“When Black bodies are on the stage, Black perspectives must be reflected. This is not simply a matter of ‘artistic interpretation’; race and sex play a pivotal role in determining who holds the power to shape representation.” – Tonya Pinkins
Historically, Black women have been depicted in various visual and literary mediums as less-than-human. Their invisibility or hypervisibility speaks volumes. When Black women are seen, the gaze they’re seen through only acknowledges a fraction of the fullness that is a Black woman. They are reduced to servitude, lacking the full range of human emotions, and lacking sexuality or encapsulating everything that is sexuality — nothing in-between.
Our complexities are overlooked on screen, therefore our complexities are perceived to be limited in real life. The earliest images of Black women on film are closely tied to two of three prominent stereotypes: the ‘Mammy‘ and the ‘Jezebel’.
Caricatures of Black women have been around in Western culture for centuries — they’re rooted in transatlantic slave trading, during which stereotypes were used to commodify black bodies and justify slavery. Images of disturbingly disproportionate Black women’s bodies depicted them as bestial and inhuman, which served as reasoning for violence against them. These characters were popularized in Minstrel shows — comedic performances in which white actors in blackface lampooned black people for entertainment. By the early 1900s, Minstrel shows were fading in popularity but their stereotypes endured, making the jump to film, then electronic media, and they still survive today.
The Mammy is the most familiar archetype and originated in the Antebellum South. This archetype’s traits are to put aside her own desires and needs for white families. Her servitude for the white family is the only inkling we get of her love, it exists for the white family and erases her own inherent pleasures. Her wants are then equated with the love of enslavement, which is the antithesis of a Black woman’s desire. We often see the Mammy doing maid duties such as cooking, cleaning, dressing the family, laundry, etc.
The Mammy’s body is depicted as heavyset, dark-skinned, and usually older in age to allude to her wise, motherly role for the white children. She typically wears a headwrap or small cornrow braids which, for slave owners, was a sign of poverty and subordination, but for Black women was a sign of personal and communal identity. A vital part of the Mammy’s portrayal is her asexuality: her sexuality is erased because she exists to love the white family she’s serving. Because of her undying love and loyalty, the Mammy was in fact somewhat revered among white people and an essential part of justifying slavery.
The most important thing to comprehend from Mammy’s existence is that she essentially doesn’t exist — she is not historically accurate to the lived experiences of dark-skinned black women on plantations. Explored in depth by research by historians Cheryl Thurber and Patricia Turner, the care of white children wasn’t entrusted to dark-skinned women, the role was typically given to light-skinned teenage girls or the ‘house slaves.’ Conditions were abysmal for enslaved Black women: on average, they would die before their 50th birthday, making the wise, older caricature of Mammys inaccurate. The heavyset Mammy trait is also unfounded because enslaved Black women weren’t put on diets that would result in a heavyset physique.
The Jezebel is the oldest archetype and the antithetical caricature of the Mammy. Mentions of the Jezebel date back to the Bible in “The Book of Kings”, where a Phoenician princess by the name of Jezebel married Ahab, king of Israel, and was described as “immoral and deceitful”. These are the descriptors used to reference the sexual prowess and mystery the Jezebel embodies. The caricature embodies promiscuity, allure, seduction, and temptation, as she uses her body for personal gain or destruction. Her physical attributes align with European beauty standards: thin, light-skinned, with thin nose and lips.
Historically, because of the Jezebel’s physical attributes, her body — not her behavior — was seen as hypersexual and seductive, so it was common practice in slave society to blame the Black woman when she was sexually violated by white men. The Jezebel is seen only for her hypersexuality and not for her multidimensional personality and thoughts; she was seen as a threat and as alluring simultaneously. During the Jim Crow era, Black women’s sexuality was controlled by selling Black women and “mulattoes” through prostitution. “This system, called plaçage, involved a formal arrangement for the white suitor/customer to financially support the black woman and her children in exchange for her long-term sexual services.” These arrangements would be facilitated at “Quadroon Balls,” a genteel sex market, in which Black women’s bodies were displayed and exploited for wealthy white southern men.
The Mammy has seen a transformation over the years as Hollywood’s narratives have gotten more complex but they are still relatively easy to find. You can find the Mammy in not only historical dramas but even in the horror genre. Weirdly, in two of Tate Taylor’s projects, we find the modern Mammy in The Help and Ma. In Ma, Academy-Award winner Octavia Spencer plays Sue-Ann, a lonely woman who invites teenagers to hang out in her house and party in her basement on one odd condition, they all call her ‘Ma’. In the film, Spencer essentially plays a homicidal helicopter mom whose love becomes homicidal. The death of the sole black teenager in the mostly white friend group is painted white as he is killed.
The Mammy caricature is more obvious in The Help, where we have Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis playing maids for racist white families in the 1960s. The film shows the modern-day Mammy’s physical attributes but not necessarily their behavior because Aibeleen and Skeeter challenged their oppressors and desired more out of their lives, compiling the experiences of maids in the area for an anonymously published book by slaves. Cicely Tyson’s character Constantine was the maid for Skeeter (Emma Stone), and that relationship was a textbook Mammy and white child relationship. Constantine was kicked out before Skeeter became a teenager, but Skeeter loved Constantine and told her mom that she was a better mother than she ever was. Constantine’s relationship to Skeeter displays the deep, undying love relationship that the Mammy has to the white child and how it develops into this narrative that Constantine’s desires only exist for Skeeter.
Halle Berry avoided the fates of other Black actresses given she’s never played a Mammy, but she has been put in the Jezebel category: Berry’s features, complexion, and petite frame were used to serve the Jezebel archetype in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, where she is the love interest for a racist white man named Hank. Her character uses sex to deal with her marital and parental failures and doesn’t possess the complexities of being a Black mother. Instead, she’s given a meaningless sex scene that puts a bandaid on her issues pertaining to identity and motherhood.
Early and modern depictions of Black women’s bodies and behavior on screen has resulted in negative stereotyping of real Black women. Heavyset Black women are undermined and seen as unattractive because there haven’t been positive depictions of heavier Black women on screen, and are put in the role of the angry and loud black woman. And the Jezebel character as seen through the white gaze sexualizes the Black woman before she even opens her mouth.
Multifaceted Black women in television shows like Issa Rae’s Insecure and in films such as Hidden Figures, Queen & Slim, If Beale Street Could Talk, Cinderella (1997), and Akeelah and the Bee have done wonders for Black women. The more Black women that are writers, directors, and producers in Hollywood, the more they’ll bring narratives that depict positive and real depictions of Black life as a woman or femme. Black women are more than their bodies or their relation to white people, they are multi-hyphenate and multidimensional — pure magic. That magic can be translated on screen as long as we keep centering Black voices that tell our stories from our perspectives.