The Mammy Figure

What is it?

Mammy is a racist caricature of Black women. She is portrayed as overweight, dark-skinned, and desexualized. Mammy is shown to be happy in a position of servitude. She was a loyal worker whose world revolved around her white “family”. She is shown to be more loyal to the white family than her own. Mammy is desexualized as she goes against what was considered attractive by society in that time (dark-skinned, overweight, middle-aged). The purpose of this is that Mammy could not be perceived as a threat or competition to the woman of the household. 

The existence of a Mammy figure in real life was unlikely. Few households could afford to have house servants, and if they did, the women were usually light-skinned, thin, and young. The Mammy figure also implies that Black women were not sexually attractive to white men, but Black women and girls were often assaulted by white men, or potentially involved in consensual relationships. However, mixed race relationships were seen as taboo.

Origins in Media

The Mammy figure originated to support to position of Black people in society. It portrayed Black women as fulfilled in their place as a servant, and showed the white families as merciful and kind. It erased, or attempted to rewrite, the atrocities of slavery.

Mammy has been found in books, plays, and film. One of the earliest examples is in the 1915 film Birth of a Nation. The character Mammy, who is played by a white woman in blackface, is a loyal servant to a white family. She is shown to defend the white master from Union soldiers who come to arrest him for being involved in the KKK. Another example is Gone with the Wind, released in 1939. This movie has been accused of historical negationism, as it distorts and falsifies the past. One of the main components of this is Mammy, portrayed by Hattie McDaniel. Mammy is the servant of the main character, Scarlett. Mammy dotes on Scarlett and is happy with her role. This portrays slavery in a positive light and is a wildly inaccurate portrayal of how slaves were treated.

In Modern Media

The landscape of media has changed for the better, but it still has problematic elements. Black actors made up only 11% of lead actors in films released from 2015 to 2019. We still see stereotypes showing up in film. We can look at the career of Octavia Spencer as an example. Spencer is an Oscar nominated actress, but she is no stranger to the modern equivalent of a “Mammy” role. Spencer has portrayed a maid, cleaner, or nurse 21 times. Her characters often exist to push forward to narrative of the white main character. However, certain roles have gone against this stereotype and allowed her characters their own narrative. In The Help, her character Minny is a lead in the movie, and the story does not attempt to create a romanticized relationship between her and the woman she works for, Hilly. Minny, in the later portions of the movie, stands up for herself against Hilly. Although she portrays a domestic servant in this movie, that may appear close to a Mammy figure, the character goes beyond this by having her own storyline.

Another occurrence of the Mammy figure is the Black best friend character. This character is not the lead character, but only shows up to support the white main character. They often make sacrifices for the white character, and sometimes do not have their own storylines. One example is Bonnie from The Vampire Diaries series. Although she has her own storylines, she constantly makes sacrifices for her best friend Elena, and her main role in the show is saving others. Another example is the High School Musical movie series, where Chad and Taylor are the Black best friends to Troy and Gabriella. They’re main roles in the movie are to be the comic relief and offer sassy lines, while also being supportive of their best friends.

The Watermelon Woman

One piece of media that acknowledges the problematic Mammy figure is The Watermelon Woman. The movie’s main character is Cheryl, a Black woman and filmmaker working in a video store. She notices that many Black actresses featured in films from the 1930s and 1940s were not credited. She begins to track down one actress who was only referred to as “The Watermelon Woman”. Cheryl finds similarities between herself and The Watermelon Woman, in that they are both involved in cinema, and both lesbians. Cheryl identifies her as Fae Richards, but discovers that she has passed away before getting the chance to interview her. Cheryl is encouraged to tell the realities of Fae’s story. This film shows how rich the life was of just one woman, and leads audiences to wonder about all the talented Black women who were never credited for their work properly.