Have black actresses been squeezed out of the #MeToo movement?
“…I had felt very much alone when these things happened…” said award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o in The New York Times in reference to the allegations and her own experiences against the fallen movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Lupita continued, “…I had blamed myself for a lot of it, quite like many of the other women who have shared their stories….”
Just what is the film industry’s record for Black actresses following the momentum of the #MeToo movement and its exposure of the sexual abuse actresses have endured? How has it championed the plight of Black women professionals and recognised the intersectionality that exists within the movment?
With Netflix’s (UK) airing of the documentary On The Record (dir. Kirby Dick, Amy Ziering), we kind of got some inkling that at last for Black women, in the music industry at least, were going to get their own form of restitution as a level of productive fallout from the #MeToo movement. The film didn’t come without its own controversies, one of which being the withdrawal of one of its major supporters, Oprah Winfrey as Executive Producer. Winfrey reportedly stated that the ‘creative vision’ of the film did not ‘align’ with her. But even with the content of this powerful film, the women involved have yet to see justice. This result provides little hope for the Black women in the film industry.
The sad truth of the matter is that Black voices are being edged out of the #MeToo movement because they don’t hold the same emotional impact as the claims from White celebrities in Hollywood. The message the media perpetuates to the public is that Black women are tough and resilient in the face of sexual violence and don’t need our pity.
Many of the recent images we’ve seen since the killing of George Floyd, the social upheavals and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, have mainly depicted Black women as ‘sistah soldier warriors’ (we see you Time and Rolling Stone magazines) and have not helped the imagery of Black women, but more on Black Lives Matter later.
Dubbed by the Dutch as the Hottentot Venus, from 1810 Saarjie Baartman was a South African woman paraded around in freak shows and to the scientific community for her well-endowed posterior. It is alleged that Baartman suffered from steatopygia, and the resulting build-up of fat in the buttocks became her claim to fame.
Baartman’s body remained an exhibit even after death and her remains were displayed in France until the 1970s. Baartman was only repatriated to her homelands in 2002. As a Black woman, she was considered sub-human in the eyes of White Europeans at the time. From her exploitation until her untimely death, Baartman was regarded as little more than a commodity and not as a living, breathing individual with thoughts and emotions.
One might say that things have changed in the two hundred years since the time of Baartman’s exploitation. Slavery has been abolished in the Western world, but the fact remains that even today, in the 21st century, the bodies of Black women are not deemed precious. They are regarded as less valuable than their White counterparts. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the implicit way the media seems to edge out the Black narrative of the #MeToo movement in favor of amplifying the platforms of White women celebrities.
It’s the reason why when Lupita N’yongo spoke of her encounter with the now convicted Harvey Weinstein, he was quick to refute her claim over all the other accusers. Or why Lena Dunham – a white actress – would so quickly dismiss Black actress Aurora Perrineau when Perrineau accused Girls writer Murray Miller of rape. Why is that? Is it because it’s easier to believe a Black woman would ‘make it all up’? Is it because it’s easier for the public to slip in to the tired, destructive narrative that women of colour – particularly Black women – are inherently lascivious and promiscuous and would therefore invite the inappropriate behaviour of men?
Getting back to Black Lives Matter, this narrative is not only reserved for the #MeToo movement; it has also permeated the Black Lives Matter movement.
Although the death of George Floyd has ignited a resurgence of Black Lives Matter, justice has not prevailed. It certainly has not avenged the death of Breonna Taylor, a twenty-six year old Black EMT who was wrongfully gunned down at the hands of police. Her murderers are still not behind bars.
America is still very comfortable perpetuating the message that Black women do not deserve the same compassion as men of their own race, or women of other races.
Despite the fact that the #MeToo movement was founded by Tarana Burke – a Black woman activist from Philadelphia – in 2006. Despite the fact the very basis of the movement goes back as far as Trans-Atlantic slavery, when rape crisis centers and safe spaces were founded to protect Black women victims.
No, the movement only became palatable to the public when actress Alyssa Milano – a white actress – publicly tweeted about it in 2017, more than a decade after its inception.
“…People didn’t know who I was, and people still don’t know who I am…” Burke said in an interview with the BBC. Burke continued “…What do you do with a 46-year-old Black woman from the Bronx, who’s not polished, who doesn’t look anything like even a Black woman in Hollywood?…”
What DO you do in that situation? The facile solution is to sweep the troubles and injustices of Black women under the rug, to ignore and to downplay. And that is exactly what is taking place today.
Even though Weinstein is in jail, Burke cautions that the work from #MeToo is far from over. Much like strides needed to continue to be taken in the BLM movement, when the protests cease and the flared tempers subside, actionable steps must be taken or nothing will change and Americans can look forward to the future misogyny of their nation when Donald Trump accepts a second term as president.
Some women are finally getting the justice they deserve, but the #MeToo movement must extend its influence beyond those of means and privilege and look to support women without a voice, without a platform. The true work is in making sure the movement doesn’t stop with Twitter and armchair activism that gave it its initial traction.
“…Often Black women are not heard because they do not have a platform…” said Crystal Feimster, PhD, historian and assistant professor of African American Studies at Yale University. “…We live in a world where Black voices are discredited and our history is only valued when Whites see the value in our stories…”
What needs to occur is a sweeping reform in the way racial biases are tolerated, especially in the United States. More women of colour need to speak up, celebrity and otherwise. White voices need to do more to bring awareness to the plights of other groups. It was a good start for Milano to correct news channels that erroneously labeled actress Asia Argento has the founder of the #MeToo movement, but more must be done.
It is a tall over to try and change over three hundred years of oppression and programming in how Black women’s bodies are treated. But it should start with White celebrities using their privilege to hammer the message home that it’s not all about them, it’s about the value and protection of all women, regardless of race.
Though the White celebrities have brought the #MeToo movement into the forefront, the extra step must be taken to highlight those that truly need help within the movement: the poor, the young and vulnerable who haven’t the protection of money, or adulation, or support of their more popular peers. As Feimster posited, Black women need to be the benchmark in the fair treatment of women against sexual violence. If White women are going to be the face of #Metoo, they need to be championing the cause for those whose faces are time and time again obscured.
(additional writing: Jennifer G. Robinson)
(image credits: Maria Oswalt; Jeppe-Monster; Vincentas Liskauskas; unsplash.com)