On August 24, 2016, thousands of fans on Twitter were intrigued by Katy Perry’s use of a buzzy new word: “Misogynoir.” At the time, the pop star was showing her support for Leslie Jones, the actress and comedian who endured horrific online abuse shortly after the release of her film, Ghostbusters. Following countless offensive memes and racist comments, Jones decided to suspend her account in July. Then, mere weeks after Jones's return to the platform, Perry tweeted, “Do not give your eyeballs to this racist, hate-filled, misogynoir crime. I #StandWithLeslie.”
What Is Misogynoir (and How Is It Different from Misogyny)?
As a result, Google saw a huge spike in search volume for “misogynoir,” but the term is still relatively uncommon in the mainstream media today. So, what exactly does it mean? And how does this differ from misogyny? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is Misogynoir?
The word may sound foreign, but it's something that we've all seen play out in popular culture at some point. Coined in 2008 by Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist scholar and professor at Northeastern University, misogynoir is a unique form of discrimination, where hatred is directed specifically at Black women. On her personal blog, Bailey explained, “it is particular and has to do with the ways that anti-Blackness and misogyny combine to malign Black women in our world.”
Bailey’s observations are supported by a long history of Black women being painted in a negative light, which in turn perpetuates harmful stereotypes that have existed since slavery. These popular tropes include: The mammy, which suggests that all Black women are meant to serve others; the Jezebel, which says that Black women are hypersexual; the angry Black woman (or Sapphire), which suggests that Black women are ill-tempered and threatening; and the strong Black woman, which paints Black women as fearless superhumans. These stereotypes are rooted in misogynoir and are extremely damaging because they rob Black women of their right to live freely and show their emotions without being vilified or labeled a caricature.
It’s also worth noting that this kind of discrimination can present itself as internalized misogynoir. Due to preconceived notions about Black womanhood and gender roles, there are some Black women who project negative, sexist ideas onto other Black women (and in some cases, onto themselves). It’s not always easy to recognize this because many women do this subconsciously, but it does surface in different ways, particularly through real-life interactions.
Why Isn’t It Just Called Misogyny?
While this technically falls under the umbrella of misogyny (prejudice against all women), misogynoir speaks to the fact that Black women experience a different level of misogyny due to the intersection of sexism and racism.
“What happens to Black women in [the] public space isn’t about them being any woman of color,” Bailey explained on her blog.
What Are Some Examples Of Misogynoir?
Leslie Jones isn’t the only one who fell victim to this unique brand of misogyny. Unfortunately, several other prominent Black women have also been attacked by the media and online trolls.
1. Serena Williams’s Treatment on (and off) the Tennis Court
Williams is, by far, one of the greatest athletes of all time. And yet, she has been subjected to countless racist and sexist attacks, from blatantly racist depictions in the media to the policing of her anger on the tennis court. Perhaps one of the most disturbing examples was the aftermath of Wlliams’s loss to Naomi Osaka in 2018, because not only was Williams fined $17,000 for calling out the umpire who falsely accused her of cheating, but also, The Herald Sun published an inappropriate, Jim-Crow-era-like cartoon of the athlete, who appears to be having a huge tantrum over her loss.
Meanwhile, Williams’s white counterparts have gotten away with much worse without such scrutiny. In 2020, Novak Djokovic had an angry outburst during a tennis match, causing him to accidentally strike a line person in the throat. As a result, the match ended early and Djokovic was immediately disqualified, leading to an outpouring of public sympathy over this unfortunate stumbling block in his career. This alone illustrates how society is so quick to support white athletes while vilifying Black women who dare to express their rage (or any negative emotion).
2. Remarks About Michelle Obama’s Appearance
Even despite the fact that the former First Lady carried herself with dignity and grace, careful to maintain a positive public image, some still tried to sully her reputation. For example, former West Virginia Mayor Pamela Ramsey Taylor called Obama an “ape in heels.” Politico's Michelle Cottle called her a “feminist nightmare,” and Fox News contributor Keith Ablow announced that she “needs to drop a few” before taking on any initiatives that involve nutrition. No other First Lady has endured this level of abuse, and even Obama has opened up about how these hurtful remarks affected her. “Women, we endure those cuts in so many ways that we don’t even notice we’re cut,” she said in her first public appearance after leaving the White House, “We are living with small, tiny cuts, and we are bleeding every single day.”
3. The Vilification of Meghan Markle
During her tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle revealed that the onslaught of negativity from countless British tabloids, as well as the palace’s reluctance to step up and protect her family, took a major toll on her mental health. Understandably, this led to the decision to exit the royal family with Harry—and though it was clearly mutual, the media was quick to pin all the blame on Markle, assuming she intentionally planned this exit to cause drama within the royal family. And if you think that’s absurd, just compare how the media has treated her to how they treat her white sister-in-law, Kate Middleton. In 2018, Markle was criticized for wearing dark nail polish (yes, nail polish), even though Middleton has been seen in public with darker nails on multiple occasions. And in 2019, The Express published an article suggesting that Markle is the reason behind Harry’s balding and weight loss (FYI, no such theory has been raised about Middleton and William).
These are just a few examples, and it’s worth mentioning that misogynoir also negatively impacts young Black girls. For instance, since they are often seen as less innocent and more mature than their white counterparts, it’s assumed that they don’t need as much protection.
Ok, What Can I Do To Help Combat Misogynoir?
We can all take steps to confront misogynoir. Here’s where to start:
1. Educate yourself about misogynoir and learn how to recognize it
Knowing what it means is a great first step, but learning how to recognize when it’s happening is also important. As a simple rule, if you notice that a Black woman is being treated in a way that you can’t imagine someone of another race or gender being treated, then that’s a sure sign it’s misogynoir.
2. Defend Black women when you see it happening
We can’t emphasize this one enough—especially if you're in a privileged position. Don’t be afraid to speak up and offer your support to Black women who are being targeted.
3. Question what you're consuming
Negative biases toward Black women are often shaped through reality shows, movies, music videos and more. It helps to keep in mind that these visual representations aren’t always accurate.
4. Hold your friends (and yourself) accountable
Do some soul searching. Have you been supporting or upholding any misogynoir ideas without realizing it? Does this apply to anyone in your circle?
5. Use your platform to spread awareness
Since misogynoir is still a pretty new term, there are a lot of people who aren’t familiar with it or its damaging effects. It never hurts to use your platform to educate others.