Fully Fleshed Out: Religion, Womanhood, and Blackness in Contemporary Media
The Bordelone siblings in OWN network’s Queen Sugar. Warner Brothers Studios
At the heart of my work is a concern with black women’s experiences, and critical to that work are questions that unearth how African American women respond to processes of cultural commodification. To get at this concern, I am guided by three related questions: how are black women’s religious experiences practiced, how are those practices represented, and what are the implications of those representations? As I have explored these questions, I have been struck by three discoveries: 1) that students, like many of us, are particularly drawn to visual representations of black women; 2) that, in many cases, viewers are drawing from a limited toolkit to understand and interpret those representations; 3) that visual representations tend to obscure black women’s dynamic religious experiences.
In my efforts to construct ways for these points of discovery to intersect, my scholarship, my teaching, and now my own foray into the formal study of filmmaking, I analyze how religion influences how black women’s bodies are “read” within popular forms like film. I also explore the creative responses within black communities and how black feminist/womanist discourse help us interpret these nuanced, popular depictions. My co-edited anthology Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) takes up the concern that Tyler Perry has monopolized the structure and construction of black women’s religious narratives in popular culture, and that the stakes of that monopoly are especially high when his productions are viewed as “the voice” for black women.
There are a number of sources that examine popular representations of the black female body, that consider the implications of the fat body, and that explore the complex relationship between race and film. Yet, I have found that contemporary work rarely addresses the complex intersections among race, embodiment, gender, and religion in popular culture. That is a void my work seeks to fill, and it is the driving force behind my current project, “Pushing Weight: Religion, Popular Culture, and the Implications of Image.” In “Pushing Weight,” I look at representations of black women in fat suits worn by black men in popular film (Tyler Perry, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence in particular) to show how stereotypes of black women are reinforced by the performance of religion and are used to uphold overly simplistic portrayals of black women in popular media. I am developing a critical theory of the black female body in religious practice that simultaneously emerges from film theory and the voices of viewers who consume those images.
This theory that I speak of is explicitly informed by the day-to-day lived experiences of black women, and is also informed by two conceptual frameworks. The first is the paradox of silence and display—the idea that black bodies are constantly negotiating a type of invisibility, on the one hand, where any emphasis on the body is muted, downplayed, or ignored, and a type of extreme visibility, on the other hand, where the black body is displayed in such a way that it receives exclusive and predominant emphasis. This waffling between taciturnity and objectification is a contradiction that Dorothy Roberts captures beautifully.1 This paradox is due in large part to histories of reading the black body as other and to contemporary representations of the black body in popular culture, and it has lasting implications for the ways that the body is engaged (or suppressed) within black religion.
This paradox is particularly complicated for black folks. Within the religions of the African diaspora, the body plays a particular role in the lived adherence of faith, where the literal enactment and expression of belief is encountered, enacted, and mediated through the body. Relatedly, black folks struggle—like most religious groups—with a very deep contradiction, where the body is an important location in which to encounter the divine, yet where corporeality is diminished in order to make appropriate room for the divine.2
This sacred form of “double consciousness” cannot be underestimated, and it is tied to the second conceptual framework that guides my work, and that is of the complex relationship between body fictions and what Deborah Walker King calls the fictional double. Black women face particular challenges when their externally defined identities (especially their religious identities) and representations as bodies—their body fictions—speak louder than what they know to be their experiences. This collision exists between real bodies and an unfriendly informant: a fictional double whose aim is to mask individuality and mute the voice of personal agency.3 The relationship between body fictions and the fictional double is especially complicated because it creates a visual vacuum in which black women are not interpreted as individuals, where exposure to experiential examples is limited, and where opportunities to see oneself represented in the broadest ways possible are all too few.
Black women are literally fighting, at every visual turn . . . to see and find genuine, real representations of themselves in what they see—we see—in popular media forms such as film and television.
Taken together, the paradox of silence and display, body fictions, and the fictional double mean that black women are literally fighting, at every visual turn, to avoid being turned into or interpreted as a visual stereotype and to see and find genuine, real representations of themselves in what they see—we see—in popular media forms such as film and television.
If I am painting a bleak picture, it is purposefully so, but it is not a picture that is without some hope. I am going to do something that I rarely do, which is to offer, in a very public venue, a claim that I have yet to fully substantiate, but for which I have a pretty strong hunch.
If there is any argument to be made it is this: the medium of documentary holds the greatest possibilities for offering positive, holistic, diverse, complex, “fully fleshed out” representations of black women’s religious experiences.
Certainly, all of the mediums that I will discuss have their problems: the cinematic gaze they create, how they are funded and distributed, and who is making and viewing them all have an impact on the meaning they make. I mention this quickly here, not to dismiss these challenges, but to denote the additional layers of complexity they bring to this enterprise of analyzing their impact on our contemporary religious literacy, especially as it relates to black women’s religious expression. And yet I still want to make a case for the documentary format, but not before I talk about feature films and television series.
The Feature Film
The feature film, which is notably short (typically under three hours), fictional, and created for the purpose of entertainment, is the least capable of best representing black women’s religious experiences. I have already mentioned this, but I have the great fortune of spending a lot of time watching Tyler Perry’s films. I focus on Tyler Perry in part because of his popularity, the sheer quantity of films he makes, and his unique position as a black filmmaker, producer (director, and writer) who has made nearly a billion dollars on his various films, who owns his own studio, and whose films often implicitly, and almost always explicitly, depict black women’s religiosity.
Tyler Perry’s particular representations of black womanhood—like his representations of African American religion—are riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions, and downright problematic renderings. Is Perry a master showman or a glorified stagehand within a broader symbolic church production? Is Perry’s gun-toting grandmother, Madea, a mediated conglomerate of historical black female tropes, or an insightful religious critic with an axe to grind with the historical black Protestant church? And can the writer, producer, director, entrepreneur, actor Tyler Perry adequately depict the complexities of black women’s experiences and spiritual identities, and, even if he could, should he?
Thinking about these questions makes the insertion of Tyler Perry, who adeptly offers his own interpretation of black womanhood, black women’s sexuality, and black female spirituality, especially intriguing. One of the masterful effects of Tyler Perry’s productions—and particularly film—is that they articulate exactly what and who the modern, “good” black woman should be, even if she is angry. Whether in the drunken rage expressed by the main character, April (Taraji P. Henson) in I Can Do Bad All by Myself (1999); the obsessive, “hell hath no fury” vitriol Melinda (Taraji P. Henson) spews upon her ex-husband in Acrimony (2018); or the sentiment expressed in the title of his first feature-length movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), Tyler Perry has cultivated an especially problematic brand of films that firmly locate black women within the angry black woman trope.
I look more favorably upon the medium of television, and especially the extended or series format, which I believe surpasses film in the possibilities it offers in representing black women, their experiences, their bodies, their epistemologies, and their religions.
Take, for example, the series Queen Sugar, which Ava DuVernay produces and directs and for which Oprah Winfrey serves as executive producer and that she distributes on the OWN network. I cannot say enough about how amazingly beautiful this show is. The story follows the Bordelone siblings, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siribo), Nova (Rutina Wesley), and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) as they grapple with losing their father, who bequeathed a failing 800-acre sugar cane farm to them. The siblings’ relationships are nuanced, evolving, and estranged, and captured in ways that any of us who have families immediately resonate with.
One still image depicts one of the most powerful scenes in the first season, where we witness the family come apart while coming together, and it is something to witness. Not only do we get a beautifully shot scene of three siblings, with very different lives and viewpoints, coming together to bury their father, but we also get to see the sacred rituals of African American religion laid bare. Christian rites, yes, but also, the last rites of the Prince Hall Freemasons offered over Ernest’s body. Nova, who is in the center, is an activist and writer, but she is also an avid believer in African-derived spiritualist practices and a folk healer who uses local, natural herbs and remedies to heal broken black bodies. Nova is the spiritual glue that holds the family together, and a conjure woman no less. It is powerful to behold such beautiful blackness and dynamic black religious expression represented on the screen.
That power is not something that should be taken lightly. In an interview with HuffPost, Rutina Wesley literally teared up when asked about what playing Nova has meant to her. She not only described the importance of representation on the screen, but she also noted: “Getting the chance to play a beautiful gorgeous black woman with dreads [who’s] smart, funny, witty, chaotic . . . She’s everything. It’s a brown girl’s dream because she’s a real human being.” To be a “fully-fleshed out,” proud, black woman makes her portrayal as Nova so special. That this show is produced and directed by DuVernay, and that every episode is directed by a woman, says something about the power of the narratives they can create.4
Like the scripted television series, the documentary format is a nonfictional movie with the intent of showing aspects of real life. It is most powerful because of that reality, and because it allows women to tell their own stories in their own words. It is a powerful thing to choose how to represent yourself and to base that representation on how you see yourself to be, versus how others see you.
One great example of this genre that has largely flown under the radar is Being Serena, a five-part docuseries on Serena Williams (HBO). Williams is arguably the greatest athlete of all time, and she allows us—in her own words and in her own way—access to her life, a life that we have no right to, but that she has chosen to share. In the first episode of the series, Williams documents her pregnancy from the moment she learns she is pregnant until her hospital delivery. In numerous candid shots of Williams in her most intimate moments, we learn that she is just like most other first-time parents, and that she worries about her ability to “be the best mother she can be, but also to be the world’s best tennis player.”
The mediated access we are given, however, has proven not to be enough for some. In a scathing critique of the docuseries, Slate writer Christina Cauterucci characterizes Being Serena as “surprisingly lacking in humanity,” which she attributes partly to Williams’s “stilted narration,” in large part because she found it to be too guarded. To Cauterucci, viewers benefit from an all-access view into Serena’s life, but they do not learn very much about the motives underlying her passions, interests, and drive because she “provides no access to her heart or brain.”5
And yet, Cauterucci’s claim about Williams’s seeming guardedness speaks right to the heart of religious illiteracy and to an important fact that we cannot ignore: Serena Williams is a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. To bring unnecessary attention to herself and her life outside of her sport is murky territory for her to navigate within her faith, something that she has talked about in numerous interviews over the years.
I would like to make the case that, regardless of what writers, reporters, producers or consumers might think, Serena Williams has every right to depict and portray herself in the light she chooses—even if, and perhaps especially because, we might not understand it. There is something mighty powerful about telling our own stories, in our own words and in our own way, and documentaries give us the opportunity to do just that. They provide us with the opportunity to tell our own stories—of our bodies and our faiths—and, in so doing, dismantle the bodily fictions that would diminish the positive ways we see ourselves while upholding that troubling paradox of silence and display.
After all, the desire to be fully fleshed out—to have all that we see, experience, love, know, and believe visualized in a way that reflects how we see ourselves as the complex human beings we know ourselves to be—is essential to being truly seen and understood. And, regardless of the limitations that desire may yield, we have learned through experience that having someone else render our representations is a much less appealing alternative. And so we fight to ensure that the genuine, the real, the authentic, and the factual supersede the stereotypical, the imposed, the manufactured, and the fictional. This is the visual goal toward which we strive.6
- Dorothy Roberts, “The Paradox of Silence and Display: Sexual Violation of Enslaved Women and Contemporary Contradictions in Black Female Sexuality,” in Beyond Slavery: Overcoming Its Religious and Sexual Legacies, ed. Bernadette J. Brooten (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 41–60.
- LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “African and African Diaspora Traditions: Religious Syncretism, Eroctic Encounter, and Sacred Transformation,” in Religion: Embodied Religion, ed. Kent L. Brintnall, Macmillan Interdisciplinary Handbooks (Macmillan Reference, USA, 2016), 183–201.
- Body Politics and the Fictional Double, ed. Deborah Walker King (Indiana University Press, 2000).
- See the video interview, “Rutina Wesley on the Beauty of Playing ‘Fully-Fleshed Out’ Black Female Character,” on www.huffpost.com.
- Christina Cauterucci, “Show Everything, Reveal Nothing,” Slate, May 2, 2018.
- This is an edited version of a panel presentation I delivered at the “Religious Literacy and Business: Media Entertainment” symposium, sponsored by the Religious Literacy Project and held at Harvard Divinity School on September 20–21, 2018.
LeRhonda Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press, 2014) and co-editor, with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan, of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). You can find her adding colorful, critical, commentary to the Twitter universe via @DoctorRMB.