Mammy, Sapphire and JezebelPosted on Monday, February, 21st, 2011 by in Blog
In film and common opinion of larger society, Black women have most often been portrayed in some combination of these three images: (1) highly maternal, family oriented and self-sacrificing Mammies, (2) threatening and argumentative Sapphires; and (3) seductive, sexually irresponsible, promiscuous Jezebels. These representations have been displayed and often exaggerated in countless movies, television shows, in books and in songs. Tyler Perry’s ‘Madea’ is now a multi-million dollar Mammy, as the character tapped into something within us, and keeps us running to the box office and theaters to see her cutting up with her antics. Wendy Racquel Robinson plays the hell out of a modern day Sapphire as Tasha Mack on the television series ‘The Game.’ She’s loud, she’s in your face, and she ain’t having it. Looking for Jezebel? She’s there in almost every hip hop music video, posturing in a bikini with a come hither stare or shaking so violently to the rhythm of the music that you would swear that each body part is having a separate seizure.
And guess what? They are adored by the masses. When someone speaks out about them, they are shouted down as ‘haters.’ But here’s the hook: when we as everyday Black women are approached by others who don’t know any better as if we were any of these three women, we become highly offended. Yet we’ve done nothing in the span of nearly two centuries-from the cakewalk to BET-to dispel this characters or myths. Sadly, some of us don’t even know where these three women came from, but are quick to fall into their roles. Mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel all came from places of hurt, and their personas were adopted to deal with stressors that we, in modern times, can’t even begin to fathom.
Anyone old enough to remember the original image of Aunt Jemima on the pancake box can visualize the Mammy. For the youngin’s, do some research on Google, and there she will appear. Red rag on her head, skin black as tar, jubilant, if not ridiculously wide smile on her face. Mammy is also large framed woman, as to put the proverbial nail in the coffin, there is no other way to think of her than as, well, a Mammy. Her primary role was domestic service, characterized by long hours of work with little or no financial compensation. Subordination, nurturance, and constant self-sacrifice were expected as she performed her domestic duties. Mammy was intentionally constructed as a non-threatening counterpart to the white starlet. I’d suggest that if you’ve never seen the original, black and white version of the classic movie Imitation of Life (1934), watch it. It’s difficult to watch such an antiquated film with 2011 eyes, perceptions and beliefs, but, it’s necessary. Will you find Big Mama or Madea as hilarious after watching Louise Beaver’s portrayal as the innocently ignorant Mammy? It depends on what you take away from the film.
The wife of the character Kingfish on the old Amos and Andy radio show, she’s large, but not obese, of brown or dark brown complexion. Her primary role was to emasculate Black men with frequent verbal assaults, which she conducted in a loud, animated, verbose fashion. She’s mad, she’s bitter. Somebody did it, and everyone has to pay. She’s Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son, she’s Pam from Martin, she’s Angela from Why Did I Get Married? She’s manifested in songs such as “Bills, Bills, Bills”, “No Scrubs”, etc. She’s the modern day “Strong Black Woman” who needs no one to tell her a thing about anything. She “got this.” She’s your own best friend/sister/mother/aunt. Loud as all ever, she makes you cringe when in public because you never know when she’s going to bust out with some foolishness. But you love her and sometimes wish you had the guts to “go off” on someone the way she does. Hell, maybe you ARE her. We all have a touch of sass. But most of us know that there’s a time and a place for such, if necessary. Not Sapphire. No one will ever, ever get the better of her, and should they try, there’ll be hell to pay.
This display is problematic when aggression is used to mask the appearance of vulnerability or when this image represents the only avenue for the expression of rage and dissatisfaction, especially when innocent people have to bear the brunt of Sapphire’s tirades. There’s definitely a dichotomy here, it’s comical, yet very distasteful. Sapphire’s use of intimidation to get a head will only get her but so far, and when she hit’s the brick wall, she’s going to be angrier, and she’s going to find an outlet.
Of all three images, Jezebel is closer to the White standard of beauty. Massa’ slept with somebody on the plantation, and she was the product. Mister slept with one of the maids, and she was the product. Often illustrated as an exotic woman, with features such as long (and usually straight) hair, thinner lips than the usual Black woman, and a slender nose. Her primary function in history has been the seductive, hypersexual, exploiter of men’s weaknesses. There is a sexual stereotype attached to Jezebel-which is not seen with the previous images- and it has manifested itself into an overall assumption of Black woman in general: promiscuous, has engaged in sexual activity early in life, and is aroused with little sexual foreplay. Making this an even more pervasive issue, is the startling notion that if a Black woman perceives her sexuality as one of her few valuable assets, it may become a source of esteem or negotiating tool to manipulate men rather than an expression of pleasure and caring. Well…if you let rapper Trina tell it in her song “No Panties”:
No panties coming off/my love is gonna cost/cause ain’t no way/that
You gonna get up in this for free
Or Lil Kim, from her song “Don’t Mess With Me”:
Niggaz want me, even though they got a honey/if I’mma be number
two, they giving me some hush money
Jezebel scares me the most because she is the image that is barraging us, our daughters, our future. Sadly, Jezebel is being internalized by young girls at a mind boggling rate. It seems to be a requisite that a ‘bangin’ body” and a ‘tight weave’ is what these girls possess. Anything less, and she’d be considered undesirable, corny, busted. Her academic achievements don’t equate to much because she’s learning that it’s all about having the ‘goods’ in order to get ahead. In my next post, I’m going to expand more on this image, because in a perverse way, Jezebel has seemingly turned sexual exploitation into what she perceives to be a feminine power in which she controls and manipulates her subjects. But is it possible that she is just a willing participant in her own degradation?
This article barely scratches the surface on the overall effects of these three images on the psyche of Black women. Issues revolving around mental and physical health, self esteem, and inter-personal relationships can find roots in how a woman perceives herself. It can also be a determinant in what she allows in her life. It’s never too late or too soon to pause and reflect on our actions and the feelings and beliefs from which they are derived. A true, honest, analysis (no matter how painful) is almost always necessary to make sound decisions.
Carolyn M. West. “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical Images of Black Women and Their Implications for Psychotherapy” Psychotherapy Volume 32 Fall 1995 Number 3.
 K.S. Jewell. From Mammay to Miss America and beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of US Social Policy 1993. New York: Rutledge
 G.E. Wyatt. The Afro-American family: Assessment, Treatment & Research Issues. 1982. New York: Grune and Stratton.