Is black not beautiful?

The media focus on white actresses for beauty and sex appeal

Staff Writer

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran a story on the plight of the male black actor. Writer Neil Drumming examined how even though actors like Omar Epps, Taye Diggs and Sean Patrick Thomas are becoming more and more recognized as credible, professional actors, it is still a struggle for them to get non-stereotypical, mainstream roles. But it was a shock to see that Drumming failed to bring up the plight of the black actress.

They were not the focus of the piece but they were not mentioned in any fashion, which is unsettling: Today's black actors may have a hard time making a name for themselves in Hollywood, but black actresses have it worse. This isn't to say there hasn't been some advancement for an African-American actress or two. Angela Bassett or Alfre Woodard can always make the short list for a role that calls for a multidimensional black woman. And don't forget Halle Berry.

When Berry accepted the Oscar for Best Actress in 2002 for her role in "Monster's Ball," she tearfully, memorably gave a shout-out to "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." It seems that the door has been opened -- for Berry. While Berry continues to attract roles and projects usually reserved for A-list, white actresses (such as her upcoming turn in the title role in "Catwoman" this summer), for other black actresses, it's still the same hustle.

Karen Dacons-Brock, associate professor of theater at N.C. Central University, believes that if we wait for the studios to change the situation for black actresses, we're going to be in it for the long haul.

"Entertainment is reactive," Dacons-Brock says. "The industry, to me, doesn't lead -- it follows. It's not going to be the one to change it." She says it's up to the audience to recognize the talented work of black actors and actresses in movies, so that Hollywood can finally wake up and do the same.

"There has to be a change in society," she says. "If the industry sees that black women and black men can be accepted in roles, then the industry will make a change."

What's become even more distressing than the situation in movies is the image of African-American actresses in the media overall. Once a white actress achieves a certain level of success, her attractiveness immediately becomes an asset -- even a priority. A white actress can go from being a professional actress to a starlet/supermodel with just one Vogue or Harper's Bazaar cover. With the exception of Berry and multitasking celebs like recording artists/occasional actresses Janet Jackson and Beyonce Knowles, many of today's black actresses are rarely seen as the figures of glamour and beauty that white actresses regularly represent.

Colorless covers

You can browse in the magazine stands at your nearest Barnes & Noble and find Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, Julia Stiles and Mischa Barton from "The O.C." gracing the covers, with the same actress appearing on two or three. But, if you want to find Gabrielle Union ("Bring It On") or Sanaa Lathan ("Love & Basketball") on a cover, you're going to have to see who's on the front of the latest Essence.

Perhaps the most blatant example of the absence of black beauty in Hollywood is Vanity Fair's big, recent "Hollywood Issue." Veteran actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Julianne Moore appeared on the gatefold cover along with such nubile newbies as Maggie Gyllenhaal and Alison Lohman, but not one black actress could be found. (Salma Hayek and Lucy Liu were there to represent their minorities, however.)

Black actresses aren't even considered mainstream objects of fantasy in popular culture. Contemporary cheesecake mags like Maxim, FHM and Stuff predominantly feature scantily clad young, white actresses you've never heard. But a scantily clad young, black actress -- who isn't Halle Berry -- rarely makes it on the cover of these periodicals. New black magazines like King and Smooth pick up the slack, featuring African-American actresses in seductive poses and skimpy clothing on their covers.

Kamal "The Diva" Larsuel-Ulbricht, one of the film critics of the "3 Black Chicks" Web site and co-author of "3 Black Chicks Review Flicks," was enraged about the Vanity Fair cover.

"Why don't [Americans] find black women attractive?" the Seattle-based Larsuel-Ulbricht asks during a recent interview. "Is it because they are never shown black women on the cover of Vanity Fair? Is it because, in movies, we are either oversexualized or undersexualized?

"I was talking to some other colleagues, and one of them was like, 'We don't need white people to validate us.' And I said, 'This is not about white validation. This is about me being slapped in my face, as a black woman, to look at a magazine and see that I'm not valued.' Vanity Fair is saying, 'Hey, you know what? Everybody but black people opens this magazine.' It's absolutely disgusting, and they need to stop that. Because they're just perpetuating stereotypes."

It goes back to movies, which pound in the belief that white women are the standard of beauty. As male moviegoers, we're supposed to salivate with perverse glee as the camera takes time out to cover every curve of pretty, young white things like Scarlett Johansson in "Lost in Translation," Elisha Cuthbert in "The Girl Next Door" or Michelle Trachtenberg in "Eurotrip." But I'm hard-pressed to think of a movie that recently pointed out how desirable a black woman can be. (There were a few moments in "Never Die Alone" where Reagan Gomez-Preston was seen as sexy, but I seriously want to forget I saw that movie.)

Trend dates to movies' Golden Era

Of course, this goes all the way back to the Golden Era of movies. Glamorous black actresses like Fredi Washington, Nina Mae McKinney and Hazel Scott were overlooked in the '30s and '40s in favor of safe-to-look-at, white actresses like Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. Similarly, such darker-skinned ladies as Kerry Washington, Joy Bryant and Nona Gaye are now overlooked in favor of the gleaming whiteness of Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Aniston and Paltrow. Even a legend like Lena Horne got the shaft back in her day. When MGM filmed a remake of "Show Boat" in 1951, Horne wanted to play Julie, a mulatto singer. But since Horne's character would hook up with a white guy, the studio refused and chose Ava Gardner for the part.

On-screen, interracial couples may have been a no-no back then, but they've practically became in vogue today. (The $91 million box-office take of the interracial teen love story "Save the Last Dance" proved that.) But it appears that a hook-up between a black man and a white woman is more believable (since a white woman is identified as such a beautiful thing, who could blame a black man for switching sides?) than a hook-up between a black woman and a white man.

Think back to 1987, when on-screen pairings between a white man and a black woman spooked some folk not once, but twice. The MPAA ratings board got all in a huff when a love scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet surfaced in the movie "Angel Heart," prompting the board to threaten to slap an X rating on the movie unless the scene were trimmed. It was cut for its eventual R rating. However, in the movie "Fatal Beauty," a love scene was filmed between Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott. But it was cut from the final edit.

Color-matched couples

I find that whenever a black actress is paired with a white actor on-screen, the actress is often just as pale as the actor. Fair-skinned Rosario Dawson was seen as the movie mate for Edward Norton in "25th Hour," while light-skinned, England-bred Thandie Newton has been paired up with many a white actor -- Nick Nolte, Tom Cruise and Mark Wahlberg, among them. (Newton can be seen on TV's "ER" as the significant other to Noah Wyle's white-doctor character, John Carter.)

Black women are usually seen in three archetypes:

* The fierce, independent woman, whose determination to persevere without a man makes her look like a shrew -- until she actually gets a man (see Union in "Deliver Us From Eva," Vivica A. Fox in "Two Can Play That Game").

* The strong, supportive wife, who stands behind her man even when she gets fed up with defending him (Regina King in "Jerry Maguire" and "Enemy of the State," Kimberly Elise in "John Q").

* The around-the-way hoochie momma, who is loud, crazy, occasionally slutty and just ghetto as all get out (Queen Latifah in "Bringing Down The House," Eve in the "Barbershop" movies).

Stale characterizations

These archetypes, who are usually characterized in movies as women who just need a good, black man to take care of them and all their problems, are designed to appeal only to black men on the screen and in the audience. God forbid if some young, white guy somewhere in Ohio saw one of these movies and thought a sista was fine enough to take to the prom.

Of course, black actresses aren't the only minority actresses who are subject to discrimination, overlooked or neglected in today's Hollywood system. But at least Latino actresses (Hayek, Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendes) and Asian actresses (Liu, Ming-Na) usually have their enticing sexuality recognized on-screen and in the media.

It appears that Americans have been conditioned to dismiss the allure of not only African-American actresses, but all African-American women. However, famous white women almost always get shot into the echelon of astounding glamour, even when most of them just look OK. (In "ego trip's Big Book of Racism," a list called "20 Famous But Average-Looking White Girls Who White People Think Are Hot Just Because They Are White" clocks off such overrated glamour girls as Kidman, Paltrow, Aniston and Elizabeth Hurley.)

Don't get me wrong -- there are white actresses out there who are attractive, talented and worthy of their success. (I've always been a huge Julianne Moore fan.) And there are less-talented black actresses who shouldn't receive any attention. (Black women who literally let their booties do most of the acting are the ones I have problems with.)

But to have a culture automatically hold a white actress in high regard simply because she's white, while black and other minority actresses barely register in public consciousness, is something to get riled up about -- and something that deserves immediate, long-overdue change.