Christina Baker - Oscar Irony

christina_baker.jpgChristina Baker finds great irony in the Oscar nominations this year. Some 70 years after Hattie McDaniel took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Gone with the Wind's famous "mammy" the only African American actors being recognized in this year's Academy Awards - Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer - are playing maids in The Help.

Baker, an assistant professor in the American Multi-cultural Studies department, guides students towards the importance of critically analyzing gender and ethnic minority representation in the media. She is particularly interested in how African American women are represented in film and media.

"The critique here is not toward the actresses and filmmakers but with an industry that has allowed such a narrow narrative of African American life to be told," she says. "African American women in the film industry must work within an industry and culture that historically and continuously places African American women in stereotypical roles."

Some would argue that African American women have been properly recognized for their film achievements, including Halle Berry's Academy Award win for Best Actress, the first and only African American woman to have done so.

However, Baker says that roles for women of color are often limited to those that are stereotypical, ranging from the "mammy" and the "welfare mother" to the argumentative "sapphire" and hypersexual "jezebel."

In addition, the most recent actress to win an Academy Award is Mo'Nique, who in 2010 won the best supporting actress Academy Award for her role in the film "Precious." In this film, Mo'Nique plays an abusive welfare mother.

The point of discussing these roles is not to critique Davis, Spencer, or Mo'Nique, says Baker. Each one of these actresses has demonstrated their talent in these and other roles.

"The limited roles for which African American actresses have been recognized is a sign that the American culture and film have not moved beyond the stereotypical categorization of African American women, and have yet to fully recognize the range of talents of African American actresses, and African American women, in general."

Baker notes that African American women have made many significant contributions to American culture, and to the film industry. Actresses such as Angela Basset, Alfre Woodard and Cicely Tyson have given great performances in a variety of roles over the past several decades.

Additionally, Kerry Washington, Sanaa Lathan, and Zoey Saldana are actresses who have also begun to make their mark in the film industry, and have demonstrated their talents in many recent films, she says. African American women, such as Kasi Lemmons and Julie Dash have also made significant contributions to the industry as filmmakers.

In their films, Lemmons and Dash have provided more complex narratives of African American women than have most films, says Baker.

"If the American culture and film industry move beyond the stereotypical categorization of African American women, we would be more open to recognizing the range of talents that are available within this diverse society," she says.

Baker's interest in racial and gender identity and inequality began while studying sociology as an undergrad at UCLA. She decided to pursue the topic as a graduate student at UC Irvine where she examined how those same issues were being presented in the media.

She completed her postdoctoral research fellowship with the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at University of Notre Dame.

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