This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the graduate students in my Culture & Gender course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Psychology.” To that end, each student has to prepare three 1,000ish word posts focusing on particular stereotypes, their impact, and ways to reduce the negative aspects of stereotypes.
Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, or Queen? Stereotypes of the African-American Female
by Shauna Weides
Stereotypes exist among all cultures, genders and socioeconomic statuses. Unfortunately, this is rampant throughout our society. Women in our society face numerous stereotypes, whether they are white, Hispanic, African American, or any other ethnicity. African American women, however, can face double, sometimes even triple, the oppressions that other people experience, being female, African American, and oftentimes poor or working-class. African American women do not fit into the general stereotypes of white women; instead, they have their own categories of stereotypes. African American women are portrayed in several stereotypical categories; that of Mammy, Jezebel (or sexual siren), Sapphire (or similarly called Matriarch), and the Welfare Mother (Queen). The behavior and dispositions embodied in these stereotypes can have damaging influences on and perceptions of African American women.
In the stereotypical category of “Mammy”, the African American woman is characterized as maternal, nurturing, family-oriented, and a church lady who is completely self-sacrificing where her own needs (or the needs of her family) are concerned. The “Mammy” stereotype was created during slavery to bolster the perception of slavery as an institution that not only benefited the purported “natural” disposition of African descendants, but was one which they embraced themselves. She is characterized as a loyal domestic servant to White people. She loves, takes care of and provides for her White family over her own and is delighted in her subservient place in the social hierarchy. Some contemporary examples that prove the persistence of this image include Florida Evans, the mother on the 1970’s TV series Good Times, and Nell Carter, the housekeeper in the 1980’s TV show Gimme A Break. Both characters in these shows were large, deep brown in color, self-sacrificing, loyal, humble, and usually jovial.
Derivatives of this behavior can be found in contemporary African American women in what she defines as “moral masochism”. Moral masochism refers to the internalization of the “Mammy” stereotype but extends beyond the “master and his family” to everyone. When African American women internalize this stereotype, they believe they must be self-sacrificing to the point of complete personal neglect and depletion. Everyone else’s needs are considered to be more important than her own.
The “Jezebel” stereotype, also referred to as a sexual siren, is characterized as African American women who are overly sexualized, aggressive, sexually promiscuous, uncaring, completely lacking in virtue and a woman who will use her sexuality to manipulate and deceive. This image also portrays the African American woman as a “bitch” or “whore”. White males fostered this image of African American women during slavery to excuse their sexual abuse and rape of these women. This stereotype was also created to rationalize the sexual exploitation of these women in ways that made them responsible for their own victimization. They used the excuse that because these women were such sexual animals, they couldn’t help but get carried away. At that time, African American women were characterized as something other than human, so the assault didn’t matter.
The “Jezebel” image of the African American woman cares for nothing but her own sexual satisfaction, which is the image the media loves. In the former TV series Ally McBeal, the only African American female character was a promiscuous, kick-boxing, assistant district attorney who loved herself more than anything else. Her clothing was skin-tight, short suits that revealed and displayed her breasts, waist and legs. The gangster rappers Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown wear next to nothing in their music videos, cd covers and in pictures that accompany interviews given by them in magazines. These women, TV producers, writers, pornography executives, etc. exploit the sexualized image of African American women for profit.
The stereotype of the “Sapphire” was based on a character from the 1950’s TV show Amos & Andy. The character of Sapphire was the angry, hostile, aggressive, nagging wife of a dishonest, lazy and pretentious African American man named Kingfish. The central feature for their relationship was Kingfish’s inept pursuit of flawed schemes to get rich, directed at the exploitation of his friend Andy, and his failure at those schemes, inability to provide for his family, and refusal to take ordinary work. Sapphire and her mother were shrewish in their response to him, which consisted of complete contempt and disregard. Both of these women were presented as the successful breadwinners and as angry, castrating women, when the cultural “norm” was to be the opposite.
African American women who are deemed “angry” are seen as ill-tempered and mean, evoke no sympathy, and are seen as deserving of ill treatment. When their grievances become the focus of attention and their justifiable anger is trivialized in this manner, their grief and pain are ignored. Sapphire symbolizes African American women who are justifiably angry, but when they are viewed as having an angry character, their grievances can be trivialized and they and not their ill treatment are viewed as the problem. It’s not unlike the media and mainstream psychology to cast all women’s righteous anger at the ill treatment that forms the basis of sexism as a character flaw making their grievances unworthy of attention much less of any empathy.
Sapphire and the stereotype of Matriarch are fairly similar. The Matriarch represents the image of the African American woman as a mother within the home. The 1960s Moynihan Report solidified this image in the minds of many Americans with the image of a controlling, emasculating African American woman who dictated to both her children and her man their place in her home. This mother works outside the home and her children suffer for it. If she works outside the home and provides for her family, she is seen as not being feminine and dependent enough and hurts African American men in their traditional patriarchal role. It becomes a no-win situation.
Another image of the African American woman is that of the “Welfare Mother” or “Queen”. This stereotype is characterized as “essentially an updated version of the breeder woman image of slavery” when slave owners wanted African American women to reproduce more slaves and characterized them as beasts. The new version that sees welfare mothers as breeding animals who have no desire to work, but are content to live off the state, positions these women as “a costly threat to political and economic stability” and heterosexual marriage because they are portrayed as a woman living alone with her children. This image places the blame and responsibility of poverty on the shoulders of the African American mother and shifts the angle of vision away from structural sources of poverty and blames the victims themselves. It’s also used to justify the restriction of fertility for African American women. This manipulative, scheming, sexualized image is attached to the working class or the poor.
There are numerous stereotypes for not only African American women, but women in general. The current and previous perceptions of (white) women are that of affective and communal (e.g., emotionally expressive, sensitive, warm, nice, and aware of others’ feelings). The dominant concepts of femininity are inextricably tied to the traits ascribed to the general female stereotype. The general woman stereotype doesn’t seem to fit all women however. Subtypes made up of nontraditional women, such as feminists, athletes, and businesswomen, are usually described by hypofeminine traits as intelligent, strong-minded and ambitious. African American women don’t fit the general stereotype and, by extension, the dominant concept of femininity. Dominant femininity is based on White, heterosexual, middle-class norms such as submissiveness that are “neither possible nor desirable” for African American women. Jezebel and Sapphire/Matriarch stand in contrast to the general stereotypes of (White) women, whereas, Mammy possesses some of the traits in common with the general stereotypes.
Even though stereotypes exist among all cultures, genders and socioeconomic statuses, it can be even more devastating for the African American woman who can face double or triple the oppression. African American women don’t fit the general stereotype of White women or the dominant concept of femininity. Instead, they have their own categories. African American women have several stereotypes that they face; that of Mammy, Jezebel (or sexual siren), Sapphire (or similarly called Matriarch) or Welfare Mother or Queen; however this is not an all-inclusive list. These stereotypes can have damaging influences on and perceptions of African American women in our society and color everything that they do and become. It’s our job as a society to be aware of such stereotypes and help them to overcome them.