on-screen is a vast contrast to the varied and vast lives of real world black women. Some of the most politically involved, socially engaged and well-traveled folks I know – and admire – are black women. It’s a shame that we aren’t given the chance to see them more on-screen.