Racist Caricatures: From Mammy Two Shoes to Serena Williams

Racist Caricatures: From Mammy Two Shoes to Serena Williams

During the era of blatant racism in the early 21st century, many cartoons would depict black people as having monkey-like and barbarian characteristics. These comics were released during an important and confusing turning point in American race relations. American history was pivoting at the time, the civil rights movement was in place and communities were protesting for their freedom- these cartoons portray a society of that time.

Notable animators such as Warner Brothers, Looney Tunes and even Disney became prime users of these derogatory cartoons. Tom and Jerry were known to have a character called ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ who was the African American maid of the house. ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ always appeared in early 20th-century literature and was usually an overweight black woman with below average intelligence wearing domestic servant clothing and speaking in an ebonic dialect. Meanwhile, caucasian looking cartoons such as Jessica Rabbit also created with similar over-exaggerated features, were heralded by the media as sex symbols.

Warner brothers also released a cartoon called ‘Jungle Jitters’ in the early 20th century, of African savages with humongous lips singing and dancing.  A travelling salesman tries to peddle his wares to the natives, but soon finds himself in a cooking pot.  Extremely racist and offensive, these cartoons were a product of their time and represent a period of American history. In the Tom and Jerry spotlight collection Whoopi Goldberg introduces the collection by stating “Tom and Jerry was iconic and important; and influential as it is, includes racial humour, which was normal at the time; but now is very outdated. But to erase ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ and other examples of old school racism would be pretending like they never existed which would be wrong”.

For modern audiences, many of these cartoons are quite shocking but they explicitly illustrate how overtly extensive and pervasive racism was in our culture just a short time ago. This has all become widely relevant in 2017 with Jay Z’s recently released album 4:44- which includes the controversial song ‘’The Story Of OJ”,  accompanied by a music video depicting Disney’s racist history of cartoons and the reflections of slavery.  There has been widespread discussion on the matter of the song where he touches on one being so successful, they can separate themselves from their race. In some ways,  this can be seen as a version of black self-hatred. Moreover, what Jay Z has dug into here is the wider image of being black in America. Jay Z rhymes: “OJ like, ‘I’m not black, I’m OJ…OK” (a quote yet to be confirmed as directly from OJ Simpson) which sinisterly intimates that wealth and hierarchy somewhat contribute to black people being able to disown the colour of their skin. This couldn’t be more ironic, as when the NFL player went to trial for the murder of his wife, his colour became a huge pivotal point.

In the 19th century a woman called Sara “Saartjie” Baartman, was sold into a freak show attraction in Europe as a result of having large buttocks. She was exhibited in London as part of a show titled “The greatest deformity in the world” in Piccadilly. Even modern famous black individuals never escape their race coming to the forefront of their career; a prime example of this being Serena Williams. Serena Williams has also been a victim of comments on her physique in recent years. The New York Times article about body image in a competitive tennis industry became a catalyst debate about the harmful ways the media discusses Serena Williams’ body. This isn’t about how Williams’ physique differentiates her from her white counterparts, but rather about the way black women are continuously compared to white woman in every arena.

Online commenters have referred to  Williams as  “Gorilla-like and manly”. These kinds of incidents alongside the language often used to describe Serena, speak of a type of degradation specifically aimed at black woman. The main point isn’t that Williams isn’t tall, slim and a size six; it’s about the fact that she isn’t white. We can observe this in the fact that while other ‘masculine’ tennis players such as Martina Navratilova, Justine Henin & Samantha Tosur are subjected to the same kind of physical critique as Serena, Serena has been described as subhuman, a “Gorilla”, which is not the same terminology used to describe her white counterparts. This constant criticism of Serena Williams has painful parallels to Sara “Saartjie” Baartman; both of their bodies have been scrutinised and turned into a spectacle for white amusement, emphasising the fact that no matter how successful you become in the sporting world, race will always come into play.

Overall the depiction of black people in the media throughout the years hasn’t been an empowering one. However, in recent years we have made progress with cartoons such as ‘Doc McStuffins’, a cartoon about a young black girl who wants to become a vet. This show is a hint at the small amount of progress made for black women in terms of representation with more black girl cartoons being released in recent years. However, the positive representation of black women and men in the media is still a struggle which we’ve yet only made a small dent in.

Written by Jasmine Martin-Lord


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