The Importance of Pop Culture Representation for Women of Color

Popular vernacular phrases. New dance moves. Toys and games. Fashion. Hair and makeup. Music and television. Public intellectual discourse. These are all areas where Black women influencers wield significant cultural power.

Pop culture has the power to change people’s perceptions about the world around them, and representation in that pop culture can have even more of an impact than you might think. There’s been much talk in recent years about female representation in movies and television; girl power has come to mean being tough, smart, and independent rather than being ditzy or submissive, while strong female characters like Katniss Everdeen and Rey continue to set new standards for the average girl’s life.


“Arguably, Black women have influenced every aspect of popular culture since they were brought over on slave ships,” explains Halliday. “Black women both cooked—creating a popular cuisine that many places around the world covet—and created new types of music, clothing and style traditions, and vernacular sayings since the 1700s. While there are many notable Black women, such as Sojourner Truth that actively shifted intellectual debates through speeches, I would probably call Ida B. Wells-Barnett the first ‘popular’ influencer because her writing and speeches not only circulated in the United States but also globally.”


Women of color deserve to be seen in all forms and shapes. they need to see themselves in the media they consume - not just as side characters or secondary roles but as the main leads or something more complex than stereotypes. 

The fact that women of color are so underrepresented in pop culture is important because it's one way that society reinforces the idea that white is better, and people of color are inferior. For example, on TV, African American actresses are less likely to receive a role with a love interest, or the lead role; Hispanic actresses are often relegated to playing maids; Asian actresses have limited opportunities available because Hollywood executives prefer to cast them as foreigners rather than Americans; women with disabilities who aren't white can expect even fewer opportunities.


A study published in the American Journal of Public Health showed that when women of color are represented in the media, it can have a positive impact on self-esteem and confidence. The study also found that this is more true among black girls than it is among white girls, which can be attributed to the double jeopardy that black women face in our society.

If we do not see ourselves reflected back in pop culture, we cannot imagine or aspire to a larger life. When women of color are portrayed as powerful leaders like Wakanda's Queen Shuri, teen sensations like Mexican singer Lali Esposito, or revolutionary icons like Winnie Mandela, they provide an example for other young girls of what is possible when you focus on your strengths and work hard towards your goals.

It is important to document Black women’s contributions because US society for many years has misattributed or discounted the ways Black people, but especially Black women, have helped to build and shape this country. I believe that better understandings of how Black women have contributed in ways as typical and regular as popular culture can result in a better idea of who and what we are as a nation.

Contributed by Adrienne Samuels Gibbs