Excerpted From: Jessica M. Williams, Looking a Certain Way: How Defunct Subjective Standards of Media Regulation Continue to Affect Black Women, 111 California Law Review 247 (February 2023) (231 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JessicaMWilliamsPicture Betty Boop. You see a big-headed 1920s New Woman cartoon wearing a sweetheart minidress with a flirty hemline that reveals the garter on her upper left thigh. Boop became an icon through film shorts centered on her bold and risqué activities that screened as opening acts before feature films during the 1930s. Onscreen, Boop was known for her sexuality and adaptability, playing everything from presidential candidate to racecar driver.

But regulation changed all of that. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, cultural anxieties around women's increasing independence and conservative social mores became institutionalized through the creation of guidelines for images intended for popular consumption. With the implementation of Hollywood's morality code in 1934, Boop was no longer allowed to be a sex symbol. Accordingly, her signature dress expanded to cover her shoulders and garter, and her storylines became entirely domestic. Not every subject received equal attention, however: code enforcers did little to nothing to protect depictions of Black women, in particular.

The production and reproduction of images, both moving and static, are still regulated through official and unofficial means today. Regulatory bodies that oversee these images and their production impart a particular perspective, informed by a specific viewpoint. This matters because television and film present images as capsules of beliefs at a particular moment, and trademark regulation makes images' commercial value clear. Governing agencies, whether in Hollywood or Washington, D.C., and official guidelines are frequently designed to support the perspective of their founders. Both the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC, 1934-1968) and the United States Patent and Trademark Office (PTO), were founded by White men, and worked to institutionalize their founders' perspectives. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), founded in 1922, tasked with enforcing the MPPC, did the same for its White founders. I argue in this Note that the enforcers of these perspectives, abiding by MPPC and PTO examination guidelines, approved stereotypes of Black women that continue to affect viewers today. The MPPDA's and PTO's subjective guidelines did little to nothing to prevent negative stereotypes of Black women. Though neither the MPPDA nor PTO continues to apply an offensiveness standard today, the cultural products that came out of their enforcement continue to occupy our collective memory.

Neither the MPPC nor the PTO examining guidelines was designed with women or Black people at the helm, and both populations remain largely excluded from entertainment and intellectual property industries. For these reasons, I center my analysis on how the approval of stereotypes--despite morality and offensiveness standards--affects the group living at the intersection of those marginalities: Black women. Through the actions of both regulatory offices, Black women have been discriminated against in specific anti-Black, racist, and misogynistic ways that have made possible what Moya Bailey calls misogynoir, defined as “the particular venom directed at Black women through negative representations in media.” Studies show that, although racist stereotypes abound, many Black women possess high self-worth. I argue that because these stereotypical images of Black women are not new--and because Black women are aware of their historical production context--we are often able to process them without internalizing them, though they continue to affect identity development. Many Black women, however, in casting off certain stereotypes, feel the need to overcompensate for these stereotypes' shortcomings, therein exacerbating the systemic inequalities that first allowed such stereotypes to proliferate.

In this Note, after outlining the establishment and missions of the MPPC and PTO, I describe the racist stereotypes of Black women that the respective agencies approved. I bring in cultural and film theorists' explanations of viewer psychology with a focus on Black woman spectatorship to bridge gaps between what viewers see and how they receive those images. From there, I engage with psychological research explaining the physiological effect of these images and how they affect Black women's sense of self and coping mechanisms. While negative representations in media are not exclusively responsible for these outcomes, their effects on all viewers--regardless of ethnicity--play an important role in maintaining systems of power. Before concluding, I present ideas for how individuals and groups can take those systems apart.

[. . .]

The regulation of images yielded a set of stereotypes that objectified Black women. Even as they professed to prevent offense and promote cultural uplift, the MPPDA's and PTO's subjective standards approved offensive stereotypes about Black women for distribution. These stereotypes grew out of racist histories that denied personhood by depicting Black women almost exclusively as Mammies, Sapphires, and Jezebels. Because cultural images are constantly reimagined and reinterpreted--and because the industries that produced these images remain largely unchanged--these stereotypes continue to function as intended. Black women's familiarity with the systems that approved the images makes it possible for critical viewers to engage with entertainment and commercial images without internalizing them. But this is not always the case.

The onus for protecting Black women from harmful depictions has always rested with the viewers, whether what we look at is regulated or not. It is telling that the only way to combat such negative stereotypes is through active spectatorship, therein perpetuating the Strong Black Woman stereotype of self-reliance and independence. In examining the ongoing White “strategy of domination,” bell hooks's theory of Black woman spectatorship reminds “that white slaveowners (men, women, and children) punished enslavedblack people for looking.” In many ways, Black women continue to be punished for looking. To transform us into objects, Black women are punished first for not being White women--for not being worthy of protection. As spectators and consumers, we are punished once more for taking in media and branding that denigrate our humanity. Neither the foundational strategy of domination nor the system of political power that first instituted the PTO's and MPPDA's subjective standards has been dismantled.

On a personal level, in cultivating resistant ways of looking and directly bucking stereotypes, Black women have established an aspirational model of Black womanhood that is an amalgamation of Mammies, Sapphires, and Jezebels. As a collective, Black women have focused the drive to overachieve and overcompensate into asserting control over our representation, from media to medicine, politics to the judiciary. Regardless of self-esteem or regulatory agencies' subjective standards, Black women must still fend for ourselves. Thanks to centuries of conditioning, we will.

J.D., 2021, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.