Black Bodies Matter: Our Flawed Portrayal of Black Sexuality in Film

There's a lot to be said this month about progress. Progress in movies, literature, TV, representation anywhere in the media. Some of this stuff doesn't get talked about too complexly because for me personally, I think people have a long way to come in understanding the complexities of these issues. So when I write an article about a movie, or a list or an essay, I am using my voice as a platform to represent my ideas and opinions. As political as I try not to be, I also believe I have incredible amounts of privilege and with this privilege, I have the opportunity to use my voice as a white male to express issues that I want to explore that don't necessarily directly effect me. With my previous article Black Films Matter , I wanted to direct my scope of followers and immediate audiences to titles that aren't just important to watch this Black History Month, but also any time of the year. Independent films deserve all the spot-light they can get and some of these films don't get the same opportunities that others do upon release. I believe truly that this month is specifically important for perspective on how times have changed for the better; how film and entertainment medias portray and explore black characters and settings into increasingly more positive ways. But its impossible to deny the issues still existent in media today, specifically the racial stereotypes that are sometimes even subconsciously prevalent in black men on the big screen. And as a writer for Purely Kino, I will do my best to use my voice as a platform to discuss this issue and hopefully raise some awareness for a topic that doesn't directly effect everyone who reads this.

The issues that lie in black representation can be broken down in layman's terms quite easily when put under the scope of the 100+ years that they've existed. I won't break it down per trope but a great article to read on the subject is on by Nadra Kareem Nittle who starts it off by saying...

Black people may be scoring more substantial parts in film and television, but many continue to play roles that fuel stereotypes, such as thugs and maids. The prevalence of these parts reveals the importance of #OscarsSoWhite and how Black people continue to struggle for quality roles on both the small and big screens.... - Nadra Kareem Nittle

This article explores five continuously common stereotypes for black men and women in films and I highly recommend it. You can read it here.

The issues go beyond the characters that are relied upon in large productions of TV or Film. One of the issues comes into something that I recently learned as a term which is "oppositional gaze". I'll go into breaking this down in a minute, but lets start with understanding to what something is very commonly referred to: the male gaze. The male gaze is as old as institutionalized racism is in Hollywood, and refers to the sexualization that comes from the voyeuristic examination of women and their bodies in films. This is a tricky subject too, because some of these films actually pass the Bechdel test but still manage to suffer from the use of sex appeal when showing off their female characters. That being said, a female-centric film or one that can be appreciated for it's "wokeness" regarding feminism and gender roles in films can still trip up when it comes to presenting these characters.

Here's an example. The James Bond movies that have existed since the 60's introduced our martini shakin' machismo lead with multiple male actors over the years, each of them attractive and with a good amount of sex appeal. That being said, these films succeed with male audiences almost exclusively over time because of the "bond girl" usage. Bond's "women", even though he oft shows no interest in pursuing them sexually, throw themselves on him. Worst yet they're often bared down and sexualized upon introduction. Now I'm no prude, but a character's introduction says a lot about their purpose in the film and seeing women introduced in bikinis or half-naked.... yeah. Need I say more. On the subject of progress, I avert your "gaze" to the below photo.

Casino Royale (2006)

Why did it take until 2006 to flip the imagery and show a half-naked James Bond emerging from the water on a sun-kissed beach?! Kudos to Casino Royale. (It's really good too, check it out.)

And that's just the start of it. The term I'm returning to is oppositional gaze, accredited to Black feminist Gloria Jean Watkins (Bell Hooks), which is an even more complex and rooted issue in Hollywood that....

"was first developed as a critique of film theory by bell hooks in her essay "The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators". hooks describes the gaze of a black body as repressed, denied, and ultimately interrogating. Through critical discussion around black women and cinema, the oppositional gaze enters as a way for black people to attain agency to combat white supremacy. As a result... (it portrays) racist portrayals of black people in white-dominated cinema."

Let's take a movie like Mean Girls which, who doesn't love that movie? The film came out at a peak break-out for the female leads Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan and was spear-headed with comic support from Tina Fey and other SNL luminaries. It's funny, it's quotable, it... has a few issues. This is something Linda Barreraa explores in a really solid piece I'll quote and leave the link for below:

"The problem with this dominant representation is that it portrays the white woman as more desirable than other races. This film also focuses a lot on race and separates groups based on their race and general personality. For example, the cafeteria is divided into groups like “cool Asians”, “nerdy Asians”, “unfriendly black hotties”, etc. They most often associate being popular with being wealthy and white." - Linda Barreraa

And here's the article.

When we were younger, we probably didn't think about the underlying tones here, and among most of the rest of the edgy humor, the film probably doesn't fully grasp it either. There's a lot of these character tropes in high-school with black teenagers and either toughness, or trouble. There's also tropes with young black women being boisterous or brash in their attitudes, playing sassy friends but rarely leading the narrative. This isn't to say that all movies suffer this, but it is an example of how easy it is to slide by with a trope without thinking how much it still hurts POC.

We put black women into non-starring roles, or characterizations that don't explore sexuality or appeal other then for humor or stereotype. To go back to the Bond argument, Halle Berry is one of two examples of "Bond girls" who are sexualized and given sex appeal in a sea of mostly white women. In fact it isn't until the upcoming Bond movie seems like it will be the first to have two Black women in meaningful speaking roles." Considering the amount of films in this franchise that have only scraped the surface of inclusivity is depressing. We need to do better. It's not necessarily appropriate to present female characters under an all encompassing light of screen allure, but it's a noticeable white trend.

Worse yet is the need to encapsulate the idea of black men in fiction as problematic but also the way they're held to a stereotype sexually. The bodies of black men in films, much like black women are shown off occasionally for muscular shots, but much less commonly. Even Marvel in its complex and admirable growing diversity in its films, usually avoids any sort of casual body admiration of people of color (with the exception of the excellent Black Panther). And with the movie Black Panther we shouldn't have to wait for black directors to produce films that allow us to appreciate the strength and beauty of black men without weaponizing it into making them criminal characters in stereotypical roles. Part of this also comes down to the audience expectations of our character tropes in film, and how there is comfort in routine.

Here's a line from an article from The Opportunity Agenda which states:

In some cases, scholars assert that viewer preferences drive the distorted portrayals of black males in the media. Most directly, white audiences, according to one perspective, tend only to be comfortable with a certain range of presentations of black males — i.e., presentations that confirm their own fears and prejudices or reassure them that black males are not achieving “undue” power and status.

Another excellent article, read ahead.

It's in movies like Moonlight, which is truly one of my favorite films, that we see beauty in the reversion of audience expectations for the black characters. We see the natural body of multiple men in this feature, as it addresses masculinity with its gay narrative. We don't have a violent troubled lead because of what is expected and the organic portrayal of our protagonist is a sobering cinema experience.

Like I said before, we shouldn't have to wait. With this month of awareness I ask and stress the importance of exploring these issues, consciously. It is within each of our understanding of our own privileges' that we can grow and request, as audiences, a better portrayal of black beauty in film.

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