Tropes: Part of Human Nature-- and Part of the Problem

If you took high school psychology, you’re probably familiar with schema, “a cognitive structure representing a person’s knowledge about some entity or situation, including its qualities and the relationships between these,” according to the APA dictionary of psychology. Essentially, humans have an innate need to use patterns and relationships to categorize and classify things, in order to make sense of the world. While schema is necessary and helpful, over-classification often feeds into stereotypes. Stereotypes, unfortunately, make us comfortable just as schema does. When people want to reinforce their stereotypes, they often need look no further than media stereotyping, AKA tropes. We are all aware that stereotypes exist and that even outlets that are supposed to be fair and unbiased utilize them sometimes, but a trope that has been particularly relevant lately, especially now that we have entered Black History Month, is that of the angry black woman.   

Serena Williams has faced many controversies throughout her storied career, from allegations that she was being drug tested disproportionately, to her marriage to a white man, to the banning of her catsuit. In an incident that sparked Twitter-wide discussion about the use of the angry black woman trope, Williams “received a code violation for coaching, a penalty point for breaking her racquet and a game penalty for calling the umpire a ‘thief.’ And later, a fine of $17,000 (£13,000),” according to BBC. The Women’s Tennis Association declared her punishments and penalties “sexist,” and law professor Trina Jones pointed out that black women are often encourage not to push back against perceived unfairness for fear of seeming threatening or aggressive (BBC). 

 While people can, and did, debate the righteousness of Williams’ anger and the fairness of the penalties over and over, Mark Knight’s cartoon in the Herald Sun soon became the hot debate topic. Widely regarded as offensive and in support of the angry black woman trope, the cartoon portrays Williams as childish, barbaric and even violent. Satire and comedy often employ exaggerations to make a point, but the exaggerations in this particular cartoon denigrate Williams’ undeniable talents and portray her anger as completely unwarranted. No sport is a stranger to drama from fans and players alike over official calls, but many argued that Williams took on the brunt of criticism based on our assumption that black women are angry or have attitude problems. Right or wrong in her anger, Williams feel victim to this dangerous trope in Knight’s cartoon, reducing her argument and her performance to fit our schema and media tropes.