Cultural Incompetence: Representations of Black Women in America Through Selected Popular theatre, Television and Film Performances 1940-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



Date of Award

Spring 2012


Black women are both underrepresented and misrepresented in American entertainment culture. Black actresses are among the least visible professional performers in the U.S. theatre and film industries, and as a result garner less attention in the creation and production of interesting storylines relatable to their experience as Black Americans. Perhaps this issue developed as a result of lingering racism and/or a lack of cultural awareness within our society. Professional Black actresses, in the past, were met with unfair work regulations and constraints that either prevented them from performing in certain locations at certain times or eliminated their performance rights altogether. Although these injustices were eventually alleviated, Black actresses seem to face a choice of accepting available negative stereotypical roles, portraying a Mammy (usually unattractive, uneducated and overweight), a Mulatta, (a light-skinned, physically attractive and emotionally distraught), or a Jezebel, (a hypersexual, amoral woman). While not as overt, U.S. society's knack for amplifying faux diversity has found its way into the twenty-first century theatre. Are Black actresses to blame for their own unpopularity and unflattering portrayals of Black women or are negative racist stereotypes and our society's lack of Cultural Competency of Black women the real issue? For this study I gathered historical information from 1940-2012 in regards to film and theatre. I used historical analyses, scripts, script reviews, film study, and interviews with various actresses as my primary sources of research. I apply these sources to Cultural Competence Theory, a term used by the National Association of Social Workers to describe a balanced society from which the authentic voice of various cultures can be heard. This research examines the damaging effects, if any, that negative racist stereotypes and American society's lack of Cultural Competence regarding Black female culture has had on Black American actresses and the representation of Black women from 1940 to the present day.


John Hanners

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Theatre and Performance Studies