African American Women Representation in Film: Waiting to Exhale

The issue I will be discussing is black women representation and portrayal in films. This issue is a personal one for me because I am a black woman myself and I would love to see a more positive representation of women but mostly black women in film. To strengthen my argument, I will be using a film with a cast of only black women being the main actresses.

Waiting to exhale is a film that follows the lives of four black women who are successful and college- educated. In the film, we see their careers, romantic lives, and friendship. All four women are completely different in personality and characteristics which are something I like about the film because we get to see a variety of different black women. We get to see that all black women are not the same.

The representation and portrayal of black women in this film are majorly negative even though this film is supposed to be a women empowerment and a feel-good kind of film. This film is one of the very few and first films where the cast is majorly black and women. This is a film that was and is played in many black women households with black women watching and little black girls and little black boys watching too.

 

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I chose this film because even though the motive of the film was to finally have a cast of all black women in Hollywood, to empower and uplift women, or to show appreciation for the black woman the film failed on many accounts to do so. When I was younger, I did not view the film the way I view it now. My perspective on the film has completely changed as I have aged and grown wiser. With age, I have realized that this film did not empower women or further the importance of having black women as leads in films. This movie just reiterated the constant negative stereotypes of black women while also tarnishing black men too but that’s for another blog post. I will be detailing and breaking down the labels, roles, and stereotypes of all women separately below.

People all over the world will see and has seen this film. Whitney Houston is a global sensation. Angela Bassett is a global sensation. Loretta Devine is a global sensation. So, I know for a fact this movie has been seen all over the world. People all over the world will see and believe that this is how all black women are. Historically, the negative stereotype, representation, and portrayal of black women in film go way back to the very first film a black woman was cast in.

 

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“In the aftermath of slavery and the resulting social, economic, and political effects, Black women have become the victims of negative stereotyping in mainstream American culture. Such stereotypes include the myth of the angry Black woman that characterizes these women as aggressive, ill-tempered, illogical, overbearing, hostile, and ignorant without provocation” (Wendy, 2014 p. 1). This quote is another historical fact that slavery plays a huge role in the negative stereotypes black women have to deal with.

According to Carolyn West in historical terms, the four women would be considered to be sapphires. “Sapphires are represented as Angry Black Women (ABW) or Sistas with Attitude” (West, 2017 p. 140). In the film, you see that all the women display the characteristics of being an ABW.


 

Bernadine Harris

“The Diva”

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Bernadine Harris Is played by the powerhouse Angela Bassett. She is 36 years old black women and is college educated. In the film, you see that she and her husband have been together for 11 years before he ups and decide to leave her for a white woman. The woman is John’s secretary and only 24 years old. Her husband in the divorce tries to take all the assets from Bernadine even though they have two kids together and even though she is the one who helped him become the successful man he is. Bernadine sacrificed her career for him and her kids. So, for John to tell her he’s leaving her and the kids on new years eve for his 24 years old white secretary sent her into a rage. The divorce has shown Bernadine a whole different side of John.

 

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Now we get to see the full-on angry & miserable black woman stereotype, right? like she has no reason to be mad, right? when her husband of 11 years just out of the blue leave her for another woman and also tells her his secretary is the only women he ever loved. In the film, after Bernadine has had some time to clearly understand and sorts her feelings she goes “crazy” we see her burn her husband clothes and this car in their front yard. Even though Bernadine has all the reasons in the world to be mad her reaction is just feeding into the stereotype of an “angry black women”.

 

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Here we see the confrontation of Bernadine and john’s mistress. Bernadine had come to John’s office to talk and ran into his mistress instead. When I was younger, I thought this was funny, entertaining, and awarded.  In this scene, I felt Bernadine was right. she had come face to face with the women who had taken her husband of 11 years away from her. So, in my mind, the woman got what was coming to her. But, in reality, Bernadine was wrong. Now that I am a young black woman myself I see that Bernadine could have handled this better. Because in today’s society black women are not allowed to get mad because then they will be labeled “angry” they are not allowed to be violent because then they will be labeled “animals” or “sassy”.

I think Bernadine reaction is wrong because when thinking about the audience who is watching this, it is mainly black women and little black girls. So, Bernadine choice to react in a violent way gives the viewers the impression that this is okay for a black woman to resort to violence. It gives little black girls the impression that it’s okay to grow up and hit other women if your significant other decides to leave you for them. It gives little black boys the impression that this is how older black women act and maybe they should just date outside their race to save the drama.

 

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In this scene above we see the typical ‘ I need a change, let me cut my hair’ that all races of women do. Bernadine has been growing her hair all her life so her cutting her hair was a drastic moment in her life and for the film. I choose to include this scene because Bernadine is still feeding into the negative stereotype of women. ‘My life is falling apart, so let me act crazier. But, didn’t she just lose her husband of 11 years so who am I to judge?

 

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Hair is cut now. So we get to see her final form of the negative black women stereotypes. we get to see a “bitter” Bernadine. she is smoking, crying, and wanting to talk to the other women. Do not get me wrong I strongly believe Bernadine is entitled to all of the reactions she has and displays. I just think this film feeds the Hollywood perpetual negative black women stereotype. The only redemption of Bernadine is when we see her winning the case against her husband. Bernadine is a beautiful, college educated, and young black women but during the whole film, we see her just being a negative stereotype. We do not get to see her ‘glow up’ in a sense.

Lastly, I would say Bernandine label is “The Diva” even though she does not meet all the requirements she meets the majority of them. “They are characterized as being pretty in the traditional sense—long, straightened hair, not too dark-skinned, having a slender build, being a tad immodest but not wearing skimpy clothing. These Divas fit the picture of well-behaved women who have made it” (Stephens & Phillips 2003 p. 15).


 

Savannah Jackson

“The Matriarch”

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Savannah is one of Bernadine closest friends. She and Bernadine were college roommates.  In a more positive light, we see Savannah in her successful career but as the film goes on she is just reduced to a mistress. Savannah is having an affair with a married man who tells her every time he’s going to leave his wife for her and he never does. This image and portrayal shed a negative light not only on the character but how many black women and little black girls will see or have seen this and think it’s okay.

The influence films have on society and people is tremendous. “Many of the women in the audience would be happy to be like any of these women, man or no man” (Ebert, 2017 p. 1). This quote just shows me that some people think the representation and portrayal of these women in this film are positive when they are not.

Savannah’s mother is also a negative stereotype and bad representation of black women in film. All Savannah mother cares about is Savannah having a man it doesn’t matter if he is married or not. This mentality is giving viewers the impression that this is how black mothers think. That they prioritize having a man over everything else. It was not enough that Savannah had a successful career and college education she needs a man to make her complete according to her mother.

Lastly, Savannah would be labeled as “The Matriarch” because she exudes confident, very successful, and do not need a man to make her feel complete. “Through his actual use of the term “matriarch,” Moynihan essentially presented African American women as emasculating, controlling, and contemptuous females who did not need a man beyond using his seed for childbearing” (Bond 1970; Ransby and Matthews 1995; Wallace 1978). Even though Savannah characteristics are empowering for women they are seen by others as emasculating or controlling.


 

Gloria Matthews

“The Mammy”

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Gloria is A close friend of Savannah and Bernadine. she is considered the plus size friend out of the group. She divorced and has made her life all about her son. Making her life all about her son is innocent, right? NOPE! this is also an underlying misrepresentation of black women in film. Because she does not have a man in her life romantically she got to make her life about the next man in her life? her son. Why can’t she just be an independent woman who is raising her son alone? why must a man be the reason for her happiness?

 

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In the movie we see Gloria holding on to hope that she and her son father Rick will get back together. In the film, we see Gloria gets excited every time Rick comes to visit she dresses in her best clothes and make herself look pretty hoping Rick will notice and wants to give them another chance. But, comes to find out that Rick and Gloria will never happen again because Rick is gay.

 

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But, luckily for Gloria, a new man moves next door and he likes his women with ” a little meat” on them.

 

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Lastly, Gloria would be labeled as “the mammy”. “Physically, the Mammy is portrayed as an overweight, dark-skinned woman with very African features” (Stephens & Phillips 2003). As you can see in the myriad of gifs of Gloria she fits the Mammy role perfectly.

 


 

Robin Stokes 

“The Jezebel”

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Last but not least, Robin Stokes. Robin Stokes is a successful businesswoman. I get the sense that Robin is a hopeless romantic but the film portrays her as a ho. I think this idea to label robin a ho for keeping her options open and not settling for less is another negative portrayal of black women in film. It gives the notion that black women should be satisfied with a man wanting them and not want more from the man or themselves. In the two hour movie we see Robin with three different men all black but, different heights, body shapes, personalities, and careers. One of the men she is dating is also married. Robin is definitely labeled the young and pretty one out of the group of the four friends.

 

These are just two of the men robin were with during the film.

 

 

This is a reaction from one of the men Robin was dating in the movie after she decided to end the relationship because he was a cocaine addict. if his statement is not a complete misrepresentation of black women in film I don’t know what is.

Lastly, I would label Robin as “The Jezebel” because she meets all of the requirements completely. “Portrayed as having light skin, long hair, and a shapely body, the Jezebel was sometimes referred to as a mulatto or half-breed” (Stephens & Phillips 2003 p. 8).


 

Don’t get me wrong this film is definitely a great film to watch for all races. The film is definitely a girls night in film and you probably will not notice the underlying negative portrayal and misrepresentation of the black women in the film. But, this is not a women empowerment film. This film gave Hollywood more of a reason to cast black women actresses in ghetto and stereotypical roles.

I choose this issue to write on because I have yet to see a complete body of work that portrays black women in a completely positive light without negative stereotypes and misrepresentation. There are no black women superheroes. There are no black women movies that I watched growing up that made me say “I wanna be like her when I grow up”.

I choose this issue because I want little black girls to have more representation in films. I want them to be able to see someone who looks like them in films and be able to relate to them. I want little black girls to have films that are for them. I want films to show little black girls that they can be more than slaves, ghetto, hoes, poor, bitter and depended on a man. Lastly, I want films that will show little black boys how to treat and be respectful to women.

 


 

Sources:

Wendy Ashley (2014) The Angry Black Woman: The Impact of Pejorative Stereotypes on Psychotherapy with Black Women, Social Work in Public Health, 29:1, 27-34, DOI: 10.1080/19371918.2011.619449

West, Carolyn. (2017). Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel, and the Bad Girls of Reality Television: Media Representations of Black Women.

Phillips, D. P. (2003). FREAKS, GOLD DIGGERS, DIVAS, AND DYKES: THE SOCIOHISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF ADOLESCENT AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN’S SEXUAL SCRIPTS. 48.

Ransby, B., & Matthews, T. 1995. Black Popular Culture and the Transcendence of Patriarchal Illusions. In B. Guy-Sheftall (Ed.) Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought. (pp. 526–536). New York, NY: The New Press

Ebert, R. (n.d.). Waiting to Exhale . Retrieved from Rogerebert.com : https://www.rogerebert.com/

Whitaker, F. (Director). (1995). Waiting to Exhale [Motion Picture].

http://allreaders.com/movie-review-summary/waiting-exhale-19482