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August 02, 2006

NYT Frets About "Sassy Black Woman" Stereotype; Women, Minorities Hardest Hit

Put all the large black actresses out of work, why don't you.

t 200 pounds plus — most of that pure attitude — she is hard to miss.

Her onscreen presence takes on many variations, but she is easily recognizable by a few defining traits. Other than her size, she is almost always black. She typically finds herself in an exchange that is either confrontational or embarrassing. And her best line is often little more than a sassy “Mmmm hmmm.”

This caricature, playing on stereotypes of heavy black women as boisterous and sometimes aggressive, has been showing up for some time in stand-up comedy routines and in movies like “Big Momma’s House’’ and “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.’’ Often, the pieces are produced by directors and writers who are black themselves.

With black creators giving more acceptability to the image, it is now starting to appear more often in television commercials as well. Most recently some variation of this character has appeared in commercials for Dairy Queen, Universal Studios and Captain Morgan rum.

But despite the popularity of such characters among blacks, the use of the image of big black women as the target of so many jokes is troublesome to some marketers and media scholars.

“It is perpetuating a stereotype that black females are strong, aggressive, controlling people,’’ said Tommy E. Whittler, a marketing professor at DePaul University. “I don’t think you want to do that.’’

To be sure, sassy overweight black women appear to represent only a small fraction of the African-American actresses who appear in commercials. Marketers have made strides in recent years toward making advertisements with a more diverse cast of characters.

So, um, they're actually not appearing all that frequently after all? So what's the problem?

Most of film and tv work is gotten by the exact same sort of black actresses as is gotten by white actresses -- the smokin' hot ones with the little waists and big chests. Is the New York Times "bodyist"? Are they now saying that only black actresses who look like Halle Berry are deserving of work?

And, you know, there's a reason overweight people, and people who aren't smokin' hot in all ways, tend to be funnier than smokin' hot people. Humor is essentially a learned social survival skill that people pick up on if they need it. Most really good looking people find that they are always perceived as charming and witty and engaging no matter what they say, so they don't need to learn to be funny, and usually don't.

Obviously, there are exceptions. But I'd bet most good-looking funny people picked up their funny bones during an awkward adolescent phase when they weren't so good looking.


Stereotypical portrayals of blacks in commercials have drawn criticism from civil rights groups for decades. Some of the earliest and most iconic examples of blacks in advertising — Rastus the Cream of Wheat chef, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben — showed blacks in subservient roles that recalled the days of slavery.

Those images have been toned down over the years (Aunt Jemima’s red bandanna, for example, was replaced with pearl earrings and a lace collar in 1989) and are no longer as overtly stereotypical as they once were. And now there are many examples of blacks presented in middle-class settings and engaged in mainstream activities.

To some, the freer use of overweight black women in comic situations suggests a welcome change that reflects a broader acceptability of blacks in the media. But others find the recurring use of the image a return to a disturbing past.

And some say these images may serve to exacerbate misunderstanding between whites and blacks.

Oh, please. No one is more annoyed by the Sassy Large Black Woman stock character than I am, but that's because I don't find it funny. I find it hackneyed.

But well-meaning liberal goofballs have this strange idea that blacks can only be portrayed as the most virtuous, most noble, most every-good-adjective-you-can-think-of ways. That's pretty stultifying, and leads o other hackneyed stereotypes, like the Magical Negro, Angelically Wise and Virtuous, Who Shows Up To Teach White People Important Lessons About Life, Love, and Golf.

As if friggin' Will Smith is sitting around his mansion all day wondering how he can insinuate himself into my life to help me "get my swing back" or something. I kind of doubt he does that. Not that he isn't a nice guy, understand.

I've mentioned this before, but he critics howled racism when a James Bond film dared to cast a black man (Yaphet Kotto) as the archvillain in Live and Let Die. Do these nitwits not understand that there are only three main roles in a James Bond film -- Bond, The Chick, and The Villain -- and that black men can only appear as the latter, as the first is always filled by a white English guy, and the second is always filled by, well, a chick?

Despite the fact that Yaphet Kotto was playing a hypereducated, hyperarticulate sophisticate (you know, the standard Bond villain), they still howled. What? Black people can't be Master Criminals Intent On World Destruction? Are you saying that black people are limited in some fashion when it comes to their Control The World ambitions and Absurdly Complex and Often Nonsensical Plot-Making skills?

I think a commenter wrote here (forget who) that he thought it was a good sign of improving race relations when those deodorant commercials featured Marvin Haggler and Charles Barkley talking about, well, armpit odor. It was a breach of the stultifying PC code that black men were depicted as suffering from a perfectly human condition (armpit stank) we all suffer from. And yet, five years before, the New York Times would have castigated these commercials for daring to imply that black athletes might just work up a stank as they work up a sweat.

And those ESPN commercials with the self-centered star athlete who says, in response to the cliche, "I guess there's no 'I' in team," "Yeah, well, there ain't no 'we' either" ? Hilarious. And also kind of liberating, in that it actually depicted a black person as being less than 100% noble.

No one's 100% noble, for crying out loud, and 100% noble is a boring role that no actor can carry off well.

Will & Grace, which wasn't especially funny, was a hell of a lot funnier than it would have been if it had been peopled by the Hollywood-Only Cliche Of Gay Men, i.e., incredibly boring guys no different than straight guys, except much more reserved and stoic and much less likely to fly into flamboyant exclamations like "Mary-Kate and Ashley!"

Come on. Most of what's dramatically and comedically interesting, and juicy, is the flaws and foibles and petty vanities.

This drumbeat for "100% Positive Role Models Only" is pretty much a drumbeat for black actors to have very few successful tv series and movies.


Black advertising executives have noticed the stereotype.

“There’s an image out there of black women being boisterous, overbearing, controlling and extremely aggressive in their behavior,” said Carol H. Williams, who runs her own advertising firm in Oakland, Calif., that specializes in marketing toward blacks. “I really don’t know why that stereotype is laughed at.”

I imagine because people find broad humor funny. I don't find this particular bit of broad humor funny, just like I never found Urkel funny either. But I don't see this as the end of the freakin' world.

Some have trouble with the new commercial images in part because they are being created by white writers.

“There are images of African-Americans created for white people by white people and there are images of African-Americans created for African-Americans,’’ Mr. Buford said. “And there’s a big difference.”

Message: Hire me and I'll write you all the harmful stereotypes you want. But you have to go through me if you want to go down that road.


Jannette L. Dates, dean of the communications school at Howard University, said that while whites and blacks could watch the same portrayal of a large black woman on television and laugh, they are laughing for different reasons.

Some whites, Ms. Dates said, may laugh thinking, “Wow, she’s so ridiculous. My people aren’t like that.” She added: “They wouldn’t consciously feel that way. But there is something going on subconsciously because that’s what advertising is all about. They’re trying to tap into some feeling, some emotion, some psychological hang-up.”

Blacks, meanwhile, might laugh because they can identify with the character, Ms. Dates said. “It’s for both the people who want to snicker and say, ‘See, that’s how they are.’ And for people to say, ‘There’s one of us.’ ”

Theory: both whites and blacks laugh at the stock character because they find it funny that she bugs her eyes out, gets frothingly angry, and says "Mmmm-hmmm" a lot, and no one is sitting there saying "There's one of us."

What kind of a idiot does a black person have to be to see a black person on the screen and actually bother thinking to himself, "There's one of us"?

What do they do when they see gophers? Think, "There's not one of us. In fact, I'm not even sure it's closely related."

Orlando Patterson, a sociology professor at Harvard, amplified that point. “To the black audience, this may be, ‘You do your thing, sister,’ ” Professor Patterson said. “The white audience is laughing with her. Then they go back to reality, and they laugh at her.”

Please. The stock character is pretty ridiculous; that's what makes her funny. (Again, not to me; I find it annoying.) But the idea that black people, in laughing, are really giving her empowering props and saying to themselves "You do your thing, sister," is borderline retarded.

This feels like one of those lame stock black-stand-up-comedy acts where it's all "White people act like this/Black people act like this."

White people act like, (nasally geek voice) "Look at the buffoonish Negress reverting to minstrel-show stock characterizations in order to stoke my already-keen feelings of racial superiority."

Black peopl act like, (deep, cool Barry White baritone) "Allllll right. You do your thing, sister. Consider my chuckling at your ridiculousness to be a form of nonverbal solidarity."

Thanks to Ray Midge.

PS: Got my handle back, thanks to Pixy.

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posted by Ace at 11:52 AM

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