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




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