Romance, Race and White Girl Fragility: Can We Please Reconsider the Mammy Dynamic?
There’s a thing that I’ve noticed in speculative television lately, and it bothers me. The science fiction and fantasy genre seem to be doubling down on the archetypes of the fragile white girl and her physical and emotional savior: the strong sexy Black woman. In some ways, we don’t seem to have progressed in our storytelling from the days of Scarlett and Mammy in Gone with the Wind.
Watching Science Fiction in the 2000s
I’m a nerd. A gender scholar, but also a nerd. To be clear, a cishet white woman nerd. I consume a lot of SF/F, including Black Mirror.
Like many people, I watched the Emmy-winning “San Junipero” episode of the series, holding my breath, as the awkward young lesbian protagonist met the spirited and stylish love of her life in a virtual world. I was sure that it would end tragically and was delighted along with many others when the nerdy, white Yorkie, in her round glasses and striped sweaters, got to live happily ever with Kelly- the beautiful, supportive, outgoing African-American woman channeling Janet Jackson in her fashion choices.
I had a bit of déjà vu, then, when I watched (and enjoyed) the Wachowskis’ Sense 8, in which Nomi, a nerdy, white girl, and computer hacker, got to live happily ever after with Anita, the strong, supporting, outgoing Black woman with the amazing style.
It wasn’t until I finished I Am Not Okay With This, the Netflix series based on Charles Forman’s comic, that I really began to think hard about this dynamic. In that coming of age/superhero origin story, the (you guessed it) awkward, nerdy white girl protagonist, Syd, falls in love with her (you guessed it) fashion-forward, spunky, and supportive African-American friend, Dina.
I looked, and Dina is not portrayed as Black in the comic that the Netflix show is based on, suggesting a specific choice by directors Jonathan Entwhistle and Christy Hall. But why?
Why am I seeing this over and over again? And what’s more, why is it so hard for me to visualize a narrative that flips this script: with the protagonist being a nerdy, shy Black girl and her girlfriend a strong, supportive white woman?
The more I thought about it, the more the potential answers made me uncomfortable.
Bell hooks, Spike Lee and the Magical Mystical Negro
In a series of university lectures in 2001, Black film director Spike Lee encouraged students to critically reconsider how film in the twenty-first century recycles the stereotypes of the “noble savage and the happy slave” by creating characters who only exist to serve and help white people. In movies such as The Green Mile or The Legend of Bagger Vance, Lee asserted, Black characters are imbued with special strength and power, but this power only works in service to whites. As Lee said about the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance, “Blacks are getting lynched left and right and Bagger Vance is more concerned about improving Matt Damon’s golf swing!”
Lee railed against the perpetuation of the master-servant dynamic in films mostly starring men, but this relationship is easily identified in fiction that depicts women as well. Hattie McDaniel was the first Black woman to win an Oscar for portraying Scarlett O’Hara’s slave, a dynamic that many saw repeated in the twenty-first century by Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Hudson’s characters in 2008’s Sex and the City 2.
In the 2008 film, Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson found her character reduced, in the words of one critic, to “a modern-day Mammy,” strong, sassy, and supportive of her fragile white employer.
As bell hooks tells us, we can trace this stereotype of the self-sacrificing strong Black woman to this very figure: the Mammy and Black women’s position in slavery. White women, such as the fictional Scarlett O’Hara, were raised as delicate flowers incapable of hard labor or strong work. They were served by Black women, who by virtue of their strength, were dehumanized and dismissed as not “real women.”
This power structure persists today with more negative consequences for Black women. While the delicacy of white women makes them “unsuitable” in society for a whole variety of positions, Black women see their very health and lives damaged (to say nothing of course of the professional and societal repercussions).
In a very real way, white women’s tears oppress Black women.
Relationship Dynamics in SF/F
I am not a Black woman. I cannot and do not speak from a position of authority or lived experience on what it is like to be a Black woman in the United States.
I defer to Black women such as bell hooks and attempt to put aside my own privilege in assessing the relationships I see portrayed. I am also not a lesbian, but in a similar fashion, I defer to authors such as Andrea Ngeleka, who speaks about what it’s like to be a Black woman in an interracial lesbian relationship and how she was moved to describe how “being the Black girlfriend can feel more like being an ‘accessory.’”
As a white woman, and a fan who hopes to be an ally, I think it’s time to reconsider the way that we position Black women as “accessories” at best and “Mammies” at worst to delicate white women not only in science fiction and fantasy but also in fiction as a whole.
Women are not immune to the fetishization of race, and white women have lived for more than a century consuming narratives that sexualize, dehumanize and exoticize Black women.
The author, Dr. Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols is a professor of Spanish and Gender Studies at Drury University. Her current research is in popular culture, cosplay, and beauty work in the Americas.
The images have been used from IMDB.