The media makes it easy to portray black women in a certain way by putting them into categories that make them feel like they have to live up to standards. Common outdated stereotypes like the Mammy, the Jezebel and the sassy/angry woman, make black women feel as if they cannot express themselves fully.
These stereotypes are not new, dating back to the 1890’s with the mammy stigma. The ‘Mammy’ was seen as the Southern archetype for a black woman who worked as a nanny or general housekeeper that, often in a white family, nursed the family’s children. She is usually nurturing, loyal, overweight, dark skinned and old. This stereotype was infused into American culture during the Jim Crow slavery days where White men attempted to prove that because some black women were dark skinned, fat and domesticated workers, this meant that they were undesirable to anyone. The mammy stereotype was used in books, movies and even advertising like Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup that is still used today.
The power of this stereotype was influential with Hattie McDaniel being the first black women to win an award for acting, but for playing a slave era mammy in the 1939 film Gone With the Wind. Fast forward to 2011 where Octavia Spencer won the same award playing a 1950s mammy in The Help. In reality, not much has changed and this stereotype lives on today through movies and television shows.
Hattie McDaniel playing the Mammy in Gone with The Wind in 1939
The second stereotype is the Jezebel, the sexy seductress that resembles that of a nymphomaniac. Since we live in a hyper-sexualized society, most assume that this is a new stereotype that has been created through pop culture. Sadly that is not the case. When the European explorers first came to Africa in the 17th century, they were shocked to realize that the native women did not wear a lot of clothes and commonly walked around half-naked. The settlers, not considering the climate of the Continent, deemed these women “sexual animals” that wanted to seduce them in every way possible.
Through this, the Jezebel stereotype was created and has now transformed the way black women are seen and has led to the policing of black women’s bodies and sexuality. Examples of women who have been subject to this are Rihanna, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj who have all been called out for being “too sexy.” There is a difference between when a woman wants to be seen as a sexy and when she cannot control certain features or the way that clothes fit her body; since this stereotype has been ingrained into our society, black women are constantly seen as vixens even when it is not their fault.
“The Angry Black Woman is a racist trope used to deny black women their humanity… black women are not allowed justifiable reactions to the myriad of bullsh*t – racist, sexist and otherwise – that they face.”
The final stereotype is the sassy or angry black woman that is seen throughout television shows and movies especially. The definition of this is best told by Shonda Rhimes who says: “The Angry Black Woman is a racist trope used to deny black women their humanity… black women are not allowed justifiable reactions to the myriad of bullsh*t – racist, sexist and otherwise – that they face.” This trope insults black women’s intelligence and heightens radicalized fear, making it hard for black women to fully express themselves because of the fear of being called too loud, sassy, or angry in situations that clearly insinuate anger. The stigma oppresses young black girls and as they grow older they learn to restrain emotions when they want to engage, connect and feel.
We see this stereotype on reality tv shows like the Real Housewives of Atlanta, Basketball Wives and Love and Hip Hop where the black women on the show are loud, sassy and constantly fighting with each other. When the public sees this behavior, they tend to assume that this is how all black women act. Even though we know this is not true, film directors continue to add to this negative idea of black women by making the female leads one-dimensional characters that are dramatically loud. Black female leads in movies and T.V shows are often never more than their stigmas when, in actuality, black women have all different types of personalities that deserve more recognition.
The Mammy, Jezebel and Angry black woman are all stereotypes that have been embedded into our society for such a long time. Unfortunately, it will take some hard work to get rid of them, but it will be amazing to see black women portrayed as not only angry maids and sexy wives but also adventurous, sensitive, witty, awkward, and the rest of the wide array of complexities that make the black women.