The Strong Black Woman has been standing tall for many decades. She’s unbreakable, resilient, almost superhuman. So what’s the problem with this seemingly empowering depiction of black women? What do the stories of Annalise Keating (How to Get Away with Murder), Celie (The Color Purple), Olivia Pope (Scandal), Michonne (The Walking Dead), and Miranda Bailey (Grey’s Anatomy) tell us? In this video, let’s take a look at the history and meaning behind the Strong Black Woman Trope.
Since the late 20th century, the image of black women as unbreakable and almost superhuman has dominated TV and film. The strong black woman character type onscreen can be identified by some key features:
Although black women of immeasurable strength do exist in real life, in recent years popular culture has begun to recognize the toll that having to manifest this superhuman strength takes on black women, both on-screen and off.
- She does not tolerate B.S.
- She has a strong moral compass and holds others accountable.
- She’s a natural nurturer, channeling her strength into helping others, sometimes even to the point that she disregards her own needs.
- She’s a high performer. The strong black woman has likely had to outperform her mostly white and/or male peers in order to get where she is.
- Perhaps most centrally, this character has endured extreme hardships in her life and overcome them. The adversity she’s lived through has become a source of her inner power and helped define her code of personal ethics. The strong black woman can be seen as selfless strength personified, the human embodiment of the maxim that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Here’s our take on the strong black woman on screen, how she’s evolved, and why she deserves a world that doesn’t require her to be so strong all the time.
Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America Is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman.”
A Brief History of Black Women on Screen
While black characters have had a place in American film since its invention, African American writers, directors, and even actors were largely absent from mainstream early filmmaking.
Josie McCoy: “Do you know why we’re called the pussycats? Because we have to claw our way into the same rooms that you can just waltz into.” – Riverdale
As a result, black characters generally were reduced to stereotypes. During the early rise of film, the predominant characterization of black womanhood was the mammy, a trope most famously personified by Hattie McDaniel’s character in the Civil War- and Reconstruction-era set film, Gone With The Wind.
Mammy: “Just hold on… and suck in!” – Gone With the Wind
The Mammy was a nurturing, friendly, always smiling black woman, generally, a slave or servant who functioned to justify the mistreatment and subjugation of African Americans based on the false claim that they enjoyed serving white families.
Starting in the 1970s, blaxploitation movies ushered in the popularity of another equally harmful stereotype: the jezebel trope, which portrays black women as sexually insatiable and animalistic in their desires. The jezebel actually existed long before the movies made it mainstream. This damaging myth was used to justify sexual abuse of black women during and after American slavery.
The third prominent stereotype of black women is the Sapphire, also known as the angry black woman. The Sapphire imagines black women as irrational, quick-tempered, and often emasculating to their male partners. This trope reflects society’s fear of anger in black women, and because those who speak out against discrimination or mistreatment are often dismissed as fitting this stereotype, black women are trapped in an impossible situation where they must suppress their emotions even in the face of unfairness. Throughout the history of film, all three of these stereotypes have functioned to paint black women as inferior and limit their upward mobility.
Then, enter the Strong Black Woman.
Link: “What are you trying to do, kill me?”
Foxy Brown: “I damn well ought to you rotten bastard!” – Foxy Brown
Her modern image began to take shape in the 1950s and 60s during the black liberation movement. Celebrated figures of that period like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King inspired many through being characterized in this way while looking back we can see that this portrait has deeper roots in their predecessors during the abolitionist movement. In her 2011 book, Sister Citizen, sociologist Melissa Harris-Perry writes that this trope was constructed by black women as a way to escape the pervasive negative stereotypes of the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire. Seemingly the opposite of those harmful cliches, the Strong Black Woman is a beacon of superiority. She’s extraordinary, even immune to obstacles and pain. However, Harris-Perry claims that this identity is possibly just as limiting as its historical antecedents, writing, “by adopting and reproducing the icon of the strong black woman, African American women help craft an expectation that they should be autonomously responsible and self-denying caregivers in their homes and communities.”
In The Color Purple, the 1985 film based on Alice Walker’s novel of the same name, Whoopi Goldberg played Celie, a black woman who endures a life of assault at the hands of her father and husband before finally becoming self-sufficient. The women in The Color Purple are some of the earliest mainstream examples of the strong black woman trope in film.
Sofia: “Girl you oughtta bash Mister’s head open and think about Heaven later.” – The Color Purple
They are strong-willed, morally righteous, and nurturing, even though they have endured unimaginable hardship. Speaking of her character, Sofia, Oprah Winfrey said, “she’s a combination of all the women who I think make up such a strong legacy for black women.”
In 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong’o gave an Oscar-winning performance as Patsey, an enslaved woman on the plantation where the protagonist is wrongfully sold into slavery. Patsey’s strength is demonstrated both physically as she outperforms every other slave on the plantation and emotionally, as she endures violence and sexual abuse.
The titular character in the 2009 film Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, faces abuse from both of her parents before eventually finding out that she is H.I.V. positive. Though only a teenager, Precious embodies the maturity of the strong black woman through her unselfish pursuit of a better life for her children, even when she has very little hope for herself.
Precious: “I just wanna be a good mother.” – Precious
Significantly, even though the idea of the strong black woman was initially conceived of by black women themselves, its popularity on TV and film was mostly influenced by white and/or male filmmakers. And while these famous films have been enjoyed by black women and feature powerhouse performances by black actresses, their success also shows how so-called “mainstream” audiences prefer to see black women: as supernaturally strong, inspirational figures who are able to endure extreme suffering and still be okay.
It’s also notable that these are the performances that tend to be recognized by awards. Of the 12 black women ever nominated for the Best Actress Academy Awards, at least eight of them were for roles that could be characterized as strong black women and these accolades implicitly encourage movies to keep presenting this one type of narrative.
Ultimately, the strong black woman trope does very little to improve conditions for actual black women. It doesn’t call for change, it just offers a feel-good celebration of this character’s exceptional strength. At worst, these depictions risk implying that black women do not need systemic change because they are strong enough to withstand society’s abuse. Meanwhile, the world itself debunks the assumption that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In reality, suffering and abuse can frequently lead to trauma, mental illness, and other toxic cycles.
The Supportive Strong Black Woman
Jeff: “I was raised on TV and I was conditioned to believe that every black woman over 50 is a cosmic mentor” – Community S1 E1
The strong black woman is also commonly featured as the sidekick or supporting character to a white and/or male protagonist. In 2011’s The Help, Viola Davis plays Aibeleen, a black domestic worker who helps a white novelist expose the abuse of black maids in their town.
Though Davis’s performance was well-received, many critics pointed out that Aibeleen’s strength mostly served to inspire the film’s white protagonist, played by Emma Stone, and the movie was accused of whitewashing the civil rights movement and downplaying the racism experienced by domestic workers in the south.
In Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg plays Oda Mae, a psychic who connects with a white man’s ghost to help him avenge his death. Here, Oda Mae’s strength literally serves the white protagonist in that she acts as his only physical presence.
In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Taraji P. Henson’s Queenie lends her strength to raise Benjamin Button as her own, even while running her own business as a black woman in the 1920s. Henson also stars in Hidden Figures as a computer at NASA who is instrumental in both the rocket launch and the life of her rundown white male boss. In all of these examples, the strong black woman is used as a tool for the white protagonist. Even though she herself is suffering from discrimination, she offers up her never-ending strength to help them.
As TV producers put a higher value on “diverse casting,” the strong black woman has cropped up as a supporting character across genres and in roles where her race is rarely, if ever, mentioned. These examples often serve as strong and selfless helpers to the shows’ protagonists, while their personalities are rarely fleshed out with the same depth and complexity that the main characters’ are. In The Walking Dead, Danai Gurira’s bad-ass, sword-wielding Michonne displays unflinching spirit and exceptional physical strength, but she ends up using these assets to repeatedly save the other characters, making her feel almost like a machine, compared to the more three-dimensional characters who get the opportunity to make mistakes.
Andrea: “I shot Daryl.”
Dale: “Don’t be too hard on yourself. We’ve all wanted to shoot Daryl.” – The Walking Dead S2 E5
In Suits, Gina Torres’s Jessica Pearson is the powerful boss of the two white male protagonists, but she acts as a sort of maternal figure to those leads, keeping them in line and swooping in to save them when they need it. In Person of Interest, Taraji P. Henson’s Joss Carter has a strong moral compass, general fearlessness, and impeccable grasp of professionalism, all of which are there primarily to make her a valuable resource for the series’ protagonists in their work.
John Reese: “I gotta admit, Finch, I sure like her style” – Person of Interest S1 E9
As Harris-Perry describes, the strong black woman’s power is only celebrated when it is in service of others. Henson – speaking on yet another strong black woman she’s played – theorized that audiences are only able to relate to Cookie on Empire because she went to prison to help her family, telling Vulture, “I think that’s why people are drawn to her. I was afraid when I read the script that people were going to hate her: She went to jail for selling crack.” Moreover, Harris-Perry argues that strong black women “are validated, admired, and praised based on how they behave, not on who they are. Loss of social standing is an ever-present threat for individuals whose social acceptance is based on behavioral traits rather than unconditional human value.” For the strong black woman, what she does becomes who she is, and most of these narratives devote little attention to her inner life for its own sake.
Beyond the Strong Black Woman
Of course, the strong black woman is not limited to TV and Film. Countless celebrities, public figures, and everyday women are characterized and even think of themselves in this way.
Tarana Burke: “Black women are magic and we rock mostly because we are resilient. We have a long history of taking what we have to make what we need.”
Recently, though, many have started to take a closer look at the psychological and emotional strain of trying to live up to this myth in real life. The conception that black women are inherently strong has historically discouraged many from seeking mental health counseling. Psychological studies suggest that while black women have one of the highest rates of depression, they are under-treated for mental health as a demographic. The conception of superhuman black female strength also poses a danger from outside the black community. A survey of American medical trainees found that half believe in certain myths such as black people having thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings. These misconceptions could lead to under-treatment of black patients and even prove fatal for black mothers who experience under-treatment during childbirth.
As cultural opinion begins to shift, some narratives are also starting to reflect the toll that embodying this perfect image can take on black women. On Grey’s Anatomy, after countless seasons of ruling with an iron fist, Chandra Wilson’s Miranda Bailey has started to grapple with her own mental health and stress.
Miranda Bailey: “And I cope with it every day. I take my medication and I’m doing great. But sometimes I need help.” – Grey’s Anatomy S15 E17
Bailey’s storyline is especially powerful because the character is still as strong and formidable as ever, but the portrait acknowledges the need for this personality to take time to focus on herself. On How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise’s iconic scene of taking off her wig became an image that encapsulated the vulnerability of the strong black woman.
Viola Davis: “It is about uncovering and feeling comfortable with the way we are and the way we look when we’re in private.”
Other narratives have gone beyond the strong black woman by allowing this character to be more than perfect. On another Shondaland hit drama, Scandal, Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope who also happened to be the first black female lead of a network drama in 40 years initially appeared to be the textbook, strong black woman, lending her strengths to propping up the corrupt American republic, but Olivia quickly complicates this picture through a growing list of selfish acts, not least of which is her long-standing affair with the president. So as she grapples with her many mistakes and sometimes reprehensible actions, Oliva Pope is afforded something that’s long been denied to the strong black woman: moral ambiguity. Washington gets to portray the kind of messy, flawed antihero that’s been getting male actors acclaim for decades. More recently, Washington also plays a more complicated take on the strong black woman as Mia Warren in Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere. Throughout the first season, the audience is made to question whether Mia’s actions are entirely noble or right, but this complexity makes Mia an interesting and real person. And through Mia, the show illuminates that, for most, the ideal of the strong black woman is impossible to live up to.
Mia: “You didn’t make good choices you had good choices. Options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.” – Little Fires Everywhere S1 E4
As black women are finally being given more opportunities to write and produce their own stories, we’ve finally started to see protagonists who eschew the strong black woman trope altogether without falling into harmful stereotypes. Crucially, shows like Insecure and Chewing Gum showcase the power of media that features more than one black woman.
Issa Dee: “I don’t wanna have to be the voice of all black people” – Insecure S3 E2
Similarly to when stories with only one featured female character use her to represent all women, narratives with only one black woman implicitly force that character to stand in for her entire demographic. Lupita Nyong’o praised her 2018 film Black Panther for the way it showcased black women in multiple positions of power.
Lupita Nyong’o: “Women are allowed to realize their full potential and that’s what Ryan wanted to show and he committed to having that number of women around him.”
Shuri: “I invite you to my lab and you just kick things around?” - Black Panther
So, as more black women get the opportunity to tell their unique stories, we can look forward to a greater variety of representations of what it means to be a black woman, ones that aren’t defined by struggle and hardship. We might see more stories about these characters’ joys.
Narratives should help us envision a world where black women don’t need to be so strong and we can celebrate them for everything else they can be.
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“Is Bias Keeping Female, Minority Patients From Getting Proper Care For Their Pain?” The Washington Post, 29 July 2019.
Manke, Kara. “How the “Strong Black Woman” Identity Both Helps and Hurts.” Greater Good, 5 Dec. 2019.
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Obenson, Tambay. “‘The Color Purple’ Revisited: Why Spielberg’s Movie Is Still Problematic and Meaningful to Many Black Women.” IndieWire, 3. Apr. 2020.
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Martin, Nina, and Renee Montagne. “Black Mothers Keep Dying After Giving Birth. Shalon Irving’s Story Explains Why.” NPR, 7 Dec. 2017.