Black History Month is moving right along, and while everyone is out there quoting Martin Luther King Jr. or incorrectly talking about Frederick Douglass, I think it’s important that we look at issues surrounding our Black women, as well. Luckily, we’re slowly but surely getting more Black girls and women in our media! Unfortunately, from looking at depictions of Black girls and women in media, such as last year’s scandal over Riri Williams, it’s easy to see that Black (and darker-skinned) women tend to be more sexualized in nerd media than their white (and fairer-skinned) counterparts. This creates a culture where darker bodies are seen as inherently more sexual, and thus more acceptable as targets of objectification and sexual violence.
This trend seems to extend back into the early Disney princess era, where most of the princesses are dressed rather modestly, except for Jasmine who has a bare midriff. Even their “formal” gowns follow this template. Beyond clothing, Jasmine has a scene in which she has to pretend to seduce Jafar to try to save Aladdin. Although Jasmine isn’t Black but Middle Eastern, it sets a precedent for darker-skinned women, just as Esmeralda does. (Not a princess, but still Disney heroine!) Esmeralda is drawn to have more sex appeal with her off-the-shoulder outfit, does a pole dance in an even more sexualized dress, and all three male characters are in love (or lust) with her. The bad guy even goes so far as to burn the city down to be with her. Contrast these characterizations with Ariel. Though she shows skin, her costume (like that of other mer-people) is based on a swimsuit, and additionally, she wears modest clothing when on land and never has to seduce anyone. It’s subtle, but it marks a distinction between Jasmine, Esmeralda, and the princesses who are representative of white beauty.
Disney isn’t the only family-friendly company to be guilty of this; Nintendo is also a culprit. I’ve mentioned that Nintendo has a dearth of (positive) Black characters in general, but it takes it a step further by sexualizing the brown women who do exist. In The Legend of Zelda franchise, the brown race of Gerudo’s women are often depicted in a more sexualized set of clothing in much of the artwork. Contrast this with Zelda, who is wearing a more refined gown. But the colorist differences are more explicit in Hyrule Warriors, where the evil Cia is presented in a very revealing outfit compared to her good counterpart, Lana, who is wearing more mage-like robes. Additionally, her arc is built on lust for Link and jealousy towards Zelda. Again, this draws a clear parallel between brown skin and sexuality.
Although the races in Nintendo are ambiguous or made up, they still point to problems that show up in more realistic settings with more realistic implications. In the PS3 game inFamous 2, the main character Cole interacts with two other superhumans, Nix and Agent Kuo (below). Nix is Black with fire powers, and Kuo is fair-skinned with ice powers. Additionally, they represent the bad karma path and good karma path respectively, which has its own set of poor implications. Their outfits show us the sexualization difference again. While they both sport a variation of a tank top and pants, Kuo is mostly covered with a bit of sheer fabric on her shirt, versus Nix’s open chest vest. Nix’s personality is also written to be more sultry than Kuo’s cold, mission-oriented vibe.
The problem with all these examples is that they promote the idea that Black women’s bodies are inherently sexual and thus subject to sexual advances and violence. In addition to removing these characters’ autonomy, this idea creates a culture where poor treatment of Black women is not seen as a problem. Even worse, it could potentially be seen as justifiable. This is the problem with all sexual objectification, but when this dichotomy exists, it creates another mindset. The difference enforces strictly problematic ideals about Black women, while letting white women have a spectrum of traits (i.e., they can choose whether or not they want to be sexual). However, I do think this can be fixed rather easily and in a straightforward manner. Rather than leaning into slut-shaming and enforcing purely puritanical standards among all female characters, developers should allow sexy characters to belong to any group, rather than only one. In other words, all your sexual characters shouldn’t belong to a single racial group or skin color. This would allow characters to be creative, while preventing one group from being labelled as “other”.
Some series do a better job at this than others. While fighting games tend to be known for their overly objectified women, this problem is usually universal among races, rather than focusing on one race. However, more recent games have been making strides to get better in general. Mortal Kombat X of all places has taken criticism and toned down some of their more ridiculous outfits. Specifically, the character Jacqui Briggs is a Black woman who is usually portrayed in army clothes with a bulletproof vest, or a tank top and army pants in her alternate costume. She’s presented more as a fighter and she doesn’t act in a sensual manner. There are sexy characters in the game, but they aren’t restricted to one race. Overwatch follows a similar path. Characters of an array of racial groups have both sexualized and more modest costumes, so that any assumptions about a character reflect only on them, rather than their race. Some characters even have both “sexy” and “modest” designs, which gives them deeper characterization as someone with multiple facets.
As with all issues with media, I do believe that creators can get better with a bit of effort and dedication. This trope is particularly toxic, as it is subtle to many and can unknowingly influence those consuming the media. We should expect better from our art, and if the art is building and reinforcing negative stereotypes and ideals, it’s not the best it can be.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!