Standing in the lobby of a movie theatre near my home, preparing to see the blockbuster hit The Butler, I noticed a movie poster for the upcoming movie Baggage Claim. The poster was a perfect example of how colorism in the media affects women and men differently.

Though this has been blatant for years (see my fave example, Coming to America), the idea was fresh on my mind because I’d recently read this post by Anti-Intellect where he writes:

“In the minds of many Blacks who have embraced white supremacist thinking, light skinned Black women represent both idealized beauty and femininity, and therefore are always “in style”…. We are much more comfortable with dark skinned men than we are with dark skinned women. A dark skinned man can be seen as macho, rugged, rough; all things affirming to his masculinity, and therefore appealing in the eyes of Black men and women.”

Above Anti-Intellect’s post is a picture of Idris Elba with the caption, “no female equivalent,” meaning that for all of the dark skinned male actors lauded for their physical beauty, there’s no dark skinned female actress with the same status.  Of course we can all point to Gabrielle Union as the exception, but that lone example isn’t enough to prove that all is equitable.

In the most basic terms, none of the four women on the Baggage Claim movie poster were darker than a paper bag, and all but one of the men were. In fact, most of the men on the poster are known for their very dark “chocolate” skin.

The primary female characters are Jill Scott, La La Anthony, Tia Mowry, and the lead character is Paula Patton. The male characters, however, are Borris Kodjoe, Trey Songz, Taye Diggs, Derek Luke, and Djimon Hounsou. If you’re familiar with the actors, you should already be able to see the stark contrast between male and female characters. If not, here’s the poster:

Baggage-Claim-Movie-Poster Colorism in the Media affects women and men differently

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to this movie. It’s simply the standard in Hollywood. In fact, one of the most respected and successful male actors of all time, who happens to be dark skinned, made statements that affirm colorism as the norm in hollywood.

Join the Colorism Healing Mailing List

* indicates required



Denzel Washington revealed in a roundtable with The Hollywood Reporter the advice he gives to his daughter, who’s an aspiring actress at NYU:

“I tell my daughter: ‘You’re black, you’re a woman, and you’re dark skinned at that. So you have to be a triple, quadruple threat…. Look at Viola Davis. That’s who you want to be. You want to be her. Forget about the little pretty girls because … if you’re relying on that, when you hit 40, you’re out the door. You better have some chops.'”

The male actors in this roundtable seem to mostly agree that Hollywood is tougher for women in general, regardless of race or skin tone. But that’s no surprise because Hollywood reflects the patriarchy that most of the world has been built on. And in such a world, it also makes sense that colorism would affect women and men differently.

Many people have spoken and written about the excessive pressure put on women to be physically attractive according to mainstream standards, while men experience that pressure a whole lot less.

According to The Mastercopy, other successful men in the media recognize the double standard as well:

“Speaking about the inspiration behind [‘Crooked Smile’] J. Cole admitted that he has received nasty comments about his looks to the point where they have played on his mind, but he said that as a male artist, he is only under a small amount of pressure when compared to his female counterparts.

‘I feel sorry for women in the music business. It’s not designed for the best talents to rise up. It has to be a combination of talent and what’s considered beauty.  Women in life period, I don’t understand how they can deal with all the pressures…

‘As a man I don’t have to do anything. I can throw on a t-shirt and some pants.  I still have pressure, … but nothing compared to what a woman has to go through. Its like a cycle, a female artist doing that makes the girl at home feel like she has to spend her time doing the same.'”

 Speaking of rappers, even though J. Cole has recently said that his lighter skin may have contributed to his success, there’s no doubt that the music industry is also more comfortable with dark skinned men than dark skinned women.The masculine, rugged, and macho associations with dark skin are extremely helpful in the careers of dark skinned male Hip-Hop artists like Tyrese, Rick Ross, Lil’ Wayne, Akon, and 2 Chainz, just to give a tiny sampling  of the many successful dark skinned men in music throughout the years. There’s a new one jumping on the scene all the time. Meanwhile, we cling to the too few examples of dark skinned women who’ve reached similar levels of popularity (Kelly Rowland, Fantasia, Estelle, India Arie?). Ironically, most of these dark skinned men are the primary perpetrators of colorism against dark skinned women in the media.

So what? What does this mean?

For me it means that it’s necessary to focus attention on bringing more positive images of dark skinned women and girls and helping dark girls create a positive self-image and self-esteem. We know that boys are not impervious, but at least they have their maleness working for them in a society still struggling to shake loose the foot of patriarchy from our necks.

8 Comments

  • The Alchemist

    Three of the “black women” are biracial: Lala, Tia and Paula. Jill Scott is on record that she is viewed as light skinned by black people.

  • Tatiana

    Hi, I see that this is an old post so I hope you read this comment. I just wanted to say that I believe that the natural hair movement is an example of how colorism can be combated in the black community. The natural hair movement was completely grass roots. Meaning, we didn’t look for the media to embrace natural hair first before embracing it ourselves. We didn’t even wait for black men to come around. No, instead we saw the beauty in it for ourselves, and that was enough. And amazingly, guest what happened? All of a sudden you see media darlings such as Solange Knowles rocking it and making it even more trendy; leading ladies such as Viola Davis feeling free to keep it natural in Hollywood. Black men claiming they like natural girls (true story for me, at least). What I’m getting at, is that in order for colorism to truly be combatted we (I’m looking to black women) need to embrace our dark skin ourselves. We do not need to ask Mr. Hollywood, “hey, please put more people ‘like me’ in your films and magazines.” It’s never worked that way. The self love starts at home, and then the rest of the world may, or may not, love right along with us.

    • Hi Tatiana,

      Thanks for your comment! Your perspective is very valid. However, I’d like to point out a couple of things. Those of us who had loving families that affirmed us and those of us that are adult women, often forget about young girls and teenagers who do not have the same support system at home and are struggling to figure out who they are in this society. The home is a great place for self-love to develop, but does it have to start there? What about homes where the family displays color bias? Homes where the parents, siblings, or extended family encourage children to bleach their skin, demean their physical traits, or show egregious favoritism to certain family members based on skin tone? Unfortunately, when I hear people talk about experiences with colorism, many times it’s at home with their families where they were indoctrinated with colorism in the first place. While the media may not have affected you or others, it remains a powerful force in the lives of many, particularly those not receiving positive messages from elsewhere, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Not everyone has the same experiences, so is it fair to say that what works for some is necessarily the solution for all? We must ask, for example, why so many black women still use chemical relaxers and wear long straight weaves. The natural hair movement is significant, but why is it still the norm for black women to have straight hair? The culture we live in sets expectations for how people look, behave, and even think. Though some people might deviate from those expectations, it’s clear what the overall pattern/norm is for black women. The second thing I want to say, which is most important, is that colorism isn’t just about self love. Like racism or sexism, colorism is bigger than just one’s personal self-esteem. Research has documented for decades the socioeconomic, employment, health, and educational disparities among blacks and other people of color as a result of colorism in the form of implicit bias or outright discrimination. Focusing on colorism as just a matter of loving yourself, allows these larger social and economic inequalities to continue. So, while I agree that colorism healing starts with the individual and that it may or may not start at home, I’m also an advocate for fair opportunities and fair treatment at the societal level.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

      Sarah

  • Hello.

    I appreciate the analysis above.

    Amidst the colorism, it is important for us to celebrate both darkness and lightness; but continue to stay Black in the process.

  • alesia

    This was very helpful for my project I chose to do which focuses on colourism and how it affects beauty or what is said to be beauty in women.

Leave a Reply