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aventinus visio Nr. 9 [24.08.2014] 


Manuel Kuck 

Mammies and Jezebels

In Search of Female Black Stereotypes in modern Movies and Television 


I – Introduction 

The general idea to group certain types of behavior into stereotypes, or archetypes, can be dated back to ancient Greece and has also been used heavily in medieval church plays (where the characters actually did not perform as persons as such but represented virtues and vices) and the stock characters of modern theater. Whereas most stereotypes or stock characters can be used for almost anybody, there are however a number of specially designed stereotypes for black people, stemming back to the earliest days of American slavery. For men as well as women, they were usually of a very derogative nature, often used to illustrate the conceived inferiority, both in mental capacities and moral behavior, of the enslaved. 

In this Essay, a look will be taken at two of the most prominent stereotypes for black women, which still exist even today: the Mammy and the Jezebel. Since especially the Mammy has undergone a lot of change and is now often a hybrid or composite of stereotypes, a third stereotype will also have to be defined, the Sapphire. After briefly explaining their characteristics and giving a classic example for each one, an investigation for these stereotypes in modern day movies and television, i.e. from the late 1990s and 2000s, will be undertaken in Chapter III. Television will include music videos in this instance. Also, a look will be taken at the psychological ramifications that accompany those stereotypes.

II – Defining the Stereotypes 

The Mammy originated in the Antebellum South. Her behavioral key features are a deep loyalty towards her masters, combined with subordination and usually a very motherly and nurturing characteristic, therefore her domestic service almost always included cooking. Her physique is usually that of a middle-aged, heavy set or obese, dark woman with strong African facial features. An important part is that this stereotype is considered to be asexual. Because of her loyalty, the Mammy was in fact somewhat revered among whites, and an essential part of justifying slavery. Thus “Mammy was rewarded and elevated for being, simultaneously, a capable, domesticated woman and a dutiful, grateful slave”. [1]

An iconic example of this character can be seen in the classic Gone with the Wind (1939), where Hattie McDaniel played Scarlett O'Hara's faithful servant, a role for which she received the first female black Academy Award.

The Sapphire is a rather young stereotype, coming from the late Jim Crow era of the 1940s and 50s. She is the embodiment of anger, a woman that is nagging, very loud and violent, mean-spirited and, the special trait of her character, somewhat abusive and emasculating towards men. Since there are no clear physical attributes ascribed to the Sapphire, she can easily be melded with, for example, the Mammy. The stereotype was partly used to downplay the effects of racial segregation and oppression of both blacks and women in general.

The name is derived from the television version of the Amos ‘n Andy show (1951-53), which featured a character named Sapphire Stevens that basically set the standard for this stereotype. [2]

The Jezebel is actually the oldest of the three and maybe the most severe. The name originally stems from the Book of Kings. Jezebel was a Phoenician princess that married Ahab, king of Israel, and is described as immoral and deceitful. In case of black women, a Jezebel is promiscuous, seductive, hyper-sexual, and mischievous, willing to use her body for personal gain. Mostly her physical attributes are in sync with white society, so in contrast to the Mammy, she usually is slender and considered to be highly attractive. Her complexion can be, but not necessarily is, lighter than other black characters. Because of her conceived immoral and sexualized behavior, it was a common practice in slave society to blame the black woman when she “seduced” (i.e. usually was raped by) her master. The idea in this case being that she lures the honorable men from the path of righteousness, exploiting their weakness. Some even argued that because of promiscuity and lack of moral to begin with, rape as such was basically impossible since there was no honor to be lost from the beginning.

An epitome of the Jezebel in early cinema would be the character of Lydia Brown in Birth of a Nation (1915). She is the mulatto mistress of white Senator Stoneman, whom she corrupts with her wicked ways, and is also portrayed as savage, lascivious and deceiving.

III – Modern versions of old Stereotypes 

David Pilgrim argues that the Mammy stereotype has been replaced by the Jezebel in modern media. However, the Mammy can still be found rather easily, albeit seldom in the original antebellum or 1930s depiction. Therefore, a closer look at both shall be taken.

III.1 – The Mammy

One can argue that the main reason why the conclusion could be reached, that the Mammy is a thing of the past, is because in modern times it seldom manifests in its truest and simplest form, but mostly as a hybrid.

In recent years, a merging process of the Mammy and the Sapphire has taken place, sometimes colliding with a newer stereotype, the Angry Black Woman. A good example is Thirteen Ghosts (2001), a horror movie in which the only black character is a loud and foul mouthed black babysitter, whose only purpose is comic relief after tense moments. In Exit Wounds (2001), Steven Seagal plays a cop who, while on traffic duty, is almost run over by a heavy set black woman in her car, and after her being reprimanded by him, she just insults him.

There are however clearer cut cases of Mammy/Sapphire Hybrids. In Big Momma’s House (2000), Martin Lawrence plays an undercover FBI agent who, in order to retrieve stolen money from a heist, poses as the distant grandmother of the robber’s ex girlfriend Sherry, whom he eventually falls in love with. The movie jumps back and forth between him acting like an old black Mammy in one moment and motherly behavior towards both Sherry and her son Trent, next thing falling into a loud mouthed argument with other women and even playing (and beating) the neighborhood kids at basketball. A somewhat similar case, although not as bizarre, is the character of head nurse Laverne Roberts in the sitcom Scrubs (2001-2007). Roberts is a portly middle-aged woman with a somewhat asexual aura, always good advice and very helpful, but on the same hand very sassy and loud mouthed.

Another reason why pure Mammies are a rare phenomenon in recent years is a campaign by many black women to break up the stereotype by re-infusing sexuality. Since one of the defining characteristics besides overweight and devotedness is a certain asexuality, especially large women tried to overcome the societal equalization of thinness and physical attractiveness. For this reason, food is sometimes connected with sensuality, such as in Beauty Shop (2005), a comedy with Queen Latifah playing a hair stylist who opens her own salon and, over the course of the film, gives some of her white customers a first glance at the idea of ‘Soul Food’: food very rich in fat and energy, which was once an important factor to survive the strenuous live as a slave. The idea is along the line that a woman with a big appetite is both a bon vivant and sensual. This concept actually isn’t that new, since similar comparisons are made in Jazz lyrics of the 1920s and 30s, where the combination of food terms and sexual situations was fairly common, e.g. calling a young desirable girl a ‘biscuit’ and subsequently a good lover ‘biscuit roller’. In that same tradition one can see stand-up like The Queens of Comedy (2001), four black female comedians, all slightly to less slightly overweight, yet very sure of themselves and among other material they comment a lot on the sexual desires of large women.

Thirdly, one can still find rather unadulterated versions of the Mammy. Among those are for example the two protagonists of the sitcom The Parkers (1999-2004), both overweight black women (mother and daughter), characterized as loyal and devoted to their family and caring for others. Though they do not both lack sexuality completely, it is not a main topic, only in the end the daughter’s secret sweetheart answers her prayers, returns her love and marries her. In the movie The Bone Collector (1999), Queen Latifah plays an overweight nurse who is devoted to her patient, a quadriplegic former police investigator, for whom she in the end even dies, trying to protect him from a serial killer who toys with the police. A very recent example is the character of Shirley Bennett in the new series Community (2009), a divorced mother of two, overweight, rather asexual, very pious and somewhat of a motherly figure in the group of students portrayed in the show. Also one must consider Oprah Winfrey as a possibility for a Mammy. In her long-running talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show (1986-2011), she often reprises a role very similar to that of a Mammy, a caring, wise woman whose opinion is asked and respected.

Finally, we have to take a look at the numerous psychological dilemmas that come with this particular stereotype. Especially the anger problem, portrayed in the Mammy/Sapphire, has huge ramifications. According to Carolyn West, black women have no clear way of expressing their often justified outrage or agitation, without falling into stereotypical patterns. This can lead to a total denial of showing affect at all, a problem many psychologists need to be aware of. 

Another great issue is the weight itself. Although perceived as being stout (therefore strong or tough) and maybe even ‘more’ loveable because of their abundance of flesh, Beauboeuf-Lafontant argues that many black women actually cause the opposite. Eating disorders are on the rise in the black community as well as several health hazards related to obesity. Also often the overeating is simply a mechanism to cope with unresolved frustration or depression.

There is also a third, more general problem caused by stereotyping itself. Studies show that women who are perceived as Mammies often do not get certain jobs, because they are put into a category of service workers or likewise, thus barring career opportunities. [3]

III.2 – The Jezebel

The Jezebel re-surged after quite an absence in the blaxploitation cinema during the 1970s, depicting both male and female lead characters with a very high level of sexual prowess. Pilgrim argues that this was partly because the black audience wanted to see “Blacks fighting the ‘White establishment,’ resisting police corruption, acting assertively, and having sex lives”. [4]

In modern day cinema and television, the Jezebel is still present and rather untouched by time. In Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999), Halle Berry stars as a 1950s singer, a very attractive woman who constantly needs the attention of man and takes great pride in her sexual conquests. Interestingly the movie portrays itself as a racial drama about a woman who is denied her rightful place in the world because of her color, which also fits well into the Tragic Mulatto/Jezebel ideal. Another good example is the series Ally McBeal (1997-2002). The only black main character, played by Lisa Nicole Carson, is an almost hyper-sexualized, physically attractive and ruthless lawyer, with a rather manipulative streak and a tendency for confrontation. She is also the most sparsely clad of all female cast members. Somewhat of a deconstruction happens in the critically acclaimed movie Monster’s Ball (2001), with Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton as a dysfunctional couple, Berry playing a poor waitress that gets involved with Thornton, who plays a racist jailor that executed her character’s husband while on death row. She finds out at the end of the movie yet stays with him, because they already are caught in a spiral of self-hatred, poverty, alcoholism, and grieving for lost relatives.

Although not exactly film or television, music videos are also a source to be considered. In fact, nowhere a Jezebel character can easier be found. On the one hand it is true that the whole medium of music videos is hyper-sexualized. There is however a very clear distinction to be made between active and passive roles in videos. In many videos of white female musicians, like Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, they are in charge. They present themselves in a highly sexual manner, in an active role, thus still able to decide what they want to do or when to stop. The situation in Hip Hop videos on the other hand has been somewhat different. Most of the performers were and still are males. This male dominance of the genre has caused a somewhat tilted view: women in those videos are highly objectified. They mostly serve as eye candy or mere accessories, at the disposal of the protagonist for whatever purpose he sees fit. Interestingly there is a severe dichotomy of misogyny in the relationship to this women, since they are both highly sexualized and acclaimed prizes or possessions, yet at the same time they are debased, almost denying them humanity at all, by using demeaning terms for them like ‘ho’, ‘bitch’ or ‘chicken-head’ [5]. This dilemma has not been solved. Even though some female artists are prominent in the Hip Hop community, the main issue still remains.

There are two major psychological problems to be considered. Young black women who internalize the Jezebel stereotype seem to have more trouble with defining a healthy sexuality, what may lead to a variety of issues such as performance anxiety or perceived inadequacy. Additionally the lesson many of them seem to have learned is that they can only achieve their goals by sexual means, using their body both to negotiate terms and manipulate. A defining characteristic is also a constant need to be reassured. 

Even more severe, studies suggest that although all women are at risk of sexual abuse, the risk of black women being assaulted is almost twice as high. This is furthermore accompanied by lower report numbers as well as significantly lower conviction rates. Most likely because black women who are perceived as Jezebels are still considered to be at least partially guilty, the black victims feeling more ashamed than white victims and the juries feeling more contempt for the black victims. This is even more the case when it is a Black-on-Black crime. 

IV – Conclusion 

The Mammy as well as the Jezebel still are very much alive in modern movies and television. Both are relics of the antebellum slave society, the Mammy as the overweight, faithful and asexual servant, the Jezebel as the attractive, sexually deviant and immoral deceiver.

The Mammy however has undergone a lot of change, being mostly a composite hybrid of Mammy and Sapphire nowadays, creating a somewhat schizophrenic character, though mostly a big angry black woman. Some groups have tried to combine the largeness of many black women with the sensuality, in combination with their perceived love for food, trying to create a new picture of womanhood. Even though, one can still find regular Mammies, with the image almost untouched, except the loyalty has shifted from the white master to her family and friends. Psychological problems that go along with these hybrids are anger management issues, the denial as to whether their obesity is really a sign of strength (plus the possible health risks of course) and the problem that they are barred from certain professions because of being stereotyped by possible employers. 

The Jezebel stereotype has passed rather unchanged through the era of the blaxploitation cinema into modern cinema and television. Although it can still be found there, it is now most prominent in the entertainment sector of music videos. A clear distinction can be made between white and black videos. The latter are much more male dominated and the picture of women is almost completely dehumanized and objectified, giving way to a deep dichotomy, the women caught in between being desired and despised. This leads both to an ill-defined sexuality among teenage black girls and, as studies suggest, that black women are more prone to sexual violence, in addition to lower conviction rates as well as a higher threshold of perceived guilt and shame among victims.


Baye, Betty. “Time to Move beyond the ‘Mammy’ Stereotype.” NPR News & Notes (accessed July 29, 2014).

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. “Strong and Large Women? Exploring Relationships between Deviant Womanhood and Weight.” Gender and Society 17, no. 1 (2003), 111-121.

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in Films, Viking Press, 1973.

Brown Givens, Sonja M. and Monahan, Jennifer L. “Priming Mammies, Jezebels, and Other Controlling Images: An Examination of the Influence of Mediated Stereotypes on Perceptions of an African American Woman.” Media Psychology 7, no. 1 (2005), 87-106.

Emmerson, Rana A. “Where My Girls At? Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender and Society 16, no. 1 (2002), 115-135.

Parasecoli, Fabio. “Bootylicious: Food and the Female Body in Contemporary Black Popular Culture.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 35, no. 1 / 2 (2007), 110-125.

Pilgrim, David. “The Jezebel Stereotype.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (accessed July 29, 2014).

———. “The Mammy Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (accessed July 29, 2014).

———. “The Sapphire Caricature.” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (accessed July 29, 2014).

West, Carolyn M. “Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical Images of Black Women and their implications for Psychotherapy.” Psychotherapy 32, no. 3 (1995), 458-466.


  • [1]

    Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara, “Strong and Large Women? Exploring Relationships between Deviant Womanhood and Weight,” Gender and Society 17, no. 1 (2003), 112.

  • [2]

    The stereotype is still very much alive today. In recent events, Michelle Obama, now the First Lady, has frequently been associated with the Sapphire stereotype during the campaign, though more for her angry posture and strong opinions. (For more, see It is however interesting that in modern TV, the Sapphire stereotype can be used regardless of race, since the dynamic of sassy wife and dumb husband is now equally common in both white and black sitcoms, such as My Wife and Kids (2001-2005) or The King of Queens (1998-2007).

  • [3]

    Brown Givens, Sonja M. and Monahan, Jennifer L, “Priming Mammies, Jezebels, and Other Controlling Images: An Examination of the Influence of Mediated Stereotypes on Perceptions of an African American Woman,” Media Psychology 7, no. 1 (2005), 96-98. This is also true for both the Sapphire as well as the Jezebel. The pushy character of the Sapphire stereotype led people to believe that she is either under-qualified or ill-behaved. Women who are perceived as Jezebels seem untrustworthy and therefore seldom reach positions of responsibility.

  • [4]

    Pilgrim, David, “The Jezebel Stereotype,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (accessed July 29, 2014). However, Pilgrim also argues that these were false assumptions, because first of all many movies were produced and directed by whites, second that the portrayal of black culture is very twisted and unrealistic with focus on glorifying sexuality and simultaneously debasing it with derogatory archetypes of pimps and hookers. Thus these movies did little to improve black awareness in his opinion.

  • [5]

    A derogatory slang term for a woman who performs oral sex. 

Empfohlene Zitierweise

Kuck, Manuel: Mammies and Jezebels. In Search of Female Black Stereotypes in modern Movies and Television. aventinus visio Nr. 9 [30.07.2014], in: aventinus, URL:

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Erstellt: 29.07.2014

Zuletzt geändert: 24.08.2014

ISSN 2194-3427