I conducted a loose Google Image search study for the trope “Asexual Mammy” in 2018, and this was found to be trans-historically true: an emphasis on size, domestication (being in the home), and difference—not only limited to her, but also mutually constructing her antithesis in categorization, the deviant/dependent thin male.
In reading Amy Erdman Farrell’s (2011) Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture and Maxine Leeds Craig’s (2002) Ain’t I a Beauty Queen? Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race, I began thinking of the two in tandem, as my research focuses on multiple masculinity constructions and their intersections, particularly around meanings and representations of the thin-male body and gay/queer/trans-/female masculine embodiment. Farrell analyzes a 1907 postcard, pairing a large white-woman with her butt-crack showing with a hobo admirer viewing her from behind, and grabbing his crotch in bemusement (70). Farrell in her analysis claims “the men in these postcards who look happy with fat women are either poor (the hobo), working class (the plumber), or exceedingly silly (the absurdly small or thin),” and I emphasize beyond Farrell’s nod to this, coded with racial implications, as ideologies surrounding the body, sexuality, race, and gender are all invariably intertwined (70).
Rather than begin historically, I want to proceed chronologically through the life of the thin-male co-dependent in investigating the asexual mammy stereotype. I explicitly looked for images of thin-white male dependents and/or deviants—using ‘deviant’ here to mean the relationship differs from stereotypical notions of the asexual mammy in racially mainstream white-dominant American ideologies that emphasize segregation—imagining her as: asexual, guardian, resource, and object, including her objectification through fetishization and racist mocking humor. Indeed, author Maxine Leeds Craig asserts, ““[t]he potential dignity in a portrait of a motherly southern black woman had been preempted by the countless derogatory images that had been produced of comical, subservient, and asexual “mammies” (146). Other images of thinness are constructed in opposition with her also, including the evil white mistress, the hypersexual white master, the dependent white and black child, and the weaker, patient/invalid dependent; all in her space due to economic, and medical (‘mental’ or physical health) reasons, existing in sliding and mutually dependent intersections.
Beginning with traditional embodiments of the asexual mammy and white-thin construction starts in childhood, as represented here by the thin white boy in this early-to-mid 20th century Aunt Jemima advertisement. The headline has her voicing the brand’s physical availability—and hers—with copywriting imitating African American Vernacular English speech patterns saying, “I’se in Town Honey!” She looks directly at the viewer while the boy only has eyes for her, implying, as later we’ll see, childhood infantilization and physical accessibility remain coded devices throughout historical representations of the asexual mammy.
Next, the thin white male in his early-to-mid twenties to thirties, as represented contemporarily by Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones’s ongoing romantic/comedic relationship storyline on Saturday Night Live. Here we see the relationship modernized and radically different from historical constructions, but still all to similar. Mooney frequently plays little boy characters on the show, utilizing his small stature and in a sense, typecast into his own roles because of his bodily presentation—as is Leslie—and that is this pairing’s enduring symbiosis. Still in a domestic setting, albeit with physical intimacy and representing a fictional loving relationship: their size, racial, and physical differences invite comedy for voyeuristic audiences to contemplate their sexual practices and gawk at their gender reversals. Their sketches are usually filmed in more intimate settings, not on the live stage reserved for live taping…that relationship dynamic is usually saved for “Weekend Update” co-anchor Colin Jost and Leslie Jones to interact on.
Following young-adulthood is the middle-aged car salesman. I use this political cartoon to be emblematic of the ongoing trope of “welfare queens” that politically used the asexual mammy’s image to represent a paradoxically continuous connection to deliberate licentiousness and increased births as reasons for government subsidy, that conflict with her asexuality. Highlighting the predatory economic dependence of the two here is my key aim. If the asexual mammy is out of the house, it is for a political purpose, mobilized by conflicting white-dominate political parties of democrats and republicans. The donkey emotes at her similarly to Farrell’s hobo on the 1907 postcard (70). Even an erect Cadillac ornament positioned at the salesman midsection on top of a car engine—extending out towards her in predatory excitement—points to the intimate relations between the two. Smell frequently occurs as a target of ridicule, as noted here by the flies that seem to attract the donkey and thin white man despite, or because of, the smell. Changes from other images though appear to depict her hair as natural and proud, she is ambulatory, and confident in a neo-liberal, market-choice kind of way, still benefiting late-capitalistic inequality.
This final image, of a middle to older aged thin white male is emblematic of nineteenth-to-early-twentieth century racist portrayals that demonized miscegenation, or racial mixing. This man is categorically referred to as a “Not Particular,” which the crude poem addresses the “reader” (i.e. a white person), emphasizing he would not “assault” white women, but seems to have no problem lunging arms out toward the asexual mammy. Described as a “wench” here, the poem accredits stereotypical connotations of fetishization and deviantness to both bodies. Further dehumanization and racial humor is performed in the poem by referring to her “stench” as intoxicatingly foul. However, the thin white male is juxtaposed with her as old and affluent, again highlighting their physical, economic, and historical interdependence and ties to slavery. Kissing, eyes open staring at each, probably intonates, as the text also does, that their actions are not focused on bodily pleasure but on their sight, in transgressing social and visual boundaries. Both of her hands are in fists and her hair is still covered up, redeeming some notions of respectability politics around the symbolism of the asexual mammy, even in racist poetry.
So interwoven in the lived selves of these particular bodies is a historical dependence and mutual construction of deviantness, enacted if these bodies transgress socially constructed taboos against segregationist issues. Perhaps their mutual construction and saliency has to do with their immediate markers of difference, if placed in immediate comparison with each other. What is no secret to mixed-races couples or families is I hope elucidated here as a long history of trying to enforce a racist separation that only reproduces their actual interdependency, but through perversion and social stigma. Gender is a main factor in this pairings enduring representation, along with race, as reproduced through Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney on SNL. The social and economic constructions that separate and categorize would like to see their continually imagined hierarchal relationship continue, but this study shows that hierarchy is transgressed and ever circulating.
- The Art of Kara Walker – especially her “Sugar Sphinx”
(Also, if you check that out, check out the controversy at the time around sexually explicit selfies with the Sugar Sphinx).
- The Fat Acceptance Movement’s Wikipedia page is an image of artist Bronskvinnorna (the women of bronze) by artist Marianne Lindberg De Geer’s, sculptures of an obese woman juxtaposed with an emaciated woman.
Farrell, Amy Erdman. “Fat and the Uncivilized Body,” Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. NYU Press, 2011. 70–71.
Craig, Maxine Leeds. Ain’t I A Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. Oxford University Press, USA, 2002. 146.
NW is a graduate student at Old Dominion University’s Institute for the Humanities. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, and a minor in studio arts from ODU with concentrations in art history, graphic design, and linguistics. In his scholarship, he is interested in body, gender, sex, and sexuality studies — focusing on the masculine body — as applied to American media and cultural studies. Nathan has interests in digital humanities scholarship, and loves good puns.