We’re well aware of the many stereotypes Black women actors are cast in: domestic workers, secretaries, “sassy friends.”
However, there is one specific portrayal that I don’t see a lot of writing on: the prison bully. Whether the character is speaking or not, it’s a role that carries so much weight and impact on how Black women are often represented in media created for the sake of entertainment.
A month ago, the trailer for the film Buffaloed came out. It was released Valentine’s Day, and it’s about a young white woman (Zoey Deutch) who becomes a debt collector as a way to hustle for money to go to college, pay her own debts after leaving prison, and leave her town of Buffalo. In the opening of the trailer, Deutch’s character is in prison and cornered by a Black female inmate (played by Lorrie Odom), who soon beats her up.
Back in August, Asian American YouTuber Anna Akana released a music video for her song “Not My Proudest Moment” where she plays a character who gets arrested for trashing a house she thought was owned by her cheating ex-boyfriend. However, it is actually owned by an innocent lesbian couple. In a shot of her spending the night in jail, a Black woman (played by Maela Way) sits next to her with wide eyes, staring at her up and down, causing Akana’s character discomfort.
In episode one, season one of The Fosters (2013–2018), the opening scene includes the main character Callie (played by Maia Mitchell) getting beat up by a young Black woman, Daphne (played by Daffany Clark). The attack is initiated due to Daphne’s jealousy of Callie being released from the juvenile detention center sooner than her.
I’m not saying that it’s impossible that occurrences like this may happen while incarcerated, and I am willing to name that I appreciate the fact that viewers do see at least Daphne again as a fully fleshed-out character. However, I’m tired of the same narrative over and over again where it’s a Black woman’s fault for putting a non-Black woman at risk.
Black women are incarcerated twice as much as white women. I’m sure someone may argue, “Well, with those numbers, don’t filmmakers and showrunners have a point in what they’re portraying?”
My argument is no. Hell no. They don’t.
We cannot take racism, sexism, and classism away from the equation when it comes to the incarceration of Black women. We cannot take away how prison is a system to perpetuate slavery in a contained fashion. We can’t ignore how every Black woman is an individual, incarcerated or not. We especially can’t ignore how between 2000 and 2017, Black women have declined in imprisonment by fifty-five percent while white women’s imprisonment has increased by forty-four percent.
One of the very few times I have seen white women depicted as bullies towards fellow inmates is in Orange is the New Black (2013–2019), which showcased a variety of women’s stories of different racial backgrounds, archetypes, and personalities; as many flaws as that show had, at least they tried to portray incarcerated women and non-binary people’s humanity as best as they could. One example is the story arc of Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox). We see her as a Black trans woman navigating her prison system’s health care and how she interacts with other women while incarcerated in a way that isn’t limited to aggression or violence. She empathizes with them about missing their families, missing physical contact, and demanding respect for each other’s autonomy. It differs from other representations of Black women in prison that only depict them as anti-social, violent, or predatory.
This archetype of Black women being the prison bully does not show us anything new about Black women’s humanity or diversity. As a Black woman, and as someone who has worked with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals in my community, I don’t believe it’s fair to continue to tell this narrative of Black women who have experienced incarceration. It generalizes all Black women as being this way.
I’m not saying that Black women who are incarcerated should never appear in a storyline. I’m saying that Black women who are incarcerated can be portrayed in a way that is more heavily influenced by research, that is the result of having more Black writers in writing rooms who have loved ones incarcerated or have experienced incarceration, and that gives them more speaking time that isn’t limited to a short interaction with a non-Black character—especially when that non-Black character is the lead. In this way, we can show the widest range of Black women and improve so much on what has been done in the past.
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Maya Williams (she/her & they/them) is a writer based in Portland, ME. Maya has contributed to spaces such as The Tempest, Black Youth Project, RaceBaitr, The Gay Gaze, and more.