Thursday, April 3, 2014

Politics of Respectability among black women characters

By Briana Whiteside

“What makes Olivia Pope and Mary Jane Palm different from the women we see on Basketball Wives and Love and Hip-hop?”

I posed this question to several people:black men and black women. Their responses ranged from: “The women on Scandal and Being Mary Jane appeal to a different audience, they are going through real black women issues” to “Although they are doing the same thing, I connect more with Olivia and Mary Jane.”

The opening of season 3 of Scandal prompted my questions as I wondered why I critiqued the women of Love and Hip-hop so harshly and praised Olivia Pope. It’s obvious that certain shows appeal to certain women for different reasons, but I think it comes down to the “politics of respectability,” a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham.

Scandal and Being Mary Jane present high-power women who have impeccable style and who are thriving in formal professional careers. Both Palm and Pope are independent women who have reached a certain level of success but struggle finding a man—they both play “side chicks.” Love and Hip-hop presents a wide variety of women who are in the entertainment business, they too dress nicely—in a high fashion type way—and the majority has careers, they just can’t find a man or are promiscuous. See the parallels?

I had to dig deeper, but I have to admit it came down to the packaging of the women, the way they were presented, how they behaved and handled their problems. The shows present the same type of woman, one who is successful in her own right, has a complicated life, and man problems. But, their reactions to the problems make all the difference.

In these shows, we are given the same woman cast in different scenarios, and on some levels, we connect with them all. We are exposed to many sides of black women if we treat all these shows as one long narrative. However, in my circles, I noticed that we strive to be respectable women, which is why we may root more for the Pope’s and Palm’s of the world and shun women like those on Love and Hip-hop such as the Ericka Mena’s and Amina’s.

What is clear is that we still have work to do.

Briana Whiteside is a graduate student in English at SIUE and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.    

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