A Comparison of the Mammy Icon and Big Momma in Raja Gosnell's "Big Momma's House"
Table of Contents
Depiction of Big Momma in Big Momma’s House
Comparison between the Mammy and Big Momma
Since 19th century, African Americans have often been subjected to racism and marginalization within the American society. Although they have been brought as slaves to America several centuries ago and thus, probably live since generations in the country, they are barely recognized as members of the American community and are forced to live on the fringe of society. As a consequence, African Americans have become the targets of cinematic and television comedy, delineating various stereotypical images of African American men and women. David O. Selznick’s film adaptation Gone With the Wind, published in 1939 and adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s eponymous novel, offers the first portrayal of an African American woman. Conspicuously, the African American woman in the movie emphasizes stereotypical images being decisively devised by white American writers and film producers. Expeditiously, stigmatized ideas of African American women become coined under the imagination of Selznick’s the ‘Mammy’. Since the Mammy is defined as an obese, tall, and broad-shouldered woman, the majority of African American women in America clearly feel their stigmatization conforming the depiction of the Mammy by the white community, culminating in experiencing even greater social marginalization and rejection.
Bearing in mind that the Civil Right Movements, where African Americans fought heavily for their personal rights and for an elimination of established stereotypes, occurred many years after the publication of Mitchell and Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, readers and spectators are, nevertheless, confronted frequently with stigmatized images of African Americans. In 2000, Raja Gosnell published his comedy Big Momma’s House, starring Martin Lawrence, representing not only drag performances, but also underlining anew the image of an overweight, broad-shouldered, and colossal African American lady. Martin Lawrence, acting as agent Malcolm Turner, dresses up as lady Hattie Mae Pierce, commonly known as Big Momma, by wearing a fat suit in order to proceed with his investigation. Consequently, similarities between the Mammy archetype and Big Momma in Gosnell’s movie become rapidly obvious. Therefore, this research paper aims to answer the question whether Big Momma can be considered as a contemporary representation of the Mammy archetype or whether producer Raja Gosnell uses the Mammy stereotype in order to add extra comedic relief.
In order to achieve a well-detailed analysis, this paper commences with an evaluation of the Mammy archetype by offering a thorough illustration of typical features, which characterize the stereotypical African American women. Second, the portrayal of Big Momma in the comedy Big Momma’s House will be scrutinized, illuminating her specific peculiarities meticulously, since it is agent Malcolm Turner, who is largely embodying Big Momma. Providing a detailed analysis of both, the possibility for an adequate comparison increases. Thereby, similarities as well as differences will become visible. The polemic consists of whether Raja Gosnell uses stereotypes established by the Mammy icon to add comedic relief, and hence, plays again with the image of African American women, or whether the Mammy and Big Momma provide too many differences to be interpreted as representing an identical image.
African Americans have consistently been the target of cinematic and television comedy. Considering African American women, the Mammy has emerged as an icon throughout the 20th century, representing the foil to American white women (cf. Atkinson, 2004: 3). Having its roots in antebellum Southern America, the Mammy “was an important figure in the socialization of white Southern children” (DelGaudio, 1983). Considerably, various depictions of the Mammy present her performing arduous domestic duties in the household of their slave owners. Therefore, the Mammy replaces the white lady in educating the white children and taking care of the home (cf. Jewell, 1993: 38). In their work, Jennifer Bailey Woodard and Teresa Mastin stand their suggestion that the Mammy cares even more for the white family, particularly for the white children than for her own family (cf. 2005: 271). Despite the depiction as the foil to the white lady, the Mammy conversely also serves as an assistant of her female master or even as her “shadow sister”, being in charge of everything pertaining to the household (cf. Patton, 1993). Hence, the Mammy in the white household is seen as an intelligent servant to the white family, solving wisely and even god-like every duty she has to fulfill. Unsurprisingly, she constantly balances between the white and the black community, being a spokesman for the black minority (cf. Atkinson 2004, 2). Although the black servant is a slave within a white household, the Mammy is portrayed as being content with her way of living, having a satisfying master-servant relationship and feeling not inferior, but rather seeing herself as a member of the family (cf. Jewell, 1993: 38). In acquiescence with Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, the image of the Mammy has been applied to create an atmosphere of racial harmony within the slave system (cf. 2008: 13). Hence, the role of the Mammy proposes creating an image of the Mammy contrasting to the stereotypical image of the African American slave, whom the white society forces to live under the worst living conditions.
However, the term ‘Mammy’ was first used as a general Southern term for ‘mother’. Later, it is given exclusively to those African American women, nurturing the white children and taking care of the household of a Caucasian ménage (cf. Wallace-Sanders, 2008: 4). In fact, the Mammy stands in intimate contact with the white family and embodies the ideals of her master family (cf. Parkhurst, 1938: 352). However, just with the publication of the film adaptation Gone With the Wind, produced by David O. Selznick in 1939 and adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s eponymous novel, does the Mammy obtain her name. Here, “the Mammy is the large, capable, and selfless caretaker of the belle-gone-bad, Scarlett O’Hara” (“Mammy”, 2010: 684). Given her intimate relationship with the family of her owner, she is associated to belong to the white community rather than to her own race. Additionally, the term has emerged as a replacement of the Mammy’s actual name throughout time, meaning that her real name is barely known. Paradoxically, although the Mammy has not only such heavy responsibility in socializing the children by preparing them for adulthood, but also reflects her owner’s values, the masters do not even know her real name (cf. Wallace-Sanders, 2008: 7). In fact, this underlines that the Mammy still belongs to the black minority and is not considered as part of the superior white community, converse to her representation as a respected and wise person and her wide influence on the white family.
Furthermore, maintaining the Mammy in the white household serves dual purpose considering women’s power. On the one hand, by having a black female nurturing the white children, the white lady is detained to establish any trace of power, ensuing in the maintenance of male power. On the other hand, by fulfilling domestic duties in a white household, the black female gains more power than the black man, concluding in the retention of the divisive family structure in which black men have scarcely power (cf. DelGaudio, 1983). Therefore, substituting the white woman by the Mammy emerged out of white men’s fear of female’s power.
In an examination of the Mammy’s outward appearance, she exhibits entirely exaggerated features. Given her main domestic duty, she is primarily portrayed in domestic clothes, wearing a headscarf, an apron and a typical African American domestic dress called drab calico (cf. Wallace-Sanders, 2008: 6; Jewell, 1993: 39). Moreover, the Mammy exposes the absolute opposite to the American perception of womanhood. Her portrayal evinces not only a colossal and broad-shouldered woman of nearly black skin, but does also emphasize her large breasts and buttocks, alluding to obesity. Surely, big breasts and large buttocks are considered desirable qualities that every ideal of womanhood inhabits. Particularly men feel attracted to women exhibiting those embellished features. However, this total exaggeration of her physical largeness places the Mammy outside the desirable female sphere and creates a de-sexualized image. As Sybil DelGaudio states, “The enormity of her size, while potentially increasing the image of her maternal strength, presented a de-sexualized image, especially contrasted with those sylphlike, objectified others of her gender, who exemplified the feminine ideal” (1983). By means of this depiction of the Mammy, males are able to disavow their sexual appeal towards African American women (cf. Jewell, 1993: 40). Having open sexual interest in African American women was against the norms of the white American society during the slavery era. Therefore, by depicting the Mammy in this exaggerated way justified a sexual relationship between a slave owner and an African American servant because “the result of the sexual advances of the female slave and not the slave owner.” (ibid.) Consequently, these negative attributions and the de-sexualization of the Mammy position her outside the female norms of thinness, i.e. the female ideal of outward appearance (cf. Love, 2014: 59).
In further analysis, the Mammy exposes significant characteristics, outlining her overwhelming kindness mixed up with sternness and wisdom (cf. Patton, 1993). In her work, Jennifer W. Parkhurst enlists the following qualities featuring the Mammy archetype:
self-respecting, independent, loyal, forward, gentle, captious, affectionate, true, strong, just, warm-hearted, compassionate-hearted, fearless, popular, brave, good, pious, quick-witted, capable, thrifty, proud, regal, courageous, superior, skilful [ sic ], tender, queenly, dignified, neat, quick, tender, competent, possessed with temper, trustworthy, faithful, patient, tyrannical, sensible, discreet, efficient, careful, harsh, devoted, truthful, neither apish nor servile. (1938: 353).
As seen in Parkhurst’s list, the Mammy embodies basically all pleasing streaks in an effort to educate and socialize white children adequately. Therefore, she enjoys high prestige in terms of human values, why she is fairly a respected person in the Caucasian family to which she belongs. Nonetheless, the Mammy archetype is filled with paradox. On the one hand, she surely enjoys independence and embodies positive attributions such as kindness, benevolence, and reliability. On the other hand, as Parkhurst states, she is, inter alia, tyrannical, temperamental, and harsh. In her work, Julia S. Jordan-Zachery argues, the Mammy needs aggressiveness “in order to maintain the status quo, in her relations to other slaves to prevent their co-optation of her” (2009: 37). Further, she clearly has to display authority over other slaves in order to protect the white family of any probable jeopardy, particularly from other blacks. However, the Mammy would never show her harshness and aggressiveness towards the white family. Thus, she “is constructed as fiercely independent, aggressive and powerful, [but] all within limits” (ibid. 38). By means of her tyrannical manners, she places herself above African Americans, particularly above African American men.
Given Parkhurst’s delineation of the Mammy’s character as “neither apish nor servile”, the Mammy stands in opposition to the stereotypical image of African Americans, who are mainly depicted as savage-like and unintelligent, fulfilling primarily physical tasks on the plantations (cf. 1938: 353). Surprisingly, opinions considering her servility diverge among scholars, as Jordan-Zachery, in contrast to Parkhurst, depicts the Mammy as servile, but still independent. Consequently, this accentuates effectively the paradox within the Mammy archetype (cf. 2009: 37). Moreover, having its origins in antebellum South America, African slaves develop their own language, or rather dialect, by picking up several items of the English language in order to communicate with their masters as well as white workers. Thus, as Wallace-Sanders elucidates, the Mammy also uses the ungrammatical ‘plantation dialect’ (2008: 6).
Depiction of Big Momma in Big Momma’s House
In 2000, Raja Gosnell’s comedy Big Momma’s House prospers in demonstrating a criminal case assigned to FBI agent Malcolm Turner, acted by Martin Lawrence, who conceals himself as an overweight elderly African American lady. Portraying the dark-skinned FBI agent Malcolm Turner as an Asian companion in the opening scene, viewers may already be amazed by the agent’s ability in disguising so perfectly, foreshadowing the following occurrences (cf. Big Momma’s House, 2000: 00:01:29 – 00:02:04). Thus, being a master of camouflage, Malcolm Turner is given the assignment to trap the brutal bank robber Lester Vasco, who has escaped from prison. In order to capture Lester, Malcolm Turner and his partner John Patterson are sent to a village in Georgia to keep an aged African American lady’s house under surveillance. In fact, this elderly woman is revealed as the grandmother of Lester’s girlfriend, Sherry Pierce. Being afraid of Lester, Sherry Pierce flees with her child Trent to Georgia. Due to their suspicion that Sherry Pierce might either know of the $2 million whereabouts or lead them directly to Lester, the FBI agents decide for a stakeout across the home of the grandmother, called Hattie Mae Pierce, who is rather known as Big Momma. Later, Big Momma is called out of town in the middle of the night, giving Malcolm Turner and John Patterson the chance to investigate the case while being in direct contact with Sherry Pierce by disguising as Big Momma. Hence, agent Malcolm Turner spends the entire movie in drag, acting as the grandmother.
Given that agent Malcolm Turner acts as Big Momma and endeavors to adapt typical characteristics and features, this persona needs to be examined meticulously. Nonetheless, after having installed all the surveillance, the viewer acquires a first insight in the real Big Momma’s life through the eyes of both agents. Consequently, viewers are introduced to Big Momma while she is gardening and bending forward to pruning her roses, displaying already her overstated bodily features. In fact, Big Momma outlines strongly marked breasts and buttocks, creating already an uncomfortable and/or embarrassing feeling among spectators. Unsurprisingly, Raja Gosnell’s choice of the title may serve only for one purpose: to lay further emphasis on Big Momma’s overwhelming body features. Moreover, Big Momma’s clothes do not please her body as she is wearing a colorful and bright dress, referring to domestic clothes rather than to a dress expressing beauty and elegance. Despite the stress of her overstated features, the spectator receives the first notion of her rudeness and aggressiveness as she literally seizes her neighbor’s dog by the neck and throws him away, saying, “Lord, I done [ sic ] told Sadie about this dog” (Big Momma’s House, 2000: 00:07:05). In the following sequence, the women in the neighborhood aim at greeting both, Malcolm Turner and John Patterson, by hospitably offering baked goods as a welcome gift. Gathering in front of Big Momma’s house to cross the street together, the spectator witnesses again Big Momma’s pronounced features, highlighted even more standing beside her African American friends, who are of normal stature (cf. ibid. 00:07:42). Nonetheless, in comparison to the other African American women in the neighborhood, Big Momma expresses her vanity, being the only one having blonde hair. Unsurprisingly, spectators may here allude to issues of assimilation to the white society, since blonde hair is, indeed, not a traditional attribute of African American culture. Yet, it casts doubt whether Big Momma desires to assimilate herself to the white American culture or whether she attempts at combining African American tradition with the American.
In addition, provided that nearly all female members of the neighborhood welcome the new neighbors with baked goods, Big Momma underlines her domestic abilities. Hence, it can be suggested that Big Momma has superb capabilities to cook and bake extraordinary dishes and cakes. Furthermore, in the conversation with John Patterson, the spectator learns that Big Momma’s actual name is Hattie Mae Pierce. Notwithstanding, evidence is given that Hattie Mae Pierce is mainly known under the name of Big Momma, e.g. in the introductory scene, she is greeted as Big Momma instead of Hattie Mae (cf. Big Momma’s House, 2000: 00:06:38). Additionally, viewers observe anew Big Momma’s crudity as she interrupts her friend in welcoming John Patterson, saying, “Oh, shut up and give the man your dry old Bundt cake so I can go home” and handing over rudely the corn bread she has baked (ibid. 00:08:19). Having seen their only chance to install surveillance in Big Momma’s house when Big Momma approximates to their stakeout, John Patterson’s assignment is to stall as much time as possible. Therefore, he attempts to conduct an individual conversation with Big Momma when she is leaving for home. Unfortunately, underscoring her discourtesy, Big Momma verbalizes her urgency to head for home, screaming, “Boy, you ain’t right. Did somebody took [ sic ] you up to a jumper cable? When I say I got to go, move – I got to go” while pushing him harshly aside (ibid. 00:09:38 – 00:09:43). Afterwards she even expresses her anger by threatening him, saying, “Listen, either I can go around you, or I can go through you. Whichever you decide” (ibid. 00:10:08). Here, Big Momma certainly presents herself as bossy and menacing. Being already denounced as an overweight elderly African American woman, Raja Gosnell proceeds in accentuating her image by picturing her on the toilet with diarrhea. Subsequently, Big Momma even bares herself, creating amazement and probably even disgust among the viewers, which unfortunately cannot be redeemed by her resounding singing (ibid. 00:10:52 – 00:11:30). As David L. Moody sums up,
The camera treats the real Big Momma in the film (played by Ella Mitchell), mercilessly, especially in a bathroom sequence where she is partially nude. The framing of shots displays an image of a grotesquely overweight woman with layers of fat around her waist and hips. (2016: 53)
Apart from the numerous negative characteristics attributed to her in the introductory sequence, giving the spectators an unfavorable impression, Big Momma portrays cherish and kind ascriptions as well. Receiving a phone call while being already asleep, Big Momma learns that her close friend’s husband lies in hospital. Fortunately, she does not hesitate in helping her friend out and leaves town in the middle of the night (cf. Big Momma’s House, 2000: 00:14:11 – 00:14:20). Displaying benevolence and kindness, the scene stands in contrast to the previously experienced charisma of Big Momma. Given her willingness to help at any time, Malcolm Turner and Jonathan Patterson do not scruple and invite Sherry Pierce into Big Momma’s house, as she is fleeing from her ex-boyfriend Lester and seeks help from Big Momma as well (ibid. 00:14:49 – 00:16:51).
In the following scenes, Malcolm Turner eventually disguises himself as Big Momma, expressing her overwhelming features by wearing a fat suit. Additional evaluation of Big Momma’s persona needs to be scrutinized carefully, since Malcolm Turner is just pretending to be Big Momma, why characteristics can only be examined as suggestions by taking the reactions of friends and relatives into account. When Sherry Pierce arrives at her grandmother’s house, the pretended Big Momma outlines a crucial difference in comparison to the real Big Momma. Trying to cook for starving Sherry and Trent, Big Momma punctuates perfectly her disability to cook by using way too much butter, oil, and lard and burning herself due to heated oil, culminating in almost setting the kitchen on fire (ibid. 00:21:12 – 00:24:35). However, this aggrandized scene may not be taken too serious in the representation of the real Big Momma, since film director Raja Gosnell may have included it only to add comedic relief. In addition, other scenes can be categorized likewise, being matter of comedic relief. Exemplarily, helping Trent to revenge himself after having been mobbed at a basketball game, Big Momma evinces prodigious talent in playing basketball, running and jumping around and even hanging from the basketball hoop (ibid. 00:49:45 – 00:52:15). Furthermore, the pretended Big Momma attends a self-defense course where she is shocked by the course instructor’s harsh treatment towards a friend. As a consequence, she challenges the instructor by throwing him around the room and eventually defeating him (ibid. 00:43:11 – 00:45:59). Those three film scenes serve clearly for the spectator’s amusement and entertainment, since Big Momma is first conversely depicted as a woman, who has indeed extraordinary cooking and baking abilities. Second, an elderly and pyknic lady would never be able to exercise in that manner.
Notwithstanding, the pretended Big Momma must feature a few characteristics in order to achieve that Sherry Pierce reveals the truth. Therefore, Malcolm Turner preserves her rudeness and discourtesy, expressed in the relationship with Ben Rawley, even if unconsciously. Being heterosexual and just disguised as Big Momma, Malcolm Turner has clearly no interest in any contact with Ben Rawley. However, the pretended Big Momma’s behavior alludes to the aggressiveness the real Big Momma displays at the beginning of the movie (ibid. 00:25:32 – 00:28:23). Besides, to underline the real Big Momma’s kindness, mercy and compassion, which she evinces when leaving in the middle of the night to support her friend, Malcolm Turner’s aid to revenge Trent at the basketball game can be taken into account. Even if this scene outlines aggrandizement and comedic relief, it can be ascribed to the real Big Momma’s care for others, especially for children. Moreover, working as a midwife postulates for patience, compassion, and kindness, and thus, definitely contributes to Big Momma’s positive characteristics. Unfortunately, the way of supporting the mother in the throes of childbirth might again serve for entertainment, since agent Malcolm Turner depicts his inexperience in the most hilarious way. Lard and a serving tong are certainly not the best utensils in the height of childbirth (ibid. 00:31:23 – 00:34:25).
To sum up, Hattie Mae Pierce, alias Big Momma, does not only depict discourtesy and aggressiveness by being harsh and fighting for her will, but also emphasizes her compassion and kindness for her intimate friends and relatives at any emergency.
Comparison between the Mammy and Big Momma
After having offered an examination of the Mammy’s archetype, including her characteristics, as well as proposed an analysis of the depiction of Big Momma in the film Big Momma’s House, an ample comparison between both can be made.