Saturday, May 31, 2008

Racism in the City

Well, I just got back from watching the Sex and the City movie, and while there are lots of things I could blog about (Samantha = totally feminist ending), I had a major problem with one aspect of the movie.

Jennifer Hudson's character was a "mammy."

Being one of only two characters of color in the film (the other being Charlotte's adopted Chinese child), Hudson was the movie's attempt to be politically correct. However, it was far, far off.

Hudson played Carrie's assistant, Louise. After Carrie has a major life crisis (no spoilers here, I promise), Louise helps her get organized, along with a variety of other tasks, essentially, as Carrie puts it, "saving her life."

Now, when its written out, it sounds okay, but seeing it all on the screen made me very uncomfortable.

In order for one to fit the mammy caricature, she must be:

"nurturing and protective of her white family,
but less caring towards her own children." She is..."self-sacrificing,
white-identified, fat, asexual, good-humored, a loyal cook, housekeeper and
quasi-family member."

Let's test that definition.

1. In the movie, Louise cares for Carrie for several months. When applying for the job, she claims she is qualified for it because she is the oldest of six. When Carrie asked what that was life, she responds, "crowded." Her family is never mentioned again.

2. She is self-sacrificing; the movie implies that she stays with Carrie at work far past normal hours.

3. She is the only person of color (over the age of five) in the movie. I'd say that is fairly white-identified (but, this could be argued against. She is shown at a party where the majority of guests were black, and her significant other is black.)

4. In normal, human terms Hudson is by no means fat. However, her weight has been debated in Hollywood, and she is the most shapely woman who appears in the movie.

5. Louise is not portrayed as asexual, so yay (I guess) there.

6. Humor is one of Louise's defining characteristics.

7. While she is not technically the housekeeper or cook, she is Carrie's assistant, which may be the modern day equivalent of the positions.

8. She is a "quasi-family member" in several ways. She exchanges gifts with Carrie for Christmas, invites Carrie to her wedding, and discusses her heartbreak with her.

So ultimately, Louise fulfills 7 (maybe 6) of the 8 "qualifications" of a mammy caricature. This is unacceptable in our "post-racial" world. What do you think? Is this too much analysis? Or does it have merit? How can Hollywood change these things. I know Sarah Jessica Parker co-produced the movie; would this have happened if a women of color had had more decision making power?


Black Thirteen said...

I think it might be this side of too much analysis.

Would you have made this list if she were white?

You make it sound as if it's not allowed for a black person to work for a white person, and care about her at the same time.

This is a remarkably simplistic post, but I've far too much on my mind, and I'm exhausted, and it's all I can manage right now. If/when a dialog gets going, and I'm more stable and rested, I'll try to do better.

Jen said...

I really think that the movie should have had more women of color, but I wouldn't know how to put them in there considering the main 4 are all white, and the movie takes place in upscale New York. Regardless, I didn't find her role as "mammy" obvious (yes, I saw the movie, and I liked it, which was weird).

She's one of the more together of the women in the movie, so I didn't pick up some inferiority vibe that the stereotypical mammy role should have. She is portrayed as having somewhat of a life outside of Carrie (the movie she bought her, the purses she rents, her "booty call").

I think, just my opinion, that the movie would have to dehumanize her properly in order to make her a "mammy". She had her own vices and strengths, and they were eerily similar to Carrie's (man troubles, obsession with fashion).

Maybe I'm just making excuses for a movie that I like. I suppose it hinges on how people of color view the movie. You are right, however: the movie does look very much like the mammy role when you look it at it closely. If anything, they probably could have done more to avoid that. I'm going to say, however, that the undertones were completely unintentional, and that the producers didn't really pay up the "black mammy" role for laughs. There's tons and tons of movies that intentionally use race as a gag, and I didn't see Sex in the City do it. A little sensitivity, however, would have been nice.

Lindsay said...

The role also kind of embodies the "magical negro" stereotype, where she comes in and fixes everything and then leaves again. Although the character does fit many of these stereotypes, she was well-rounded and given more than just a superficial role. I haven't seen anything else that Jennifer Hudson has been in, so I'm not sure how it compares to other roles.

Overall, I have been disappointed in the diversity in series and it's nice that they tried to address that, even if they missed the mark somewhat.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Lindsay that Lousie tends to fit the "Magical Negro" stereotype than the "Mammy" stereotype. Maybe your overanalyzing, but when I was watching the movie, my friend and I were definitely picking up on tokenism. So there's something going on there.

And I think that even if you're overanalyzing, such criticism is good. You're not the only one who picked up on the racial stereotypes, after all!

Good post and I wish I had thought to address the race issues in my blog entry.

Lindsay said...

feministblogproject, I was going to post a link to your feminism in the city post! I suppose there's no time like now:

I guess I'm hesitant to think of her as a mammy because I've always thought of the mammy stereotype as an older woman. I suppose that doesn't mean the indicators aren't there, but in Emilie Townes' Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, she describes mammys as a post-emancipation version of an older female house slave who was desexualized. The lack of sexualization was important because younger black females were hypersexualized - in order to be in a white domestic sphere, the mammy stereotype had to be older and matronly, to avoid being a temptress for the white man of the house. If anyone knows more about the stereotypes we're talking about, they should jump in - I'm not super knowledgeable about cultural representations about Black women.

Lindsay said...

From The Root:

Helena Andrews writes about Louise's role as the Black Best Friend. Pretty good.

OutcrazyOphelia said...

I think this is a fair analysis. It is possible for her to fit the stereotype since well, it's been updated. Even Aunt Jemimah lost the headscarf and a few pounds in the advertisements. Mammy is just a name for the phenomenon of the black female character who doesn't seem to have her own life but is always there for other characters with tokens of wisdom--it doesn't hurt if she's not conventionally attractive either. It is a symptom of racism, but more than that--a sign of comfort. These characters exist because they are a representation that will be familiar and comfortable to the audience. If we don't pick up on these hints, if we don't question it, they'll keep making these characters figuring there's no room for complexity when it comes to black female characters. (I did a paper on the sitcom Living Single and found incidences of all major black stereotypes in the characters, so it doesn't have to be black token characters on a majority white show/movie to exist--mammy, tom, jezebel, and more are tried and true character molds that people will continue to use until people get sick of them).