Throughout television history, black women have been perpetuating common stereotypes – both knowingly and unknowingly – such as the angry black woman, the jezebel, the matriarch, among others. Black women are either hypersexual (jezebel), disturbingly asexual or nonsexual (mammy), rolling their necks or snapping their fingers (angry black woman), or just plain disrespected and stripped of all beauty in comparison to their superior counterparts: white women. Over the years, black women have been portrayed as sole survivors on television screens. In other words, they are often portrayed as women who are stereotypically strong, independent, and indefinitely single. However, the first season of the modern-day TV show This is Us strays away from the strong, independent or angry black woman stereotype with the character Beth, the lovely wife of Randall. Being the only black woman that is a recurring character on this TV show, Beth holds some differences that the other women on the show do not have to deal with. In other words, Beth “fit[s] into more than one category” of identities, which include her being black, being a woman, and those two identities together makes her a black woman (Collins 3). These different categories that Beth is placed into, or Beth’s encounter with “intersectionality” makes her susceptible to possibly reinforcing the many negative stereotypes that black women on television have often displayed (Collins). Nevertheless, on This Is Us, she is depicted as Randall’s rock – or support system – but she is also shown as a black woman capable of being loved as well as being in loveinstead of remaining solo while the other (white) women on the show get to experience romance and partnership. There is an expectation that the white women in the show will experience romance and partnership, while many audiences do not expect to see black women represented in monogamous, happy, long-term relationships. Therefore, Beth’s representation on the show negates the common negative black female stereotypes that are seen on television, ultimately expressing the idea that black women on screen can have romantic relationships, handle life situations without always resorting to anger, and have emotions that reflect the same ones shown by all other women on TV, particularly white women.
Beth’s position in her relationship and life with Randall goes against the common idea that black women on television cannot either find or keep a man (especially a black man). In other words, Beth counters the notion that black women are indefinitely single, or never seem to have steady partners or relationships. In season one, episode two of This Is Us, the length of Beth and Randall’s romantic relationship is revealed. As they are lying in bed talking, Beth says to Randall, “I want to ask you something, but I’m not sure how to say it” (S1 E2). Randall then replies with, “Since when do we censor ourselves with each other? You know, Beth, we’ve been together for seventeen years. That’s almost half our lives. I know your face, your hands, your soul, better than I know my own. You don’t have to censor yourself. Ever. Not with me” (S1 E2). With this exchange, it is discovered that Beth has been in a committed, loving relationship for seventeen years, which is a long time. The length of the relationship alone serves as a counter to the representation of black women not being in steady relationships on screen. This representation of a black woman being in a long, loving partnership is important because it shows that black women are indeed capable of finding romantic partners and staying with their romantic partners permanently. Beth’s relationship on the show also goes against the general consensus about how men feel about black women that is presented in Cartier’s article. Cartier mentions that “nobody wants to be [a black woman] and nobody wants [a black woman]” (152-153). It is made extremely clear that Beth is very much wanted by her husband, which can be seen in the length of their relationship and his kind, loving words. Beth’s relationship with Randall also denotes the concept of hypersexualizing black women (jezebel stereotype) in relationships, because Beth is with one man, not multiple partners, which counters the common representation of black women not being able to keepa man (or not wantingto keep a man) and stay with that one man. Also, sexual relations are not shown as one of the primary activities the couple engages in, and the somewhat “absence” of sexual romance is a theme for Beth and Randall throughout the rest of the season. In fact, the other couples in Beth and Randall’s lives (Kate and Toby, Kevin and current mate) are represented as very sexual lovers, and are given multiple sex scenes or conversations surrounding sex in the show, which goes against the historical hypersexualizing of black women and men on television and in real life. Ultimately, the depiction of Beth’s monogamous relationship with Randall retorts a commonly negative characterization of black women on screen.
Beth is characterized as a black woman who deviates from common black female stereotypes. She is not too submissive, nor is she overbearing, nagging, or controlling. She puts an end to the angry black woman stereotype, as there is not one time in the entire season when she blows up and gets upset or even very loud in protest. In other words, she attracts her black husband Randall because she is “nice, gentle,” and “know[s] how to treat [her] man” (Bennett & Morgan 495). These characteristics that Beth obtains go directly against the angry black woman stereotype, making Beth lovable instead of causing her to be pushed aside, overlooked or undervalued in comparison to white women on television, who are often characterized as being just right for men on television. Beth’s lack of the angry black woman stereotype opens up the conversation about the phenomenon of interracial relationships between black men and white women. Randall has married Beth, and not a white woman, but Beth’s lack of negative stereotypes can attest to the overall concept. According to Bennett and Morgan, “black men are described as shallow and obsessed with White beauty, and unwilling to meet the reasonable demands of Black women as intimate partners” (492). Beth’s relationship goes against this idea, as Randall is depicted as being perfectly content with Beth’s “demands” in their relationship (Bennett & Morgan 492). There is no evidence given that Beth has ever had to compete for Randall’s love with a white woman in the show. However, it is important to place emphasis on the fact that Beth’s partnership does not follow the common theme in modern day of black men choosing white women because of their sweetness and sexiness and leaving black women in the dust because of their anger and their “unpleasant” looks. Bennett and Morgan continue on to say that
black women who refuse to behave in a submissive manner in response to these institutions are stigmatized and punished by the stereotype. They are labeled “mannish,” unfeminine, and undesirable. Black women who are afraid to be labeled by this stereotype are made to prove their femininity through silence and submission, hoping that this behavior feminizes them and qualifies them for male protection (492-493).
Essentially, Bennett and Morgan are saying that black men are depicted as having a tendency to choose white women as romantic partners because they obtain pleasant characteristics that are the opposite of the characteristics black women are constantly given: anger, unattractiveness, and controlling matriarch. As a result of the negative descriptions that black women are given, black women may feel the need to suppress their “anger” and other unappealing characteristics in order to find and keep a black man. This concept of black women and white women’s stereotypical representations helps express how Beth’s representation in This Is Us completely diverges from the conclusions made by Bennett and Morgan, as Beth is not characterized as angry, unattractive, or controlling. Also, her husband Randall tells Beth on screen that she does not “have to censor [herself]” when she wants to talk or interact with him (S1 E2). Both Beth’s characterization and Randall’s words prove that Beth and her relationship can be separated from the common negative depictions of black relationships as well as the negative individual characterizations of black women and men.
Beth is constantly depicted as being the “rock” or support system for her husband Randall. Often on television, black women have been portrayed as controlling or matriarch-like. There are several instances in the first season of This Is Us when Beth seems to be trying to control situations involving her husband, but the scenes never get loud, wild, or out of control. In other words, Beth demonstrates a somewhat controlling behavior, but her actions are paired with kindness and concern rather than anger, again leaving the angry black woman stereotype behind. For example, in season one, episode six, Beth is with Randall’s biological father William in the backyard having a conversation (S1 E6). When William lets it slip that he has known Randall’s birth mother for Randall’s entire life, Beth becomes extremely concerned and says “Hell no. You’re not cancering your way of out this one old man. You better talk” when Willian tries to avoid the conversation (S1 E6). With this example, it is clear to see that Beth comes across as somewhat demanding. However, because Beth always has Randall’s interests at heart, her response to the situation comes across as more concern for Randall’s feelings rather than anger directed at William. In other words, Beth does not sound angry, nor does her body language display anger of any kind. Her voice and body language stay level and calm rather than loud and uncontrollable, taking away the controlling nature the scene could have portrayed. Another example of Beth’s contained and protective behavior over Randall is in season one, episode sixteen. Randall had just suffered another nervous breakdown and decided to go on a road trip with his dying biological father William (S1 E16). The conversation goes as follows:
Beth: I think it’s a terrible idea.
Randall: Beth –
Beth: No, he needs to hear this Randall. That’s why we came here today, isn’t it, Dr. Lee?
Dr. Lee: I think it would be helpful if…
Beth: One week ago, you had a breakdown. Your blood pressure was through the roof. Your vision was going in and out. And then paralysis. Not to mention the tremors. It was scary. And you’ve only been out of the hospital for five days. And now he wants to pick up and take his father, who,
Randall: Beth –
Beth: Mm-mm, not even close to done. His father, who is in the throes of stage four cancer, no less, on a cross-country road trip.
Randall: Memphis isn’t cross country.
Beth: Oh, well.
Randall: It’s not.
Beth: Memphis is not next door.
Randall: You done?
Beth: I am done.
This exchange between Beth, Randall and Dr. Lee expresses Beth’s concern for her husband’s health and safety, as well as the health and safety of William. The way the scene was portrayed did not depict Beth as flying into a loud, uncontrollable rage, nor did she have a bad attitude that is commonly associated with the angry black woman and matriarch stereotypes. Beth’s voice stayed level and calm throughout the entire conversation. Also, her husband denotes any possibility of Beth’s behavior being seen as controlling or negative when he says, “Now, my wife is naturally and adorably concerned” after Beth’s mini-speech fraught with worry had ended (S1 E16). Randall’s words are important because they express his belief that his wife is not being unreasonable or dominating. Rather, she’s just concerned. His use of the word “adorably” to describe her concern is significant as well, because that very much disintegrates the chances of Beth being seen as unruly and matriarch-like by both the audience of the show as well as Dr. Lee. Ultimately, it is shown that Beth does not have total control over this situation in the end, because Randall and William end up going on the road trip, to Beth’s dismay (S1 E16). This scene is very critical in proving that not all black women are angry, controlling matriarchs with their men because it expresses how black women are capable of exemplifying concern without expressing complete and total authority or dominance over their partners.
In addition to disproving common negative black female stereotypes, Beth also proves that black women are human beings who have feelings and can get emotional and deeply vulnerable. In her article, Cartier mentions that “to be black still carries stigma, and as we create ourselves anew to bend and shape to perform some version of what we ‘should be,’ often under the rubric of the politics of respectability, we are constantly thwarted as a result of what we are: black, and thus never equal and never quite human” (152). In This Is Us, the audience is never shown a moment where Beth is faced with any issues about her identity as a black woman, but black people have constantly been dehumanized on television throughout history, sometimes even in modern day. Despite this dehumanization, Beth counters it when the audience finally sees her break down and show how she really feels, rather than her being depicted as Randall’s calm and collected support system. In season one, episode seventeen, Beth gets emotional after William’s death because she was hurting and she did not feel she had a way to cope or mourn properly (S1 E17). She says to Randall, “You got your trip to Memphis. The girls got their memorial. He left you all with a way…I loved him too Randall. I never even got a chance to say goodbye” (S1 E17). In this scene, Beth is on the verge of tears while her husband simply stands behind her, not necessarily sure what to say to help Beth, or whether he should say anything at all (S1 E17).
The emotional vulnerability that Beth exudes in this scene is very powerful and telling, as for the first time in the entire season Beth finally expresses how she feels about herselfrather than how she feels about a situation involving Randall. She is the one in need of support in this case, instead of it being the other way around. Beth shows her humanly connections to her own emotions along with her husband’s emotions, completely disconnecting from the dehumanization that black characters in television have often faced throughout the years of television history. This emotional scene also shows how Beth deviates from the strong, independent black woman stereotype that also exists alongside the angry black woman and matriarch. She is not seen as a strong independent black woman in this scene because she feels like she has no control – she lets her guard down and expressed sadness and despair rather than toughness and togetherness. This depiction of Beth is significant because through her emotional moment, it can be seen that black women, too, are capable of loving others and feeling connected to others rather than always feeling anger, dominance, or the need to appear put together or tough.
Over the course of the first and only season of This Is Us, the audience witnesses the progression of Beth and her representation as a black woman on screen. She serves as a model to show that black women can think, act, and behave in the same positive manners that other women on television think, act and behave. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Beth on the show is her deviation from the many black female stereotypes that black women on television face constantly, particularly the angry black woman. In Bennett and Morgan’s article, the concept of “racist-sexist cultural pathology” is mentioned, which is a way of thinking that “argues that anything that black women do, say, express, or feel should be interpreted as an expression of [their] anger,” and “the implication is that black women are so simpleminded that they are not capable of any other form of emotional expression” (493). In noting this concept, it is made clear that societies are conditioned to assume a black woman is angry whenever she reacts to any situation, no matter what. Despite this concept, Beth’s behaviors continuously counter this notion, as she acts out of love and concern, never anger or aggression. Also, Beth goes against the idea of black women being simpleminded and not being able to exhibit any form of emotion besides anger when she has her own personal breakdown in regard to William’s death. Additionally, Beth’s actions and behaviors throughout the season were always described as caring and harmless by her husband Randall, further affirming the idea that Beth was never portrayed in any stereotypical fashion. Beth’s representation as caring, not controlling, and concerned but not angry paints an uncommon picture of black women on television – Beth’s representation presents her as a wife that serves as an actual partner rather than a dominator, as well as a woman who is capable of expressing her inner emotions, thoughts, and opinions without her husband or audience members perceiving her actions or reactions as a form of rage.
“Career Days.” This Is Us, written by Bekah Brunstetter, directed by Craig Zisk, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 2016.
Cartier, Nina. “Black Women On-Screen as Future Texts: A New Look at Black Pop Culture Representations.” Cinema Journal, vol. 53, no. 4, pp. 150-157. EBSCOhost.
Collins, Patricia Hill, and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality.Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2016. Print.
“Memphis.”This Is Us, written by Dan Fogelman, directed by John Requa & Glenn Ficarra, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 2017.
Morgan, Marcyliena, and Dionne Bennett. “Getting Off of Black Women’s Backs: Love Her or Leave Her Alone.” Du Bois Review 3.2 (2006): 485-502. Proquest. Web. 13 June 2017.
“The Big Three.” This Is Us, written by Dan Fogelman, directed by Ken Olin, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 2016.
“What Now?” This Is US, written by K.J. Steinberg & Vera Herbert, directed by Wendy Stanzler, National Broadcasting Company (NBC), 2017.