“Belle” is a beautiful word that means “pretty girl.” Belle is also the title of a movie, now showing, about the real-life black girl in a famous portrait that depicts her in the unusual place alongside her white cousin, posed to show their equal status in a family of English nobles during the late 1770s.
That was made clear when she inherited an estate when her father, an officer, was killed. With an income, property and a title, Dido’s status was elevated and she became a member of society.
The movie goes to great lengths to depict the sharp line between the classes. For example, the man who loved Dido had to enter into an acceptable profession, law, before he could qualify for her hand in marriage. He was the son of a clergyman, considered a lowly profession and held in near contempt by Dido’s relatives.
Incidentally, he was white but that mattered far less than what his title, property and position were.
Dido’s value was such that, at one point, she was bartered to become the wife of a penniless, but titled, man. He would be marrying “up.” That she was black was incidental and could be overlooked while the two families’ chess moves were completed in binding them together, securing a larger set of holdings and titles for both. She rejected that suitor for love. Ah, the movies.
It must be noted that Dido’s guardian, her great-uncle, Lord Mansfield, was the chief justice of the country. Dido flourished under the care given by him and his wife, guided by the strict hand of a spinster nanny/aunt. She led a very privileged life and was tutored in the skills and manners of a lady.
A significant legal case debating the issue of slaves as cargo served as the story backdrop. The decision of Dido’s uncle moved England closer to abolishing slavery. That he kept his mulatto relative as a full member of his family was the subject of criticism, innuendo and ridicule. But his position of power placed him above the disapproving few.
The movie repeatedly makes the point that Dido was, by the contemporary European standards, a pretty girl. Her father found her to be “beautiful, like her mother.” She was attractive to the gentlemen of her society and she was precious in the hearts and sight of her benefactors.
In her historical biographical profile, Dido married, had children and presumably lived out the normal life of the landed gentry in 18th century England.
End of that story.
But how should we assess this anomaly in the face of the common history, treatment and depiction of black girls over time in various societies and in the media?
A few years ago, we watched the plight and pathos of Precious on the big screen. This powerful story was beautifully rendered by a cast of black women and a girl, Gabourey Sidibe, who received numerous awards for their acting skills in the title role. Simultaneously, Precious was criticized for showing the “ugly” side of our plight.
Two decades ago, we all cheered the Foxy Brown moxie in which Pam Grier kicked ass! We liked that image: a take-no-prisoners black woman who would whip you! Foxy spawned a long line of such caricatures, leading us to the ubiquitous franchises of Real Housewives and other reality celebrities who regular use their fists and words to assault the viewing public on the small screen.
They’re very popular and their images are widely copied. Oh my!
Once, there was Julia, sweet, nurse, single mom, all knowing, wise and black. Did she play well against stereotype? Of course, but there was the matter of that image’s commercial value. She was too darn normal!
Bill Cosby and his franchises held a top place in the hearts and minds of America for a full decade and we gained ground through his portrayal and treatment of black girls/women in the Huxtable family of The Cosby Show and the college kids in a Different World. It was top-drawer, but limited in its relation to reality. We are not all college-educated, professional and/or under the guidance of an all-wise father-figure.
In between, black girls have had a paltry lineup of realistic models in the media to draw from, starting with the caricatures of black women in the Amos ‘n Andy franchise, then a long line of female impersonators such as Geraldine, Madea and Shananae; Disney’s princess and her frog; the Herculean strength of Patsy in 12 Years A Slave; and the impossible intrigue of Olivia Pope, played by Kerry Washington in Scandal, to name a few.
With those choices, it is easy to embrace the antidote found in the portrayal of Dido in Belle.
But none of those portraits is real. I wonder if I had had a daughter to what lengths I would go to give her the “right” image. What would I do? What would I tell her? How would I wear my hair? And so on.
Over the past few months, we have slowly, and painfully, come to the realization of just how little the lives of all our girls really matter since the Nigerian girls’ kidnapping. We are still trying to #BringBackOurGirls from the world’s inhumanity.
Are we just not pretty enough? Not tough enough? Not trash-talking and bad-ass-kicking enough? Not smart enough? Not humble enough? Not what?
What does a black girl need to be, just to be?
Antonia Williams-Gary may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org