There’s No Such Thing as an Innocent Image

Have you ever binged a show on Netflix, and at the end unconsciously picked up a habit from the characters? For example, when I binged Bridgerton, I spoke with an English accent for days. A friend of mine binged The Wire and found himself saying, “Shiiiiiiiiiiiit” whenever the need arose.

If you haven’t binged a show, I know you’ve gotten a song stuck in your head–looping around until it drives you crazy. Or if you’re around a young child, you’ve witnessed them pick up their primary caregiver’s habits without even realizing. Basically, we’re sensitive creatures, picking up our surroundings without giving it a second thought. Now, what if I asked you to imagine a romantic movie–who are the stars? Is there any chance the romantic interest is a fat, Black woman? No, probably not and that’s ok. 

The ways in which we consume images consciously or unconsciously ultimately shapes our world view. While we think we’re savvy enough to dismiss stereotypes or marginalized images, I’ll go out on a limb and say some stereotypes are so nuanced in their reinforcement that we fail to recognize them.

What are you saying, Chantell?

I’m saying there are no innocent images, especially when it comes to fat, Black women. That means, if someone consumes an image of a fat, Black woman they are probably unaware as to how she’s being used to uphold whiteness, more specifically, thin, white love in romantic film and television.

When we think of systems of power, we think economic, and social; I would like to invite us to think about another system of power: Hollywood. This industry has held the power of selling images for over a hundred years. Within this industry are mini-systems of power, for example, something I call the Hollywood Romantic System. This system’s goal is to sell images of love to a mainstream audience. Any romantic movie is situated within this system, from romantic comedies, dramas to hybrid films. With this power, the system determines which images (characters) have access to love, relying on the assumption that mainstream images will deliver financial success. 

But, like all systems of power, it operates on oppression. By prioritizing relationships between thin, mostly white women and men, it marginalizes images that fail to fit its mainstream standard. Moreover, in its marginalization, it either erases other-images altogether or provides them with oppressive, stereotypical roles to play in service of its functioning. 

Image: Hattie McDaniel
From Ferris State University

For example, the Hollywood Romantic System relies on fat, Black women to play one-dimensional characters in service of white leads. One of the most common stereotypes attached to fat, Black women is the mammy. Sociologist, Patricia Hill Collins, in her book Black Feminist Thought, says, “The first controlling image applied to U.S. Black women [during slavery] is that of the mammy–the faithful, obedient domestic servant” (72). Hill Collins examines what she calls “controlling images” of Black women noting that “stereotypical images of Black womanhood take on special meaning” (69). She argues these images are special because this particular stereotyping “helps to justify U.S. Black women’s oppression” (69). According to Hill Collins, the “elite groups” in “exercising their power, manipulate ideas about Black womanhood” (69). The dominant culture’s ability to exercise its power to create distorted views of Black women are, according to Hill Collins, “designed to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of societal injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life” (69). In normalizing injustice, the dominant, power-holding structure can oppress populations without challenge; as a result, marginalized groups are unable to find equal footing in society. 

The ability of those in power to control or manipulate images are found in the Hollywood Romantic System. This system of power produces images of thin (and now fat) white women finding and keeping love; moreover, the system sells images of fat, Black women as the mammy disguised as the supportive best-friend, content with nurturing the lead and never finding love herself. You know, the sassy Best friend–seems like every white, female romantic lead has had one. Hell, you may even have one yourself. Casting a fat, Black woman as the best-friend-mammy to a white lead in a romantic film or television show, reinforces the image of her place in society as the obedient nurturer. Keeping her in this role also justifies her oppression by communicating her undesirability–unlovability; therefore, being a fat, Black woman and all that she endures is justified and considered her fault and not a result of fatphobia, racism and sexism.

A fat, Black woman isn’t just a plus-size woman living her life, no. She embodies all that society tells us is reprehensible: blackness and fatness. How dare she want to find love? How dare she want to find happiness? But if that same fat, Black woman serves as the mammy to the dainty, white female lead then all is well because internalized ideas of fatness and blackness aren’t challenged. There are no innocent images; therefore, limiting fat, Black women’s access to love is more than a Hollywood oversight. It’s purposeful and harmful.

I’m a fat, Black woman who happens to love, love. When I consume images sold to me by Hollywood, I’m implicity told that love is not for me, it’s for my white best friend unless Queen Latifah decides to do a movie. Until then, wait fat, Black girl, wait.

The purpose of this space is to bring awareness to the ways in which this population of women are being used to support mainstream ideals of love within the Hollywood Romantic System. The topic is nuanced and the issue won’t be solved overnight. I just want you to think about the images you consume and the beliefs you may hold about fat, blackness when it pertains to women.

Hill Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Though. Second ed., Routledge, 2000, pp. 69-96.

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