Colorism of Black Women in News Editorial Photos

By Fears, Lillie M. | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Colorism of Black Women in News Editorial Photos


Fears, Lillie M., The Western Journal of Black Studies


Abstract

Most media studies that investigate the colorism phenomenon have focused on advertising content and have concluded that typically Eurocentric-looking black models are more popular than typically Afrocentric-looking black models. This study differs in that it examines news editorial content and seeks to determine whether news editorial photographs support the hypothesis that life advantages for the typically Eurocentric-looking black woman tend to exceed those for the typically Afrocentric-looking black woman. Results indicate marginal support for this hypothesis. However, more importantly, results indicate an overwhelming representation of typically Afrocentric-looking black women in the sample, a finding that supports the notion that news content, unlike advertising content, presents a far more realistic view of the way Black America really looks.

Introduction and Statement of Purpose

Although mass communication gender research on women's portrayals in the media has flourished since its inception in the 1960s, it appears no studies have been conducted that examine solely the portrayal of black women in news editorial content, though black women have been the focus of several advertising studies. Unlike traditional advertising studies, which examine women's portrayals, those that do focus on black women differ in that they tend to explore issues surrounding physical appearance--skin tones, facial features and hair textures--instead of the roles in which black women are shown. This concentration on looks is referred to variously as "colorism," or "the color complex" (Russell, Wilson & Hall, 1992), and will be referred to as colorism for the duration of this paper.

Historically, colorism has involved light-skinned Blacks' rejection of Blacks who were darker. And, in many instances, it has involved dark-skinned Blacks spurning their lighter-skinned counterparts for not being black enough. Colorism also includes attitudes and beliefs suggesting that Blacks are more attractive and more intelligent when their hair textures and facial features resemble more closely that of whites rather than the typical Afrotypic look (Russell, et al., 1992). This Afrotypic appearance typically is characterized by dark skin, broad nose, full lips, kinky hair. Moreover, the psychological fixation surrounding colorism has led many Blacks to discriminate against one another for decades, and because it has long been considered unmentionable, it has been called the "last taboo" among Blacks (Russell, et al., 1992).

Research has even revealed that colorism can influence several aspects of human life: mate selection, life chances, perceived self-worth, and attractiveness, among others. Research also has shown that black women, rather than men, are most often affected by the complex. That is, dark complexioned, typically Afrotypic black women have suffered most of the negative reactions while light complexioned, Eurotypic black women have benefited most (Hughes & Hertel, 1990).

For the above reasons, and others, the researcher is interested in colorism of black women portrayed in news editorial photos. Specifically, this paper investigates to what extent news editorial photographs reveal the Eurotypic black woman's life advantages over that of the Afrotypic black woman. The terms portrayal(s), news editorial photographs, news photos, photo and other variations of these terms will be used interchangeably when references are made to the photograph (and its contents), the primary unit of analysis in this study.

Overview of Literature

Shepherd's (1980) study is one of few that focuses solely on black women in commercial advertising. Although it does not examine the issue of colorism, it follows the traditional gender research approach of looking at the roles in which the women are depicted. Shepherd writes that black women have been portrayed in advertisements mainly in one of two character extremes--the gifted black woman, for example, seen as a singer or dancer; or as the dependable, faithful mother who usually is obese, matronly, and always serving her family in one or more domestic roles. …

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