For Colored Girls … Is Representation Enuf?

The Tyler Perry film version of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls opens this coming week. What better moment to consider the representation of black women in popular U.S. culture. Forgive us if we cringe in anticipation …

I was talking to my homegirl the other day about why she hadn’t yet seen the movie Precious: Based on the Novel Push, by Sapphire. I joked that she should stop being scared and go ahead and “Netflix it,” knowing full well that she had refused to see it when it was in theaters based purely on how anxious and depressed she became whenever she saw a trailer for it. Precious is the story of an illiterate, desperately poor and morbidly obese young black woman (Gabourey Sidibe) who is molested by her welfare-hustling mother (Mo’nique) and has given birth to two children by her rapist father. By the film’s conclusion, “transformed” by her association with a teacher who encourages her to learn to read, she manages to crawl to what I would call the second circle of hell: a group home where she is able to have full custody of her two children (one with cerebral palsy). That’s it. She is allowed entry onto the next floor of a seemingly endless house of dejection and pathology.

In 2009, after former first lady Barbara Bush screened Precious at her home in Houston, she responded to the film in Newsweek as if it were a documentary on black life. She went on to tell NPR in an interview–speaking of using the film as impetus to revitalize her literacy project–“The movie is so strong and so honest.”

This is what the portrayal and resulting internalization of black women as “phobic objects” is meant to do: offer symbols meant to trigger fear and/or revulsion in the consciousness of a racist culture. We’re portrayed in ways that are less about our humanity and the nuance of our unique experience than about being the foils upon which the value of whiteness is solidified. The other purpose of such portrayals is to create revulsion in the psyches of black women, so that we learn to mistrust and even hate the images of ourselves, both “real” and imagined.

In The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult, Alice Walker’s memoir about the making of her novel, The Color Purple into a film, she observed,

I belong to a people, heart and soul, who do not trust mirrors. Not those, in any case, in which we ourselves appear. …Our shame is deep.

The shame that Walker identifies, so intermingled with rage and profound pain, is akin to the “trauma of representation” spoken of in On Black Men by cultural critic David Marriott. This trauma occurs when black people internalize the racist fantasies the dominant culture creates and disseminates about us in photography and film.

What happens when black women are not allowed the opportunity to control the myriad cultural images that speak so intimately about us? When there isn’t any space for us to “dream ourselves differently” from a cultural narrative rooted in a history of slavery, racism and male domination?

It doesn’t make representations of black women any less abominable when they are brought to the screen by black people. Precious was directed by Lee Daniels and produced by media moguls Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. Both Daniels and Perry have been accused of creating demeaning and stereotypical depictions of black women, a charge that suggests the internalization of phobic representations is a phenomenon that knows no gender or racial boundaries. As the proverb goes, when the ax came into the forest the trees said, “the handle is one of us.”

Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls is a fitting catalyst to address these concerns. Often regarded as one of the most important works of fiction by a black woman, Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf is a story that speaks to the lived emotional experiences of African-American women. The total control of its production by the inimitable Perry will perhaps be another example of our ability or inability to image ourselves. Whether he gets the presentation of this story wrong or right, we must still be adamant in our questioning of who in this culture is allowed, through access and privilege, to tell the stories and control the representations of black women.


  1. Janell Hobson says:

    Thank you for this! Your friend's reactions to movies like Precious and the upcoming For Colored Girls mirrors the actions of so many sister friends of mine who feel the same trepidation.

    I know, for me, I treat these movie "events" (like Precious and the upcoming For Colored Girls) as a moment to "witness" what the handle on the ax will do to the forest. We need to be able to mount a counter-narrative.

  2. I'm already disturbed by the promotional images for the film. The actresses look so pitiful. I saw the play onstage in Los Angeles a few months ago and their cast of characters were triumphant survivor sisters, not the single downtrodden faces on all the bus stops in my neighborhood. I haven't seen the film, but the representation is looking typically negative to me.

  3. An articulate and thought-provoking article. There's something so sad about the fact that while most representations of black women in popular media are blatantly distorted, those representations that allegedly reveal more of the actual truth about black female humanity are still subject to the distortion-creating lens of internalized oppression of black producers and directors working in a still-white-dominated media industry. Thank you, Christa for pointing this out.

    I also agree with the poster above that the production and dissemination of counter-narratives is critical. Campaigns to promote them can be launched in conjunction with the movie release if necessary, taking advantage of their hype machine to bring points of difference to the surface.

  4. you are genius! YES, we must control our own stories or the fables others create will become the tent under which we are all forced to live.

  5. Great comment. I completely agree.

  6. I watched Precious and I will definitely go out and see For colred girls. What ppl especially non- African -Americans need to understand is these stories Don't belong to just US. Many women from many cultures live similar lives as Precious and the women depicted in For colred girls. There are many reasons why I will see it and one of them is to support the ppl and the films I believe in. There is some negativity coming from everywhere and to be honest. Our country has bigger battles to fight and we need to support our own. If you don't like these films don't see them but why hate on someone who is simply telling a story . Stop aiming at the messenger and be part of the solution.

  7. Having not only seen previous Tyler Perry films and a stage production, I understand the lense that Perry operates from includes a very conservative typography of how the black family and black women should behave. Violence against women deemed as deserving of punishment and a Christian ideology that does not prescribe empowerment of women through faith, but a puritanical "waiting on the Lord" (and a new man) as a means to redemption. Perry has already proven that his comfort level and power over images produced of black women, will continue to keep us marking time with out-dated Victorian sensibilities. Yes Sistah Bell, we are "cringing with anticipation":regardless of the misrepresentation we have already endured, we still want to be seen, hence the anticipation.

    One of the last comments about your blog post stated that the problem, is with us, not being satisfied with anything…I believe we will be satisfied when we are honored for who we are fully in the media and press. We will be satisfied when outdated modes of patriarchal control of who we should be, are "bashed against misters head" so we can think about our heaven (lives) now. And I believe we will be satisfied when Colored Girls have the power to not only challenge, but also control how we are represented. Shange wrote in her original choreopoem that through our trials and struggles, we have the ability to "find god in ourselves". Thank you for lending your voice, and leading the way on how to love us fiercely.

  8. I just I'm unique cuz I like to be entertained not lectured at the movies. Black folks are no more screwed up than anyone else and no I am not "ashamed" I just don't need to bleed for the world's entertainment.

  9. i saw the movie yesterday. i was apprehensive about going to see the movie because of the critiques by black women regarding Perry directing the film and their feelings about the film because they obviously had previewed it. Thankfully, Perry did a respectable job of putting a sacred peice of literature/performance to film. I am a black female feminist. I hold dear the work of so many Black women and thus worry when "outsiders" attempt to interpret "my stuff." It appears to me that this film is not Tyler's interpretation. He allowed the words and energy of the female characters of For Colored Girls speak their own truth. I believe he did not get in the way. He respected the phenomenal writer Ntozake Shange.

  10. Sometimes I worry that others inside and outside of the circle will not get the whole story. I worry to the point of keeping the story to myself or sharing with only those who I think will understand. I like many of you hate the limited portrayls of Black women, but I have to let go at some point so that I might breathe. I also know that who I am and who we are is not what they say. (They includes us.)
    This Bridge Called My Back lives on. I see Black women still serving as a vehicle for women to bear witness to their pain and suffering.(problematic) I also see Black women being a conduit for women to fight oppression, depression, repression, suppresssion, fear and doubt in order to live victouriously.We will get there. Be not afraid.

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