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Where's The Love: Portrayals of African American Romantic Relationships in Media

Author
Christopher Johnson

Abstract

In today’s world, the media is a pervasive and influential force that has a great impact on an individual’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Given this power, it can ingrain images in a person’s mind, that when not properly monitored, can cultivate “realities” that are nonexistent or slightly distorted. This study looks to understand heterosexual romantic relationship behavior in the African American sitcom “The Game” and the potential effects it could have on viewers. Employing a content analysis, interpersonal expressions were measured between characters in this television show that reinforce positive or negative relationship behavior. It was found that there were more positive than negative expressions within “The Game,” suggesting that African Americans are being shown in a more favorable light.



Submission

Introduction

The media has the power to create depictions of people and situations that are interpretations of the real-world. These images carry with them messages that sometimes modify or exaggerate reality and therefore, create beliefs that can have a tremendous impact on people’s perceptions of the world and those in it. Consequently, some groups are given unfair representations. In particular, the quality of African American imagery has not improved since their introduction to television (Punynanunt-Carter, 2008). According to Punyanunt-Carter, watching television “may cause viewers to conceive, alter, or even reinforce their beliefs and opinions about Blacks” (2008, p. 241). More importantly, these images could have repercussions for how blacks view themselves. Thus, the present study seeks to examine how portrayals of heterosexual African American romantic relationships on sitcoms could potentially affect younger black viewer’s perceptions of relationships. In this study, three questions will be evaluated: How much television do African-Americans consume relative to other racial groups; what types of images are being shown of African Americans on television; and can these images have an effect on African American interpersonal relationships?

Television Consumption

Television can serve as a communicator between people and the real world. When heavily exposed, it can subtly wire messages into the viewer’s conscious without them even knowing. In fact, most people believe that the media does not have an effect on them at all (Dill, 2009). In other words, disregarding how powerful the media is can be dangerous within itself. More importantly, it is those who continue to consume large doses of media who are more susceptible to its influence.

There are several theories that say that television consumption plays a key role in shaping how people see the world. One of those theories is Cultivation Theory. George Gerbner, who pioneered television research in the 1960’s, designed Cultivation Theory “to help understand the consequences of growing up and living in a cultural environment dominated by television” (Morgan, Shanahan, & Signorielli, 2009). In this theory, Gerbner hypothesizes two outcomes for consumption of television content. First, he asserts that individuals who spend more time watching television are more likely to see the world in terms of how television portrays it. In effect, those individuals will begin to respond to their environment based on construction of social reality (Defleur, p. 338). In other words, viewers may blur the line which separates media content and life itself.  Gerbner believed this could have serious implications about the direction in which society was headed.

If the assumptions of cultivation theory are accurate, African Americans are very susceptible to the media’s influence. According to Nielson ratings (2011), African Americans consume more amounts of television than any other group; in fact, their consumption is forty percent more than the rest of the population. Furthermore, content selection can also play a role in understanding how media impacts its viewers.  Research shows that African Americans have a preference for programming that features Black characters and casts (Mastro, 2009, p. 330).  Poindexter and Stroman (1981) found that Black audiences reported greater belief in television when they identified with the characters (as cited in Mastro, 2009, p. 330). In addition, they watch premium cable channel programming, drama, reality television programs and sporting events (Neilson ratings, 2011). Therefore, this information warrants an examination of how television frames the identity of African-Americans.

Although the media can serve the purpose of entertaining, it carries messages in it that should not be ignored. Stephanie Larson contends that “entertainment is also a source of knowledge about the world; therefore, its content is an important influence on how people think about race” (2006, p. 13). It is through media content that individuals are given a narrow lens to understand culture. Using this lens as a guide, viewers may begin to perceive others and themselves as characterized by the larger world. In other words, media has the power to “permeate, reproduce, and influence culture and should not be ignored as apolitical or irrelevant” (Larson, 2006, p.13). That is, whatever images are present in the media may become sources of identity for its African American viewers.

Presently, pop culture presents young African American men with various images of themselves. These images are enacted through individuals who reinforce the status quo. When discussing who these people are, the conversation usually centers around actors, athletes and musicians. Holding great influence in the Black community, their presence on television and other various forms of media has the ability to cultivate and ingrain codes of masculinity into youth that are misguided. Omi (1989) writes “Popular culture is vital cultural form that creates, reproduces, and sustains racial ideologies. These ideologies contain symbols, concepts, and images that act as a code through which individuals understand, interpret and represent elements of our racial existence” (as sited in Brown, 2005, p. 67). Adding to this sentiment, Lewis (2008) further articulates the media’s ability to remove power from the hands of television idols by constructing one-dimensional portraits that frame black men as “inherently visceral, irreverent, bad people without a cause” (para. 5).

In particular, sports figures and musicians are symbols of manliness in the African American community. However, some critics think that their leadership positions within the community have drastically changed over time. Once viewed as humble heroes who challenged the dominant culture, some of these individuals have succumbed to the pressures of materialism and stardom by flaunting their accomplishments around on television. Lewis (2008) argues that the men who fulfill these roles are acting out this aggressive bravado to compensate for their social impotency. He writes:

“The hyper-masculine representations of hip-hop narratives and athletes playing performances and personas are also direct response to a repressive culture; a      response to, or attempted compensation for a perceived loss of power, potency, or           manhood in that wake of the real perceived power that controls their worlds”    (Lewis, 2008 ,para. 8).

Therefore, the continual perpetuation of these images can teach behavior that is counterproductive.

Furthermore, constant exposure to these images could place a cap on self-perception. Afraid to veer from the social formula, Black males may feel pressured by society to fulfill their media-scripted roles. Young African-American men may be engaging in what Robert K. Merton coined as the self-fulfilling prophecy. The self-fulfilling prophecy states that “act of predicting something facilitates the actual occurrence of the phenomenon in question” (Aldridge, 1991, p.51). In other words, Black males may begin to behave in accordance with expectations that society has for them. Hooks (2004) echoed Merton’s theory by saying “stereotypes demonstrate how Black men are living in a society that does not want them to succeed and offers narrow identities for them to enact” (as cited in Brown, 2005, p. 68)  Similarly, negative images of Black women on television stigmatize their real-life counterparts and  may influence them to conform to social expectations.

Some historical stereotypes of Black females that still exist but have taken on a modern form are the Matriarch, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire. All three portray African American women in an unflattering way. Matriarchs, also known as Mammies, are usually very unattractive caregivers with a hostile attitude (Larson, 2006). The character Madea, who is played by Tyler Perry, is the overt manifestation of this stereotype. She is the aggressive, pistol wielding grandmother who maintains her home through fear and intimidation (Fontaine, 2011, p. 2).  However, the Matriarch is also representative of single mothers; she is very protective of her children and distrustful of anyone who tries to infiltrate her family circle. Due to her assertiveness and unwillingness to bend to Black masculinity, she is seen as an undesirable companion.

Another example is the Jezebel. The Jezebel is a female who uses her body to seduce men and get what she wants. In popular culture, she would be recognized as a video vixen, someone who dances in music videos and flaunts her body as a sex object as a means of gaining financial favors (Valentino, 2007). The implication behind this stereotype is that Black women are hyper-sexual in nature and use their sexuality as means of manipulating their male counterparts. It also carries the message that Black women are scavengers who will use their bodies as a means of gaining success and dominating Black men. Such images may subject the sexuality of African American women to masculine approval and satisfaction.

Lastly, there is the Sapphire. The Sapphire is “dominating, pushy, and bitchy” (Valentino, 2007). She is similar to the matriarch in that she is also aggressive, especially towards men.  In her quest for control, she aims to bring down Black men; her abusive tones and sassy attitude make her the embodiment of the “Angry Black Woman” (Fontaine, 2011, p. 4). She is also portrayed as having many children and being lazy because she relies on free services to take care of her (Valentino, 2007).

Contrary to the above depictions, some images of Black women diverge from the traditional stereotypes. Take for example the Superwoman stereotype. The Superwoman stereotype is similar to the Sapphire in that they both are “strong, black, independent, and enduring women” (Scott, 2010, p.14). However, the difference is that the Superwoman is not angry as much as she is defensive. Moreover, she represents Black women who struggle to find mate compatibility.Scott (2010) describes her as being “the highly educated black woman who is unable to find her intellectual match in the Black men she dates” (p. 15).  Although this profile sheds a more positive light on Black women, Scott believes it can “prevent women from seeking help, confiding in others, and having close interpersonal relationships” (2010, p. 15).

Although negative stereotypes of African Americans are prevalent in the media, there are positive images as well. Going back in time, some African Americans cited the Cosby Show as a positive model for African American romance. The show takes place in the 1980’s and is centered around an affluent African American couple, Cliff and Clair Huxstable. Havens (2000) said, “The show portrayed a respectable, non-stereotypical, unified family, and avoided economic hardship or political issues often found in most African American shows” (as cited in Chikowore, 2009, p. 9). However, some argued that the show was not realistic of a typical African American couple during that time. Innis and  Feagin (1995) conducted an experiment to test 100 middle-class African Americans about their attitude toward the Cosby Show (as cited in Chikowore, 2009, p. 9). What they found was that some participants agreed that the show was a positive portrayal while others said that aspects of the show were “too positive, did not represent real life, and might be deceiving” (Chikowore, 2009, p. 9). From this statement, one can get an understanding of the ambiguous feelings African-Americans have towards picture-perfect relationships. On one hand, the Cosby show salvaged the possibility of a healthy symbiosis between Black men, women and their families. On the other hand, it lends itself to being ‘too positive”, raising doubts about its authenticity.

Another example of a positive relationship model that was cited was President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama. Chikowore (2009) found that African Americans viewed The Obama’s marriage as the ideal relationship for African American couples. In a focus group study, participants were asked to give their opinion on how the media covered the picturesque relationship and what they thought about it. One female participate expressed, “I think our generation is so hungry to see something like this…here you see this Black couple and they’re just so in love and they’re still married and it’s so real and not fake” (Chikowore, 2009, p. 20). This statement suggest that African Americans are looking for models of genuine love and are hoping to learn from them in order to create their own “perfect” relationship. However, some participants were still suspicious of the Obama’s fairy-tale marriage. One male participant said “I would like to see some of the flaws because I think some people are putting them up there way too much and I think if a small thing happens, it is going to be a heart break for a lot of people…it annoys me because no marriage is that perfect” (Chikowore, 2009, p. 32) Once more, there appears to be a recurring theme of doubt towards Black relationships that are perceived as perfect. As the Cosby show illustrated, some African Americans are reluctant to accept such models of love they believe don’t reflect realistic relationships in their community. Furthermore, the feelings of suspicion towards working relationships, and Black media images in general, could have real-life repercussion on the formation Black heterosexual relationships.

 

Social Effects of Television Consumption

As Gerbner’s theory states, greater television consumption can result in greater belief of its content. Following this line of reasoning, the next question to ask is rather belief in negative stereotypes can have an impact on how black men and women interact on an interpersonal level. In a study conducted by Gilum (2002), she sought to find out what views African American men had about stereotypes of women (as cited in Scott, 2010, p. 11). Specifically, she wanted to find out rather endorsing the Jezebel or Matriarch stereotypes induced domestic violence (Gilum, 2002). The results yielded that seventy-one percent of men endorsed the Matriarch stereotype and half endorsed the Jezebel stereotypes, which positively correlates with domestic violence (Scott, 2010, pg. 16). Gilum believes that such images alter the dynamics of the black relationships in order to fit the societal views of how women are perceived. In other words, African American men use these stereotypes as a green light to sexually exploit black women.

In a focus group put together by Stephens and Few (2007), they used stereotypes of women found in Hip-Hop to measure the influence that endorsing these images had on adolescent sexual behavior. They interviewed fifteen teenage males and females about their views certain stereotypes. The stereotypes were categorized as “Diva,” “Gold Digger,” “Freak,” “Dyke,” “Gangster Bitch,” “Sister Savior,” “Earth Mother,” and the “Baby Mama” (Chikowore, 2009). They found that the stereotypes did have an influence on attitudes towards sexual behavior and beliefs in the African American community. Particularly, they noticed that the male participants placed a great deal of emphasis on female attractiveness; if the girl did not have a certain hair texture or body structure, then she would not be considered a suitable mate. Similarly, in some cases, females aligned their opinions with the males’ perceptions of physical attractiveness. In other words, they admitted that they would adopt some of the qualities from the images they saw to make themselves more appealing.

Kelly and Floyd (2001) explored negative stereotypes among mature black couples. Specifically, they looked at how Afrocentric and negative stereotypes influenced African American relationships (Chikowore, 2009, p. 8). Using questionnaires, they sampled seventy three couples and used several scales to assess how much they identified with Afrocentric values and attitudes, their level of trust in their partners, and the overall relationship quality (Kelly & Floyd, 2001). Their results showed that there was a positive correlation between the variable they measured; stronger belief in negative stereotypes and Afrocentricity led to a decrease in overall relationship satisfaction (Kelly & Floyd, 2001).

The data above indicates that some connection exists between how African Americans perceive what they see on television and their behavior in real-life relationships. To what degree that relationship exists is a question that has no linear answer. However, before sticking to any conclusion, I first had to understand what viewers were watching before analyzing the correlation any further. In the next section, I discuss how I did this.

 

Methods

In order to get a better picture of how heterosexual African Americans in relationships are portrayed on television, I analyzed a BET sitcom series called The Game. This show was chosen for two reasons. First, the show is centered around three relationships –Melanie and Derwin, who are the primary couple; Jason and Kelly, who are in a interracial marriage; and Tosha and Malik, who are mother and son. For the purpose of this study, I focused on Melanie and Derwin since they are the primary couple and the series focuses on their lives. My second reason for choosing this show is because it is the most popular show on BET, which was largely created for a black audience. Numbers from Neilson Ratings put The Game as the number one rated sitcom watched by African Americans between the ages of 18-49 in 2011; it was the second most watched show in the history of Black Entertainment Television (Guthrie &Vargas, 2011). Based on a collection of television reviews, viewers of the show say it represents a more positive portrayal of professional African American characters who have different relationship dynamics, and more importantly, have greater depth in their personalities. However, some viewers stated their concerns about the show falling back on cheap tricks and stereotypes. One viewer said, “There are so many stereotypes this season, it’s hard to concentrate on the great talents of the show. I’m an African American, but like some of us black women know, we all don’t behave like they portraying us in this new season” (“The game fan reviews”). Despite the mix reviews, the show still managed to be successful.

While viewing the show, I looked for positive and negative relationship characteristics that the primary couple expressed toward each other. The positive behaviors consisted of eight characteristics: 1) Honesty and Accountability, 2) Open Communication, 3) Negotiation and Fairness, 4) Shared Responsibility, 5) Respect, 6) Trust and Support, 7) Intimacy, and 8) Physical Affection. There were originally twelve, but only eight were used. I did this because some of the definitions overlapped while others were difficult to measure. For example, “Personal Integrity” was defined as “Partners are able to maintain beliefs and sense of self as well as offer attention to the relationship” (Cloud). There was no way to measure “belief and sense of self,” rendering the definition inadequate for this project; the same applies to “Non-Threatening Behavior.” Moreover, in certain instances definitions overlapped. “Economic Partnership” and “Shared Power” shared very similar definitions. To avoid measuring them separately, they were incorporated into the “Shared Responsibility” expression, which encompassed them both. On the other hand, the negative expressions were categorized as just the opposite. For example, if a character did something that was the opposite “Honesty & Accountability”, I would write “Dishonest & Unaccountable”. These characteristics are based on a chart created by Dr. John Cloud to asses healthy romantic relationships.

After observing each episode, I checked off rather the character’s behavior fell under a positive or negative. Within the positive or negative categories, I looked at a spectrum of expressions that were displayed such as “Honesty” versus “Dishonesty” and counted how many times each one was present within an episode. I did this for six episodes. I will discuss what I found in my results.

 

Results

In the six episodes that were watched, there were more positive than negative expressions; overall, the ratio was 19:12. The most prevalent positive characteristic that showed up was “Physical Affection”; “Negotiation and Fairness” was the next characteristic to appear the most; tied for third were “Open Communication” and “Trust & Support”; and tied for fourth place was “Respect” and “Shared Responsibility.” Intimacy did show up, but not as a positive trait. Intimacy, as defined by Dr. Cloud, includes not putting “pressure on the other partner”. However, on several occasions the primary male character emotionally pressured the female character in several conversations they had. Thus, I marked it as being negative. As for the negative expression in general, there was a different outcome. “Dishonest & Unaccountable” came in at first for the most negative trait that I found; in second was “Nonegotiable & Unfair”; “Distrust & Unsupportive” and “Physical Affection” were tied for third; and lastly, “Intimacy” showed up once. “Lack of Communication” and “Disrespect” did not show up at all. I’ll discuss what was found in the next section of my paper.

 

Discussion

After analyzing the data, I found that there were more positive than negative expressions of romantic behavior in the show. Surprisingly, the characters relationship was portrayed as being realistic. Meaning they did have problems, but they worked through them. Looking at it another way, the show took a more balanced approach of accentuating both good and bad relationship behavior.  This may suggest that African Americans are being portrayed in a more positive light. As a result, maybe more viewers are attracted to the show which would explain why the show received such high ratings. On the other hand, it was hard to set an expectation for the positive qualities that might appear since no one has ever measured television shows in terms of romantic expressions. However, for negative expressions I was surprised to find that “Lack of Communication” didn’t show up at all. Since miscommunication or the lack there of, is one of the fundamental reasons why relationships fail, I thought that this trait would have showed up more than any other negative trait. To the contrary, Melanie and Derwin did talk about their problems and looked for mutual ways to solve them. Overall, it illustrates that there are Black couples in the media who can work together for the well-being of their relationship.

 

Limitations

In order to improve upon this research, several things should be done. First, a more objective way of measuring expressions should be established. For example, putting together a focus group of men and women and asking them to identify which characteristics they see. From this, the researcher can determine how black men and women perceive specific relationship qualities and which ones are more prevalent amongst viewers. Allowing participants to describe what they see can either affirm or reject the present data. Moreover, researchers should come up with more concise definitions of romantic qualities. Some of the definitions for the characteristics were similar, and therefore, hard to distinguish. Establishing precise definitions will make it much easier to measure character expressions and minimize any ambiguities. Also, verbal, non-verbal, or physical expressions should be taken into consideration. In my study, a large portion of my data was focused on verbal expression; however, I still looked for physical subtleties. On the other hand, I only focused on the primary couple, possibly overlooking the expressions of other characters. Further investigation into this topic should examine how secondary and other characters interact with each other and what expressions those relationships might reveal. Analyzing how the other characters interact could potentially reveal more about cultural perceptions of romance and dating. Lastly, the results from this study are only based on six episodes. Future researchers should aim to watch multiple seasons to understand how the dynamics of character relationships change over time. As a consequence, different expressions may appear more frequently, changing the way relationships are portrayed.

 

Conclusion

In the present study, characteristics of romantic behavior were analyzed in an African American sitcom to investigate model behavior for younger, Black heterosexual relationships. Theoretically, the study showed that African Americans are more susceptible to believing in the messages about race presented to them by the media due to their large consumption of television; it is of more concern the what impression may leave upon  Black youth. Furthermore, the literature surrounding this topic suggests that unconsciously absorbing negative imagery can potentially have social side effects. However, future research should still explore all possible factors that link heavy television watching and viewer’s social construction of reality. Lastly, despite the saturation of incongruous African American imagery, research shows that this population is seeking out positive portrayals of themselves. Thus, shows like The Game could become the basis of television programming for African American viewers, opening the door to explore new cultural paradigms and interpretations in the future.

Characteristics of a Healthy Romantic Relationship Chart

(Definitions were slightly shortened, but maintained the original meanings. In addition, words were changed to satisfy the third person possessive.)

 

Honesty and Accountability

Characters accept responsibility for themselves. They do not make excuses for their partner’s or for their own actions.

 

Open Communication

 

Character expresses their feelings or opinions. He or she also says what they mean. Communication is based on clarifying issues, specifying feelings, and working together for mutually satisfying solutions. If one partner does something that hurts the other in any way, they feel free to talk about it.

 

Negotiation and Fairness

Characters seek mutually satisfying resolutions to conflict; they are willing to find solutions that are agreeable to both people. Both characters acknowledge that their wants and needs are just as valid as the other’s. When differences come up, the character tries to see the situation from their partner’s point of view and tries to work through them together.

 

Shared Responsibility

Characters make decisions together, this includes making sure both partners benefit from financial arrangements by sharing dating expenses and accepting both partners need to hold a job. Being mindful of the other’s needs as well as their own. This includes the character’s doing things for each other.

 

Respect

Characters find ways to appreciate their partner for who they are. Differences in thoughts, feelings, values, etc. are accepted and respected. They do not demand that the other person changes to meet all their expectations. Character listens non-judgmentally to what their partner has to say and is emotionally affirming and understanding. Violence is not used by either character.

 

Trust and Support

Character is supportive; He or she wants the best for their partner. They are able to rely on each other and offer encouragement when necessary. Both characters are okay with their partner having different friends. The couple feels secure sharing private aspects of each other’s thoughts and feelings; since the couple feels secure there is no jealousy or possessiveness. Individuals can let their barriers down and allow the other person to see their perceived weaknesses, without fear of negative reactions from them.

 

Intimacy

Character respects their partner’s boundaries and privacy.  They don’t pressure their partner. In addition, they are faithful.

 

Physical Affection

Characters hold hands, hug, kiss, or sit with their arm around their partner’s shoulder. Respecting each other’s right to say “no.”

 


  

About the Author

Christopher JohnsonChristopher Johnson

My name is Christopher Johnson and I study Public Relations and minor in Spanish at the University of South Carolina Upstate. At Upstate, I am enrolled in Opportunity Network; opportunity network is a Student Support Services program that aims to keep first-generational and minority students in school until they obtain their bachelor’s degree. Through this program I was introduced to the Ronald E. McNair research scholarship. The McNair program taught me about the process of research and how to get into graduate school. Furthermore, it gave me the chance to present my work at the SAEOPP McNair Scholars Research Conference where I won first place in the Humanities for my presentation “Where is the Love: Portrayals of African American Romantic Relationships in the Media.”

After completing the program, I have been searching for graduate schools that will allow me to continue my studies in communication. Specifically, I want to analyze and understand how different forms of media influence culture, especially African American culture. Currently, I’m working with a Dr. David Wallace, a journalism professor at Upstate, through the Magellan Guarantee to gain more experience with research so that I am a desirable candidate for the programs I apply to next year.

Becoming a McNair scholar changed my life. It allowed me to extend my network by meeting with professors and graduate program directors who are interested in helping me reach my educational goals. As my tenure at USC-Upstate comes to a close, I hope that my experience as a McNair scholar continues to lead the way to a brighter future.

 

 

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