It's so pervasive that political opponents of first lady Michelle Obama used it as a shorthand for why voters shouldn't trust her. It's a taunt that's been used in recent months against women from Rep. Maxine Waters to Serena Williams to ESPN's Jemele Hill. The angry black woman. She is unreasonable, and that gives us permission to dismiss her statements and her concerns. Perhaps not surprisingly, the label is most often used to undercut the successful professional woman—a code for saying she succeeds by being aggressive and rude.
This trope, plus other negative imagery, shows up in both TV news programs and reality shows, such as VH1's "Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta" and Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Atlanta." The latter had an entire storyline that revolved around cast member Porsha Williams' "anger management."
A growing group of 15 (and counting) ad agency executives and educators has had enough.
The informal consortium, which includes women from Publicis Groupe, SapientRazorfish and Howard University, is overseeing an initiative to quantify the impact of such imagery on all Americans, raise awareness of the issue and recommend countermeasures. That includes asking marketers who support such shows to consider what their brand dollars help to disseminate.
"We're not asleep. We're very much aware and awake," says Sandra Sims-Williams, chief diversity officer, Publicis, who's part of the group. "And other women need to wake up."
The survey, coordinated by the American Advertising Federation's Mosaic Center for Multiculturalism and the historic black sorority Zeta Phi Beta, should help. Being released this week at the 47th annual Legislative Conference of the Congressional Black Caucus and at Advertising Week, it has two sections: The first was sent to 500 (in total) African-American and Caucasian women ages 18 to 24, and a follow-up was sent to a broader sample of 500 women of all races. Some of the more startling statistics from the former: When asked how best to describe how African-American women were portrayed in the media, the adjectives most cited were "argumentative" (60 percent), "lazy" (46 percent) and "corrupt" (45 percent).
"Only 12 percent of African-American and Caucasian women believe there are positive images of African-American women in the media," says Mary Breaux Wright, international president, Zeta Phi Beta. "Something has to be done."
Just as disturbing, some seemed to find some of the imagery aspirational. "Our findings were alarming," says Wright. "Our girls were being enticed by these harmful images of African-American women, some seeing reality TV and 'social media celebrity' as their chance for success over their education."
Discussions about the topic first began at the Mosaic Center's council after the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that followed.
"When the Ferguson riots broke out, a lot of the images being shown repeatedly on the news were really shocking," says Kendra King, VP of marketing and consumer strategy at SapientRazorfish, who at the time was chair of the Mosaic Council. "[The images] being rebroadcast and repurposed were the riots, even though there were peaceful protests happening too. And we were afraid ... viewers would think, 'Maybe these people deserve this if they are acting this way.' ... We wanted to start a dialogue. We thought, 'How can we use our talents we've earned in the marketing, advertising and entertainment world to do that?' "
The group grew, and began its work in earnest in 2015 with TV reality show "watch parties" on college campuses, and in the offices of ad agencies in 10 cities, including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Philadelphia. They were co-hosted by the AAF and Zeta Phi Beta, and more than 400 people attended, including educators, college students and advertising and entertainment executives.
One reason the watch parties were so important, the group says, is that African-Americans watch many more hours of TV than other demographic groups. According to Nielsen, African-American TV viewers watch roughly 57 hours more than white viewers, an average of 213 hours per month. African-American women watch 14 more hours of TV a week than any other ethnic group, and they are 59 percent more likely to watch reality TV programming.
At these events, seven clips from shows were shown and then discussions followed, including on how race and power were central to story arcs, and what negative feelings surfaced in viewers as they watched.
"We wanted to find out what people were thinking," says Rochelle Ford, professor and chair, public relations, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, another member of the coalition. Viewers "can be led to think that what is on reality TV is how people really behave."
In February 2016, the watch parties led to a white paper, "Reality TV: Entertaining … but No Laughing Matter." It noted that as of 2016, most Americans were living "strikingly separate racial lives." And it found that "for an astonishing number of people, their only exposure to people of color is through their television or computer screen."
(An average white American's social circle is typically 91 percent Caucasian, according to U.S. Census data and research from the Public Religion Research Institute.)
The behavior of reality TV cast members characterized by aggressiveness, excessive materialism and hypersexuality, it also found, influences the way African-American women are viewed both in the workplace and in social situations. And because of the ubiquity of these shows, reality TV cast members often become role models for African-American teens and young adults as they absorb attitudes toward money, sex and possessions, and adopt similar speech patterns and fashion choices, the paper notes.
The paper also examined how frequently these shows use African-American stereotypes. These personas, culled from outside academic research, include the "hood rat," the "Bible thumper" and the "angry black woman."
"Producers, you know what? Get real. Middle-class black families exist," says Publicis Groupe's Williams. "I don't know if enough white people know that there is a black middle class." Williams points to ABC's "Blackish" as "a good thing because it's a program that's a real reflection of black middle-class life and the issues facing them."
Cottage cheese vs. ice cream
Many watch-party participants admitted the shows were spectacles, but also entertaining and a guilty pleasure.
"It's like having no-fat, no-fruit yogurt or cottage cheese when you want ice cream. It's not what you want when you want to be entertained," says Syracuse's Ford. "If we boycott it, they'll stop making it, but as an educated person, I can look and say, 'But it's funny; it's entertaining.' I recognize that's part of the problem."
Lena Waithe, screenwriter for Netflix's "Master of None" and producer of the upcoming Showtime series "The Chi," notes that those negative tropes are often employed because they draw in audiences.
"It's not just some sort of evil plan by the people in charge," she says. "We sometimes feed into it. Some of these shows are run by African-American producers. The majority of the audience for these shows are African American, and they're entertained by it. ... As long as there's a market for it, people are going to want to be in that market and play up those stereotypes."
Therein lies the rub, the paper notes: High ratings signal to network executives that there's no problem with the content, and high ratings lead to advertising dollars rewarding that content.
"From a marketing standpoint, it's not just the message we have to get right, it's also about the medium and where we're showing our support with our dollars," says King.
Erik Logan, president of OWN, says its executives are very sensitive to avoiding one-dimensional or stereotypical characters. "We have a very clear mission, and it's one that our programming team and our acquisition team are locked in with," he says. Network practice, he adds, with all storytellers—from Will Packer, producer of "Girls Trip" and head of a new production venture with OWN, to Ava DuVernay, producer of "Queen Sugar," to Mara Brock Akil, showrunner on "Love Is"—is to educate them on who OWN's audience is, and what the stories can do to reflect experiences meaningful to it.
"I'm always striving for authenticity," says DuVernay, director, screenwriter, documentarian and founder of Array, a grassroots collective dedicated to promoting films by women and people of color. "The visibility and representation are so scarce that there is a real necessity for authenticity, that you feel these characters are multidimensional, full-bodied people. So often the representation of people of color is very one-dimensional."
Next, the group fielded the survey, "From Bad Girls to Housewives: Portrayals of African-American Women in Media," to see if the watch-party observations were shared by a more representative sample. In addition to the stats mentioned earlier, the section that surveyed African-American and Caucasion women shows that when it comes to which media best portray African-American women's lives, unscripted TV/reality ranks the lowest, at 18 percent; movies/films rank the highest at 35 percent; social media comes in at 27 percent and advertisements/commercials 22 percent.
Unscripted/reality TV was associated with the most negative perceptions. Of the survey's respondents, 45 percent say that black women are portrayed as "argumentative" in unscripted/reality TV programs; 37 percent say they're shown as "lazy"; 34 percent "fake"; and 32 percent "corrupt." Additionally, African-American women are 56 percent more likely than Caucasian women to believe these portrayals are unfairly negative.
Circle of influence
The third peg of the group's initiative consists of countermeasures to help broaden the types of characters seen on TV, and to make sure those images, both positive and negative, are understood in context. To further that goal, a roundtable is being organized on the West Coast to raise awareness among those who create programming.
"The images people see on TV or in [other media] have a tremendous editorial power," says Renetta McCann, chief talent officer at Leo Burnett, and another member of the group. "They frame one's perception of that event or a type of person."
The group has begun to advocate for media literacy education, as well as to push to revive a 2010 House of Representatives bill, Support the Healthy Media for Youth Act, which would provide grants for media literacy programs.
"Media literacy will help people to better see the realism of these characters in shows, in ads and reported by the news," says AAF COO Connie Frazier, who has been with the group since the start. "We also want to have more conversations with people in decision-making positions so it becomes part of their thought process."
"We want to work our circle of influence to reach those in media production and the other pool of people who have the ability to write scripts, to green-light something, so we can get a whole lot of other images out there to counteract the negative ones and create balance," adds Syracuse's Ford.
Thanks to the proliferation of platforms and distribution channels, more people of color have found outlets for their own stories, and the more stories that are out there, the better the balance becomes.
"What we see happening in the digital space is very exciting. Creators of color who may not have had an opportunity to get into writers' rooms have created their own lane and blown up," says Dana Gills, Lionsgate creative director, motion picture group, who's affiliated with the consortium. "Where you come from influences the types of stories we tell. Authenticity travels across color and across economic lines."
Gills points to "Insecure" star Issa Rae, who came to prominence with her YouTube series "Awkward Black Girl." "She found her own path and authenticity of voice, and that went well beyond her social circle," says Gills. "I'm a firm believer that authenticity is what allows these stories to go broad and to appeal to a wide audience."
But change takes time, and the women backing this initiative are also ready to commit to its progress long-term.
"It takes a village to ensure that the depictions of a community are realistic and reflect true experiences," says E.T. Franklin, exec VP-managing director, Spark Foundry, a watch-party host. "On the ad and marketing side, it takes a village to watch how dollars are spent and how allocations are made and what recommendations filter up to clients. It takes cooperation on the media side from folks who are producing and green-lighting shows and writing and developing storylines and character arcs. And it also takes the audience to be responsive in a measurable and vocal way as to what is working and what is wanted. It will take all sides."