Lizzo and Absolving the Mammy Image

There is a new controlling image in town. This image strolled alongside the pseudo “change” which employs the subjugated to propagate oppressive ideologies. But rather than call this slavery, the contemporary climate calls this “diversity” or “progress.”  

This new controlling image combines the traditional mammy and jezebel images and displaces hypersexual behavior, clothing, and speech onto fuller-figured women. The nuanced caricature betrays an old controlling image, the mammy, as maintaining prominence in how the world compartmentalizes the fuller-figured black woman.

In anticipation of the curiosity that I know this post will engender, I will state that I am not a curvy woman.

I, however, am a black woman.

Therefore, any negative or subtle jabs cast against anyone in the black collective is a blow thrown at us all. Particularly, the anti-black culture that pollutes our air and poisons our food also proves a toxin to how we see ourselves and one another.

The contemporary conversation surrounding Lizzo, who elucidates this medley caricature, illuminates this fact.

Lizzo, an opulent black female musician, whose musical eclecticism is seasoned as her range, rose from obscurity to embody a changed America. Lizzo, whose hits “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell” debuted three years ago, reflects spatiotemporal selectivity. To put it bluntly, Lizzo’s fame reflects convenience. Specifically, Lizzo rose in the time where the curvy black woman is not just an extra in Miley Cyrus’s performance to supplement for her lacking attributes, but an itemized image of “body positivity.” The term “body positivity” is, of course, a hollow phrase that is supposed to imply that a changed America now epitomizes inclusive beauty.

Beauty in America can not and will not ever be inclusive.

Therefore, it is hard not to think that in the shadows of body positivity, an anti-black America propels Lizzo to fame in jest that escapes those waiting for Hollywood to re-present what has yet to happen.

To illustrate my point, consider Lizzo’s song “Good as Hell” which is now the theme song for Grub-Hub. This appears a (not-so-subtle) jab at Lizzo’s body and performs a pattern in hiring black people to advertise unhealthy food. It is also worth mentioning that Lizzo’s song “Good as Hell” is not even about food. The song is an empowering post-break-up tune designed to replace a broken heart with confidence, so the pairing is entirely inappropriate. Yet, this espousal reflects that a song by a black woman, summons the non-black listener to think about food, and not the song’s lyrics.

 I have yet to see model Ashley Graham pose for any food company. This is because Graham exists to diversify white beauty. The media wants the world to see Graham as a beautiful woman, not a big woman. The media pairs Lizzo with GrubHub because her image must remain anchored in her size in order to maintain the very societal equilibrium she only appears to challenge in image. Thus, the alignment between food and Lizzo betrays the sinister meaning behind her fame. 

This sinister meaning corresponds to the mammy controlling image that frequents discussions about the pop star. This coupling appears to note a pattern in black female symbolism. This pairing, however, exposes a fixation on size and not function. Most, if not all, black icons function as mammies in the service they provide to white hegemony, yet the mammy caricature remains solely aligned with plus-sized black bodies

The mammy trope continues to shape how the world sees all black women. Those whom Lizzo empowers, like those she has turned off, perform in response to how the world has been trained to conceive black women based on how their bodies function in proximity to the anti-black caricatures.

Mammy’s asexuality illuminates the issue with this faulty compartmentalization. Mammy’s asexuality functions as a key attribute to her caricature, yet this asexuality assigned to the shapely black woman has never been valid. Instead, it exists to downplay the extent of white male lust.

Let us consider Lizzo’s opaque outfit that recently went viral. Lizzo’s ensemble, which gave a full view of her very ample backside, caused mixed reactions on social media. Most responses, however, were not favorable. Personally, I saw the outfit as a little too reminiscent of Saartje Baartman; thus, the historical undertones deemed the outfit in poor taste. However, the conversations Lizzo incited in her clothing selection became a debate over who can wear what and presented an interesting pattern in word choice: confident.

This word too often veils an anxiety many have about the black female frame and specifically how the curvy black woman should feel about their bodies. This returns to the mammy image, where anything other than asexuality as afforded to the fuller-figured woman is considered an anomaly. Thus, confidence represents something existing where most people feel that it should not. I have never heard a non-fuller figured woman called confident in outfit choices; if anything, the world may consider such a woman “conceited” for “showing off” conventionally desirable assets. This reaction to the smaller or more subtly shaped woman is also shaped by the mammy image, as women outside these parameters are too often predisposed a gaze that does not correspond to desirability but a myth as well.

Thus, the American attempt to sexualize the fuller-figured black woman falls short because of a failure to detach from the traditional stereotypes. Notably, contemporary efforts to sexualize the shapely black woman fails due to the farce that in order for the Mammy to emerge as a sexual being she must take on jezebel ways. Thus, in supposedly revamping sexuality, the world failed to alter what constitutes sexiness. 

Comedian and talk show host Loni Love also plays into the contemporary caricature. Love, who frequently reveals vulgar and sexually explicit anecdotes about her sex life on daytime talkshow The Real, functions as what appears to conspicuously challenge the asexuality too often displaced onto fuller-figured black women. However, Love is also a comedian, so her sexuality easily functions comedically due to her profession, but, truthfully garners comedic effect because of an inability to detach from its initial, mammy, anti-black image.

Loni Love and Lizzo, of course, are not mammies and neither is any black woman.

Black women are also not jezebels, sapphires, tragic mulattos, welfare queens, or…angry black women. This is how this global anti-black climate needs the black women to see herself and her sisters in order to ensure that we hate what the white world emulates.

In closing, to acknowledge how western images frame black people is essential for every person of African descent. However, to be a black person who conceptualizes black people in correspondence to western caricature, is to don cognitive chains as an accessory.

One Comment Add yours

  1. This is very sad, but also very true. I noticed how people like to throw the word “confident” at overweight/obese women, too, like you mentioned in here. I never liked that either. I view it the exact same way you put it. People will never call a slim woman “confident”.

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