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Illustration by Angie Wang. Do I always have to be noble?
To be better. To be respectable. And the bounds of respectability are narrowly defined by professional and personal choices reflecting the social mores of the majority culture—patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and middle class. Spencer ended up taking home an Oscar later that month for Best Supporting Actress Davis lost to Meryl Streep for Best Actressbut Smiley had articulated a discomfort many in the Black community felt about their big-screen roles. For all its popularity and acclaim, The Help illustrates that Hollywood still filters and distorts the lives and histories of minorities through the eyes of the majority; celebrates white saviors; and, 72 years post-Mammy, is still more comfortable casting Black women as maids than as prime ministers, action heroes, or romantic le.
Where Smiley trod lightly, some people have been more explicit in their criticism of Davis and Spencer. Wounds that racism has created, wounds that drive you to gain acceptance in the larger culture.
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The acknowledgment comes in the form of a paycheck, exposure, star status, acceptance. An acceptance that is more important than our legacy. How else could a Black woman…take the role? But there is something else floating in the ether: The idea that the role of a maid is simply too ignoble for a 21st-century Black actress.
That idea is merely respectability politics at work. According to Dr. And here emerges one fallacy of respectability politics: An oppressed community can implicitly endorse deeply flawed values, including many that form the foundation of their own oppression.
On the other hand, respectability has been important for marginalized people throughout history. Black civil rights activists showed up at marches and protests in their Sunday best—despite discomfort, and sometimes only to be spat on or sprayed by fire hoses.
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Those jackets and ties, heels and hats, sent a message: Your stereotypes are untrue; we deserve equality; we, too, are respectable. And the Black community still uses respectability politics as a form of resistance. But perhaps now more than ever—when there are so many different ways to be Black and to be a woman—respectability politics have the potential to harm as much as uplift. As often happens, Black women carry a double burden, as they are asked to uphold a respectability built on both racist and sexist foundations.
When neo-soul singer Erykah Badu announced her third pregnancy insome fans attacked her for having children outside of marriage with more than one father.
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It only serves to further demonize single women, who are working hard at motherhood, and are sexually independent. And it reinforces the historical idea of sexual deviance and unfit motherhood that has been used to marginalize Black women. And rather than reject that problematic stereotype, critics pilloried Badu as a poor example to the Black and broader communities—as not respectable.
Berry drew particular criticism for a daring sex scene with costar Billy Bob Thornton. A Black woman onscreen, bouncing and writhing naked with a white man, was viewed as base and degrading by many in the black community. Film is forever. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that. By choosing a highly sexualized role, Bassett implied, Berry was reinforcing stereotypes about black women. Put another way, Berry was reinforcing the way white society views Black women.
For women, to be sexual, to be sexual with different partners, or to be sexual outside of marriage is not deemed respectable. This is especially true for Black women. Ellis, also known as Dr. Goddess, performs one-woman shows that leverage spoken word, comedy, and music to mine issues of race, class, and gender. Though Ellis says she does not adhere to the standards advanced by the politics of respectability, she is still conscientious about the characters she creates.
Nearly all participants are presented as bullying, narcissistic, backstabbing, money-grubbing, cliquey, disloyal, arrogant, self-involved, willfully ignorant, poorly spoken, wasteful, and tackily nouveau riche.
It makes for good television. They are not discussed using racialized terms.
And few white people are spending time being embarrassed by their hijinks. The question is: Who is most to blame for the images of Black women we see? In the case of the Real Housewives franchise, it is series creator and Bravo executive Andy Cohen, who selects the casts and guides storylines through editing and behind-the-scenes maneuvering. But modern purveyors of respectability politics have concerned themselves with black women like Real Housewives of Atlanta star NeNe Leakes.
Loud, aggressive, and crass, Leakes is often charged with setting Black women back through her behavior. For instance, earlier this year, in an interview with HelloBeautiful. Engaging with respectability politics is not just arbitrary policing.
In the case of Black women, it is rooted in the realities of racism and the specific way it intersects with sexism and class. When members of the community react to a Black actress in a highly sexualized role, they can be pushing back at the destructive notion of Black woman as rump-shaker, as belly warmer, as unrapeable object of pleasure. They may be anticipating the fallout from one more salacious Black female character—another brick in a wall of sexual stereotype that has dogged American women of African descent for centuries.
When we rage at the prevalence of NeNe Leakes—type portrayals, we do so knowing Black women carry that neck-rolling stereotype on their backs into every interview for a potential new job and every interaction with authority. Representation matters. It changes minds and cements biases. Individual Black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture.
Those limited images do reinforce stereotypes about Black women and often prevent people from recognizing their humanity. And those stereotypes do burden Black women in their real, everyday lives.
What can we do about that? Policing the behavior of Black women is not the answer. If it is wrong for a contemporary Black actress to portray a maid, what message are we sending to Black women who do domestic work? If it is wrong to be shown having sex with white men, what does that say about Black women in interracial relationships with white men? If Erykah Badu is a whore for having children out of wedlock, what does that say about all Black single mothers?
Indeed, since more than half of births to all women under 30 occur outside of marriage regardless of racewhat does it say about women as a whole? The goal of respectability politics may be noble, but the execution is flawed, damaging, and ineffective.
By indulging in respectability politics, we acquiesce to the racially biased idea that the actions of individual Black people are representative of the whole. We add to the pre-existing burdens of racism and sexism.
And we fail to solve our problem, because we move the responsibility for eradicating race and gender biases from the powerful institutions and systems that perpetrate them to those oppressed by them. It is easier to try to control the oppressed than challenge the oppressor, but it is rarely a humane or useful approach.
Rather than critiquing the individual choices of Black actresses, Jackson proposes an alternative. We need to be critiquing Hollywood for not adapting more work about Black women by Black women.
Black women have been on the front lines of many a revolution. A battle that opens the door for all people—domestic workers and duchesses, the chaste and the promiscuous, the conventional and the daring—to be seen as valuable, to be seen as respectable, is a fight well worth having. Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender. Get Bitch Media's top 9 re of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning!
The same way Black men have been marginalized into thugs and criminals, Black women have always been marginalized to the most negative image of a woman you can think of. I hope we can get around this soon. Like, now. Also, this article not only presented its issues in depth and well detailed, you also offered solutions in your closing.
Something most writers cant do on this topic. Thanks for this.
By the time you read this, Ive retweeted it several times. I do agree that filmmakers are still behind when producing certain projects like The Help, that novel is just a feel good summer bestseller with the issue of african-american maids as a background. I don't mind filmmakers making a movie about african-american maids, but work on the film with a good intention instead of just making money since it's an all women cast in a feel good movie of the summer. I saw the movie and it only dealt with the stories of african-american maids in the civil rights era on a superficial level.
If they truly want to make movie about african-american maids in civil rights era, they should have researched from every true source. It may not be a feel good movie and box office hit, but at least the stories about various women during those times would have been told with clarity and depth. I respect and love viola davis, but if she sees her job has telling the truth and giving voice to this character she portrays, she should have taken control and pull together a team to gather as much as information from credible sources.
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I was hella vexed at the Tavis Smiley interview because I felt feel like Viola Davis mischaracterized his critique. She chose to see it as policing, while I think he was attempting to offer the very critique that the author of this post is making. He didn't criticize Davis and Spencer for taking the role. He asked over and over again about how these women felt about being in an industry that still provided such limited options 70 some odd years after Hattie McDaniel. Davis got defensive and chose to make it about an individual attack. I don't doubt that there are some middle-class Black folks invested in respectability politics who centered their critiques on the ignobility of Black women playing maids.
But by and large, most of the critiques from Black feminist bloggers I read, and I read a lot of them, went out of their way to NOT demonize domestic work.