Where Are All the Leading Ladies of Color?

5037749871_19415c7537_zA few years ago, my date and I sat in a movie theater in Malibu, watching the opening of Couples Retreat. When the first black woman actor came on the screen, my date smacked his teeth in disgust. The woman was loud, obnoxious and senseless. Within the first 5 minutes of seeing her on the screen, the only other black couple in the theater walked out.

They were lucky: Had they stayed longer, they would’ve seen the other black woman in the movie, who was louder, violent and even more irrational, knocking other women out of her way while she searched for her cheating husband.

Although not all black characters in film behave as badly, women actors of color are often pigeon-holed into playing the same typecast roles again and again. That’s why “Typecast,” the parody of Lorde’s song “Royals” by actors Tess Paras, Haneefa Wood and Ayana Hampton, is so brilliant. They display how, for women actors of color, the road to stardom means playing race-based, cookie-cutter characters, with the lead roles often remaining just out of reach.

Actors who look like the ones in the video are often subjected to typecast roles: Sassy black girl, geeky Asian, fiery Latina. Actors of other races and ethnicities may not even be considered for certain women’s parts.

When placed in a historical context, typecasting becomes even more problematic. In the parody, as Hampton sings, “Any maid could look like us,” I was taken back to the historical mammy figure. While we’ve come a long way from Hattie McDaniel’s role in Gone with the Wind, the pool has only expanded wide enough to include other stereotypes and subordinate roles, with a few exceptions here and there.

Typecasting women of color into supporting roles—such as the main character’s best friend, secretary or nanny—reinforces the idea that people of color are only supporters or “extras” in America, while white people are the central figures. Women actors of color don’t have their own story outside of helping the main character—not unlike the historical mammy, who usually has no life outside of serving her bosses. Such roles are seen in movies like Sex and the City, with Jennifer Hudson playing Sarah Jessica Parker’s personal assistant, and in the new comedy The Other Woman, with Nicki Minaj playing Cameron Diaz’ legal assistant.

And roles playing off of stereotypes project sexist and racist ideas. When consistently typecasting women of color, the film industry renders unlikely the possibility for these women to exist outside of their stereotypes. While typecasts such as the fiery Latina, nerdy Asian and sassy black girl are usually written for comedic effect, they reduce human beings to single-dimensional devices that garner a few laughs at the woman’s expense.

Moving away from these stereotypes and adding some color to leading roles can be good for audiences. After backlash from fans of the movies Hunger Games, Catching Fire and the forthcoming Annie and Fantastic 4, in which black actors were cast for traditionally (or what people believed to be traditionally) white roles, maybe audiences could use a little help expanding their imagination. It seems that when actors of color are cast in central, not typecast roles, commenters masking themselves as “fictional purists” storm Twitter with remarks about how their favorite character’s skin should be white. Yet the more we see actors of color playing central figures, the more we can shed the stereotypes and break down barriers for women in the industry.

While we’re moving in the right direction on TV with shows such as Scandal and The Mindy Project (though they also has have their flaws) and movies like the remake of Annie, we still have a ways to go before we see more accurate and equal representation.

Photo of Scandal star Kerry Washington by Flickr user David Shankbone under license from Creative Commons 2.0

Crossposted from A Womyn’s Worth

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Shae Collins is the creator of A Womyn’s Worth, a social commentary blog that addresses interests of black women. Follow her on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Meredith McLaughlin says:

    I agree about the typecasting. While I really like Scandal, my biggest beef with the show is that Olivia Pope is an amazing, powerful, capable woman…until it comes to men-then she’s a sheep with no self-control whatsoever.

    That is a stereotype about women in general, though…how a woman must always be, in some way, subservient to men. She may be powerful and, in the political arena he may need her but, in the end, he DOES control her through sex and power.

    Do you see this typecasting as strongly with MEN of color? My thought is no, which, IMO, is related to the movement over the last several years to strip women of our rights to make decisions regarding our bodies and political candidates openly advocating a return to the days when women had no rights separate from those of their husbands… there is certainly racism as well, but it seems to be much more successful when coupled with sexism.

  2. So even though you talk about the “fiery Latina” stereotype (so you obviously consider Latina/Hispanic women to be “WOC”) and slam movies for not containing decent/leading roles for women of color, you don’t count Cameron Diaz, whose father is Cuban and has a leading role in the movie you just discussed?

    I actually completely agree with you that this is a huge problem, but you could have picked a better movie than “The Other Woman” (which is horrific enough in plenty of other ways) to illustrate your point.

  3. I think the biggest mistake/waste of talent was Hollywood’s treatment of Angela Bassett. Here ia a phenomenally talented and beautiful woman of color, who hardly received any leading roles. Now that some roles are opening up for women of color, she is considered too old, another Hollywood problem. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I beg to differ about Jennifer Hudson’s role in SATC. She played an assistant because she was young and just out of school – not because she was black. She also was kind and warm and central to teaching Carrie to look at things through new eyes.

    That being said – if women of color would refuse to take roles that stereotype them, people wouldn’t see them that way.

  5. Women in general will also not be treated like human beings as long as everyone/mostly everyone keeps refering them as B-Words & all those other “female specific” insults.

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