Sunday, January 06, 2008
This column actually appeared in The Washington Post on August 8, 2006, but it’s worth reading still…
The N.Y. Times’ Unwitting Racism
By Jabari Asim
WASHINGTON—You may not know Yvette Nicole Brown’s name, but it’s quite likely that you’ve seen her face. The actress has appeared in countless television commercials, sitcoms, dramatic episodes and feature films. She has cherubic cheekbones and a bright, winning smile. She’s also one of those performers who can do a lot with a little, making a brief line or two as meaningful as a long monologue.
Brown unwittingly played a supporting role in a recent New York Times article addressing the phenomenon of “sassy, overweight” black actresses in TV commercials. According to the article, some observers are troubled by the sight of these women, who are “200 pounds plus,” most of which is “pure attitude.” They are frequently cast in roles, the article said, “where their aggressiveness is a defining trait.” The pioneer in this regard is “the heavy black spokeswoman for Pine-Sol.”
Curiously, none of the black actresses discussed in the article was quoted. The story was accompanied by two photos, one of which showed Brown as a distressed airline passenger in a Dairy Queen commercial. I recognized her and decided to track her down.
“My agent called me at like 9 in the morning and said are you sitting down? The day started off bad,” Brown told me in recalling the morning the story appeared. She has worked in television commercials since 2001. In 2003 she broke into TV and movies. She’s a size 14, she said, and has never weighed 200 pounds. “I’m not just some chubby chick who makes faces in commercials,” she added.
Brown arrived in Los Angeles after graduating from the University of Akron. She’d had a taste of the bright lights before, having signed a singing contract with Motown while still a teen. After completing college, however, she decided to focus on acting. “I said I would try to be a commercial actor. I got a commercial agent, and praise God, the work started flowing in.” Appearances on shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Two and a Half Men” soon followed.
She said she’s not aware of producers specifically casting for a “heavy” or “sassy” black woman. “Most of the commercials that I book are not written for black people. At auditions I’m often the only black person in a sea of white people. I have been on sets before when a director says, ‘Can you make it more ethnic?’ I always say, ‘Can you demonstrate to me how you want it done?’ That usually ends it.’’
Brown disagreed strongly with the notion that performances such as hers perpetuate negative stereotypes. “I project strength without being threatening,” she said. In her view, she fits comfortably in the range of portrayals currently being seen. “I believe we’re blessed right now to see all types of black women in TV and commercials, everything from working women to college students. It’s the entire spectrum of our beauty.”
That spectrum includes Diane Amos, who has been Pine-Sol’s TV face for 13 years. She told me that people who see a link between her work and harmful images from the past are caught up in their own misconceptions. “Why does it have to be Aunt Jemima? Why can’t I be Etta James at home, or Ella Fitzgerald on her off time? Why do I have to be held up to what they’re still calling a stereotype?”
I asked her if black folks ever give her a hard time about her portrayal. “Not once,” she replied, “and I get recognized every day, everywhere I go. I have never heard a negative comment.”
Brown and Amos take strong exception to any suggestion that their appearances are a setback for African-Americans, and I heartily agree. If I wanted to find troubling images of black female performance, I’d turn first to hip-hop videos, which often feature young, barely clad women mindlessly gyrating while a crotch-fondling thug spits bad rhymes.
And I don’t get this “sass” thing either. Stubbornness, blunt expression and withering sarcasm are attributes of the collective American personality. Citizens from all levels of society dish out large quantities of sass, from the disgruntled burger-flipper at the corner drive-through to the leaders of the Western world. Take, for example, George W. Bush, who once challenged insurgents in Iraq to “bring it on.” Or Vice President Dick Cheney, who memorably brought vulgarity to the Senate floor.
That it becomes troublesome when black women “bring it on” is, well, troubling.