- Area: Arts
- Program: Performing Arts
- Type of Writing: Essay (Argumentative)
- Course Level: 1000
- Paper ID: A.P.A.E.1.4
The Black Market: Black Women in Film
I was a quiet believer in Hollywood’s dominant ideology before moving to the United States. I was eighteen years old, and—apart from two Blacks and a handful of Whites—my exposure to race had been Asian, Asian, and perhaps a little more Asian. The only racial subjection I had received was through film, where I saw Latinas working as house maids, Blacks working their way off their streets through hip-hop dancing, and Europeans who all had English accents (or were Russian, muscular, with caricatured heavy accents and large guns with them at all times). Though my new location of residence was Utah—a place hardly popularized for its diversity—it was still more diversity than I had ever known, and this changed me in ways I was hardly even aware of until I visited my family in Japan over the summer. I was astounded by the amount of racism and—since my brothers are not, in any sense of the word, “quiet”—that it was no longer that quiet racism I had known in our childhood, where we were simply fooled by the dominant ideology of the entertainment industry. The level of my brothers’ racist ideologies in a world where enlightenment lies at our fingertips by internet mediums shocked me. When I attempted to explain to them how their mindsets were backward and their words cruel, they simply rolled their eyes and labeled me “sensitive,” “emotional,” and “Captain Obvious.”
At meeting this reaction from my brothers, I wondered how Black women could possibly handle it. For if I—a half-White woman who has never had to go through the vicious stereotyping Black women undergo every day—in my attempt to enlighten my brothers to their racist ways, grew sputtering and angry at their sheer stubbornness in failing to acknowledge equality and the danger of stereotypes, how much more so must Black women feel when they are championing their own cause and people refuse to pay heed? Even more so, how despondent they must feel each time a new film surfaces, and once again are the Black women portrayed as Mammies, Jezebels, Tragic Mulattos, and Sapphires. In this piece, I will detail the stereotypes of Black women in film in the early to mid-1900s and explore how dominant ideology continues to persist through these stereotypes.
I love old films, particularly films from the early 1900s. I spend my nights with films like Holiday Inn, Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, and Father of the Bride. These films share common traits: hilarious scripts, easy romance, and the Mammy archetype. The Mammy archetype was a depiction of Black women as obese, maternal, non-threatening housekeepers who served White families loyally and obediently. Historian Catherine Clinton states that the Mammy archetype was created by white Southerners in attempt to soothe relationships between White men and their Black slave women after the rise of abolitionism in the United States, since the reality of a black woman presiding as a right-hand woman over a household was a largely rare one until after slave emancipation (Clinton, 1982). The danger of the Mammy archetype was that, though it may have given Blacks opportunities in film and a face to look up to on the movie screen, it was an archetype that kept Black women “in their place.” Black women were played by actresses such as Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel, and they were often portrayed as self-sacrificing, subservient women who lived to wait on White people hand and foot, often remarking that they wanted nothing more. This was problematic because, as Jacqueline Bobo writes of the Mammy archetype:
“William Faulkner has never in his life sat in on a discussion in a Negro home where there were all Negroes. It is physically impossible. He has never heard the nuances of hatred, of total contempt from his most devoted servant and his most beloved friend, although she means every word when she’s talking to him, and will tell him profoundly intimate things. But he has never heard the truth of it. For you, this is a fulfilling image, because you haven’t either.” (Bobo, 1995)
Because people had little or no idea of the realities of being a Black servant, they took the Mammy archetype as reality, and believed wholeheartedly when Hollywood promoted the idea that Black servants were all happy in their place as submissive, inferior “beloved friends.” However, we cannot simply restrict the Mammy stereotype to classic Hollywood films, for we see it surface in film still. The Help, released in 2011, showcased that Black women were indeed mistreated and unsatisfied, but they also perpetuated the physical idea of a Mammy: overweight, unattractive, and non-threatening. To limit Mammy archetypes to classic Hollywood films is to say it is an archetype not still prevalent in some form today, but how often do we see Black women portrayed this way, as the overweight Black receptionist who works for the charming White and never talks back, content to do her job well and never seek a promotion (often urging the White to pursue promotion instead)? It is a small thing for a film to simply hire that larger, Black woman because she is just so “right” for the part, but perhaps we should consider what continuing to restrict Black women to roles of inferiority and portraying satisfied compliance with those roles says about our society as a “progressive” culture.
The Jezebel and the Tragic Mulatto
When I returned to Japan after three years of living in the United States, my first conversation with my older brother Yuuichiro consisted of him detailing his “phase” following a bad break-up that consisted of approaching women who looked like “sluts and hos” and insulting them until he got a rise out of them. When I asked him how, exactly, he knew these women were “sluts and hos,” he replied that he “could just tell.” When pressed further, the example he presented me with was a Black woman. The idea of Black women being portrayed as promiscuous females with formidable sexual appetites is not one range-bound to my brother’s racist mindset, but is a determined stereotype of Black women in film called the Jezebel. Jezebel characters were often embodied by prominent actresses such as Pam Grier and Dorothy Dandridge, publicized as sexual icons in a time when American Black women were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. While Rosa Parks steadily stood her ground and refused to give up her seat to White people on a bus, the media was publishing article after article about Dorothy Dandridge’s breakthrough performance as a demanding, promiscuous whore in Carmen Jones.
While Hollywood steadily began its journey into breaking former sexual regulations in film, the idea of the Tragic Mulatto reared its head—a child of Hollywood’s hypersexual depiction of Black women and their tendency to lead White men astray. The Tragic Mulatto was a sensuous, light-skinned, often depressed woman who led males into sin and wicked “urbanized” lifestyles, whose life often ended in death or destruction. Dorothy Dandridge was well-known for playing both the Jezebel and the Tragic Mulatto, due to her exceeding beauty and light skin. When young Black women were surveyed on the subject of Dandridge and her roles in cinema, the reactions were not completely adverse. For once, Black women were simply relieved to not be seeing themselves depicted as mammies, as Ruth Jeffries mentions in remembering watching Carmen Jones for the first time from the “Colored-Only” section of a cinema theater:
“I had never seen a black woman in this kind of role. Not that the role was profound. But it was a major role in a movie shown in theaters around the country. She was pretty. She wasn’t fat. She wasn’t a Step-and-Fetchit model. I remember reading her response to the nomination in some magazine. She said, ‘You don’t know how much this means to me.’ We felt that way too. Young, black adults thought she was great.” (Mask, 2009)
But how despairing a thought that Black women could admit that these performances were not what they would consider “profound” by any means, but that they accepted because it was closer to the reality of a Black woman than the Mammy archetype. Though the Tragic Mulatto is not a stereotype particularly dominant in today’s ideology, the Jezebel certainly is. In Monster’s Ball, 2001, many cultural critics protested its perpetuation of the Jezebel stereotype. Though we are, no doubt, making strides in allowing Black people to portray themselves as opposed to our fixed ideas of them, the stereotypes Hollywood has created persist and permeate the ideology of society, as in the case of my brother Yuuichiro.
The Sapphire is perhaps the most common of Black female stereotypes. She is a rude, angry, and emasculating woman. Created as an attempt to appease Black women who called for a more independent, real media representation, this stereotype only served to drive Black women even deeper into the social restrictions and consequences of inaccurate film depiction. The term “Sapphire” was coined after the character Sapphire in Amos ‘n’ Andy—a loud, obnoxious woman whose comedic purpose was to emasculate male characters. However, she is even now presented in modern cinema, such as in Gabrielle Union’s character in Daddy’s Little Girls (2007). Though many women identified with Sapphire in her frustration and hardships, they were resentful of the ridiculous way in which she was portrayed. In “The Oppositional Gaze,” Bell Hooks explains:
“She was even then backdrop, foil. She was bitch—nag. . . She was not us. We laughed with the black men, with the white people. We laughed at this black woman who was not us. And we did not even long to be there on the screen. How could we long to be there when our image, visually constructed, was so ugly. We did not long to be there. We did not long for her. We did not want our construction to be this hated black female thing—foil, backdrop. . . There was nothing to see. She was not us.” (Bell, 2000)
But Black women find it hard, oftentimes, to protest this stereotype in fear of being misconstrued as this stereotype in doing so. In my visit to Japan, I met a Black woman who introduced herself to me as a friend of my older brother Takashi. However, she admitted that she initially did not care for him. The first time they met, she recounted, he strode into a party wearing a coat with a bright, large picture of the Confederate flag emblazoned on the back, and when she tried to explain to him what the Confederate flag stood for and why it was inappropriate, he immediately labeled her as “sensitive,” “angry,” and “uncool.” I was even more horrified when I heard he still wore this coat, and asked her why on earth she was still friends with him. She replied resignedly, “It’s. . .fine.” But it was not fine. It is not fine. Perhaps she really did not care one way or another, but it appears to me as though Black women have become so afraid of becoming that stereotype that they struggle to avoid it at all costs, even refraining from being angry when it is their right to be so. In perpetuating this dominant ideology in film, we are teaching Black women that they cannot express themselves without being labelled as the stereotypes they detest.
The dominant ideology that Black women fall into our neat little categories is perpetuated in film over and over, and this shapes the mindsets of our society. By neglecting to represent Black women realistically and by letting these ideals permeate our own ideals, we allow the dominant ideology to persist. I struggle every time I have a conversation with my brothers to break their ignorant ideology, but they hardly respect my words–this younger sister, this woman, this inferior. If an esteemed and popular medium such as film were to create faithful representations and respect Black women, perhaps society would, as well.
Bobo, Jacqueline. Black women as cultural readers. Columbia University Press, 1995.
Clinton, C. (1982). The plantation mistress: Woman’s world in the old South. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Hooks, Bell. “The oppositional gaze.” Black Female Spectators” in Reading Images (2000).
Mask, Mia. Divas on screen: Black women in American film. University of Illinois Press, 2009.