Black feminist media studies is a growing body of scholarly work that looks at the intersection of media, race, and gender, with a specific focus on women of African descent. This field of research most often designates scholarship produced in the United States or Europe that explores the ways that film, television, broadcast and print news, and new media (and, less often, radio) produce messages and ideas about women of African descent and the possible ways in which these representations influence political, economic, and cultural structures in society.
The purview of black feminist media studies is potentially very broad because the appellation “black” refers to different groups of people in different parts of the world. Even when “black” is restricted to people of African descent, it encapsulates an entire diaspora of people who may identify as or be identified as “black” within a given culture. In addition, the “media,” at least according to their broadest definition, designate a number of channels for sending signs by means of an ordered system. Many modes of communication fall within such an expansive definition of media. Currently, “black feminist media studies” takes as its object the production of media by, for, or about women of African descent. Significantly, the characterization of these studies as “feminist” highlights the political investment of the scholarship; it is interested in participating in efforts to build more just and egalitarian political, economic, and social conditions for black women.
Like media studies in general, black feminist media studies draws on a range of methods and disciplines. Ethnography, textual analysis, critical theory, and historiography are among the methodologies employed in the production of black feminist media scholarship. Scholarship has been produced from within the disciplinary formations of communication studies, mass communications, film and television studies, cultural studies, art history, history and literary studies, among others. Despite the diversity in methods, disciplinary location, and training of its practitioners, black feminist media studies scholarship shares a central set of issues.
One of the issues that has been central to black feminist media studies has been to assess the quality and implications of historical and contemporary representations of women of African descent. Analyses of these representations have provided explanations and insights into the ways in which black women are perceived not only via media but within society more broadly. Such “readings” of black women’s representation seek to explain how they operate ideologically to maintain existing power relations and thus where the ideological work they do might be challenged.
Black feminist media studies also has been concerned with assessing, analyzing, and interrogating media produced by women of African descent. Political economy analysis, for instance, has produced quantitative analyses of media in which black women have played a decision-making role regarding that media’s content. Qualitative analyses and readings of media produced by black women have also made an important contribution to the development of black feminist media research. Additionally, ethnographic studies of black women’s media consumption practices and patterns have added to this rich and increasingly varied area of investigation.
Most of the changes in black feminist media studies over time have occurred as the range of media considered under the rubric of “media studies” has expanded due to technological innovation and methodological changes that have influenced disciplines historically concerned with the study of media. Film, broadcast, and print media initially were the primary media considered. However, the increasing prevalence of new media has encouraged more black feminist media scholars to consider the significance of the Internet and other forms of digital media. At the same time, the increasingly interdisciplinary scholarship produced by academics working across disciplinary assumptions and institutional locations has led to more multifaceted forms of black feminist scholarship.
Issues of sexuality have long been of concern to black feminist media scholars. Issues have included investigations into the ways that black female bodies are sexualized in various media’s representations of them, and questions regarding the ways that differences in sexual orientation complicate the consolidation of the category “black woman”. Scholars will continue to engage with questions around the representation of black lesbians and other queer black women as they become increasingly visible in the media – or rendered invisible within a new (white) queer visibility more broadly.
Black feminist media studies is becoming progressively more transnational in character as scholars around the world gain access to a wider range of black feminist scholarship produced outside of the United States and Europe. The widening availability of this work offers opportunities for dialogues among scholars that may open avenues of investigation that are more attentive to issues of place and space than current black feminist scholarship tends to be. Since at least the 1980s, black feminists in the US and Europe have become more strongly connected to other feminists of color, including American indigenous, Chicana and Latina, and Asian feminists. These dialogues and collaborations constitute an engaging body of work that is sometimes referred to as “women of color feminism.”
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