Saturday night, SNL tried to defuse criticism for its persistent lack of black women comediennes in its cast (see here) in the only way it could -- through humor. Kerry Washington hosted, and was forced to play Michelle Obama, Oprah and Beyonce as there were no other black female cast members. This is a issue that has persisted for years on SNL. The issue, however, extends well beyond SNL, and isn't limited to sketch comedy TV. In fact, there is an entire field of media criticism that refers to what author Pepper Miller calls "the invisible middle."The invisible middle is a lack of African American images of women in all of media who are not extreme characterizations. In fact, Kerry Washington is doing double duty on this topic as she is on the cover of this month's Essence magazine. In November's magazine, highlights from a recent study done by Essence magazine and my firm, Added Value Cheskin, that shows how black women perceive themselves in media. It isn't good. Essence's Dawnie Walton writes:
In the study, more than 1,200 respondents told us that the images we encounter regularly on TV, in social media, in music videos and from other outlets are overwhelmingly negative and fall into categories that make us cringe -- gold diggers, modern jezebels, baby mamas, uneducated sisters, ratchet women, angry black women, mean black girls, unhealthy black women and black barbies.
The study also revealed six types we feel we don't see enough in media, types we feel more genuinely reflect us and the Black women we know: young phenoms, real beauties, individualists, community heroines, girls next door and modern matriarchs.
It is these latter types that constitute the "invisible middle", with rare exception. The former can be seen on shows with "hip hop" and "real wives" in the title.
The issue of how black women are presented, or more to the SNL point, are not presented, in media has been around for a while. In 2112, the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted one of several recent studies that speaks to the complex, and generally positive self images that black women have of themselves. The true scandal is that when media shows the complexity and positive portrayal of a black female character, well, then we get Kerry Washington and top ranked Scandal.