Back in the day, I was a Nickelodeon Junkie. I loved shows like Clarissa Explains It All, My Brother and Me, Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Hey Dude and All That. Suffice it to say, I am the quintessential 90s kid.
Any way, this post is hardly about 90s cartoons. Instead it’s about the seemingly, innocuous image of Black women in comedy and the media in general. I would like to draw your attention to the following clip from the 90s Nickelodeon TV show, All That.
All That Skit- The Convenience Store:
…After watching that clip as an adult, the first thing that came to mind was…”and to think, at one time, I thought this was funny.” Yes, the last time I had seen this short skit from All That was when I was a kid. I distinctly remember watching this episode and finding it hilarious.
Today, as an adult, I can see the plethora of stereotypes, demeaning images and classist references in this skit and they’re anything, but funny to me. We have three “Black women,” portrayed as rude, ignorant, tacky and unintelligent. In this short skit, so many stereotypes of Black women are replayed, that it’s mind-blowing. We have the sapphire stereotype, Jezebel stereotype just to name a couple. What makes these stereotypes even more disconcerting is the fact that two out of the three “black women,” portrayed in the scene are played by Black male actors. Nick Cannon and (no surprise here) Keenan Thompson.
The third Black woman is portrayed by Christy Knowings. In all my childhood years of watching All That, I can only recall seeing two Black women, Christy Knowings and Angelique Bates. Although this is not much representation, it’s still more than some modern-day Comedy Shows, like say…Saturday Night Live, which has only had 4 Black women cast member since it’s inception in 1975. Although, they are reportedly adding a new Black female cast member soon.
Speaking of Saturday Night Live, it should come as no surprise that Keenan Thompson would transition from portraying an ignorant, stereotypical Black woman sapphire to portraying loud-mouthed, ignorant Black women on Saturday Night Live…nor should it be surprising that he thinks Black women aren’t funny enough to be on SNL.
What is most disturbing to me is that these are images of Black women that I grew up on and as a child, they seemed like nothing more than good, old fun. Now, as an adult when I see and feel the impact of these stereotypes, it makes me sick to think that children grow up on these images so much that when we see Black women misrepresented or mistreated, it’s comical to us. I have never gotten over the Antoine Dodson fiasco. A young Black woman who is living in poverty is attacked and sexually molested by a stranger and it becomes comedy for the world. While many people were cheering Antoine on and making songs about his genuine concern for his sister, I was sickened. It’s nice that it turned out somewhat well, but what truly was overlooked in all the hoopla about Antoine was the fact that Kelly’s experience was a tragedy and a stark reminder of the powerless position that many Black women (especially those of lower income background) are forced into. It’s truly saddening when the sexual abuse of a Black woman is seen as comedy.
I wonder if it’s easier to disregard Black women’s experiences with racism and sexism when we are indoctrinated with images, like that of Virginiaca from SNL and the three Black women at the All That Convenience Store, from a young age. In reality, these images of Black women objectify and stereotype, they are not comedy. When we live in a racist society, its impossible not to be affected by these images in a negative way.
I wonder if when people looked at Kelly Dodson, they didn’t see a woman, but instead saw the image that they were taught to see. Did they see a LaQuisha/Latasha/Lanisha or Virginiaca, instead of a woman who was victimized and dehumanized?
When Renisha McBride went knocking on a stranger’s door for help, did the stranger see a woman in need or did he see an aggressive, potentially dangerous and ignorant Black woman like those portrayed in our culture?
When I think about the mistreatment of Black women and I see images like these in the media, they don’t seem so harmless to me anymore.
So, we have to ask ourselves…are these images just harmless, all-in-good fun comedy or are they something more…and what does it mean when a children’s show could so readily portray such racist/stereotypical images of Black women?
It’s no wonder that many from my generation didn’t bat an eye when Black women were continuously mocked and derided on shows like SNL or in Pepsi Max Superbowl commercials. We grew up on these images…