Originally posted: January 25, 2010
Recently I was asked a question in light of the new year, “What can Black women do to be more womanly in 2010?” I thought for a second because truthfully the question sounded kind of strange. I’m not a fashion expert nor do I dabble in makeup artistry so my advice wasn’t going to dwell on those points. Then it hit me like a Mac truck. (Get it? Mac? No? Okay.) The one thing Black women can do in 2010 to be better in general is to be themselves. Now hold on. This isn’t going to be corny, I swear. As many people have already complained, everyone wants to be a barbie now. With the newly found fame of Nicki Minaj, young Black women seem to have found a new leader and model for success. Because of her nicknames of Nicki Minaj and Nicki the Harajuku Barbie, there has been a massive surge of name changes across the world. No, the DMV hasn’t been ambushed, I’m talking about on social networking sites. Those with Facebooks, MySpaces, or Twitters can attest to this. How many Jane Minaj’s do you know? How many people do you follow with the word ‘Barbie’ in their name? That’s not to say that men aren’t being equally as insane with the Joseph WakaFlaka Smiths’ out there. But this is focused on the women. I say all that to say, my answer to that question was be yourself because we can’t be feeding into the gross stereotypes of the past. What stereotypes are those you ask?
Patricia Hill-Collins wrote about the four main stereotypes or controlling images for Black women. These stereotypes are the Mammy, the Matriarch, the Welfare Mother, and finally the Jezebel or the Whore. According to Hill-Collins, these are images that were used to oppress black women. According to Hazel Carby, these images are used “not to reflect or represent a reality but to function as a disguise, or mystification, of objective social relations.” In other words, they don’t reflect the true nature of Black women and simply classify them, it instead makes it appear as though these are the only types of Black women out there. Hill-Collins goes on to say, “The dominant ideology of the slave era fostered the creation of four interrelated, socially constructed controlling images of Black womanhood, each reflecting the dominant group’s interest in maintaining Black women’s subordination.” So these images are meant to keep Black women down. They weren’t meant to empower in any way and still to this day do not empower. While there are four images, I will describe all four but focus on two for the sake of succinctness and relevance to the “be true to yourself” answer I gave.
Traditionally, the mammy was the Black mother figure in white homes. “The faithful, obedient domestic servant… represents the normative yardstick used to evaluate all Black women’s behavior. By loving, nurturing, and caring for her white children and ‘family’ better than her own, the mammy symbolizes the dominant group’s perceptions of the ideal Black female relationship to elite white male power. Even though she may be well loved and may wield considerable authority in her white ‘family,’ the mammy still knows her ‘place’ as obedient servant. She has accepted her subordination.”
While this doesn’t address the wannabe Barbies out there, this is still true for older women. We’re told to take care of others before ourselves.
“The Black mother figure in Black homes… the “bad” Black mother… fail their traditional “womanly” duties. Spending too much time away from home, these working mothers ostensibly cannot properly supervise their children and are a major contributing factor to their children’s school failure. As overly aggressive, unfeminine women, Black matriarchs allegedly emasculate their lovers and husbands. These men, understandably, either desert their partner or refuse to marry the mothers of their children. Elite white men see her as the failed mammy. The source of the matriarch’s failure is her inability to model appropriate gender behavior.”
The Matriarch is also doomed to failure (in the eyes of society) because she is solely responsible for her children’s success and when they fail, she fails. This is a problem because if Black women are told they must choose between these four images this is the one most people are going to opt for. Black women have to face a lot of obstacles and because of this, some have developed a tough shell. The problem with that is she then comes off as a strong, insensitive b-word that rhymes with witch, if I may. She is then scorned for not being cordial and political in corporate America even though she is behaving like everyone else. And she is even judged by Black men because the Matriarch often times refuses to let others help her and has that “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” mentality that many claim the poor should have but when it is actually instilled it is a turn off. She won’t let a man help her which emasculates him and makes him have no value in that relationship.
“African-Americans can be racially stereotyped as being lazy by blaming Black welfare mothers for failing to pass on the work ethic. Moreover, the welfare mother has no male authority figure to assist her. Typically portrayed as an unwed mother…”
The image of the unwed Black women who is lazy and sucks up welfare is not uncommon in film, TV, and other media.
“Whore, sexually aggressive woman… central in this nexus of elite white male images of Black womanhood because efforts to control Black women’s sexuality lie at the heart of Black women’s oppression… Provides a rationale for the widespread sexual assaults by white men typically reported by Black slave women.”
The image of the sexually aggressive woman was one that was started to justify rape and the ownership of slave children as property. After all, what emotional worth is one slave baby if a Black woman loves sex anyway and is just going to pop out more? This image strikes home to me the most because so often in the days of Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj and other sexually explicit female rappers women have chosen to take on this persona as, “I’m going to be as forthcoming and outright as men are when it comes to discussing sex.” While they are fighting to be equal and overcome the sexual double standard, they instead reinforce an age-old stereotype and inadvertently oppress themselves. Nobody takes them seriously in the workplace nor in a relationship.
I guess the long version of my answer is not only to be yourself, but also to know who you are, and know what others expect of you as well. Now that we all know these controlling images that we can so often feed into, we can fight the stereotype. Do you think these stereotypes still exist? Are they a driving force in many movies, TV shows, and other media? If you had to answer the question of what can Black women do to be more womanly in 2010 what would you have said?
P.S. If you type in “black women” into Google the second entry is “Jezebel Stereotype”. Interesting.
 I think that’s the first time I used the acronym DMV to mean Department of Motor Vehicles instead of DC, MD, and VA.
 This isn’t a debate on the merit of female rappers who rap equally as sexually explicit as their male counterparts. That is a discussion that cannot be covered in a quick and sweeping sentence.