When Viola Davis lost the Oscar for best actress portraying an African American maid in Katherine Stockett’s The Help to Meryl Streep portraying former Britain Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady at the 84th Academy Awards ceremony, there was a collective sigh of relief from many of us African American sisters.
Tulane University Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, the author of an upcoming book on racial stereotypes, summed up my feelings best when she told MSNBC that ”what killed me was that in 2011, Viola Davis was reduced to playing a maid.”
Earlier during the Academy Awards ceremony Octavia Spencer won best supporting actress for her stereotypical role as the sassy, tart-tongued, “mammy-fied” maid, Minny Jackson, in The Help, making Spencer the fifth African American woman to receive the coveted Oscar, and the second sister portraying a maid.
Sixty-two years earlier, in 1940, in Jim Crow America, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Oscar, for her supporting role as a maid called ”Mammy” in Gone with the Wind. When civil rights groups, like the NAACP, criticized McDaniel for her portrayal as “Mammy,” McDaniel famously retorted, ”I would rather get paid $700 a week for playing a maid than seven dollars for being one.”
Knowing of the controversial legacy stemming from McDaniel’s role, Davis told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross her ”role of Aibileen, in the hands of the wrong actress, could turn into a cliché… You’re only reduced to a cliché if you don’t humanize a character. A character can’t be a stereotype based on the character’s occupation.” Davis contested she gave depth and dimensionality to her character by pulling from the actually lived experiences of both her mother and grandmother, who worked as maids.
Spencer, too, had trepidations about portraying a maid, telling reporters that her mother was a maid in Alabama, and “her heart sank when Stockett gave her the manuscript to read, worried that she might appear as a character like Mammy from Gone With the Wind. ‘And then I read it and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was brilliant.’”
In this “post-racial” Obama era, the subject of race and the politics of Black representation in films are constrained by neither political correctness, personal enlightenment, nor moral consciousness.
For example, in 2010 the historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of Black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at that year’s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, as a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.
Mo’Nique’s role juxtaposed to Sandra Bullock’s, who captured her Oscar as best actress in the movie The Blind Side, offering the hand of human kindness to a poor Black child in need of parenting.
However, the images of African American parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes. And the image of Mo’Nique as the ”bad Black mother” and Sandra Bullock as “good White mother” is nothing new. The images of the ”bad Black mother” have not only been used for entertainment purposes, but also for legislating welfare policy reforms.
With international stars like Iman, Oprah, Whoopi Goldberg, and Beyoncé, to name a few, signaling that women of the African diaspora have come a long way, what’s up with Hollywood’s — and much of White America’s — fixation of us as their maids and welfare moms?
“Portraying African American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression,” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.
In a skit imagining what actors are thinking, Oscar host Billy Crystal said the following referring to Davis: ”I want to thank my writer and director for creating the role of a strong Black woman that wasn’t played by Tyler Perry… When I came out of The Help I wanted to hug the first Black woman that I saw, which from Beverly Hills is a 45-minute drive.”
The iconography of Black women is predicated on four racist cultural images: the Jezebel, the Sapphire, Aunt Jemima, and Mammy. With the image of the strong Black women who can endure anything and ”make a way out of no way,” her strength is either demonized as being emasculating of Black men or impervious to the human condition. The Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are now conflated into what’s called ”Big Mamma” in today’s present iconography of racist and sexist images of African American women.
While the Aunt Jemima and Mammy stereotypes are prevalent images that derive from slavery, for centuries both of them have not only been threatening, comforting, and nurturing to White culture but also to African American men like Tyler Perry’s “Madea.” The dominant culture doesn’t see and hear African American women voices on this issue because our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. So too is our suffering.
And our suffering is exacerbated when Black women’s stories are told and/or scripted through a universally popular feel-good but nonetheless racist trope of the White hero/rescuer.
This trope principally conveys the following: Black liberation comes about through White agency. While White guilt and paternalism are clearly pawned off in this trope as compassion, so too is its accompanying fictive narrative about Black people.
And given our unresolved and embarrassing history of race relations in this country, only such a trope as the White hero/rescuer could be believed and made in America.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Huffington Post blogger and freelance journalist. A native of Brooklyn, Rev. Monroe is a graduate from Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary at Columbia University, and served as a pastor at an African American church before coming to Harvard Divinity School for her doctorate as a Ford Fellow.