Are Black Female Casting Stereotypes Actually Gross Misinterpretations of Archetypal African Goddesses?

The Huffington Post ran a piece, a few weeks ago, on a recent Essence survey that revealed that most of the magazine’s readers feel the portrayals of black women in the media are not fair representations of who they really are.

HuffPost summarizes the study as follows:

Essence surveyed 1,200 women about the images of black women in media and found that respondents felt the images were “overwhelmingly negative,” falling typically into categories including: “Gold Diggers, Modern Jezebels, Baby Mamas, Uneducated Sisters, Ratchet Women, Angry black Women, Mean black Girls, Unhealthy black Women, and black Barbies.”

Essence readers have a point. Only a handful of black women are playing roles in film and TV that are more complex than these stereotypes, which have been mainstays of how black women are portrayed in the media for the past hundred years: the mammy, the black bitch (also known as the angry black woman or originally “the Sapphire,” a term named for a character from the show Amos ‘n’ Andy), and the slut (historically referred to as the “Jezebel”). But a look at contemporary “Goddess consciousness” culture — a blend of many different indigenous cultures and New Age philosophy – reveals that these archetypes are actually resemble gross misinterpretations of some Goddesses (or “Orishas”) of Yoruba tradition: Yemaya, Oya, and Oshun.

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The mammy is generally depicted as an asexual, “fat,” dark-skinned black female who is past what our society thinks of as her childbearing years, complete with a matriarchal vibe. She may or may not be depicted as having a “no-nonsense” attitude, although it’s likely she isn’t overly aggressive. She is always in servitude. This stereotype is most memorably manifested in the Gone With the Wind character who is actually named “Mammy,” a role for which Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar. Some examples from contemporary television include Nurse Laverne Roberts (Aloma Wright) on Scrubs, and most recently Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) in the dreadful-yet-Oscar-nominated 2011 movie The Help. (You may also have noticed a lot of older Latina women in servitude playing that same “no-nonsense” maternal role, and it’s worth a mention that Latinas suffer from the same typecasting.)

In fact, this “mammy” figure shares some of the characteristics of the African deity of Yoruba spiritual traditions, Yemaya — except this deity is no slave. The goddess Yemaya is associated with the water element; she’s a nurturing feminine deity who is also known as “Mamma Watta.” The water can even be associated with nourishment and breast milk; this life-giving maternal force is comparable Yemaya’s place in Yoruba culture. She is revered as the mother of all, the source of all of the Earth’s waters. Her energy is strong, calming, and serene when still, yet as powerful as a 30-foot wave when stirred. But the “mammies” we see in pop culture are stripped of this power, as well, by way of America’s history of slavery, when enslaved women would breastfeed white children, even while their own children went malnourished.

The turbulent winds that stir up Yemaya’s calming waters are her daughter, Oya, who comes to bring the pain. The goddess of wind in ancient Yoruba culture, Oya would be likened to a tornado. She brings “winds of change” and destroys anything that no longer serves a purpose in one’s life. Oya’s powerful feminine energy that comes to clean house and kick ass (kind of like Xena: Warrior Princess) is a destructive yet cleansing force.

But it’s been distorted into the black bitch, who’s probably pissed off because her mother had to work for the master and their children while neglecting her, so she carries throughout generations a nasty, combative attitude. In a sea of clean white people, the black bitch is the dirty dot, the stubborn stain that everyone wants to remove.

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The wonderful character Omarosa from The Apprentice comes to mind. Now, you may be protesting, “That’s a reality show — they only cast real people. Omarosa isn’t a character.” But I want to remind you that reality shows have casting directors, writers, editors, and producers, and all of those people are keeping a clear eye out for archetypes viewers will recognize. Most black bitches on TV are shown as fiery and emasculating in the extreme. They may be pretty to look at, but they’re just too damn mean to consider as a partner. This reinforces a frustratingly common and persistent misapprehension that black women have bad attitudes that make them unsuitable for marriage. Only a shuffling, emasculated man would put up with such destructive behavior — or maybe she needs a “strong black buck” to subdue her. The black bitch also correlates to the “fiery Latina” stereotype that often appears in mainstream media, like Penelope Cruz in the movie Woman on Top or Sofia Vergara’s character, T.T., in Madea Goes to Jail.

As with the fiery Latina, there is often a sexual aspect to depictions of black womanhood. Cast as the “oversexed slut” in music videos, this stereotypical black woman is also seen on many an episode of Maury, wondering who the father of her child is — and when she can’t identify him, she tears shit up. Although there is a bit of Oya in it, the overt sexuality on display in this “Jezebel” stereotype is mostly a perversion of Oshun, the goddess of love and magnetism. Oya is the epitome of beauty, sacred sex, and giving and receiving. Her colors are gold, yellow, and amber, and she is open and receptive to gifts and affection while giving of herself and helping the poor.

Superhead

These generous, powerful qualities fail to come through in the way the former video vixen and author Superhead (named for her expert oral sex skills), as well as popular characters from TV shows like Love & Hip Hop, are portrayed. They too wear gold, but it seems that all they care about is looking good, wearing flowing weaves, and fulfilling their “uncontrollable sexual appetites,” which they then try to exploit for a quick dollar. Their way of life is so sensationalized that it’s tough for them to be respected and accepted as whole people in mainstream culture. Not that they should care what anyone thinks, but when the media lavishes a disproportionate amount of attention on this lifestyle, it makes it harder for a non-celebrity black woman who look similar to these celebrities to be taken seriously.

A personal experience reminds us that this type of focus on black female sexuality isn’t new, or even limited to cultural products marketed to adults. I once bought a seemingly innocuous vintage cartoon DVD from the 99-cent store called Noveltoons,  only to find a moment when three sheep are singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Soot is blown on them by a pig playing some weird instrument that sounds like a tuba, and they’re suddenly wearing blackface, while in the lyrics we learn that the little lamb’s fleece is “black as coal.” That’s when their demeanor devolves into sexualized shimmies. I just couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it.

All female sexuality is simultaneously revered and demonized in this society, which pretty much explains the problem with portraying sexuality as the whole of a black female character’s’ personality. Despite our most earnest efforts, one prominent character who looks different from mainstream white America can tend to represent to that majority everyone who looks like that character. When one promiscuous black woman is mercilessly and unfairly slut-shamed in the media, it hurts the entire community. And since no real person is entirely defined by her sex life, no character should be, either.

So, were these black female stereotypes created consciously? Is it a coincidence that these common character tropes are so reminiscent of, if also so much less complex and powerful than, African deities? I don’t expect most filmmakers or TV writers to know about ancient Yoruba traditions; it seems more likely that the archetypes have slowly and indirectly trickled down to Hollywood over the years, devolving into harmful stereotypes influenced by America’s history of slavery and racism. But there’s no denying that the people who create our popular culture could stand to encounter more realistic, multifaceted models of black womanhood.

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We need relatable black female movie and TV characters — and even superheroines, like the white male superheroes who currently rule the box office — who portray the part of humanity we love to see: inner beauty, heart, dignity, courage, authenticity, and love for the greater good. Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington’s character on the hit TV show Scandal) isn’t the answer. She’s just a variation on the “tragic mullato” stereotype, a woman who is not only in service to a white man but also his concubine and shameful secret. And while hiring more black female writers might help, it isn’t the whole solution, either. Scandal was created by a black woman.

How about instead of mammies (or baby mamas) we see loving mothers in the spirit of Yemaya, who are home-schooling or unschooling their children? Instead of gold diggers in the Jezebel mold, why not make room for philanthropically motivated black women, giving back to their communities and helping the poor like true daughters of Oshun? What about women advocates for positive social change whose anger is justified, like Oya’s?

The results of the Essence revealed that black women aren’t seeing their real lives represented on screen — and we know it. When will we finally recognize ourselves in popular culture? Not until we see characters that speak to our true and whole selves, reflecting the positive qualities we possess that can never be taken away from us: our beauty, our passion, our love.