Race and Representation in the Media

By now, you have probably heard the song Happy by Pharrell Williams. This upbeat, euphoric piece celebrates just being happy. Or perhaps you’ve seen the video, seen other people’s own version or seen Despicable Me. What you may have missed, however, is the controversy of his album cover. The picture for the cover of Pharrell’s album Girl has three girls and him standing in bathrobes and sunglasses. The controversy arose when many women complained that there were no black women in the picture. It brought to light the issue of colorism in the media for many people that had perhaps not thought of it before. For some black women, it was another example of being left out of the larger media picture. It also started a dialogue about expectations that exist for artists of color.

After the album was dropped, many people took to Twitter, many of them black women, with a common inquiry: “Why aren’t there any black women on the cover?” Or, and what was more divisive, “THAT’S not a black girl”.

I am not a stranger to the effects of the media, or that there are certain standards of beauty and that the features and skin colors that tend to be celebrated are ones that looks more Caucasian: Long, straight hair, fair skin, blue or green eyes etc. There are many examples of advertisements that do not portray black women in the same way that white women are celebrated. Lupita Nyong’o, the woman who won an Academy Award for her work in 12 Years a Slave, recalls not seeing any positive images of girls that looked like her and wishing that she looked lighter as a young girl. These thoughts and struggles are not necessarily new with women not seeing images that are representational of who they see in the mirror. Whether it is size, skin-tone, hair texture or age, there are many ways that advertisers show us that we are not “good enough”.

Pharrell’s response to the backlash was refreshing. In light of being the first African American in a year to have a number one song, the fact this conversation was being had on tweets and message boards across the world was divisive and damaging. He mentioned the pain that must occur in being questioned if you are “black enough,” as this model was. And that is much of the issue at hand – that somehow our looks are tied to something else; our heritage or lack thereof? That something that is produced by the media for profit reflects how we may feel about ourselves and others should give us pause when it affects us so deeply on so many levels. Or as Pharrell says, “Don’t find your confidence in a cover. Find your confidence in the mirror.”

Controversy regarding this Pharrell album cover focuses on the woman  second from the left, described by some as not “black enough”. Album cover courtesy of Columbia Records.

Controversy regarding this Pharrell album cover focuses on the woman
second from the left, described by some as not “black enough”. Album cover courtesy of Columbia Records.

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