For one of my classes this semester, I read an essay by Therí A. Pickens about the “ratchet” performance in reality TV and respectability politics. As some one who really doesn’t care for reality TV (with the massive exception of love island!), it was quite the read. I absolutely don’t think anything on reality television is real except for the contestants names. And typically, that won’t bother viewers because content is content, and the more dramatic that content is, the more eager we are to consume. But I am painfully aware of the exploitation of Black women as caricatures in reality television, and how they become more of a persona rather than a human being. As I thought more about it, I recalled the power archetypes have on media, and how they shape a narrative.
Anyone who’s taken a high school English course is familiar with archetypes and how they shape character analysis, but how about how they shape our everyday lives? How about how they shape our perception of each other and ourselves? Sure, I know about archetypes cast upon Black women such as the Mammy, the caregiver who is subservient to the white family, or the Sapphire archetype that we may recognize better as the “angry black woman.” I know about the Jezebel, which I think is a bit more complex than the other two. But how do we acknowledge these with the intentions of making real structural change? Let’s discuss.
The mammy is rooted in the history of American enslavement. She works for a White family, and nurses the family’s children. She’s full of wisdom, and the young White children adore her like another mother.
Aunt Chloe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a great example of one of the first fictionalized features of the mammy, and it slowly developed from that point in 1852 to what we see in modern depictions. Instead of remaining a personality trait, it morphed into the archetype and yet another pigeonhole for Black women to be funneled into. It become a reason for Jim Crow Whites to rationalize economic discrimination and offerings of primarily menial jobs, reminiscent of a house servant.
Mammy also has a certain look to her. Often overweight, dark skin, and with a kerchief in her hair, she’s pious, strong, and a motivating parental figure in the young White child’s character development.
In modern day, the mammy is still around. Miranda Bailey (Greys Anatomy,) Aibileen Clark (The Help,) Mercedes Jones (Glee,) and Ivy Wentz (Good Luck Charlie.) That’s not to say these aren’t good characters, or that they aren’t great actresses portraying these characters. But it’s important to understand the necessity of pointing out how harmful these stereotypes can be, and how it stunts Black women’s lives beyond the silver screen. Women who fit the physical description of the mammy aren’t automatically caregivers, or wise, or strategically placed to make White people feel like a protagonist in their everyday life.
Ah, the sapphire. This one really annoys me but alas, here we go.
Also known as the Angry Black Woman, she’s a nagging, irrational woman who is prone to “sassy” motions of her head and neck. There is an implied internal desire for domination over men and a degradation of her fellow woman, which completely decimates any room for a Black woman to simply have an opinion or be outspoken in society without being perceived as aggressive or rude.
The archetype was named after Sapphire Stevens, an Amos ‘n’ Andy character that consistently berated her husband. Sapphire was married to Kingfish, a lazy, unemployed fool and to be fair, Sapphire’s frustrations with her husband were valid. But is a White audience going to see that, or care? Amos ‘n’ Andy should be called what it was, a radio minstrel show, that starred two white men caricaturing Black people for laughs and listeners. Now Black people were not only seen as less than human to the White audience, but now they were simply existing at White comedic expense and amusement. This radio show set the stage for the Sapphire to take her place in history, overshadowing the mammy.
An era I find to be important in the development of the Sapphire is the 1970s. The genre of blaxploitation (which revamped the Jezebel we’ll talk about in a second), reenergized the hyper-sexualization of Black women. Mix that with the already prominent Sapphire gave you angry sexually promiscuous Black women with large hair fighting crime. The anger was no longer pointed at their husbands who were no good lazy oafs, but rather “bad guys” and crooked cops.
Media examples include Cookie from Empire, Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, and Rochelle from Everybody Hates Chris.
You can see the Sapphire being attempted to be thrust on Black women today, such as Serena Williams and Michelle Obama. Look up any prominent Black woman who advocates for a marginalized group or doesn’t remain complacent, and you’ll find some kind of defamatory language used about her confidence. Probably with words like “pushy” and “aggressive.” You’re an outspoken, confident Black female? How loud of you, and how rude!
The Jezebel archetype is of course modeled after the biblical woman by the same name that had many prophets of YHWH killed and was almost despot-like. The archetype is defined as a hyper-sexualized and deviant woman that is almost succubus like. The archetype was introduced during enslavement as a form of rationalization for the forced sexual relations between White men and Black women. The Jezebel was a sex-crazed woman that yearned for the White man rather than her Black counterpart, allowing for a justification of rape in the minds of the White slave owners.
This idea that Black women were a taboo treasure to attempt to conquer permeates through media as we know it, and is extremely prominent in the pornography industry especially. As previously mentioned, the blaxploitation genre of the 70s made being an “angry whore” almost the defining trait of the Black women in the film. The idea that these women existed only to fuel the sexual fantasies of men, especially White men, served as a monolith obstructing any clear conversation surrounding structural change and demolition of the archetype.
The existence of the Jezebel directly contributes to the high rates of sexual assault against Black women, and the lack of belief from others when they come forward with their stories. It also contributes to the lack of conversation surrounding Black femininity and sexuality due to the fear of being labeled promiscuous.
(also hey: let’s stop confusing sexual liberation with this stereotype, because it’s not the same thing. mind your business!)
Examples include: Foxy Brown, Coffy, and other blaxploitation movies of the 70s. (alsooooooo….this is kind of the whole point of pyramids by frank ocean and you should totally read my analysis of that if you want.)
Basically, I wrote all of this to open your mind to what character you know in media that fall into these tropes. Yes, even reality TV. ESPECIALLY reality tv. Pigeonholing Black women into a derogatory box is almost implicit due to the media we have already consumed, and it is import as an agent of change that you acknowledge this and begin to deconstruct it in your mind. Preconceived notions are only something to be ashamed of when you don’t do anything to stop it from happening again.
Also, another takeaway that I got from writing this was that I want a Black girl to be the star of a coming of age movie. Not to say these don’t exist, because they do, in both movie and television form (grownish, Moonlight, Awkward Black Girl, Moesha, etc.) But I’m talking about the quirky suburban film where she brushes her teeth with Vance Joy playing in the background and her town still does homecoming dances. I want her to just exist. Not dealing with some type of devastating trauma, or having a plot line because she’s Black. Maybe she likes to read, and maybe she rides her bike to school with flowers in her hair. You have an idea of a movie in your head as I’m describing this, because it’s been done thousands of times. Just with a White person. And isn’t that really, really weird? White people aren’t the only demographic in the suburbs…if you were wondering.
Black people do suffer from generational trauma. There is pain within our history, and there is healing that needs to be done. But there is such beauty in that pain, such joy and creativity from the seeds of our ancestors. We celebrate it, and I want to see it celebrated more on the big screen in a more mainstream light, rather than just for the month of February. We’re not just caregivers, or aggressive, or sexually loose. It’s time to capture all aspects of the Black woman, and place her on the pedestal she deserves. There is not one narrative of the Black experience. We are diverse in our community, and we all have unique stories to tell. So let’s tell them.
Pilgrim, David. “The Jezebel Stereotype.” The Jezebel Stereotype – Anti-Black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/jezebel/.
Pilgrim, David. “The Sapphire Caricature.” The Sapphire Caricature – Anti-Black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University, http://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/antiblack/sapphire.htm.
Pilgrim, David. “The Mammy Caricature.” The Mammy Caricature – Anti-Black Imagery – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/.