Hattie McDaniel played the role of “Mammy” a slave, head of house management, and care provider to one of the main white helpless female character’s in “Gone With the Wind” 1939, that film was my first conscious exposure to the dehumanizing and reductive archetype. I began to notice mammy elsewhere. My Saturday morning cartoons, Lillian Randolph voiced “Mammy Two Shoes” in “Tom & Jerry” between 1940-1952, scolding the mischief-makers or over dramatically fearing mice. As a child I didn’t quite understand the problematic representation, I knew it wasn’t like my friend’s mom’s or our neighbors, it was supposed to be shorthand for maternal, no-nonsense but it felt more out of sync with my worldview than in sync. Until I began my studies, I lacked the vernacular to suss out what didn’t sit well with me. According to dictionary.com usage “At the time of the Civil War and into the 20th century, the Southern mammy was characterized as being strong, kind, and loyal. But her image was also that of an overweight, unattractive, and often illiterate household slave. This reinforced racial stereotypes of inferiority and servility.” In 1994 Whoopi Goldberg starred in “Corrina, Corrina” as yet another iteration of the desexualized, wise, magical, mammy selflessly guiding a white child along after her mother’s death. In more recent visual media “The Help” 2011, has actresses Viola Davis And Octavia Spencer play variations of mammy characters opposite a cast of white women. Sadly, I believe Alex Newell, of “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” 2020 is on track for being a fast way to help the main and noticeably white character sort out all her problems and understand her journey of self-discovery. While Newell’s character is on the rainbow spectrum of LGBTQ ( another topic for another time ) the primary focus of their character is facilitating answers, to yet another white woman’s dilemmas.
Whether it is a meme, tweet, movie or television show relying on racist, shorthand code to move plot lines along, provide comic relief or magically all-knowing women of color to point out the purpose of life or otherwise support a lead white character’s development, they kinda suck for a plethora of reasons. Racist, misogynistic tropes are that. Tropes don’t enrich stories, humanize people or lift up issues and communities if anything they further racial tension by breeding stereotypes that undermine the humanity and complexity of the stories being told. While reading “Ain’t I A Beauty Queen” by Maxine Leeds Craig, specifically the section titled “Race and Respectability” p30-37, I was struck by the contradictory nature of respectability being tied to a set of traits that genetics is in charge of creating. Making women responsible for the morality of an entire race through appearance and action via the gendered and limited labor opportunities is insufferable, but to further add insult to injury using the very real pain of domestic work, the cycle of poverty the mammy trope as entertainment is despicable. I wonder if this image was woven into the very fabric of our collective consciousness to ease the minds of well to do white folx, able to hire help and treat them as though their sole purpose in life is to make those lives easier, better and otherwise pain-free or if it was to serve as a reminder perhaps a cautionary tale to keep oppressed people in line. Regardless of the intentions of reducing people to a stereotype, it doesn’t end well no matter who you are. It’s easier to use cultural shorthand yet it is far more beneficial both as a storyteller and fellow human to move toward beautifully complex humanized characters. The opportunity for deeper two-way relationships, meaningful reciprocal, effective communication and deconstructing archaic systems of oppression are fertile ground for character fodder. Why be lazy, when you can be creative? The fact that the little representation women of color or size get is relegated to the realms of domestic laborers whose job descriptions by the aforementioned visual media is to make the world tidier physically and emotionally for the people who hired them or in the case of “Gone With The Wind” owned them is bad storytelling. The message is as clear in 2020 as it was in 1939, women of color and size have limited space in the world and they deserve better.
On that note, Marvel’s “Black Panther” 2018 is a beautiful kaleidoscope of humans with melanin, it’s a start but by no means is it the end. Queen Latifah’s portrayal of the fictional “Matron Mama Morton” in the 2002 film adaptation of “Chicago” gives us a woman of size and of color in a far more interesting role. Go down the rabbit hole watch some old movies then demand more diverse representation of the entertainment industry, vote with your dollars, support independent filmmakers, maybe make your own film. While I love that women with melanin are being offered a space they deserve more, their stories are important. Representation matters and if respectability politics are at play then it matters even more. Everyone, every shade, every hue, every size, every shape, every ability needs to be seen and shown in a realistic, human portrayal on every platform possible. She has a name, show some respect and learn it.
Gone With The Wind
Tom & Jerry (note how the character suddenly becomes white in newer versions) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8Aga5n1k8Qhttps://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109484/
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
For further reading
Beyonce Is Not The Magical Negro Mammy https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/02/15/515060729/beyonce-is-not-the-magical-negro-mammy