Black feminism

5 Controlling Images that Affect Black Women

Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins introduced controlling images in her 1986 Social Problems article “Learning from the Outsider Within” to describe the stereotypes that provide the basis for the dehumanization of Black women and the exploitation of their labor. Collins expands on this concept in “Mammies, Matriarchs, and other Controlling Images,” the fourth chapter of her book Black Feminist Thought.

Part of the mission of Black feminism, according to Collins, involves challenging the controlling images that affect Black women. Controlling images result from binary oppositional thinking that emphasizes and then reinforces differences among social groups. Such thinking implies a superiority and inferiority in social relationships, leading to the objectification and domination of one group over another.

Oppositional binary thinking as reported by Collins leads society to devalue Black women due to the cult of true womanhood. Society thus upholds middle class white women as the symbol of purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. Black women, on the other hand, have to grapple with five different controlling images: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother, the Black lady, and the Jezebel. In this blog I summarize each of these stereotypes as described by Collins in Black Feminist Thought.

The Mammy

The controlling image of the Mammy characterizes Black women as domestic servants who epitomize faithfulness and obedience. Typically, people think of Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind.

This portrayal depicted how the Mammy serves as the ideal relationship between Black women and white men in positions of power. According to Collins, the Mammy operates at the center of the intersectionality of race, gender,  class and sexuality. Society, particularly during the colonial era, uses this controlling image to justify the social positions of multiple groups.

The Mammy teaches Black children to subordinate themselves to whiteness. The Mammy also teaches that Black women lack sexuality and desirability, making them good surrogate mothers for the children of white women whose position aligns in subordination to white men as their ideal partners. This controlling image serves to justify paying Black women low wages for service and care work.

The Matriarch

I have written about the myth of Black matriarchy before because the idea seems relatively popular among Black nationalist circles as an explanation for a multitude of perceived ills against and within Black America. The matriarch refers to the idea that Black families headed by unmarried mothers caused rather than resulted from the poverty and concentrated disadvantage that envelops most of Black America.

The actress Mo’Nique Hicks portrayed perhaps the most iconic contemporary representation of this trope in the 2009 film Precious.

Collins writes that the Black matriarchy thesis emerged as tensions began to arise between the mid-twentieth century feminist and Civil Rights movements. Since Black mothers worked, unlike their white middle-class counterparts, the matriarch failed to embody true femininity and instead stood too strong relative to underemployed or unemployed Black men. This imagery therefore exacerbates gender relations in Black communities due to the insistence that the structural inequalities that present Black women a means to more consistently support their families financially amounts to a cultural deficit.

Hard-working Black mothers, therefore, emasculated Black men as they failed to embody the passivity of the mammy. The belief that Black mothers behaving badly explained economic disadvantage got legitimized by the federal government in the 1965 Moynihan Report. Thus, this controlling image brings together the intersections of class, gender, and race to explain away the true causes of racial oppression in the U.S.

The Welfare Mother

Mo’Nique’s  character in Precious also invokes another controlling image – the Welfare Mother. This imagery characterizes poor, working class Black mothers as responsible for the diminishing quality of life in the contemporary capitalist society as a whole. According to Collins, this perception of Black women extends all the way back to slavery, related to an image of Black women as breeders for the labor force of plantation owners.

This trope encompasses the intersections of race, gender, and class just like the matriarch. It also shifts blame for contemporary inequality to Black women as a form of social control of their fertility through targeted federal social welfare policies.

The Black Lady

The Black lady centers on the politics of respectability of middle-class Black women in professional careers. Claire Huxtable played by Phylicia Rashad in the Cosby Show exemplifies this representation.

Collins describes this controlling image as a modern mammy because it implicates Black women as working too hard and therefore acting too strong for men to desire them. Additionally, this perception of Black women entering middle class status leads to resentment of the gendered dimensions of affirmative action as men claim Black women have taken career opportunities away from them. In particular, Black men contend the Black lady has gained her position in the workplace because white people perceive her as less threatening.

The Jezebel

I have written about the Jezebel before due to how intimately it relates to my own research on the sexuality of Black women. The Jezebel operates at the center of the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality to characterize Black women as hypersexual and hyperfertile. This controlling image persists today in reality television or rap music video as the hip hop hoe.

Collins writes that the Jezebel functions to normalize binary oppositional thinking in relation to sexuality by normalizing the sexual tastes of cisgender, heterosexual men. It masculinizes Black women by treating them as a “racialized, gendered symbol of deviant female sexuality” (Collins 2009: 91). This characterization leads to a portrayal of Black women as sexual freaks who move between the boundaries of heterosexuality and same sex desire.

Controlling Images Today

The five  controlling images Collins outlines in Black Feminist Thought result because science and popular culture portray the sexuality of Black women as a problem. Furthermore, these controlling images hinge on standards of beauty that rely on binary thinking of white women and Black women as opposites in terms of beauty and attractiveness. Black women then either internalize these images or seek to resist them through the development of a unique sexual politics.

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