Image by Johnny Silvercloud
Daphne Valerius’ award-winning documentary The Souls of Black Girls explores the various ways in which American television, cinema, music and print exploit the culture of black women and reduce them to self-sabotaging stereotypes.
The documentary features commentary from prominent figures in the business including actresses Regina King and Jada Pinkett-Smith, rapper and actor Chuck D, the late news anchor Gwen Ifill and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis. Beginning with a roundtable discussion of the harmful effects of the media, several young women of color detail their struggles dealing with society’s emphasis placed on light/white skin and eurocentric beauty standards. They explain their unsuccessful attempts to obtain a white image of beauty and the harm that comes along with this pressure.
A key point made in the film was the concept of a growing “self-image disorder,” the idea that if beautiful doesn’t look like them [African-American girls], then they must be ugly. Ifill explains this condition as an undetectable, discrete disorder. Compared to anorexia, a dangerous life-threatening disorder, everything else is a “deeply buried emotional condition” and the girls dealing with self-image disorder aren’t screaming out for help.
This disorder not only affects black women but also white women, as they too are encouraged by the media to view people of color in a negative light. According to Safiya Noble’s “Searching for Black Girls,” both “blacks and whites who view blacks negatively on TV are more likely to hold negative perceptions of them(selves)” (Noble, 2018, p. 23).
The documentary also points out that media industries explicitly make a profit off of black women by selling public manipulation off of what they think the public wants. While white images of provocative women are free, black explicit images cost. Gender also plays a role in this manipulation – men are often in charge of marketing campaigns that sabotage black female bodies.
Women of color are looked at as objects for the male gaze and shown overly sexualized in media to welcome the disrespect of the viewer. Described in the film as an extension from slavery in which slave owners would humiliate black men by taking advantage of their wives and children, the media continues disrespecting black women.
If women of color want to be included in campaigns at all, they feel a pressure to compromise their natural given beauty. This leads women of color having to conform to a white-washed version of themselves, examples including the straightened, lightened hair and skin tone of Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry and Jessica Alba.
Moving forward, the film suggests the need to change the images we see in the media by including a diverse network of executives. By showing darker skinned women on the screen and starting production companies led by black women, the narrative will begin to shift to promote more body-positive representations of women of color. It is also vital for black women to admit to their pain with honesty and not shame, as burying the guilt and sorrow is a major cause of self-image disorder.