A Conversation About Black Women, Representation And Pop Culture

Popular vernacular phrases. New dance moves. Toys and games. Fashion. Hair and makeup. Music and television. Public intellectual discourse. These are all areas where Black women influencers wield significant cultural power.

In Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed US Pop Culture, author and University of Kentucky assistant professor Aria S. Halliday details the history of this rise in influence, popularity, and subsequent financials, of the use of the image and likeness of black women in arts and entertainment. She explains why so much of what we consume today and in recent decades was created by or filtered through a Black lens. She also dissects the tension between culture created by and for a community versus culture created for global export.

“Arguably, Black women have influenced every aspect of popular culture since they were brought over on slave ships,” explains Halliday. “Black women both cooked—creating a popular cuisine that many places around the world covet—and created new types of music, clothing and style traditions, and vernacular sayings since the 1700s. While there are many notable Black women, such as Sojourner Truth that actively shifted intellectual debates through speeches, I would probably call Ida B. Wells-Barnett the first ‘popular’ influencer because her writing and speeches not only circulated in the United States but also globally.”

Key to Halliday’s research is a discussion of toys, music, hip hop and cartoons, and the impact that black dolls had on the direction of Hollywood imagery and subsequent toy markets for U.S. consumers. For Halliday, the book started with a desire to better understand the princess culture offered to and widely embraced by Gen X and older Millennials back when they were children.

“I feel like I missed the Barbie moment. There’s all these scholars who talk about how in the 1990s we see the rise of princess culture in the United States with little girls becoming inundated with this idea that they want to be princesses, and the dresses and the clothes,” says Halliday. “It’s a consumption gold mine if you are a capitalist; if you’re selling the products.”

Halliday’s book links this capitalist gold mine to Black culture’s influence on overall American culture, which is one of the nation’s largest exports. She details how the movement for black imagery in dolls links to the rise of black mega superstars of today- from Rihanna and Nicki Minaj to Oprah and Beyonce – who create and continually alter and influence the direction of pop culture as we know it. The book is published by the University of Illinois Press and is part of a larger series on feminist media studies, edited by Rebecca Wanzo.

Here’s what else Halliday had to say.

ASG: Can you quantify the impact black women have had on pop culture? If so, how?

Halliday: Quantifying the impact is hard, mostly because Black women’s contribution have been mostly misattributed to other people or discounted as a contribution at all. Perhaps one way to quantify Black women’s impact would be through following a particular contribution like the popularization of a word and dance like “twerking” that Black women had been performing since the 1990s, but became popular via Miley Cyrus in 2015 and is now in the dictionary. There are very few places you would go in the United States (or Western world) now without someone knowing what twerking is.

ASG: What is a one takeaway of your book?

Halliday: This isn’t the primary takeaway, but I learned that there are black women who were born long before I was, who are Barbie collectors because they didn’t have access to a black Barbie doll when they were kids. There are black women who I talk about in the book who become designers, who are actively making decisions about what black women look like in all forms. A lot of times, it’s usually black women who are at the table making those decisions, who are advocating for a certain conversation, who are advocating for a certain look [in toys or film]. It’s us.

Discuss the tension between tokenism and true representation.

Remember the movie Harriet?

ASG: Yes. About Harriet Tubman.

Halliday: Well for example, [when pundits discussed the film] we are sitting here fighting about the “best way” to represent black people. Black women especially, but we need to be talking about why there’s only one film about Harriet Tubman.

So if we have 50 examples we could have ones that are terrible and ones that are about British black people and Caribbean black people and Asian black people, right? Like we could have the gamut, but right now we have [just a few.]

ASG: So we need more representation in order to get it right? Or more of a variety of stories?

Halliday: The representation and culture is only going to give us extremes. It’s only gonna give us a set amount of examples.

ASG: Let’s talk about your take on Disney’s “Princess and the Frog,” mentioned in your book. How did it impact pop culture?

Halliday: I think it’s great for black girls and women and other people who care about princesses to have that example. I think it’s awesome that it made money and that other black women were able to create. I talk about Lisa Price and she had like a Princess and Frog line of her Carol’s Daughter’s hair products. I think that’s awesome because black people are actively starting a conversation around what it looks, what it means to look like a princess as a black person and then other black people are able to make money in that vein.

But do we stop there or make more movies like it?

The more that we have is a great thing. We can’t expect one princess to look like what everybody wants her to look like.

What entertainment company harnesses the power of black women creators without using tokenism?

Halliday: Hmm. HBO. HBO has a history of producing things about black people with black people who are consultants, who are directors, who are actors. So they get it. Even if it’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show” or it’s “Insecure.”

When did we get to a place where black imagery moved the pop culture marketplace?

Halliday: think we start to see a shift happening where companies learn like when Mattel

l is promoting the Dianne Carroll doll. I would say the 70s [is] really [when we] see that shift happen. And of course, some of it has to do with the Civil Rights Movement. Some of it has to do about just general shifts around human rights in the United States and globally but also, black people got more money, and got buying power.

Who are the most influential black women in pop culture today?

Oprah would be the first person who would roll off your tongue. But I think today it’s also Beyonce. Michelle Obama is super influential in general. And for the young folks, they really like Zendaya.

Why is it important to document how black women contribute to pop culture?

It is important to document Black women’s contributions because US society for many years has misattributed or discounted the ways Black people, but especially Black women, have helped to build and shape this country. I believe that better understandings of how Black women have contributed in ways as typical and regular as popular culture can result in a better idea of who and what we are as a nation.

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