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February 2013

Mamsaphjez? (Scandal and Deception; Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel?)

The new trend is to call Black female character depictions ALL THREE stereotypes—mammy, Sapphire and Jezebel…sometimes at the same time too. Mam-Saph-Jez…I call it. This seems to be the angle taken for “Olivia Pope” of Scandal and “Joanna” of Deception. (I am a fan of Scandal; I don’t watch Deception, though I gave it a try).

I mentioned this in the last paragraph of a previous post—how people analyzing these shows are looking for individual behaviors of these characters and neglecting to examine other behaviors, as well as the totality of the characters, and any behavior that they feel is reminiscent of forced nurturing without agency, aggression or sexuality, automatically makes the character, in totality, become one of these stereotypes. This approach to analyzing representation is inaccurate, not to mention there is most certainly polarity within these stereotypical characterizations (i.e. the mammy was always considered an opposite depiction to the Jezebel). Ignoring these characters’ agency (something mammies did not have), ignoring when they actually are soft/caring (something easy to do when the Sapphire-hunting lens is on) versus hard/argumentative, and ignoring the fact that while they are sexual beings who desire and are equally desired, by more than one man at that, that’s not their total identity or representation makes it easy to blow these characters off.

I don’t think these characters fit these depictions. On a blog post on For Harriet, I responded to this part of a sentence in the post:

"While you could classify Olivia Pope as a combination of the mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire stereotypes (if you dig deep enough)

I responded:

This, by far, IS THE MOST IRRESPONSIBLE analysis posited about this show. Hands down. Irresponsible and intellectually dishonest. And, I am not blaming you; I’ve seen everyone including Black men who call themselves feminist assert this analysis regarding her character, and here is why they are WRONG: Any presence of negative attributes, no matter how dynamic the Black woman character is in totality means the character becomes one, two or all of the common stereotypes: mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire? (And at the same time? Please.) It doesn’t matter if the character in totality is not these stereotypes. Anytime she fixes a problem the audience can yell out “mammy!” Anytime she is physically intimate with “Fitz” or “Edison” the audience can hell out “Jezebel!” Anytime she argues with high powered men the audience can yell out “Sapphire.” The only problem is that the audience is DEAD WRONG.
The audience has now gone past examining the totality of a character to labeling any single action as the entire character morphing into a stereotype, even when she has not. And, this lazy and myopic labeling is why based on watching the reaction to this character, I doubt any Black woman character will ever be acceptable, no matter how human she is, no matter how much work is put into her, no matter how dynamic she is, no matter how she easily transcends these three stereotypes or being boringly flatly positive. When are people going to address the fact that moving away from basic racial/gendered stereotypical characters AND reactive “positive” characters that exist solely to “prove” Black worthiness, only leaves humanity? One that’s not perfect. One that is complex. One that is a very gray-area. One that is true. When are people going to address the fact that the real reason why “Olivia” bothers them is they’ve become comfortable with one-dimensional, reactive, “positive” constructions of Black womanhood (in other words, anti- mammy/Sapphire/Jezebel) that are “safe” (and they view this as “progress” versus mammy/Sapphire/Jezebel) but not truly dynamic or human?
Probably never. Notice that Deception has fewer criticisms than Scandal, though you pointed out similarities in the show. Why is that? It’s not that it is newer. Scandal had hatred from day 1. It is because its ratings are lower, its social media presence is smaller, and because Black women seem less interested thus far. The attacks on the show have more to do with what people think of the viewers than the show itself. It has more to do with one character than the whole show itself. It has more to do with the creator than the show itself. What do all three have in common?
I’ve written on this topic quite a bit, and I decided that I was not going to respond anymore, but I think it is important to point out how IRRESPONSIBLE people have been with the three media stereotypes of Black women being used in these analyses. Now if we are going to critique the aggression in “Olivia’s” and “Joanna’” relationships with BOTH their White and Black partners (no one seems to notice the complications in their relationships with the Black male characters and also how they lack chemistry since many people, White and Black, seem to think same race/similar resume is all that is needed in these on and off-screen couplings), the moral relativism involved in their political leanings and decisions, and other topics, sure, let’s talk. But this, “anytime a Black woman is desired and desires she’s a Jezebel, anytime she speaks up she’s a Sapphire and any time she helps she’s a mammy” sloppy analysis that disregards the context and totality of these particular characters, the nuance in their positions of power and weakness—nuances blatantly neglected in many past and present depictions of Black women that were not neglected in these two characters, is sloppy analysis that I vehemently reject.

(To be clear, again, I was not blaming this particular writer; I’ve seen these stereotypes thrown around since both shows’ inception. I was just commenting on that one sentence, but the whole post presented several issues.)

I do wonder why no one wants to discuss the moral relativism in the show. I mean, I critiqued this in many posts—how I don’t politically or morally identify with the individual characters’ actions all of the time but think the characters are well-created. And, I like the writing. I am sure that the fact that the show is uncharacteristically attacked for its writing in comparison to other primetime network dramas has nothing to do with the Black woman creator/writer, Shonda Rhimes, having an MFA from USC in this subject. (Name four other primetime network dramas attacked for the scripts; weekly. I’ll wait…)

Just like in real life, I don’t identify with the actions of every Black woman from head to toe, but I can still understand her motivations involve a greater complexity than solely being whatever that one action is—and I think these shows (though I can speak on Scandal better than I can Deception because I actually watch the former more) actually convey the same.

I’ve seen A LOT of work with Black women characters who ARE these stereotypes. The actual work and how it manifests, not just the academic definitions and research describing these stereotypes, so it’s irresponsible to me to claim that these two characters are these three stereotypes, UNLESS I am the type of person who views any actions relating to care, aggression or sexuality, on-screen or off, as a Black woman’s total being morphing into said stereotype. I’m not that type of person.

Even so, I have never stated that “Olivia Pope” is a role model or that she should be one. (There is a dehumanization process involved in the deification necessary to make someone a role model in the first place.) I never asserted that what “Olivia Pope” does is womanist/feminist (especially since sometimes she challenges yet sometimes she affirms the sociopolitical status quo and because of the deep moral relativism in relation to her character AND all of the other characters on the show) or that her character is “above” critique. I am just beyond disinterested in the types of critiques that dominate this topic, at this point.

(I said this before but, for real this time…I swear after this the only thing that I am posting are photographs/comments about Scandal episodes…in other words…chile, BYE.)

Related Post: If “Olivia Pope” Of Scandal Were White