CELEBRATE! Profile: Raven Bennett '14

A strategic communications major teamed with the director of Elon University's African & African-American Studies program to conduct undergraduate research into the portrayal of plus-sized black women in popular media.

Raven Bennett '14
Raven Bennett ’14[/caption]By Erin M. Turner ‘15

How are overweight black women represented in American media? Here are a few descriptions that might spring to mind: angry, nurturing, hyper-sexualized and condescending.

Need proof? Look no further than male actor Tyler Perry in his role as Madea in films like “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” or Eddie Murphy as Rasputia in the movie “Norbit,” or Martin Lawrence as Big Momma in “Big Momma’s House.”

And as Elon University senior Raven Bennett explains this week during the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, moving beyond such portrayals of black women requires that Hollywood’s black male leaders understand the damage they cause with their depictions.

“My research began with the thought that you can’t be accepted as a fat black woman in Hollywood unless you’re a black man in a fat suit,” said Bennett, a strategic communications major from Raleigh, N.C. “From that, it evolved into something deeper than I ever imagined.”

Bennett’s undergraduate research, “Resisting Erasure: Representations of the Fat Black Woman in the U.S. Media,” is the first student scholarly work to be featured on E-net this week in a series of stories on research shared at SURF during Elon University’s CELEBRATE! Week 2014.

Under the guidance of Associate Professor Prudence Layne, director of the university’s African & African-American Studies program, Bennett also presented her findings in March at the 38th annual National Council of Black Studies Conference and earlier this month in Jamaica at Mico University College Research Day.

“When I thought about the images of black women in the media, I landed on portrayal of fat black women,” she said. “I realized that depictions of black women in the media weren’t the same as my perceptions of black women.”

As part of her work, Bennett analyzed and examined current stereotypes and Hollywood box office figures, and she surveyed Elon students, faculty and staff members to determine how media portrayals influenced perceived perceptions of fat, black women.

Bennett argues that the authentic fat, black woman and the image created by black men in fat drag are caricatures of each other. As they fight amongst themselves, neither gains legitimacy. One is forced to “perform” as the other to gain acceptance, she said, and as they compete, they unknowingly erase themselves. 

“Dr. Layne has been the greatest supporter of my research,” Bennett said. “She has taught me to own my research and to become that scholar that people look to as an expert in the topic of my research. It’s great to have a mentor who is just as invested in my research as I am.”

Feedback she received on her research has been overwhelming and humbling, she said, especially from international audiences who heard her in Jamaica. Following that presentation, Bennett was approached by several people who said “they wished that every young girl in Jamaica could have been there to see my presentation.”

“It wasn’t until I took my presentation outside of the United States that I realized how powerful it could be to a different audience,” Bennett said.

In addition to her undergraduate research, Bennett has interned for Obama for America and is currently a marketing intern at the Durham Performing Arts Center. She studied abroad with Layne in South Africa during Winter Term 2014 and previously served as president of the Elon University chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

She said she encourages students to conduct undergraduate research, even if they are currently undecided on the opportunity.  “Many people hear ‘research’ and automatically assume that it’s boring,” she said. “That’s not true. Conducting this research has been a highlight of my Elon career.”

CELEBRATE! is Elon University’s annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. For more information, visit elon.edu/celebrate.