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Pet Sins November 2004

Black as 'male' and yellow/brown as 'female'? Conspicuous absence of black women and brown/yellow men in popular media

Recently, I saw at my workplace a company poster "increasing productivity". The comic-book-style image has a black man, a yellow woman and a white woman. It struck me that in those "multiracial" pictures, the 'representative' black person is usually male, and the 'representative' yellow or brown person is usually female. It is as if black is associated with masculinity and yellow/brown is associated with femininity.

If there is only one place in a picture for a token black, that black will most likely be male. If only one token representation of a brown or yellow person is required, that person would most likely be a female.

Here are some examples of of media images that illustrate this gender imbalance:

  • Hitch (2005) - opens with a yellow female/white male couple (one of the protagonist's clients). The main pairing is Latino female/black male couple. Yellow men only appear as extras in the background. Latino man who is husband of a Latina appears only very briefly, though still presented as very handsome and viable competition to the black male protagonist. There is also a black man/black woman couple (another of the protagonist's clients). Would it have been so hard to make the man in the first couple an Asian?
  • The Day After Tomorrow - has yellow female in significant role as white male love interest, no yellow male character of equal import. Three black men in prominent roles and one black woman in a prominent role. Second black woman as minor character. One of the black male characters is paired with a white female. No equivalent pairing for black female characters. Brown male appears in minor role as janitor.
  • The Harry Potter movies - take a look at the extras who fill in as Hogswarth students. While both black boys and black girls are present in comparable numbers, the scenes which prominently feature brown girls (South Asians) outnumber those with brown boys. While I've seen quite a number of yellow girls among the Hogswarth students, I did not see any yellow boy characters.
  • Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones - in the scenes of children training to be Jedi knights, there were yellow girls but no yellow boys. When the adult Jedi knights arrive to take part in the final battle, we see a brief shot featuring the token minority Jedi unsheathing their light sabres. Unsurprisingly, they are a black man and a yellow woman.
  • SWAT - starring LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez, with assorted white people. No main black female/Latino male characters.
  • Charlie's Angels - yellow female and black male main characters, no yellow male or black female characters in significant roles.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire - black/Indian man and brown-skinned Latina in multi-ethnic array of characters, no brown male or black female characters.

Children's Books:
  • The Duchess of Whimsy - token nameless minority characters at the Duchess' court are a yellow female and a black male. Two other recurring East Asian female characters - the Duchess' fairy attendants - are present. But no yellow males or black females are seen. A supporting character, the Shah, is apparently a West Asian/South Asian male.

Promotional posters:
  • Christian "God-loves-everybody" poster - white boys and girls of various eye and hair colors, one black boy, and one yellow girl. I guess yellow boys and black girls are missing from God's list?
  • 2003 Join-the-army poster - white men and women, brown woman, yellow woman, black man

  • Lucky Charms cereal TV ad (2003) - yellow girl, black boy and white boy spy on leprechaun making cereal
  • BECU TV ads (2010) - images of ethnically diverse bank customers shown in a series of similar ads. White man-Yellow woman and Black-man-White-woman families are shown, but brown/yellow men and black women are conspicuously absent from images of couples.

As you can see, these images appear in a wide range of contexts - from media targeted at children to ads aimed at young single adults. Social conditioning in "normal racial combinations" starts at an early age. A single image in itself means nothing, but the repeated viewing of these images reinforces social stereotypes - black men seen as hypermasculine and yellow women as hyperfeminine and brown women as hypersexy.

These images also give black males and yellow/brown females a social visibility that black women and yellow/brown men don't have. Is it a coincidence that black men and yellow/brown women are more likely to marry whites than their counterparts of the opposite gender? (See The Dynamics of Inequality - Interracial dating in the US)

Here is another examples of what I'm talking about:

White girl, black boy, and narrow-eyed yellow girl form the icon of Save the Children collection of X'mas cards by Sunshine Art Studios.

Very seldom do you see an image of a multiracial crowd with black woman and a brown or yellow man as the token minorities. The message these "inclusive, multiracial" images send to black girls and yellow boys is that they are invisible and not significant enough to be on a poster or in a book.

Fortunately, there are some exceptions, such as:

  • Joyful Noise - in this 2012 film written and directed by Todd Graff, a black woman dates 2 yellow men consecutively and marries the second one. For a refreshing break with the 'Asian characters have to be female' stereotype, there are no significant yellow female characters.
  • The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea - the token minority merboy who appears very briefly is a East Asian/Southeast Asian male.
  • this set of IBM ads published in a computer networking magazine in 2003, featuring a black woman, yellow man, and white woman:

But until the day men and women of each 'race' are proportionally represented in all forms of media, there is still progress to be made.

2003, updated 2013