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Study Shows Positive Portrayals of Black Women on Big Screen and TV Have Increased, Colorism Issue Remains Unchanged

Black representation has come a long way in film and television, but despite significant progress, a recent study is showing that the journey has just begun.

Research conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which focused on Black women in girls in the entertainment industry in 2019, found that while Black character portrayal in media has increased, colorism is still proving to be an issue.

LOS ANGELES, CA – SEPTEMBER 20: Robinne Lee, Gabrielle Union, Sanaa Lathan, Lashontae Heckard and Antoinette Robinson attend the afterparty for a screening of Netlfix’s “Nappily Ever After” at Teddy’s on September 20, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

The study also notes that the number of Black female characters in film and TV is too small to examine Black women and girls separately and that their findings were broken into four parts; Representations of Black female leads in film; representations of Black girls and women in family films; depictions in family television; and a comparison of film and TV. 

Research found a positive level of representation with Black girls and women — 6.5 percent of the U.S. population — representing 6.1 percent of all characters and 5.7 percent of leading characters in 2019 family films. They also found that Black women were more likely than their white counterparts to be portrayed as leaders or working in the science, technology, engineering, or math profession. They were also more likely to be depicted as “smart” than other female characters, whether they were white or Asian or Latinx.

However, the report noted that nearly 80 percent of the Black female characters were of light or medium skin tone, with only 19 percent of Black leading ladies in the past decade being dark-skinned, bringing attention to colorism.

It was also discovered that more than half of the leading Black ladies in popular films from the past ten years had had a hairstyle that fit “European standards of beauty as opposed to natural Black hairstyles.”

Shows like “Insecure,” “black-ish,” and “Dear White People” were praised for discarding those standards and featuring women wearing their natural locs. The study called the move “a positive shift given that Black women experience higher anxiety about their hair than women of other races/ethnicities and feel intense social pressure to straighten their hair.” It also found that Black women were more likely to be shown partially or fully nude in comparison to their white counterparts. 

Founder and actress Geena Davis released a statement upon release of the findings:

“This revealing new study shows we need to be more aware of the persistence of stereotypes affecting Black girls and women—and avoid repeating those mistakes when making writing, casting, and other content production decisions.”

She added, “While it is encouraging to see some positive trends, it’s clear that much more work needs to be done to ensure that women of all backgrounds have the same opportunities when it comes to being depicted on screen.”

Davis founded the institute in 2004, making it the only research-based organization working within the entertainment industry to create gender balance, promote inclusion and reduce negative stereotyping in family entertainment media.

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