The Archetypes of Black Women as Portrayed in Literature and in Popular Culture

The Archetypes of black women as portrayed in literature and in popular culture can be explored on a continuum that is cross-cultural which illuminates the shared experiences of black women in America and within the countries that constitute the African diaspora.


MatriarchThe Matriarch is arguably the most common portrayal of black women in popular culture. She represents the grandmother figure that plays a dominant role in keeping her family together by always offering words of wisdom that are either direct quotes from the bible or “common sense” wisdom that can only be attributed to her old age. The physical appearance of the matriarch is usually rough with every bit of her age being portrayed by her hands and skin. The skin color of the matriarch is usually dark as the dark color of the matriarch’s skin is used to further illustrate that she is a strong and powerful woman. Common representations of the matriarch in film can be found in Tyler Perry’s character Medea that frequently appears in his movies and screenplays. In the novel, The Harder They Come, authored by the Jamaican writer,  Micheal Thelwell several women throughout the novel represent the Matriarchal figure for Ivan, the main character in the book.


The Mammy is a common portrayal of the black woman in popular culture. She is akin to the matriarch figure because she is also big  and her skin is typically dark. The mammy figure is often associated with a popular brand of food items such as the Aunt Jemima brand of pancakes and syrup, which places the mammy into the role of home maker that is also commonly associated with the matriarch. However, the mammy figure does differ from the matriarch in many ways mainly because of her personality traits. Unlike the Matriarch figure, the mammy is without age-old wisdom and is instead ignorantly and blissfully happy despite her subordinate and demeaning role as a servant to whites. The Mammy figure has recently received renewed attention with the film adaptation of the novel, The Help being released.

The strong black woman

The archetype of the strong black woman as portrayed in popular culture is an ambiguous character that can have an array of personality traits. The strong black woman is often portrayed as fiercely independent, notoriously single, and easily angered. The strong black woman archetype also overlaps with the afrocentric archetype that also portrays the black woman as being independent and angry. However, unlike the archetype for the afrocentric woman, the strong black woman is often portrayed as a woman without intellect or rather her book smarts is often depicted as a negative quality that makes her hard and self-centered and is also used to justify why  she is profusely single. Another important characteristic of the strong black woman is that she appears to never face a hardship that she cannot overcome alone or simply with prayer.


The Jezebel is a well-known representation of the black woman in popular culture. The idea of the black woman as a Jezebel dates back to the seventeenth century and was supported by pseudo-scientific observations on the black female body, specifically, her protruding buttocks and hanging genitalia that was said to prove that  black women were by nature promiscuous. In correlation with the presumption that this type of woman is promiscuous, she is portrayed as a vixen and desirable to all men. Halle Berry,  Josephine Baker and even Beyoncé Knowles are examples of this type of character because they have all  portrayed themselves as sexual objects either by the way of provocative dance or nudity.


The Afrocentric black woman is often depicted as a social activists with an eye for racial injustice and prejudice.However, the afrocentric black woman is best known for her physical appearance that is distinctly different from the norm of American society. The black woman who is considered to be afrocentric is usually dark skin, wears her hair in its natural state and doesn’t dress in accordance with the latest trends of fashions.

The mulatto

The tragic mulatto is a woman who is of mixed heritage as a result of either rape or an illustrious affair that occurred during a time period in which miscegenation was either illegal or considered taboo. Despite, the tragedy of her heritage, the tragic  mulatto is depicted as universally beautiful and highly sought after. Physically, she is portrayed as having fair skin, loose wavy hair that is thick and long and her physical features are closely aligned to the European standard of women having small lips,  small noses, and an overall lean but curvy shape. A representation of the tragic mulatto in literature can be found in Victor Sejour’s Le Mulatre published in 1n 1837.

The Racially Ambiguous Black woman

The idea of the racially ambiguous black woman is  a depiction of black women that is rather new. She is often identified in popular culture as the token black girl because she is the black woman who is usually cast in television shows, talk shows or movies as the lone black cast member. The personality and social life of this archetype is what makes the black woman appear to be without race. For instance, she is typically really happy, quirky, agreeable and has a diverse group of friends and boyfriends. This archetype can be found in the hit  teen show,  That’s So Raven, in  which the lead character is Raven, a black woman with a bubbly, quirky and carefree attitude and a best friend who is white.

The Southern Tragedy

The southern tragedy is an archetype that  typically borrows from old narratives within the black community and usually involves a blind devotion to religion, abuse, and the secrecy of this abuse (Consider the character’s in The  Color Purple as prime examples of this archetype). The archetype of the southern tragedy has evolved over the years and is often depicted as the black woman who is on well-fare,  has many children, still a victim of some type of abuse but is also likely to be addicted to drugs. This type of archetype has become popular due to the increase of films that have sought to depict life in the ghetto in raw and captivating ways.


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