Historically, black women in film have been portrayed in a negative light in conjunction with society’s view of black people and their cultural roles. Black female characters often played roles such as slaves, maids, overbearing and sexually driven women. These roles support the three main stereotypes of black women (Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire) 1 which I will explore further in this study. Roles such as ‘Celie Harris’ played by Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985) directed by Steven Spielberg, represents the stereotype of a poor black woman who does everything she is told. Contemporary characters such as Thandie Newton’s promiscuous ‘Tangie’ in For Colored Girls (2010) directed by Tyler Perry, depicts the historical stereotypes of a potty-mouthed sexually driven black female. This is known as the ‘Sapphire’ or
‘The Jezebel Stereotype’ (Zinn and Dill 1884:267)2. A woman who uses her body to manipulate males which is contrasted by many other females in the film who portray black women in a positive light. The portrayal of black female is constantly changing and evolving in today’s society supported by an evolving representation in film media which will be the focus for my study.
One of the key representations of Black women in film and media is the ‘mammy’ archetype; it is one of the main ways White society viewed black women from 1800’s to the 1950’s. By definition, ‘mammy’ is a “black woman serving as a nurse to white children especially formerly in the southern United States.”3 Steven Spielberg effectively attempts to work against the “Mammy” or as a maid in his adaptation of the novel ‘The Color Purple’ (1985) through characters such as “Eleanor Jane” and “Sofia”. At the start of the film we see a long shot of a middle-aged black woman “Sofia” talking-back to a white woman, “Eleanor Jane”, in the mise-en-scene of a street in a southern town which leads to a violent brawl.
It was rare for a woman of her position to challenge the white order at that time. Spielberg’s depiction of this rebellious character is shown through his use of dramatic close-ups of her aggressive facial expressions and ‘bad’ attitude. Spielberg also portrays her strong-willed characteristics by extreme close-ups of her clenched hands swinging at her side to show her assertive nature. In the narrative, her plausible refusal to submit to anyone is ironically, the cause of her downfall, as one instinctive reaction in self-defence leads her to a life of submission to “Eleanor Jane”.
However, her role in the narrative changed as she became a maid, a typical representation of black women. In a scene towards the end of the film, Spielberg uses a long shot of her standing by a door looking into the distance to illustrate her feelings of entrapment. She is characteristically dressed in a long dress draping down to her ankles, an under layer of white blouse and an iconic apron. By hiding any flesh of her body and covering her in layers, Spielberg effectively represents black women in an unattractive manner which supports society’s stereotypes. This representation is complimented by the use of close-up shots of her depressed and unhappy gestures for the rest of the film; Spielberg challenges the audience to accept the social problems that stem from these roles. The scene is completed by non-digetic blues music which effectively represents feelings of black women in society at the time as blues music usually connotes an emotion melancholy and sadness. Hence, the archetype of the mammy tells us more about the imagination and desires and even fears of white people who constructed the image and needed it to “validate the institutionalised system of black enslavement…”4 than about the experiences of the enslaved.
Other popular archetypes representations of black women in the media from the 1950’s to the present day are the “Jezebel” and “Sapphire” stereotypes. “Jezebel is named after an evil princess in the Bible and typical “Jezebel” character is a sexually-driven, loose and immoral woman.” 5 Shug Avery in “The Color Purple” is represented as a jezebel in the narrative is an independent sensual singer who oozes confidence. Constantly dressed in distressed clothing and a fur jacket, “Shug” represents the black woman who knows what she wants and how to get it. We are first introduced to her in the film through a medium shot of Celie standing behind a door listening to a conversation between the preacher and another male about “Shug Avery”.
Celie is framed in the foreground of the image out of focus in a dark room suggesting that she is lacking knowledge and wisdom as opposed to the camera focused on the two men in the background, wearing black suits in a well lit room. This indicates a level of success and status that Celie, as a black woman, does not have. In the dialogue, we hear whispers of the preacher referring to “Shug Avery” as “black as tar” and a “juke-joint jezebel”. Spielberg uses these audio codes to support the representation that black women are “the talk of the town” and denotes they have a bad reputation amongst both black and white males.
The ‘Sapphire’ stereotype is “named after a character in Amos’n’Andy”6 and is the stereotype of the black woman who always has her hands on her hips and something to say. This misrepresentation is a leading cause of the pre-conceived notion that black women are hard to get along with. Typical characteristics of the ‘Sapphire’ stereotype are argumentative, overbearing and essentially undesirable. In “The Color Purple”, Sofia is symbolised as strong and independent martyr to racism and sexism. In the film, Sofia is no longer a martyr; instead, she is reduced to the stereotype of the Sapphire figure, the “over-bearing emasculating matriarch”. 7 This is shown during the scene where Sofia is approached by a well-dressed white woman in the street requesting to employ Sofia as her maid.
“Sofia” is understandably offended and defends herself, although it is unusual for a black woman at that time to refuse to comply with social expectations. Spielberg represents fury through dramatic close-ups of ‘Sofia’s’ facial expressions depicting her as livid and aggressive. Frames of an angry ‘Sofia’ juxtaposed against a wider shot of the mise-en-scene of the southern street full of passing strangers surrounding her creates “Sofia” as the centre of focus. It is atypical of a woman of her social status to create such a scene as “Sapphire” stereotypes had not been formed yet. The use of digetic sounds of people in the street gossiping and speculating the scene compliments a negative representation of black women depicting them to be loud-mouthed and non-conforming, a representation most black woman would disagree with.
In contrast, Perry attempts to undercut stereotypes of the black woman in “For Colored Girls”, his 2010 film adaptation of the Ntozake Shange’s ‘choreopoem’ “For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf”. Stated to be a ‘tragic and sensuous hybrid of poetry, dance, drama and feminist theology’ – it even has been called the most important work about black female identity ever. 8 First staged in 1974, her play was a “part of a flowering of black women’s literature that included the book The Color Purple.” 9 Despite all attempts to surpass misrepresentation, Perry reverts back to the age-old ‘Jezebel’ stereotype through the promiscuous ‘Tangie’ played by Thandie Newton. The film sees Tangie always situated in the mise-en-scene of a dimly lit bedroom. By placing her in a dark room, this is suggestive of her insecure nature as she cannot shed light on her immoral lifestyle. She holds the first scene in the film, which contrasts the previous positive scenes of a young girl graduating, a woman watering her plants and another woman praying which make up for the opening credits.
In the opening scene Tangie is shown through a long shot of an apartment window which presents her at the table writing into a book. This is a still image where she is framed in the foreground. It is naturally lit as she is sitting close to the window. This connotes she is in a position of control as she is in the foreground of the image and she has her own space. The room is styled in a Bohemian fashion which represents black women as free-thinkers. She is dressed in a colourful dressing gown with untidy hair denoting both that she is a free-spirit and has a lack of self-worth. This is complimented by a male character slowly putting his clothes on in the dimly lit background of the image. As an audience, we infer that ‘Tangie’ has had sexual relations with this man due to the composition of the mise-en-scene. ‘Tangie’ completes the scene with the dialogue “This was nice but it’s time to go…You got what you came for didn’t you? I can’t possibly wake up with a strange man in my bed”. Perry successfully portrays Tangie in a stereotypical fashion – luring men into her bedroom, satisfying them and going on with her day.
Later in the film, when one of her many male friends tell her that hasn’t “got any money”. Tangie becomes extremely defensive at the thought of being perceived as a prostitute, provoking her to turn into the “Sapphire” stereotype with medium shots of hands-on-hips, aggressive language and angry gestures. This is contrasted by a scene of her younger sister “Tessie”, an aspiring dancer. She is framed in a dance studio filled with natural light, dancing alone accompanied by the non-digetic sound of a voice-over reciting a poetic monologue from the original play. By including this scene, Perry represents young black woman in a tasteful manner which would be received well by all audiences. Despite the film’s title, the target audience for the film is a mature audience of all races. Perry’s approach to representation is interestingly very similar to Spielberg’s in ‘The Color Purple’; they both stick to the conventional stereotypes of black women in order to entertain (Bulmer and Katz Uses and Gratifications Theory) and attract a wider audience.
In conclusion, both films “The Color Purple” and “For Colored Girls” illustrate various aspects of representation. In “The Color Purple”, the ‘Mammy’ stereotype was a position created by society. However, stereotypes in “For Colored Girls” such as ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Sapphire’ are seen to be rooted in behavioral traits of black women. In fact, all of these stereotypes are created by the media, affecting black women’s position in society. They also have an enormous part to play in the way that black women view themselves. Unlike Spielberg, Perry uses other characters to bring out the reasons for these women acting as they do. Gilda is the film’s moral centre and through powerful dialogue she says to a lost Tangie, “It ain’t just sex, honey.
It all has a root, and you got to find that root and pluck it.” 10 We later discover that she and her mother were sexually abused by the same man, a factor which makes an audience change their judgments of Tangie and essentially change the way in which they judge black women. With the aid of political figures such as Michelle Obama and women such as Oprah Winfrey and Beyonce Knowles, the representations of a successful empowered black woman have come to the forefront of world culture. These representations need to be echoed in contemporary film-making to make the common stereotypes irrelevant. However, if the only “misrepresentation” of a black woman in the media today is independent and opinionated, surely the problem lies in the perception not the representation.