COMMENTARY

True self, false self: The role of popular media in subjugating women of color

Referring to the novel The Help, and to the film based upon it, Durham explores how popular media contributes to the continued subjugation of women of color even through efforts intended at conveying their subjectivity

By Jennifer Durham-Fowler

Subversion of the woman’s voice to conform to the values, institutional practices, and aspirations of society has been explored through a psychodynamic lens by a variety of authors (Charles 2011, Belenky, Klinchy, Goldberg, & Tarule, 1986; Jandeska and Kraimer, 2005). I would like to continue this exploration within the context of popular media’s perpetuation of such subversion with respect to the oppressed female in general, and the Black woman in particular. Being pushed to sing the songs of the institutional choir rather than one’s own takes on new dimensions when the melody not only distorts one’s true voice but the lyrics literally devalue and demean one’s personhood in a manner that maintains the oppressive state. In short, I would like to highlight how popular media fuels the Black woman’s oppressive traverse between being silenced and having someone else’s words put in her mouth.

An Exploration of Multiple Voices and Women of Color

This idea of having two competing voices or consciousnesses is not foreign to psychoanalysis. Winnicott introduced the notion of the true self and the false self. He stated “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance, overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being” (Klein, 1994). Winnicott suggests that there is a danger of the authentic self being smothered and distorted by the false self, which is in alignment with societal norms (Winnicott, 1965). It becomes dangerous when such mores are more than just a burden that can leave one feeling inauthentic, but function as a mechanism to undermine a woman’s attempts at equity and personhood as she faces oppressive structural barriers that have historically related to both gender and race.

Fanon describes Blacks as having dual consciousness (Fanon, 1967). The first is an original self that is hidden from society and perhaps even oneself. The second reflects the cultural and institutional norms of the dominant group, often at the expense of equity and self-actualization. I would suggest that the original consciousness is intimately aligned with pursuing equal status for the authentic self within the world. That it recognizes the difference between gaining status and equity by twisting the authentic self into a version that is compatible with societal norms, and gaining that equity as an authentic human being. Fanon argued that the existence of these two selves is rarely without stress and can result in a smothering or misrepresentation of a person’s true being that facilitates inequity and subjugation.

The perspectives of both Winnicott and Fanon raise issues regarding the subversion of the woman’s voice that may be unique to the experiences of women of color. While both theorists suggest a relationship between the two selves, in the case of women of color, this relationship mirrors society’s oppressive structures. If her true voice is silent, and her false voice reflects and perpetuates an ideology that promotes her inferiority with respect to gender and race, then in essence she is perpetuating her own oppression. The first and authentic consciousness is silenced, and the second is a distortion that mimics the dominant group’s self-serving interpretation of her.

The Role of Popular Media

Unfortunately evidence of these struggles are fueled by aspects of popular culture. Let us consider the popularity of the story by Stokkett, The Help. The novel, written by a white woman about the experiences of gender and racial oppression during the civil rights era in Mississippi, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks. The story focused on the experiences of Black maids and their daily challenges with racism and oppression and went on to be made into a movie that grossed over 35 million dollars in its first five days. It is a sweet and poignant story, but unfortunately not an authentic one.

It is clear from the critiques of the novel by historians and anthropologists that the multidimensional experiences of Black female domestics were not portrayed in the story and therefore silenced (Sharpless, 2010; Tucker, 1988). I’m not quite sure if Miss Stokkett decided to write a book about the experiences of Black women from her own perspective without consulting historians or the women themselves, or if she did so and was unable to capture the painful dimensions of the phenomenon, but their true experiences were suppressed. Absent were the constant threats of sexual exploitation and rape and how many Black women had to choose between economic survival and placing themselves in this type of danger on a daily basis. Absent were the implications and ramifications of this situation on their love relationships with Black men. Also missing were the guilty feelings related to neglecting the needs of one’s own children to take care of someone else’s who may grow into your child’s future oppressors. The authentic voices of the Black women were silenced.

However, when the movie was made, Black actresses said the words and portrayed the bastardized experiences as they were written for them. With no disrespect to these very talented women, it is here that the distortion of the true voice to conform to society’s oppressive interpretations of the authentic self is illustrated. This is not to imply that Black women are unable to speak for and advocate for themselves, but to suggest that traversing between being silenced or parroting someone else’s interpretation of you as satisfied and subjugated is a journey that is costly psychologically and may perpetuate an oppressive state.

This is illustrated in popular music also. Kelly Rowland, a member of the former Grammy award-winning group Destiny’s Child, has often been overshadowed by the group’s main singer Beyonce. Miss Rowland has recently had a number one single that was played exhaustively during the summer of 2011. Prior to this hit she had a somewhat unremarkable and some would argue failed solo career where her songs focused on the emergence of an independent girl next store. She collaborated on or wrote many of the lyrics. So what was so special about this song from summer 2011 that propelled her to number one? The independent woman/girl image was replaced by a hyper sex-charged subservient female. The song, entitled “Motivation,” is about how a male partner should use Miss Rowland as motivation to climax. This infuses popular culture with misogynistic inferior and subservient images that threaten the personhood of Black women, which of course includes Miss Rowland herself. Inauthenticity takes on unique dimensions when the voices of women of color are either silenced or distorted to maintain oppressive states. Popular media can fuel this phenomenon through the production of books and media that silence or distort the voices of women of color.

References

Belenky, M.F.,Clinchy, B.M., Goldberg, N.R. and Tarule, J.M. (1986) Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Charles, M. (2011) What does a woman want. Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society 16 (4) 337-353.

Fanon, F. (1967) Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Jandeska, K.E. and Kraimer, M.L. (2005) Women’s perceptions of organizational culture, work attitudes and rolemodeling behaviors. Journal of Managerial Issues 17: 461-478.

Sharpless, R. (2010) Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens, Domestic Workers in the South 1865-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,

Stockett, K. (2009). The help. New York: Amy Einhorn Books, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Tucker, S. (1988)Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers And Their Employers in the Segregated South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Winnicott, quoted in Josephine Klein, Our Need for Others (London 1994) p.241 Winnicott, D.W. (1965) Ego distortion in terms of the false self. The Maturational Process and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development. New York: International UP Inc., pp.140-152.

About the Author

Jennifer Durham is a certifi ed School Psychologist and is on the Faculty of the Derner Institute at Adelphi University. Dr. Durham is the author of many articles and presentations in the area of Social Justice in Mental Health.