Senior’s thesis challenges depictions of black women in media

What started off as a journey in self-discovery inspired Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies major Rachel Jones ’18 to research black women in the media for her senior thesis. “It wasn’t really until I got to Williams that I started thinking about these things,” Jones said. But, after taking classes with professors of color, particularly women of color, she became increasingly interested in dissecting the role of black women in society, herself included. She told us she “would definitely attribute [her] academic interest to the women of color professors” who affirmed that the work is not only important but necessary.

Now, Jones finds herself browsing through media and shows to find the roles that are available to black women in today’s world. From Beyoncé to The Bachelorette, her thesis focuses on the increased presence of black women in media and analyzes the romantic and sexual agency these characters are given. As opposed to past stereotypical representations, her hope is to promote black female roles that appropriately depict their own personal narratives.

Much of Jones’ project focuses on reality star Rachel Lindsay. Lindsay was the  second runner-up in the 21st season of The Bachelor (the furthest a black person has come to winning since the show’s premiere in 2002), and first ever woman of color to go on to becoming the bachelorette in the subsequent season of the franchise.

“Now because we are in this really interesting moment where black women are seen on T.V. … I think it’s interesting to think of [the] agency in that and how black women are able to create their narratives,” Jones said.

With this idea, Jones also emphasized that her work is particularly important now, given the turbulent political climate that both the College and the country are currently facing. She discussed the differences between narratives and agencies of black women during both the Obama and Trump eras. “In terms of depictions of black women in the Obama era, you were seeing black women, but they weren’t nuanced versions,” Jones said. “It was like, ‘just because we have a black woman as a main character, then that must mean that everything is fine and her depiction is great and dandy,’ whereas that is not the case.”

Jones also holds concerns about the black female narrative during the Trump era. Specifically, she analyzes the last season of The Bachelorette, which took place during the 2016 election and made historical progress by having its first black female lead. “This season aired during Trump,” Jones said. “It was interesting thinking about the things people feel like they can say under this political moment that we are in,” she said, in regards to the show’s contestants last season.

Jones intends to go to law school with an enriched understanding because of her research. Although her research is not tied to law, she believes it will ultimately help her better understand the idea of representation. “I worked for the Innocence Project, which worked to help wrongfully incarcerated people, and a women’s center,” she said. “I realized how disconnected from real life the people who are making the laws are. … I do think the lack of understanding comes from our history.”

Jones emphasized the deep personal connection she has to the research she has conducted for her thesis. We asked her what black womanhood meant to her. “I don’t think it’s one thing, I think it’s changing. I think in the media, it’s allowing black women to not be tokens, … to be on the same playing field,” she said. “Black womanhood to me is how I’ve lived – on the screen, it’s not always filling the box.”