When I viewed the movie Precious (2009) (1) several years ago, I was deeply moved by the script, the performances, and the cinematography that was part of that cinematic experience. For over two hours, I watched this young Black woman endure frequent physical, verbal, mental, and emotional abuse at the hands of her dysfunctional mother Mary and her perverted father, Carl, with whom she bore two children. As I exited the theatre, my heart grieved for the poor, Black teen mothers reared in severely disadvantaged home environments like the one depicted in this movie. Over time, however, my graduate course, Human Diversity and Oppression, helped crystallize in my mind that the tragic experiences suffered by the protagonist in this movie may not be an accurate representation of the lives of most young Black urban teen mothers. To state this more clearly, although the life of Claireece "Precious'' Jones is a multitude of traumatic experiences, it can be reasonably argued that the experiences of this young Black poor woman and the dynamics within her family and community are a gross misrepresentation, trumped up by media sensationalism.
As a critical race scholar, I actively encourage my graduate students to identify specific stereotypes related to race, class, and gender, but more important, I challenge these students, who will one day be social workers, to understand how stereotypes can negatively affect perceptions of individuals and families. A stereotype is "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing" Oxford Dictionaries (2012). Thus, a "fixed and oversimplified image" can have two negative effects: (1) stereotypes oftentimes make it difficult or impossible to understand the real experiences of individuals, families, and communities; and (2) stereotypes may frequently obscure the various ways that poor Black teen youth demonstrate resilience in the face of multiple challenges.
The purpose of this paper is to conduct a content analysis of the cinematic portrayals offered in the movie Precious (2009) against those presented in six movies that feature Black female between the ages of 10-16 in eighteen television sitcoms that feature Black females between the ages of 12-16. In particular, I gave attention to representations of young Black (2) females in movies and sitcoms as these genres, along with radio, are the most frequently consumed by members of the general public. (3) Furthermore, film and television are media outlets that include audio as well as visual imaging, while music is solely limited to audio depictions. An additional purpose of this paper is to examine the lives of young Black females in movies and sitcoms against scholarly work that has focused on poor Black urban teen mothers, their families, and their communities in the United States.
There are four reasons why an examination of poor Black urban teen mothers is significant. First, according to recent statistics, Black children (37.9%) are substantially more likely to live in poverty (4) than Hispanic (33.8%) or White, Non-Hispanic children (12.3%). (5) Second, school dropout rates are significantly higher for teens residing in poorer communities.
In 2007, the dropout rate of students that lived in low-income families was about 10 times greater than the rate of their peers from high-income families (8.8% vs. 0.9%). (6) Third, the academic achievement gap is greater for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers. (7) Finally, poverty and economic hardship is particularly difficult for parents who may experience chronic stress, depression, marital distress and exhibit harsher parenting behaviors. These all link to poor social and emotional outcomes for children. (8)
This study has three major goals. The first is to identify pervasive negative stereotypes that make it difficult to understand, identify, and interact with individuals, families, and communities. The second goal is to demonstrate how the media, especially films, often obscures the various ways that poor Black teen youth demonstrate resilience in the face of multiple challenges. The final goal of this study is to reveal the economic realities of young Black teen mothers, in both real life and reel life.
From the onset, it is important to acknowledge young Black teens' disproportionate exposure to a plethora of realities that perpetuate poverty and make social mobility more difficult. For example, Black teens generally reside in poor neighborhoods, and are members of weak family units that contribute to lower learning. (9) In addition, Black youth are more likely to be depressed, (10) homeless (11) and experience decreased functioning in all aspects of life quality. (12)
Furthermore, an analysis of the home environments of young Black female adolescents is informative. Related to this, Gordon, Perko, and Taylor (2007) reveals that Black people, on average, view an hour and 45 minutes more television than White people. Besides viewing more television than White people, Lariscy, Reber, and Paek (2010) finds young African American teens are also more likely than teens from other racial and ethnic groups to rely on media (television, radio, and the Internet) as viable sources of health information. Given the influence of the media on Black teens, Littlefield (2008) asserts that the media perpetuates racial and gender stereotypes that place Black women at a distinct societal disadvantage. This paper uses content analysis to expose and compare the stereotypes presented in both television and film, paying particular attention to young Black female characters.
The following five questions were foundational to this critique: (1) What are the major issues and challenges that poor Black teenage mothers face? (2) What kind of relationships do poor Black teen mothers have with their parents? (3) How are poor Black poor teenage mothers, generally faring? (4) How does the movie "Precious" compare with other portrayals of Black youth between the ages of 10-16 in movies? (5) How does the movie "Precious" compare with other portrayals of young Black teens between the ages of 12-16 in television sitcoms? Although the story length, character development, and ending in movies and sitcoms are uniquely different, content analysis examines the race, (13) gender (14) and socioeconomic realities of Black people, (15) as well as the impact of product placement in these genres. (16) For example, Watson (2012) and colleagues found sexualized images of Black women in various media outlets fuels the wanton sexual objectification of members of this group.
In the section that follows, the review of literature is organized based on the questions that guide this scholarly endeavor, which starts with an overview of the changes in Black families and highlight the growth of young single parents. In particular, key scholarship is highlighted related to the major challenges that Black poor teenage mothers face, the relationships of young Black youth, as well as how young poor Black teens are faring, overall. Then, I briefly discuss the impact of media on popular culture and highlight the controlling images of Black women in the media. This paper concludes with a discussion of how the character "Precious" reflects and does not reflect the complex characterizations of other young Black urban teens, their families, and communities presented in the media. To accomplish this goal, I juxtapose the experiences of Claireece "Precious" Jones with those of other young Black adolescent females in five other movies, as well as young Black adolescent females featured in eighteen television sitcoms. Essentially, in this paper, I argue young poor Black urban characters in families that are more nurturing, supportive, and positive than the dysfunctional one portrayed in the stereotypical "Precious."
Review of Literature
The African American family has historically been the subject of scholarly attention, national concern and debate. (17) Over seventy years ago, E. Franklin Frazier (1939) wrote the first comprehensive study of Black family life, titled The Negro Family in the United States. In this historical piece, Frazier (1939) discusses the impact of matriarchy and patriarchy, the impact of slavery on family solidarity, the impact of long-term poverty and lack of access to education and migration, that has negatively impacted the stability of the Black family. Nearly thirty years later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) offers the report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, which suggests a breakdown of urban Black families was approaching a "crisis level" and likely to continue. Moynihan argues that the root of many problems faced by these families was the simultaneous erosion of the traditional Black family structure and the rise in poor single-headed, female households. In essence, Moynihan strongly suggests that if Black family units were characterized by traditional (married) and economic stability, they would be shielded from family problems. It is important to note that many scholars took issue with Moynihan's wide sweeping assertions and offered new scholarly approaches to studying Black families. In particular, these erudite methodologies assert characteristics of Black families does not relate to race, but rather, social conditions that deter Black progress, affirmed cultural "difference," and praised the strengths of Black families instead of focusing on their deficits. (18)
Although society has seen a general increase in the number of children born to unmarried parents, the rise in single parents is dramatically evident among African Americans. (19) In 1965, 24 percent of Black infants and 3.1 percent of White infants were born to single mothers. In 1990, 69 percent of Black children were born to unmarried parents, (20) and these rates have seen a slight increase.
Currently, 72 percent...