The Historically Black College or University (HBCU) is one of the most important institutions in African-American history (Williams, Ashley, & Rhea, 2004). For instance, they allow African-American students the opportunity to develop a sense of community responsibility while learning about their own culture. In addition, they provide a nurturing environment for students of various ages and races/ethnicities to further develop their sense of self. For African-Americans who have not experienced life in a HBCU, the media are one avenue for acquiring information about this institution. Researchers state that the media can provide audiences with knowledge on unfamiliar issues in general (Brown, 1980; Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, Signorielli, & Shanahan, 2002). Both scholars and viewers argued that the show utilized common stereotypes of African Americans to construct the narrative of the series (e.g., Dix, Gibbs, & Bannister, 2004; Leger, 2007; Native Son, 2007). Further, Parrott-Sheffer's (2008) textual analysis critiqued the show for presenting unrealistic and contrived narratives. He also implied the show relies heavily on gendered stereotypes of African Americans.
There has yet to be an analysis that produces quantitative data which allows for in-depth exploration of African-American stereotypes presented by a program that focuses particularly on HBCUs. Therefore, this study utilizes content analysis to thoroughly examine the gendered nature of traits and appearances of the cast members on College Hill (CH), as informed by literature regarding African-American stereotypes. This study is important because it can provide empirical evidence to support or negate critiques of the program, many of which centered on the portrayals of the African-American cast members.
RTV and African-American Stereotyping
Within the past decade, reality television (RTV) has recently become the most popular form of entertainment on the medium (Orbe, 2008). For example, the Nielsen Ratings for the week of November 26, 2012, revealed that the results show of ABC's reality show Dancing with the Stars received more viewers than some scripted series, such CBS' The Big Bang Theory and its network mate NCIS: Los Angeles (Nielsen, 2012). Because RTV is often valued very little in comparison to fictional narratives (Geiser-Gertz, 1995) and other TV programs, Pozner (2010) kindly refers to the genre as "guilty pleasure TV,"; Dehnart calls it "bastardized" (n.d., para. 1) television.
Despite the desire of many to ignore RTV, Orbe (2008) points out that RTV often includes several minority cast members. Whereas selecting diverse cast members helps to increase the drama in these reality situations (e.g., The Real World; Bell-Jordan, 2008), they also allow people of color to participate in the construction of their own identities. However, just how much agency these cast members have in creating their identities is debatable, especially because RTV, like other genres, relies on racial stereotypes to help audiences understand events and cast members' motivations. Orbe (1998) suggests that RTV actually helps to reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them (Orbe, 1998; Orbe & Hopson, 2002).
BET and African-American "Reality "
BET: For Blacks or for entertainment? According to the corporate factsheet found on the public relations website for the BET Networks (n.d.), "BET Networks, a division of Viacom Inc.... reaches more than 89 million ... households ... and can be seen in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean" (para. 1). Robert Johnson sold BET to Viacom, Incorporated for $3 billion in 2000. It has become one of media's hottest commodities because of Johnson's unwavering focus on profits, in spite of what other members of the African-American community might have had in mind for the network. The fact that often "raunchy" (Pulley, p. 122) programming such as video shows and stand-up comedy shows carried low production costs but attracted a large number of viewers influenced Johnson's decision to maintain--and increase--BET's focus on entertainment over the years. As Johnson allegedly once stated, "The E in BET does not stand for emancipation. And it does not stand for enlightenment. It stands for entertainment" (Pulley, p. 181).
In spite of BET's continued emphasis on entertaining content, members of the African-American community seemed to focus more on the Black in the moniker of BET during its early years; this struggle still occurs. According to Pulley (2004), "No longer would the experiences of black people be filtered through a white lens ... Bob Johnson had given people more than a cable channel. He had given them a source of pride and hope" (p. 92). However, Johnson continued to respond to critiques of BET by insisting that the network was a business, and should not have the burden of social responsibility on its shoulders.
Its dependence on entertaining fare notwithstanding, BET does seem to have social activist concerns as well. According to BET Network's public relations' corporate fact sheet (n.d.), "BET Networks inspires its audiences to make a difference in their lives and communities with a broad and impactful pro-social agenda" (para. 2). In fact, BET has aired programs that have honored Black culture, such as Celebration of Gospel and The Hip Hop Awards. In addition, BET has undertaken community service initiatives that have concerned physical and emotional health, often focusing on HIV/AIDS education and prevention.
Ultimately, in spite of BET's informative and educational programming, its focus on entertainment that portrays African Americans in a negative light has drawn criticism from viewers, former employees such as Tavis Smiley and comedian D. L. Hughley, and from intellectuals such as cartoonist Aaron McGruder (creator of The Boondocks) and Professor of Sociology (at Georgetown University) Michael Eric Dyson. As Dyson argues, "That channel could give us more intellectual and social content...But all of that is largely absent. What we have left is the powerful image of black people as entertainers and purveyors of erotic delight" (Pulley, 2004, p. 221-222).
African-American portrayals and College Hill. BET first aired CH in January 2004. The majority of the cast members have been African American. The first four seasons of the show focused on students who attended HBCUs (Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Langston University in Oklahoma; Virginia State University in Petersberg; University of the Virgin Islands in St. Thomas). The fifth season displayed a new format, with interns in Chicago competing to work with Dr. Ian Smith of Celebrity Fit Club fame. Though the sixth season returned to an emphasis on college life, the series abandoned the HBCU focus. The seventh and final season ended in June 2009, and featured only two cast members (out of eight) who were matriculating at HBCUs. The program held the top ranking among Black households and for Blacks aged 18 to 34 during the 2007 calendar year (BET Networks PR website, n.d.).
Despite the show's popularity, many HBCU constituents and viewers argued that CH presented them negatively. For instance, some students at Southern University were dismayed that one of their fellow classmates embraced the nickname "No Drawers" and the sexually-explicit actions attached to it (Dix, Gibbs, & Bannister, 2004). Parrot-Sheffer's critique (2008) suggested that the show's stereotypical portrayals of African Americans fell along gendered lines: "The cast of season two...features its own set of trope characters including the flirt, the "bailer," the "rumpshaka," the cheerleader, the single mother, the pretty boy, the freak, and the good girl" (p. 211). With the exceptions of flirty and sexually adventurous traits, the characters Parrott-Sheffer described are definitely gendered. The research concerning African-American gender portrayals suggests negative and redundant portrayals of African Americans (e.g., Boylorn, 2008; Orbe, 1998). What is unclear is how CH, a RTV program that featured HBCUs and aired on BET, navigated the intersections of race and gender portrayed on the show.
Conceptualizing Gendered Stereotypes of African Americans
Several scholars have written about the gendered nature of African-American stereotypes (e.g., Bogle, 2001; Hill Collins, 2000; Hoberman, 1997; Pilgrim, n.d.; Stephens & Phillips, 2003). In addition, content analyses and historical perspectives have provided evidence of these stereotypes being (re)produced in television (e.g., Clark, 1969; Dominick & Greenberg, 1970; Gray, 2000; Greenberg & Brand, 1994; Greenberg, Mastro, & Brand, 2002; Mastro & Greenberg, 2000). The stereotypes conceptualized for this study represent an exhaustive list of stereotypical portrayals based on the author's readings. Furthermore, these stereotypes have elements that can be operationalized and that are likely to be seen during analysis of RTV. For African-American women, recurrent stereotypes include The Mammy, The Matriarch/The Sapphire, The Welfare Mother, The Black Lady, The Jezebel, and The Tragic Mulatto. As Harris-Perry (2011) explains, The Mammy, The Sapphire, and The Jezebel are recurrent stereotypes that continue to plague African-American women in the material world, contrasting sharply with the way they view themselves.
Also focusing on the negative stereotypes of African-American women, Stephens and Phillips (2003) argued that hip hop culture (re)produces familiar scripts, yet combines them in new ways. For example, this results in Divas (who are seductive like Jezebels, but possess sexual self-control and financial independence). These new scripts are not mutually exclusive and can change depending on the context. Unfortunately, hip hop culture is also embracing these racist images (Stephens & Phillips). These new stereotypes are as follows: The Diva, The Freak, The Dyke, The Gangster Bitch, The Sister Savior, The Earth Mother, and The Baby Mama. Pozner (2010) states that America's Next Top Model introduced "[s]tock characters such as 'the Black Bitch,' the 'Entitled Diva,' the 'Hootchie Mama,' the 'Ghetto Girl,' and the 'Mammy'" (p. 166); the current study explores how these stereotypes might be enacted in CH, a more recent RTV program.
While African-American women are arguably in a position subordinate to African-American men and Caucasians of either gender, African-American men are also in subordinated positions. Hill Collins (2005) stated African-American women and men are influenced by the current Black gender ideology, which "uses a framework of 'weak men, strong women' " (p. 20) to posit African-Americans are not inferior because of their biology, but because of their culture. Gendered stereotypes of African-American men, therefore, have as much cultural impact as those of African-American women. For African-American men, the recurrent stereotypes include The Brute/The Nat/The Criminal, The Coon, The Sambo, and The Tom.
Just as there are updated stereotypes of African-American women (Stephens & Phillips, 2003), contemporary stereotypical images of African-American men exist as well, such as The Athlete (Hill Collins; Hoberman, 1997). Regarding RTV, African-American men are often portrayed as "inarticulate coons" and as potential "dand[ies] whose ethnicit[es disqualify them] from upper-crust acceptance" (Pozner, 2010, p. 191). This study explores if these negative portrayals of African-American men also appear in CH.
RTV, like other forms of media, has historically (re) produced gendered stereotypes of African Americans. Throughout this document, I write "(re)presentation(s)" and "(re)produce" to refer to the cultural work our language performs. The media are not the primary sources of stereotypical images, but some of the major sources that continue to recreate and share these constructions. As discussed above, stereotypes of African Americans often focus on their sexuality (e.g., The Brute, The Jezebel) and physical prowess (e.g., The Brute/The Criminal/The Nat/The Buck, The Athlete). They might also be presented as aggressive (e.g., The Matriarch/ The Sapphire, The Brute/The Criminal/The Nat/The Buck), while others are described as docile (e.g., The Tom, The Sister Savior). Pozner (2010) emphasizes RTV stereotypical portrayals are just as dangerous as those presented in any other medium: "When the primary televised narratives about race and gender are Jezebels, Mammies, and Sapphires...our collective cultural understanding of who women of color 'are' ... becomes poisoned. Likewise when men of color appear mostly as buffoons, thugs, and criminals" (p. 194). This study explored if the traits of CH cast members differed by gender. Taking into consideration that African-American stereotypes reference a range of skin tones, hair textures, and facial features, the study also explored if the appearances of cast members differed according to gender.
Operationalizing Gendered Stereotypes of African Americans
To understand how CH portrays African Americans, and how these portrayals function as (representations of HBCUs, each stereotype was deconstructed into its essential traits and appearance descriptors. For instance, The Matriarch/The Sapphire is known for her loud and aggressive behavior--this translates into her likely making demands, weakening friendship bonds, and having traits such as arrogance and meanness. This process helped to develop these stereotypical concepts into observable behaviors that could actually be seen, and therefore, measured while watching the program. As these stereotypes have grown and evolved (e.g., Stephens & Phillips, 2003), they will not always appear in the same manner in the media. Therefore, the author did not expect to see these stereotypes performed exactly according to their particular scripts, but rather the fundamental traits and appearances associated with the stereotypes.
Coding: Units of analysis
The study analyzed Virginia State University (Season 3) of CH and University of the Virgin Islands (Season 4) for a total of 30 episodes; these were the only seasons available on DVD that focused exclusively on HBCUs. The coders analyzed CH on episode-, scene-, and cast member reference-level. They noted the number/name of the season and provided a brief description of the episode to code the programs on the episode level. Each show counted as an individual unit.
The scene was the second level of analysis. The coders analyzed every scene in each episode, providing identification numbers and descriptions of each. Coders demonstrated an acceptable level of intercoder reliability regarding unitization. For Season 3 (Virginia State University), the percent agreement of scene selection was 91.3%. For Season 4 (University of the Virgin Islands), the percent agreement of scene selection between the two coders was 93.4%.
Cast member traits. For traits, the unit of analysis was the individual cast member reference in each scene. The coders indicated which traits each of the main cast members exhibited, and how these traits were performed in terms of categories with three levels, such as faithful, unfaithful, and not applicable. Not applicable is used to indicate the absence of evidence to code a particular trait. See Table 2 of Smith (2010) for average intercoder reliabilities of cast member traits. For each trait and scene-level appearance variable, the data were calculated by averaging the reliabilities for all 16 cast members.
Cast member appearances. For the appearance variables, the coders indicated which traits referred to how the cast members physically looked. The unit of analysis was the individual cast member reference. Some of these descriptors were coded on both the scene- and episode-level to differentiate between appearance variables that might change from scene to scene (e.g., one of the cast members may wear flashy accessories in one scene, and wear no accessories in a following scene) and those that are more constant.
Scene-level cast descriptors. The scene-level cast member descriptors are those that can change depending on the scene, such as dresses modestly (1), neutral (2), or dresses immodestly (3). The coders indicated how each cast member appears in each scene. In addition to measuring the clothing and posturing of the cast members, it was also appropriate to measure the facial expressions of cast members with the variable smiles/frowns. See Table 3 of Smith (2010) for average intercoder reliabilities of cast member appearances on the scene-level.
Episode-level cast descriptors. The episode-level cast member descriptors are the more steadfast or unchanging physical descriptors that are likely to remain constant for the particular episode, and very likely the entire season, unless there is a unique occurrence (e.g., one of the cast members is in an accident; one of the cast members receives plastic surgery), such as has dark skin (1), neutral (2), or has fair or light skin (3). All of the variables measured achieved perfect agreement (a=1.00) after four independent coding sessions, intermixed with three training meetings.
Season 3 of CH consisted of 141 scenes in 14 episodes; Season 4 consisted of 186 scenes in 16 episodes, equaling 327 scenes total. Both seasons consisted of four male and four female cast members. The research questions asked if male African-American cast members on CH were portrayed differently from female African-American cast members on the show with regard to traits and appearances.
Research Questions: Cast Member Traits and Appearances
For cast member traits and appearances on both the scene- and the episode-level, the unit of analysis was each reference to each individual cast member. To provide some context, for male cast members, n = 589 cast member references (in 327 scenes); for female cast members, n = 640 cast member references (in 327 scenes). Additionally, some variables were measured on the episode level for cast members. For male cast members, n = 118 cast member references (in 30 episodes), with two references being absent from the analysis as a result of a cast member being absent from two episodes; for female cast members, n = 116 cast member references (in 30 episodes), with four references being absent from the analysis as a result of a cast member being absent from four episodes.
Research question 1: Cast member traits. Two-way [chi square]-tests found that there was a statistically significant relationship between gender and emotional strength ([chi square](1, N = 138) = 10.48, p < .001, V = 0.28). More specifically, Marascuilo contrasts (Glass & Hopkins, 1996) found significantly more instances of men (78.4%) demonstrating emotional strength than women (50.6%), and women (49.4%) demonstrating emotional weakness than men (21.6%) at the p < .05 level. There was a statistically significant relationship between gender and humility ([chi square]2(1,N = 85) = 9.47, p < .01, V = 0.33). Marascuilo contrasts found that there were significantly more instances of women (79.2%) demonstrating arrogance than men (46.9%) at the p < .05 level. In addition, there was a statistically significant relationship between gender and submissiveness ([chi square](1, N = 129) = 20.69, p < .001, V = 0.40). Marascuilo contrasts found that there were significantly more instances of men (66.1%) being submissive than women (26.0%), and women (74%) being more domineering than men (33.9%) at the p < .05 level.
Also, there was a statistically significant relationship between gender and kindness ([chi square](1, N = 231) = 4.70, p < .01, V = 0.14). Marascuilo contrasts (Glass & Hopkins, 1996) found significantly more instances of men (80.0%) being nice than women (67.2%) at the p < .05 level. There was a statistically significant relationship between gender and how quiet or loud a cast member was portrayed ([chi square](1, N = 300) = 6.99, p < .01, V = 0.15). More specifically, Marascuilo contrasts found that there were significantly more instances of men (67.1%) demonstrating quietness than women (52.1%), and women (47.9%) being significantly louder than men (32.9%) at the p < .05 level. There was also a statistically significant relationship between gender and a cast member's mood ([chi square]2(1 N = 603) = 15.27, p < .001, V = 0.16). Marascuilo contrasts found that there were that there were significantly more instances of men (87.2%) demonstrating happiness than women (74.5%), and significantly more instances of women (25.5%) demonstrating anger than men (12.8%) at the p < .05 level.
Lastly, there was a statistically significant relationship between gender and a cast member's outlook ([chi square] (1, N =656) = 9.58, p < .01, V = 0.12). Marascuilo contrasts found significantly more instances of men (73.8%) demonstrating optimism than women (62.5%), and significantly more instances of women (37.5%) demonstrating pessimism than men (26.2%) at the p < .05 level. In summary, out of the 14 gender differences analyzed, seven showed significant gender differences. The findings concerning the traits variables suggest the African-American women are portrayed more negatively than the African-American men were.
Research question 2: Cast member appearances. Cast member appearance was measured ordinally on both the level of the scene and on the episode.
Scene-level. To provide some context for the scene-level appearance variables, the total number of cast member references was N = 1,229. For male cast members, n = 589; for female cast members, n = 640. The data were analyzed by determining the mean of the cast member references divided by the total number of cast member references; this procedure was completed for each appearance descriptor and both genders. For male cast members, there was one missing reference for sexy (1)/not sexy (3), wears flashy accessories (1)/ wears no accessories (3), and smiles (1)/frowns (3). For female cast members, there was one missing reference for dresses modestly/dresses immodestly.
Independent-samples t-tests with gender as the grouping variable found for the variable sexy (1)/not sexy (3), that men (M = 1.98, SD = 0.39) were portrayed significantly less sexy than women (M = 1.91, SD = 0.49), t (1194.74) = 2.91, p < .01, d = 0.16. In addition, for the variable well-groomed (1)/poorly groomed (3), there was a statistically significant difference in the way the cast members were portrayed. Specifically, women (M = 1.74, SD = 0.75) were coded as more well-groomed than men (M = 1.90, SD = 0.66), t (1221.86) = 4.10, p < .001, d= 0.23. Lastly, there was a statistically significant difference between the amount of jewelry and other adornments male and female cast members wore: For the variable wears flashy accessories (1)/ wears no accessories (3), male cast members (M = 2.24, SD = 0.80) were portrayed as wearing fewer accessories than women were (M = 1.95, SD = 0.76), t (1196.44) = 6.46, p < .001, d= 0.37. Taken all together, these findings suggest the show portrayed the female cast members as more concerned with their appearances than the men were.
Episode-level. To provide context for the episode-level appearance measures on the ordinal level (e.g., has long hair (1), neutral (2), has short hair (3)), the total number of cast member references was N = 234. The total number of cast member references for men was n = 118. For male cast members, there were two missing references because a cast member was missing in two episodes. The total number of cast member references for women was n = 116.
Independent-samples t-tests with gender as the grouping variable found that there was a significant difference in the skin color and the hair length of the cast members. Specifically, men (M = 1.81, SD = 0.81) were coded as having darker skin than female cast members (M = 2.32, SD = 0.72), t (232) = -5.14, p < .001, d= 0.67. In addition, for the variable has long hair (1)/has short hair (3), male cast members (M = 2.31, SD = 0.88) were portrayed as having hair shorter than their female counterparts (M = 1.67, SD = 0.56, t (197.6) = 6.65, p < .001, d= 0.78). These findings imply that the female cast members were portrayed as possessing significantly lighter skin than male cast members.
During this analysis, it was found that for the variable displays European facial norm (1), neutral (2), displays African facial norm (3), there were significant differences among the three facial norm categories. Therefore, the variable was analyzed using a two-way [chi square] analysis to determine if there was a significant difference in proportion among the three facial norm categories with regard to gender. It was found that there was not a significant difference between the proportions, [chi square] = (2, N = 234) = 4.02, p = .13, V = .13. Therefore, no further tests were computed. This finding suggests neither male nor female cast members were more likely than the other gender to present an African or European facial norm.
Overall, it was found that African-American women were portrayed more negatively than African-American men on CH. For example, out of the seven traits that reveal significant differences between men and women, it was found that men were portrayed significantly more positively than women, and women were portrayed as significantly more negatively than men. Further, with regard to the appearance variables, for the scene-level descriptors in particular, male cast members' skins were significantly darker than female cast members'.
Research Question I: Cast Member Traits
There were significant differences between the genders for the trait variables. Out of the seven traits that reveal significant differences between men and women, it was found that men were portrayed significantly more positively than women, and women were portrayed as significantly more negatively than men.
For an example of women being portrayed negatively and men being portrayed positively simultaneously, consider the heated verbal exchange between J.T. and Idesha regarding the Tramp block party during Season 4. After Virgin Island natives Chicky and Vanessa invite the California natives to attend the Tramp, Californian J.T. was caught in a double bind. He wanted to remain loyal to his fellow Californian cast members, but he also wanted to repair the rift between the California and the Virgin Island cast members. As a result of his indecisiveness, Idesha verbally attacked him. J.T. then attended the Tramp, insisting his decision had nothing to do with Idesha's brow-beating. In this example, one could certainly argue that neither cast member could be described favorably; however, J.T. ultimately yielded to Idesha's aggressiveness, and defused the fight. The pattern of women being significantly more negative than men also emerged regarding emotional strength, volume, mood, and outlook of the cast members. There was a slightly different pattern for the variables that examined humility and kindness: Though these two variables contained only one significant difference between the genders for a particular trait (as opposed to two), it still held that male cast members were portrayed significantly more positively than women. Ultimately, this pattern suggests that traits that have been used in the past to describe either gender are not mutually exclusive to just men or women. The pattern also points to an overall unflattering portrait of African-American women. Such portrayals might influence viewers who might watch the show and develop ideas or confirm thoughts that African-American women are unpleasant, at least in comparison to another demographic group. This finding is in agreement with previous research that has suggested the negative portrayals of African-American women in the media, including the RTV genre, are evidence of a trend (Springer, 2007). More content analyses of RTV programs and other TV shows from a range of genres would allow for better understanding of this occurrence.
On the other hand, African-American men were portrayed more positively than African-American women. Several scholars have discussed the stereotypes of African-American men which often make reference to their supposed laziness, hyper-sexual nature, and criminal pursuits (e.g., Bogle, 2001; Pilgrim, n.d.), and content analyses have found evidence of their negative portrayals on television (e.g., Atkin, 1992; Cummings, 1988; Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005). However, male cast members were portrayed significantly more positively than female cast members for seven traits. One such trait was niceness. For an example of men being nice to others, Season 4's Chicky provided Krystal with some tips to help calm her fears regarding her first day at the University of the Virgin Islands. He exchanged class schedules with her so they could meet up during the day. In this scene, Chicky went out of his way to be kind.
Recall from the literature review that Hill Collins (2005) argued that the media's portrayals of African Americans rest on a Black gender ideology which characterizes African-American men as too weak, while African-American women are constructed as too strong. In the case of CH, there were certainly instances in which African-American women were arguably portrayed as stronger than their male counterparts (e.g., female characters were found significantly more domineering than male characters; male characters were found significantly more submissive than female characters). However, male cast members demonstrated significantly more emotional strength than female cast members. These findings both bolster and counter Hill Collins (2005) argument, demonstrating the often polarizing nature of African-American portrayals when gender is taken into account. Also, Boylorn (2008) takes issue with the construction of The Strong Black woman and its (re)production through RTV. RTV, like other media contexts, often requires African-American women to perform their strength. This mandate prevents African-American women from not only displaying possibly more vulnerable selves, but also limits the (re) presentations of African-American women in the media.
In addition, recall from above BET founder Robert Johnson's insistence that the network's raison d'etre to entertain its viewers. Stephen Hill, BET Senior Vice President of Music Programming and Talent, and Tracey Edmonds, one of the show's executive producers, spoke optimistically about the entertaining nature of RTV program CH in particular (Rogers, 2004). However, Pozner (2010) finds fault with RTV producers and network executives who suggest RTV is only in jest: "No matter how hard [these executives] flee accountability, entertainment always exists in a larger cultural and commercial context" (p. 193). As Pozner further argues, the problem with the continuous use of these racial stereotypes is that they are recycled in a mediated world in which few portrayals of African Americans, positive or otherwise, exist. These damaging images can be used to justify racist practices on both individual and institutional levels (e.g., the myth of the sexually-loose African-American "breeder" has led to policies that punish welfare-dependent mothers; Harris-Perry, 2011).
Research Question 2: Cast Member Appearances
Scene-level. The study also revealed differences between men and women in their appearance. Previous research of African-American appearances has found that African-American women were well-dressed the majority of time they appeared on TV (Matabane & Merritt, 1996). A more recent study found that African-American women were significantly more appropriately dressed (i.e., wearing more modest, looser-fitting and less-revealing garments) than Latinas (Mastro & Behm-Morawitz, 2005). Both of these studies suggest a well-groomed African-American female. This finding is replicated by the current study. For the scene-level appearance variables, it was found that women were portrayed as significantly more sexy and well-groomed than men. They also wore significantly more flashy jewelry than men did. As Season 4's Krystal states, "I have to have my hair looking good, and my nails done, and a cute outfit." These findings imply it was a greater endeavor for female cast members than male cast members to display concern for one's outward appearance. By contrast, the male characters are generally silent concerning their outward appearance(s).
Episode-level. Literature profiling the portrayals of Africans Americans has described men and women of various skin tones and hair textures (e.g., Bogle, 2001, Hill Collins, 2005; Pilgrim, n.d.). On CH, it was found that for the episode-level descriptors, male cast members' skin was significantly darker than female cast members', and that women's hair was significantly longer than that of their male counterparts. The second finding is not surprising, when one considers that individuals often use differences in hair length to signal gender (Fagot, Rodgers, & Leinbach, 2000; Synnott, 1987). However, profiles of African-American men and women often refer to darker-skinned men (e.g., The Tom) and lighter-skinned women (e.g., The Tragic Mulatto; The Diva). CH's cast members substantiate these profiles. This gendered difference in skin tone suggests the producers might cast lighter-skinned African-American females because they are considered attractive. In general, it is more important for women to be considered physically attractive than it is for men. This attractiveness double standard might explain why it is more important for African-American females than males to have fairer skin. In the field of advertising, it has been found that women with light brown skin are considered more attractive than paler- or darker-skinned models (Frisby, 2006). As Frisby (2006) explains, the preference for models with Eurocentric features (including lighter complexions) is displayed in magazines targeted to both Caucasian (e.g., Cosmopolitan, Glamour) and African-American audiences (e.g., Ebony, Essence). It is possible the producers of CH utilized a similar selection process as they cast the show, choosing lighter-skinned African-American women to appeal to viewers.
Implications for Theory
This study found that African-American men were portrayed more positively than African-American women on CH. This leads one to inquire if this finding would be replicated beyond the context of this show. To do so, more content analyses of RTV and other genres featuring African-American characters are needed. It is important to note that African-American men were portrayed positively in comparison to African-American women. It is of interest if more positive portrayals of African-American men are independent of the portrayals of African-American women, or if it is achieved at their expense.
Because the method of this study was not appropriate for determining if the portrayals of African Americans on CH influence how people process stereotypes, implications for theory here are largely speculative. These portrayals could be considered positive or negative, and might influence stereotype development regarding African-Americans. An audience member may notice the negative portrayals of the African-American females on the show and believe these portrayals to be authentic or reject them as false.
As mentioned above, protest from CH's viewers and from students attending the institutions featured in the show suggests it triggered politics of respectability. As Higginbotham (1993) explains, this political message was developed to counter anti-black sentiment during the early 1900s. She states, "The Black Baptist women condemned what they perceived to be negative practices and attitudes among their own people. Their assimilationist leanings led to the insistence upon blacks' conformity to the dominant society's norms of manners and morals." Harris-Perry (2011) further explains that these practices included policing what was considered hyper-sexual behavior among African-American women by other African-American women. In the case of CH, it appears that some of the cast members' mannerisms elicited sentiments concerning their appropriateness as these portrayals were thrust into the RTV spotlight.
In addition, the negative responses from the show, which came primarily from African-American sources, imply that issues regarding stereotype threat might have been at play as well. Steele (1999) defines stereotype threat as "the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype" (para. 10). African-American CH viewers seemed aware that negative stereotypes were being presented in the show, and appeared fearful of the show "confirming" or causing them to "[be judged] by ... negative social stereotypes" (Steele & Aronson, 1995, p. 797). Similarly, the recent
preview of a new RTV show on MTV, Buckwild, prompted West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin's dismay about how his state was being portrayed; he wrote a letter to the network, asking it to remove Buckwild from the airwaves before the program debuted. "This show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia," Manchin stated (Moaba, 2012). This example illustrates that RTV can generate stereotype threat for anyone who owns membership in a social group, including West Virginians.
Steele (1999) explains that fear of stereotype threat can lead to disidentification, when people "[cease] to identify with the part of [their lives]" (para. 12) that poses a threat. In the case of CH, it is noteworthy that some of the cast members seemed aloof or carefree when questioned about their unflattering portrayals (e.g., Kinda "No Drawers" Andrews of Southern University; Dix, Gibbs, & Bannister, 2004). On the other hand, stereotype threat can result in African-American men and women developing John Henryism/The Strong Black Woman complexes, and Harris-Perry (2011) clearly states what is at stake here:
Trying to meet the challenges of life the way John Henry met the challenge of the steam drill has very real health consequences [James, Strogatz, Wing, & Ramsey; 1987]. The strong black woman image has similar consequences for black women who must fulfill a mandate for self-reliance while having few personal, social, and economic resources available to them (p. 187).
Referring to Boylorn's (2008) argument discussed previously, enacting The Strong Black Woman in one's life or projecting this image in RTV limits the range of portrayals for African-American women. Considering the material world, it is possible that some of the students who attended the universities featured in this program, or other HBCUs, felt pressure to overcome CH's portrayals. Reception studies featuring HBCU attendees/alumni familiar with CH would be useful to discover this information.
Tensions surrounding the limiting nature of African-American portrayals also recall the issue of agency discussed above. Though RTV might offer the possibility for those featured to construct their own identities, editing techniques and producers' decisions often override these potentialities. This makes one question, as some upset CH viewers did, why African Americans would participate in RTV, a genre that recycles racial stereotypes. Speaking in the context of African-American women's politics, Harris-Perry (2011) explains that constant socio-political misrecognition that African-American women face often causes them to act in ways that advance stereotypes about them. This misrecognition appears applicable to both female and male African-American cast members featured in RTV.
In conclusion, communication scholars must continue to contribute to the discourse surrounding race, gender, and the media because they (re)produce images and shape one's understandings of the world, influencing his/her interactions with others. This research project provides evidence that stereotypes still perform cultural work which serves to maintain the current social order.
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Siobhan Smith--University of Louisville
Siobhan E. Smith (Ph.D., University of Missouri) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville since August 2010. She teaches courses in mass media, race, and culture. She has presented her research at several conferences and in published journal articles. Her research interests include the portrayals of race and gender in the media.…