Essence Images of Black Women in Media Study reveals stereotypes prevail, while new icons are on the rise

african kings

Essence magazine has just released the results of its Images of Black Women in Media study. Featured in the November issue of the magazine, the Essence study was conducted to provide a sounding board for confronting a growing crop of negative images of African-American women, while providing a message of hope for revitalizing contemporary views of them.

theGrio | New Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. Bush honored at star-studded event

With the growing popularity of reality television featuring black women in weekly cat fights, and similar celebrity feuding via Twitter making headlines, it seems that the image of black women is under attack. After surveying over 1,200 black women, Essence discovered that they believe 93 percent of media outlets do an “okay” or “poor” job of representing them.

Some have questioned why African-American women should be concerned with how they are depicted by the mainstream.

The need behind the study

“When I see what’s happening with something like what Essence has done [with] a study… I think to myself, ‘Is that really necessary? Do you really care? Don’t we all have what we need?'” fashion diversity activist Bethann Hardison told theGrio at a recent event showcasing the findings. “But no. They still feel like they’re not being appreciated. So I think it’s important.”

In fact, most surveyed believe that three “types” of African-American women are the most prevalent in media: “Modern Jezebels,” “Baby Mamas,” and “Angry Black Women.” Whether they are broadcast through television, music, or social media, these extreme profiles far outweigh newer, inspiring images, such as “Modern Matriarchs,” “Young Phenoms,” and “Individualists.”

This burgeoning class of uplifting black female archetypes, typified by women such as first lady Michelle Obama, gymnast Gabby Douglas, and “it girl” Solange Knowles, are seen far too infrequently, respondents said.

Working to create positive images

Essence editor-in-chief Vanessa K. Bush and her team of editors are using these findings to counter this negative flood with more accurate representation.

“We actually posted a number of stories already on and in the November issue of the magazine that kind of give you a better sense of some of the reflections of how other people see us, how we see ourselves, and give some steps into how we can create some positive change,” Bush told theGrio at the announcement.

Oscar-nominated actress Viola Davis, also in attendance, commented on the possibility that the study might change how black women are regarded. Will it have an impact on society’s negative perceptions?

“I have no idea. I hope,” Davis told theGrio backstage at the Time and Life building in New York City. “You always put it out there, you always hope that one person is changed.”

theGrio | Viola Davis reveals she ‘never felt pretty’ until embracing natural hair

For Davis, hope lies in creating as many positive, diverse images of black women as possible.

“I think it’s a matter of saturating people with information, saturating people with narratives that we’re included in, saturating people with images that are all inclusive — dark, light, natural hair, whatever — before the change actually comes,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think that it can come in just one day, one afternoon.”

Davis went on to explain that her production company, JuVee Productions, will work to create those diverse images in Hollywood.

Essence: Mirroring black women’s lives

Essence will also use these findings as a stimulus to be an even greater repository of heartening portraits of black women’s lives.

“At Essence magazine, as one of the largest, leading magazines for African-American women,” Bush elaborated, “we want to take that information and infuse it into the [magazine] to make sure that those positive images are seen, are mirrored, are represented, and are recognized — and actually, are celebrated. That’s part of what we’ve done for 43 years, and we’ll continue to do so, because we see that there’s a real need for it. That’s what this study has shown us.”

More than ever, people are exposed to a multiplicity of media sources that saturate our collective imagination with stereotyped portrayals of black women. Simultaneously, there are more black female role models than ever who have reached iconic status. Whether this study and related activism will tip the balance towards positive imagery remains to be seen. But as Bush and Davis said, there is hope.

To learn more about the additional personality profiles described in the Images of Black Women in Media study, visit Do you think these findings are accurate? Should black women combat these stereotypes by requesting social change, or by creating their own images?

Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.