Friday, August 25, 2017

The Mammy trope and other racial issues with the film WONDER WOMAN


This past weekend, Wonder Woman opened with more than $100 million in revenue, breaking records to become the highest-grossing opening weekend for a woman director. Many white female fans were overcome with emotion at seeing themselves reflected in Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), who is physically triumphant and unwaveringly optimistic in the face of adversity; in their Wonder Woman-themed shirts and hats, their love for the character is undeniable, a marker of their own dedication to female empowerment and feminism. But the premiere of the Wonder Woman film is bittersweet for Black and other women of color, because even in this so-called “feminist” film, erasure and a lack of inclusion is not only expected, but a given. When it comes to mainstream feminism, race and other identities often take a backseat to gender equality—and that simply isn’t good enough.

Yes, Wonder Woman was an entertaining film. The bright colors, the female gaze of director Patty Jenkins' lens, and the slight nuances which nodded to the superhero’s origins and various incarnations all made for an entertaining watch. I found myself rooting for Diana to rid the world of Ares, god of war, and bring peace to mankind. But like many other films about feminist themes—Mona Lisa Smile, The Help, even Mad Max: Fury Road—I was unable to shake the reality that the film embraced feminism for a very specific community—one that does not have people like me in mind.

In the film, the only Black women depicted are a handful of Amazons on Themyscira, the hidden island where Diana and her people live in peace without men. The first Black woman we’re introduced to is Diana’s caretaker, a representation which hits the Mammy trope on the head. With roots in the transatlantic slave trade, Mammies were Black women who were domestic caregivers, mostly charged with taking care of the children of slave owners and, once slavery was abolished, white families who hired them for low wages. A Mammy literally exists to care for others, with no autonomy and independence of her own. Today, the image of the Mammy—a smiling, grandmotherly type who loves to take care of others—offers white people comfort within their own supremacy by creating the illusion that she did her work out of love, not necessity or survival.

Within this context, it’s sobering to see the first image of Black womanhood on Themyscira within a stereotype Black women have been fighting against for decades. This characterization also made clear that in Wonder Woman's story, Black womanhood would once again be represented as the other, while Diana’s racial ambiguity (but ultimately, her identity as a white woman) is meant to reflect and connect with viewers.

As for the other Black Amazons—who are only seen within the first 20 minutes of the film, as the story moves away from Themyscira—their physical strength is marveled at and highlighted, as it is with the other Amazons on the island, but this emphasis on physical strength left a bad taste in my mouth. Connecting Black people to brute strength dates back to slave-selling auctions, where a Black person’s value was directly linked to how physically fit they were. Later, this racist rationale justified the assumption that Black people were physically stronger than other races because of genetic differences. Today, Black women athletes like Serena Williams are endlessly ridiculed, their physical strength mocked in anti-Black insults which demean their womanhood. Wonder Woman's emphasis on the Black Amazons’ physical strength and little else—they’re barely named and only have a handful of speaking roles—is a reflection of these same, tired Black stereotypes.