Miscegenation On Screen, Why So Disparate?
Miscegenation refers to dating or marrying a person of another race and its presence in American films and TV series needs to be understood through a intersectional analysis involving gender roles. Looking specifically at Black and White couples there is often an imbalance whereby White woman/Black man couples appear far more than the inverse. The reason why can be explained by tracing the development of the Black male identity in the American imagination. The athletic connotations it possesses is a direct result of the slave history between Blacks and Whites in America. In America’s southwestern states, interracial marriage was illegal until the late 60s…meaning there was colour TV in these states before coloured marriage.
The development of the Black male identity in America has had an extremely close link to the peak athletic form of the male body. Stemming from a slave history, the most respected and valued slaves were the most physically fit. Adding to this mix, the pseudo-scientific racism in the slavery zeitgeist deemed African Americans as less evolved than their White counterparts. This suggested Blacks were at the mercy of their most basic desires and could not control their sexual impulses, and White men began to fear the rise of the black phallus and the idea of a sexually liberated Black man. Such an irrational fear was birthed from the patriarchal orientation of early American society. Women were seen to be at the whims of their sexual desires as well, so a muscular and athletic Black man was seen as a real sexual temptation for White women. This anxiety is reflected in the corporal punishments handed down for interracial crimes; castration was a prominent consequence for crimes committed against White women — some as light as smiling.
Black Man/White Woman
The film Get Out exhibits many of these underlying attitudes through the interracial couple: Rose Armitage and Chris Washington. The film has countless references to slavery and emphasises the hyper-sexualisation and hyper-masculinisation of the Black male identity. One older female character openly complements Chris on his looks, sensually rubs his arms and chest before she openly asks Rose: “Is it better?” A question that wouldn’t be asked if Rose was a Black women, but since she is White her judgement becomes relevant. This interaction also illustrates the hyper-sexual and athletic stereotypes of the Black male body.
The climax of the film unearths the family’s history of systematically abducting and auctioning off Black male bodies for a number of years. A key cog in their calculated mechanism is their daughter: Rose, who is used as a sexual lure for young Black men, who often have sporting accolades. The perception of intrinsic athleticism within Black males is revealed in Jeremy’s (Rose’s brother) attitudes towards Chris’s sporting preferences remarking “with your frame and genetic make up…you could be a beast.” Because the film was directed by a Black man (Jordan Peele) it portrays Chris as uneasy toward all the racist presumptions the Armitage family has.
Hyper-masculinsation is a concept that pervades the depiction of both male and female Black bodies, and it explains the scarcity of Black women/White man relationships. Black women are typically portayed as threatening, physically domineering and aggressive. This is far from the typical romantic female role of a passive, affectionate and cutsie (usually) White women. Since they do not adhere to the typical and somewhat submissive behaviours of White women, they challenge patriarchal norms and thus are intimidating.
Black Woman/White Man
The development of the ‘strong and independent Black woman’ stereotype is a potential explanation for their perceived masculine behaviours. A stereotype that is based in social disparities between White and Black Americans. One possible explanation is; the disproportionate amount of Black males in incarceration. A flow on effect of this is that Black women are less likely to grow up with a father figure and following the same vein, they are more likely to be single mothers. Leading their depiction on screen to reflect a tough, hard knock attitude.
One interesting relationship that capitulates this notion is the friendship between Elijah Krantz, a gay White man, and Athena Dante, a Black woman in the series Girls. Their relationship occurs over the episode ‘The Bounce’ where both characters are auditioning for a Broadway play. As one of the only featuring Black characters in the show she embodies the tough, confident and gritty Black-girl attitude, contrasting with Elijah’s self doubting and passive femininity towards the audition. Each character performs the opposing gender, the most discerning factor, for Athena is the way she holds her body in public.Standing with a relaxed confidence, she unashamedly dances and rehearses in the stairwell when she bumps into Elijah. Female characters are often uncomfortable and out of place in male-dominated public spaces, but not Athena.
Elijah is chickening out of the audition because his prolific ex-boyfriend has shown up to his house begging for forgiveness. She convinces him to stay, amidst his insecurity, indecisiveness and emotionality (typically feminine characteristics). This can be read as a bit of a twisted relationship, and how two Black and White characters can connect on a non-normative, role-reversed level.
There are still movies with a White man/Black woman romantic relationship (Something New, Belle, My Last Day Without You) and their relationships do fit into a heteronormative framework, but the films are rarely blockbusters.
The 2005 romantic comedy Guess Who casts a White male (Ashton Kutcher) and Black female (Zoe Saldana) as the lead couple; Simone and Thresa. The film adopts a typical ‘meet the parents’ plot line and revolves around awkward, cringing encounters between the boyfriend and the father, although there’s a racial element to most of the jokes. One scene involves Simon trying on Theresa’s lingerie, he teases her by going on all fours and gyrating his hips yet she is laughing while demanding him to: “Take it off!, Take it off!” In an attempt to get it back Theresa gets on the bed and pulls Simon’s hair. At this point her father walks in and the tone switches immediately. Now it appears Theresa is the dominant person in the relationship, sexually. It is impossible to ignore the racial connotations of this interaction; Simon is framed as the skinny, passive White guy who enjoys cross dressing, whilst Theresa is the dominant, masculine Black woman who takes charge in the bedroom. There is a vested interest in studios maintaining this representation, if the roles were reversed and the White man was physically domineering in a relationship with a Black woman there would be a social justice uproar, as its reminiscent of Americas slave history. So it is understandable that such a power dynamic has to be avoided, and perhaps this is compensation for the centuries of mistreatment Black women have received at the hands of White men.
All in all, miscegenation on screen can be explained through a number of interrelating factors. Beginning with the slave history of America, it positioned the body as central to the Black male identity, due to the physical nature of the labour. Black men were highly sexualised and their athleticism was seen as a temptation for White women. These racial perceptions permeate into ideas of gender and Black women are seen as hyper masculine, this is the ultimate explanation for the disparity in racial representation. Since its difficult to figure out if films and TV define our behaviour or if our behaviour shapes films and TV, I propose diversifying the portrayals of miscegenation on screen. One shake-up could see a physically dominating White woman date a really insecure yet intelligent Black man, whom she inspires to reignite his academic career. The inverse couple could even base around class divisions too, like an educated and high-class Black woman dating a trailer-park dwelling White guy. Over the course of the movie she refines his tastes and introduces him to a world far beyond the life he previously had. Kind of like a new-age, racially charged pretty woman scenario, but without the patriarchal undertones.
What do you think? Leave a comment.