For the past few years, there’s been a lot of limelight on women’s rights in the media. Feminism in pop culture is no longer the big fat “F-Word” — it’s now a word of empowerment and humanity. Sticking up for women and celebrating those who identify as females is an expectation now more than ever.
However, there is a problem in the ways in which females are presented. Specifically, the problem lies within the lack of representation of some women in the media. While the media takes off on a “revolution” in which women are incorporated more and more into serious roles both in front and behind the camera, women of colour are left behind.
Atomic Blonde. Elektra. The Hunger Games. Girls. Divergent. Mean Girls. Or just Google the latest movies (that aren’t about racism) and go through the cast of main female characters. While they’re all forms of media starring women, and present them in complex and interesting roles, it lacks in giving women of colour representation as a main character. Typically what we get is women of colour in the background, minimal representation, supporting characters cast in a different race for the sake of tokenism and a big fat gold star for “trying.” Although the media attempts to empower women through writing them in as multidimensional characters, the majority of these women are always white.
This demonstrates a parallel that abides by a historical context in which white women have been at the forefront of many revolutions pertaining to women’s rights. Women’s suffrage, 1920. It’s a year celebrated and adorned with love; women finally, after decades of fighting, are allowed to vote. There is, however, a catch. Because this was not for all women. The leaders of the American women’s suffrage movement- Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt- to name a few, were all white women. Women who, through their oppression, were still the faces of a fight, and regarded as champions of a patriarchal resistance. History textbooks have the names of white women inked across their sheets as heroes and “the first woman to” of many feats.
So as these women reveled in the glory of newfound rights and a more optimistic view of their future, African American women were still trying to get the ink on a voting ballot. And even as everyone saw a feminist leader like Susan B. Anthony as someone who writhed out of the depths of gender-based oppression, they seemed to leave out of their minds the women who played the stepping stones. The women who laid even below white women and fought past every ounce of racism and sexism to get to where they are to see that there is still more fighting to do. Women who fought twice what white women did, overcame twice the barriers, were left behind by their white female counterparts but fought on. Women who were ignored. Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Anna Julia Cooper, Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Mary Church Terrell and many, many more extraordinary women. They were the leaders of their own revolution.
In the words of Sojourner Truth, a first wave feminist and abolitionist, who famously wrote a speech, “Ain’t I A Woman?”:
“And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well!”
She describes her experience as a black woman in a society with a whitewashed definition of womanhood, and how it affects her in relation to her racial and gender-based identity.
On March 3, 1913, it was the Woman Suffrage Parade. A parade that would later go down in history as one to significantly impact the journey women endured to be able to vote. Women of colour were told to march at the back. Many white southerners did not agree with women of colour marching alongside them, and some outright refused to march beside black women.
The media is our pinnacle of accumulated news, trends and opinions. Our dependency on it is practically subconscious. The current media is a symbol of technological advancements, it’s a future that will only get brighter. Everyone wants to shine in it, yet only so few are allowed. Because while it’s the voice of a generation, some voices are suppressed. When it shows us something like the Hunger Games and labels it a girl power movie, we get excited. I’m a girl, and finally I get my own hero. I get to look up to a girl and see parts of myself within her. It helps me believe in myself, and furthers the social progressiveness within our societies; we are teaching girls that they can be strong and powerful, that they’re winners. It’s a trend that the media seems to be completely indulged in. Hence, we get another movie, TV shows and two, then three more movies. The media goes crazy. Girl power has so much power. The media markets these as must-sees. This is a revolution. It used to be the man who was the hero and rescuer. Today it can be the woman. After a history so ignorant of the strengths of women, it’s refreshing and exciting to see swarms of media acknowledging and honouring them.
Yet most of us don’t realize the lack of women of colour. The relatable factor decreases exponentially for young girls of colour, who never truly see themselves within the powerful heroines. We’re so used to seeing white women everywhere through historical stems, we now think naturally; white is the default.
White women get to star in these movies. They get to be a part of a media revolution. They’re beautiful and smart and strong and adored. They become the Susan B Anthonys and the Cary Chapman Catts. They’re an embodiment of our new feminist era in pop culture. White women become the definition of an ideal woman and as they star in these movies and take on the roles of heroines, women of colour are left marginalized. The faces of women of colour are not included.
White women essentially become the voice of the struggles of women. All the women playing inspiring characters in shows and films are important because it shows the “defeat” of the struggles. It defies stereotypes and breaks out of the confines of what it is to be a woman. These women become a collective voice for all women. However, it’s important to note the difference in struggles between white women and women of colour. Even historically, rights have come easier to white women. Women of colour tackle racism, colourism, the pressures of stereotypes from their external societies, with expectations to defy those prejudices from internal societies. They are always dictated by the wants of others, but their struggle is silenced. How much growth is their progress really seeing? 97 years ago it was no voting, now it’s another revolution women of colour don’t get to partake in.
While there are movies attempting to incorporate more women of colour, seeing white women in the leading roles, as the bearers of success and triumph in film, is still the norm.
The significance of representation is the role it plays as the people’s voice. When you’re not being represented, you lack a voice. As the media adorns itself with girl power movies starring white women, the struggles women of colour face in order to be understood continue to advance. When only a select group of women are being presented positively in the media and marketed as a revolutionary form of film, it is dehumanizing to women of colour who are marginalized within the ignorance of their existence and their struggles. It is akin to a history where women of colour, with the same vision of equality as every other woman, fought in the back and on the sidelines. In TV shows and movies, women of colour are the characters in the background. They are not the strong, empowering ones; the ones you see on the poster of the newest girl power movie. They are a reminder of the little progress the world has made to view marginalized women as humans worth being represented and understood.