By Clarissa H. Matthews
Actress, singer and Weight Watchers’ spokesperson Jennifer Hudson is being lauded these days for her dramatic weight loss, from the cover of People magazine to the airwaves of CNN. While it is common for a celebrity who loses “the baby weight” to be celebrated with a fervor you think would be reserved for someone who has cured cancer. Jennifer’s miraculous body transformation comes at a time when the black female body has been under siege. Could it be that the press has overcome its fear of the black female form?
Lately the mainstream media has not been able to get enough of casting us as overweight, STD-ridden, sexually frustrated physical lepers. And if it is not a fascination with our negative portrayal, phenomenal women like Michelle Obama and Serena Williams are harassed for looking too fit and too strong. The black female body has become a battlefield that the popular imagination loves to hate, veering back and forth between opposite poles of seething repulsion and feared potency.
And then we have Jennifer Hudson come along at an opportune moment, seeming to get it just right.
For the first time in months, we have positive reports of a seemingly happily married black woman getting trim and with good cause. As someone who has previously been cast in roles suited to a larger size (the underdog in Dreamgirls, and the assistant in Sex and the City), Hudson is receiving major props for getting fit for a starring role playing icon Winnie Mandela. For black women right now, after enduring a firestorm of horrendous news reports about the scary nature of our bodies, things are looking pretty good.
Or are they?
I don’t want to be a downer at the moment when a glamorous black woman is finally being portrayed in a positive light who’s not Beyonce. But, Jennifer’s new moment in the sun, as glorious as it is, also brings to mind the many black ingénues who can’t get a break in Hollywood. Crossover crowds seem to prefer its black women large-breasted and motherly, or if trim, in a compromising position. For the fact remains that Hudson shot to stardom in her big-bodied days, and that is how the general population loves her. I adore the fact that she is now slim and promoting health, but simultaneously quake in negative anticipation that the current celebration of her new status is a set up for a mighty fall.
Outside of a few stars like Halle Berry and now Taraji P. Henson, Hollywood doesn’t seem to have room for black women who don’t embody the overweight black Mammy stereotype, or the woman who is “too manly.” Take Taraji. Although she has been on the scene for years, her Oscar-nominated role was merely a remolded Mammy figure conjured to nurture and support beautiful Brad, not an appealing female lead. To land her next leading role, Henson had to do to a Tyler Perry film — going right back to the blacks. And poor Halle has had to get naked and pull antics like crotch-groping Jamie Foxx to gain and maintain mass appeal.
Which leads us to the one space where America is happy to see a gorgeous, slim black woman take the lead — when she is naked or near-naked in a highly sexualized role. And this legacy has a long, clear history. Dorothy Dandridge was one of our first ingénues to make it in this business, and in her huge hit Carmen Jones she stripped down to a barely-there bra and panty set towards the end of the movie in a scene that must have scandalized audiences of the fifties. The beautiful and classy Lena Horne actually flashes her panties (off-screen) at a crowd of onlookers in the classic black film Cabin in the Sky. Pam Grier is still riding the gravy train that bearing her bodacious body began for her in the seventies. And we all know the nude scenes that made Halle a hit from Swordfish and Monster’s Ball.
Would I say that these women were playing into the stereotype of the hypersexual black woman for the benefit of their careers? Maybe. There is nothing wrong with using what you’ve got to get what you want.
This is a realistic tactic that evens the Hollywood playing field when it comes to a black woman’s image. Until racism is eradicated, sexism is paired down, and more black women are in control of the images we see, our bodies will be projected upon with typical expectations by the collective that is in control, making dealing with this issue essential for any black woman navigating this mine field. Now that J.Hud has joined the skinny girls’ club, she places herself ironically in a very precarious position.
Will she join the league of gorgeous yet under-utilized black actresses like Jill Marie Jones, Elise Neal and Meagan Good who can’t be cast in that supportive role because they would outshine most of the White actresses who regularly command leads? Or might she pull something drastic like Ms. Berry, bearing that new, beautiful body for the world to see, thus defying limitation through sheer shock value — a tactic that has worked well for white actresses as well since the days of Monroe?
Hudson has gone on record stating that she will not do sexy nude scenes, so it is doubtful that the latter will happen. It is possible that the success and fame she has already garnered will be enough to buoy her onto more roles that can be played by her as a thin woman. Times are changing, and time will only tell. As an emerging role model for black health, though, there is no doubt that Hudson can make a significant impact now, regardless of how she continues to be perceived by the mainstream. While her drop of ten dress sizes was significantly aided by trainers and personal consultants provided by Weight Watchers’, there is no doubt that, if Jennifer takes the time, she can inspire millions of other black women to do the same.
Let’s hope that even if Hollywood does not offer her greater career prizes, Hudson will use her new image to help the black community get healthier, thus happier. The chance to be this type of role model might be better than any mainstream movie role.