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Vanity Fair's Cover Sends a Dangerous Message to Young Black Girls

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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Kimberly Seals Allers

I often find it stressful to see how the media stereotypes black women or how it sends subliminal yet painful messages to our children. I had this unsettling feeling recently when looking at the latest issue of Vanity Fair heralding the next generation of Hollywood starlets.

It was bad enough that they couldn't (or didn't try) to find at least one person of color to include in their annual "New Hollywood" spread in the March issue. They've been taking a little heat for this ridiculous oversight. What about Gabourey Sidibe from "Precious" and Zoe Saldana? Even as an Avatar, she was still in one of the highest grossing movies of the year. Or even Penelope Cruz.

I could have stomached the photo spread, I'm pretty much used to African Americans being excluded from mainstream Hollywood. But they really went too far with the descriptive language in the accompanying story with each waiflike actress getting her respective props for "downy-soft cheeks," a "button nose," "patrician looks and celebrated pedigree," "dewy, wide-eyed loveliness," or "Ivory-soap-girl features." Ivory soap-girl features???

But is this Vanity Fair's journalistic failure and bad PR problem (hitting the stands during Black History Month no less. The horror!!) or just an accurate depiction of hot Hollywood these days?

Either way, as a mom raising a daughter, it sends dangerous messaging to all girls in general and African American girls, in particular. We've often criticized the beauty industry for their unrealistic images of Barbie-like girls and women. We've told young girls they are beautiful as they are in all shapes, sizes, skin tones and features (ivory soap or not), but then stories like these show the reality of the world all of our girls are growing up in. And what a challenge we have as moms to counteract these influences to raise confident, self-assured black girls who love their bodies, their skin, their hair and everything in between.

Quite frankly, I'm no fan of Hollywood lately, anyway. And if Sandra Bullock wins an Oscar for The Blind Side, I will be on a very long personal boycott of the award show. I mean, yet another movie about a (albeit well intentioned) white woman saving a large, menacing in appearance, from the hood with nobody else, black person. This blog isn't long enough for me to list the stereotypes in that Hollywood gem (Or in movies like Dangerous minds, Freedom Writers, The Soloist. etc.). And this is Oscar-worthy movie making??

Puh-leeze.

Attention Hollywood: there a thousands of equally inspirational stories of African Americans saving themselves (gasp!) or white people too (double gasp!), but those don't get told because they don't fit into your stereotype of who we are.

But I digress. Slightly.

My point is Vanity Fair has a problem and Hollywood has an even bigger problem. When a major media outlet ignores its responsibility to represent all its readers and its messaging to the young girls who aspire to be in Vanity Fair (or Hollywood), that's just irresponsible journalism. Read: only "button noses" and ivory-soap girls need apply.

Hollywood on the other hand has a more deeply rooted issue that concerns me as mom. For years extremely talented black female actresses like Halle Berry, Regina King, Jada Pinkett Smith, Kerry Washington, Sanaa Lathan, Kimberly Elise, Nicole Ari Parker, Lynn Whitfield, Lela Rochon (I could do this for three more pages . . . ) have lamented the dearth of quality movie roles (no crackheads

please) available to black actresses. Meanwhile, Jennifer Aniston (no disrespect, I'm a huge fan Rachel)has played the same exact character 50 million times with no end in sight.

Thankfully, my own little black girl has not mentioned any dreams of a Hollywood career because, even in this "Yes We Can" era, I'd feel some parenting compulsion to say, "probably not, sweetie." I wish I didn't feel that way. But this very "fair" article only confirms my fears.

Unfortunately for us all, Vanity Fair did a great job of highlighting the inconvenient truth of exactly how Hollywood is. New or old. And I find that reality very, very stressful.