By Stephanie Younger •
Do the ways we talk about gender stereotypes represent the struggles we all go through? In Katherine Toland Frith and Barbara Mueller’s article entitled, “Advertisements Stereotype Women” written for the book, “Advertising and Societies: Global Issues,” they write about how the media degrades women and girls. Gender stereotypes obviously affect women and girls as a whole, but one of the most significant problems affecting people today is the way our society approaches gender stereotypes. We don’t often acknowledge how racial and gender stereotypes go hand-in-hand with each other, as evidenced by the ways Black girls are affected by stereotypes, specifically outside of the advertising world.
Katherine Toland Frith and Barbara Mueller write about how advertisements stigmatize women and girls. As manifested in T.V. commercials, girls are offered toys that solely prepare them to take care of the house (Frith and Mueller, 1). Frith and Mueller also convey an argument that girls are collectively targeted with ads that sends a subliminal message that they are only worthy of prioritizing their beauty over their substance, which can lead to poor body image (Frith and Mueller, 2). The authors additionally state that advertisements are the root cause of the oversexualization of women (Frith and Mueller, 3). Frith and Mueller write,
“One of the main criticisms of advertising that emerged in the late 1960s with the advent of the women’s movement was feminists’ concern that women’s bodies were being used to sell everything from air conditioners to wrenches” (Frith and Mueller, 3).
While people behind these advertisements should be held accountable for conveying the wrong message, being the cause of poor body image among young girls and the oversexualization of women, the authors’ approach to this issue didn’t acknowledge racial stereotypes and gender stereotypes as intersecting issues. This answers the question about who is most affected by gender stereotypes–Black girls.
Black girls are not only affected by gender stereotypes, but also racial stereotypes, in a way that seriously stereotypes them. According to a report authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamila J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez, entitled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” Black girls are affected by “adultification” (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez 1). This means that Black girls are often regarded as “less innocent” than their white female counterparts, as early as kindergarten, and as late as high school (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 1). These scholars at Georgetown University’s Law Center also state that one of the root causes of stereotypes and adultification towards Black girls is the idea that they aren’t deserving of the same needs and resources as white girls are (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 1). Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez concluded,
“Compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceive that Black girls need less nurturing, Black girls need less protection, Black girls need to be supported less, Black girls need to be comforted less, Black girls are more independent, Black girls know more about adult topics, Black girls know more about sex” (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 1).
Because Black girls aren’t seen as children, another root cause of the problem is how tropes linked with Black women as adults can affect Black girls as children (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 4). For example, being a Black woman is often associated with being a “sapphire,” a stereotype that describes a person who is “rude” and “confrontational” (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 5). Recognizing how racism can play a factor in gender stereotypes can prevent Black girls from being stereotyped this way.
The “sapphire” stereotype is an everyday struggle for Black girls in learning environments. As a Black girl, I have been viewed as a “sapphire” on several occasions throughout my childhood. A significant experience that stood out to me was when I joined a robotics team that attempted to discourage me from learning how to code because I was a Black girl (Younger, 2). Despite being the youngest student on the team at age 14, the adults still believed that I didn’t deserve the same support as white counterparts, who were supported by their mentors throughout the time they were being taught how to code (Younger, 2). In an article I wrote for the ACLU of Virginia, I mentioned,
“I have been isolated, called lazy, a communist, and asked if I had a learning disability [as if either of those were insults] when I would get confused. When I asked out of frustration why my White counterparts had been receiving credit for my work, my coaches accused me of being ungracious and acting out” (Younger, 2).
Luckily, I was able to utilize the resources I had to work my way around the racism I experienced, and to make these resources available to all girls, specifically Black girls, by starting a coding program in a majority African-American community (Younger, 2). I am now an electrical and computer engineering major at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. The moment people realize that Black girls, like every other child, need just as much encouragement and support, is the moment they start thriving.
Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez further state that the effects of stereotypes and adultification are capable of taking away the resources Black girls need in their lives. In the fifth grade, I earned an honor for being a balanced student. Unlike the white children who earned an honor as well, a teacher didn’t put my picture on the wall, until my mother told her to. Even though I have worked twice as hard as my white counterparts to maintain good behavior and good grades, I still didn’t get the encouragement I deserved. The authors of the report incorporate evidence from experts, stating,
“The perception that Black girls do not merit nurturing or that their leadership qualities should be restricted could be associated with our finding that adults believe that Black girls do not need protection or nurturing and could affect opportunities for success” (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 11).
When Black girls get the positive encouragement they are in need of for their hard work, the likelihood of them being given the resources that will have a positive impact on their life increases, and the likelihood of them being pushed out decreases.
Additionally, stereotypes and adultification can push Black girls out of school and even funnel them into the school-to-prison pipeline. The authors of Girlhood Interrupted implement statistics from the National Women’s Law Center, stating in the 2013-2014 school year, fifty-two percent of girls suspended were Black, yet fifteen percent of girls in school (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 9). In the fourth grade, two teachers went behind my back and lied to my homeroom teacher, by saying that I told a white girl, “You are so dead.” I falsely admitted to threatening her, despite the fact that I didn’t. Fortunately, the principal didn’t get involved, and I didn’t get pushed out of school. Even though 9-year-olds don’t typically know about death threats, the teachers still expected me to be engaged in something so violent and unlawful, all because I was a Black girl. I was so ashamed that I didn’t tell my parents for six years. Black girls being pushed out of school at higher rates than white girls can lead to their criminalization (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 9). Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez share more data from the National Women’s Law Center, stating that fifteen percent of girls enrolled were Black, but they were thirty-seven percent of girls arrested in the 2013-2014 school year (Epstein, Blake and Gonzalez, 9). Identifying the little things that cause Black girls to be pushed out of school and incarcerated can put an end to their marginalization.
A change in the way we talk about and address gender stereotypes is needed because some argue that Black girls are at fault for their own marginalization. Others also argue that all women have the same experiences. Because Black women are already condemned for their marginalization as adults, condemning Black girls for being stereotyped, pushed out of school and criminalized perpetuates adultification. This should be a concern for all feminists. In 1989, Kimberle Crenshaw originated “intersectionality,” in a scholarly paper written for the University of Chicago Legal Forum, as a way to acknowledge how Black women and girls are marginalized because of how their race and gender intersect with each other (Crenshaw, 140). All women and girls have their own unique experiences, and validating what Black women and girls go through is what protects them from their marginalization.
Do the ways we talk about gender stereotypes represent the struggles we all go through? Stereotyping and adultification tells us who is most affected by gender stereotypes. Stereotyping and adultification are both significant issues because they deprive Black girls of what every child needs. Although racism and gender stereotypes are different kinds of biases, the way we address gender stereotypes doesn’t represent the struggles we collectively go through, especially the struggles of Black girls. Acknowledging intersectionality can keep Black girls from being stereotyped, pushed out of school, criminalized and incarcerated, in that order.
Frith, Katherine Toland, and Barbara Mueller. “Advertisements Stereotype Women and Girls.” Advertising, edited by Laura K. Egendorf, Greenhaven Press, 2006. Opposing Viewpoints. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/EJ3010388208/OVIC?u=viva2_vccs&sid=OVIC&xid=eea9fd7d. Accessed 10 Nov. 2019.
Epstein, Rebecca, Blake, Jamila, Gonzalez, Thalia. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” Georgetown Law, June 26, 2017, law.georgetown.edu/poverty-inequality-center/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/08/girlhood-interrupted.pdf. Accessed 14 Nov. 2019.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989, Article 8. 140. Available at: chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Younger, Stephanie. “Stephanie Younger: We Need a Community of Inclusion in the Fight for Gender Equality | ACLU of Virginia” ACLU of Virginia, January 20, 2019, acluva.org/en/news/stephanie-younger-we-need-community-inclusion-fight-gender-equality. Accessed 18 Nov. 2019.
Stephanie Younger is a 17-year-old student, organizer and writer who advocates for womanism, diversity in S.T.E.A.M, the abolition of youth prisons and gun violence prevention. This article was republished on Afroféminas.