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The Depiction of Interracial Relationships in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Jungle Fever"

Hausarbeit 2016 21 Seiten

Anglistik - Sonstiges


Table of content


2.2 RACE








1. Introduction

In 1661, Maryland introduced the first miscegenation law in the US. It stipulated that "divers free-born English women, forgetful of their free conditions, and to the disgrace of our nation do intermarry with Negro slaves," and to deter these "shameful matches" the law provided that women who so marry, and their off-spring, should themselves become slaves” (Cumminos, 1963). More than 300 years later, in 1967, the “Loving vs. Virginia” trial substantially changed the rights for interracial couples in the United States. Today, 9.5 percent of American marriages are interracial. Interestingly, only 7 percent of those marriages are between black and white people, amounting to less than 1 percent of all marriages. It seems, as if there is still a barrier in the minds of people regarding the concept of romantic relationships between African-Americans and white citizens.

The topic of bi-racial couples has not only been an issue within the social sciences but also a topic of Hollywood movies like Guess who’s coming to dinner (which will be referred to as Guess throughout this term paper) by Stanley Kramer or Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. As both movies were created in different periods of time and by directors of different colors they should differ significantly in the ways they present interracial couples and the way they are influenced by their communities and families.

The intention of this paper is to assess the extent to which the bi-racial relationships of the main characters of the two movies Guess and Jungle Fever are influenced by their families and communities and how the films differ in their perspective of interracial coupling. To provide an adequate analysis, it is necessary to make some brief remarks about the historical background of the to movies, as well as providing some basic information about the concept of gender and race as they remarkably influence concept of interracial romances and thus the perception of the two movies. The main part will consist of an analysis of the movies and a comparison of them.

2. Basic concepts

2.1 Gender

To be able to understand the dynamics of interracial relationships it is necessary to be aware of some basic assumptions regarding the concept of gender before taking the discussion to the level of race. As Guess and Jungle Fever both deal with heterosexual couples, consisting of a black man and a white woman, the following part will focus on the distinction between male and female.

One conceptual approach to gender studies purports that social concepts are structured in binary oppositions (black/white, old/young etc.) (cp. Hooks 1996, p.7). In this case the two opposites are male and female. Judith Butler claims that despite the common opinion gender is not a natural fact but an “identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 1988, p. 519), which means through performance. Due to the limited scope, the discussion of gender as performance will not be further elaborated upon.

In gender studies it is a common assumption that the concepts of masculinity and femininity are historical, social constructions introduced to maintain a patriarchal society. Men as well as women are inscribed with certain gender binaries that are regarded as male or female in order to create a gender hegemony. According to Connell (1995, in: Schippers 2007, p. 86), masculinity is the central place in gender relations and femininity exists in inferiority to masculinity. Schippers proposes that masculinity can be regarded as a set of features – that are commonly considered as masculine – “that individuals, regardless of gender, can move into through practice” (Schippers 2007, p. 86). If this idea is further examined, we can conclude that individuals cannot only act masculine but also non-masculine. The set of features that are regarded as masculine are described nearly unanimously across different scientists. Carrigan, Connell and Lee (1987) mention that “male norms stress values such as courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure, and a considerable amount of toughness […]”.

With regard to femininity, masculinity is also defined through “the possession of heterosexual desire for the feminine […]”, whereas “being the object of masculine desire is feminine” (Schippers 2007, p. 90). Besides, masculinity claims “to protect and preserve […] [the sexual] honor” of women. The subordination of women is the reason for the hegemonic position of masculinity (Carrigan, Connell & Lee 1987, p. 111). This hegemony does not only work “through the subordination of femininity to hegemonic masculinity, but also through the subordination and marginalization of other masculinities (Connell 1995, in: Schippers 2007, p.87). Subordinated masculinities are often equalized with femininity and marginalized due to their social class or race (cp. Schippers 2007, p. 88). To investigate racial marginalization of black masculinities and to assess how race influences the roles of black and white people in society it will be necessary to focus on racial studies in the subsequent section.

2.2 Race

As the previous chapter suggests, the distinction between masculinity and femininity works through means of subordination of women as as the “other” to the superior male. Furthermore, masculinity can be obtained through acting masculine, which means according to certain sets of features, perceived as masculine. Masculinities that are not part of the hegemonic masculinity are often feminized and marginalized. In this chapter, the idea of marginalization and subordination will be elevated to a second level, namely race, in order to show, why interracial couples might be struggling in societies that are regarded as white and patriarchal. Since the two movies present black male characters as main protagonists, this part will focus on defining what black masculinity can be pertaining to white masculinity.

Mimi Schippers claims that “hegemonic masculinity is [often] conflated with whiteness and middle-class status” (Schippers 2007, p. 88). Thus, it seems that being white offers men a higher position in the social hierarchy. This hierarchical superiority is a historical construct resulting from the oppression of black people during the period of slavery in America. As pointed out in the discussion of gender, masculinity is defined through the sexual desire of women and the protection of women’s sexuality. Hence, the historically grown idea of black men being sexually superior, measured by the size of their penis, threatens the white masculine as it “represents a danger to white womanhood and therefore miscegenation and racial degeneration” (Mercer 1991, p. 191). To challenge this sexual separation of black and white is regarded as “illegal and challenge[s] existing racial borders” (Paulin 1997, p. 166).

Additionally, Susan Courtney claims that the white man “wants to be the brain and […] [the black man] to be the body” (Courtney 1967, p. 191). It can be concluded that the subordination and marginalization of the black male works through reducing him to being a threat to a white masculinity the latter of whom is regarded as smarter and as guardian of the sexual purity of white women. This idea secures “lower class whites a place above all blacks” (Perrin 2012, p. 853).

Bell hooks expands the idea of black masculinity and compares it to white femininity. She concludes that “black males and white females are positioned to compete for the favors of white daddies” (hooks 1986, p. 84). So, black men would have to please white men in order to have the chance to raise their social position. It strengthens the idea of structural power white men possess in contrast to black men.

Synthesizing the essence of both arguments, the basic thesis of this part is that white masculinity is regarded as structurally more powerful than black masculinity and as dominant in the matter of mental abilities (and thus in terms of being civilized, successful etc.). Black masculinity is assumed to be threatening to the classic white gender-system as black men are regarded as sexually superior to white men and thus challenging their superiority over white women. The analysis of Guess and Jungle Fever will reveal, how the two films portray the concept of white superiority and how the idea of a “black sexual threat” influences the two couples in their social environment.

3. Historical Background

3.1 Historical Background of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

To fully appreciate the analysis of the sections below, the social environment in which guess was produced needs to be introduced. Since the late 1950s the Civil Rights Movement gained increasing influence and was able to improve legal conditions for blacks in America. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act “prohibited discrimination in public places, provided for the integration of schools and other public facilities, and made employment discrimination illegal” (Civil Rights Act, online). The Voting Rights Act of 1965 “ensured enfranchisement of black voters” (Perrin 2012, p. 847). At this time, marriages between black and white people were still prohibited in more than a dozen states in the United States (National Public Radio, online).

Only half a year before Guess was released in December 1967, the case of “Loving vs. Virginia” helped to contribute to the legalization of interracial marriages in the whole United States (cp. Perrin 2012, p.847). According to the opinion poll institute “Gallup” only 20 percent of the American population approved such marriages at the time. With regard to the movie this is a central aspect to have in mind as it demonstrates that a strict racial segregation of romantic relationships was the prevailing opinion.

Meanwhile the Civil Rights Movement was replaced by “a new black social consciousness that was emerging” (Guerrero 1993, p. 72) and led to a shift “moving toward separation and cultural nationalism” (Guerrero 1993, p. 73). Guerrero points out that black people were frustrated about “a system that granted them legal-political rights but allowed them only the most marginal place in the American economy” (Guerrero 1993, p. 71). Sydney Poitier, who plays Dr. Prentice in Guess and was “at the height of his star power” (Guerrero 1993, p. 72), was a thorn in the side of the political activists of the Black Power Movement because he did not represent this new black, masculine consciousness but was regarded as an “ebony saint” (Guerrero 1993, p.72). Thus Guess was produced in a difficult political climate with a growing political activism of black people expressing their dissatisfaction about their place in the American society through riots and rebellions.

3.2 Historical Background of Jungle Fever

Ed Guerrero claims that “the [black movie] boom of the 1990s has emerged out of conditions that are comparable to those that fostered the Blaxploitation period” (Guerrero 1993, p. 158). Nevertheless, the movies resulting from it, significantly differ from the cheaply produced black action-movies of the early 1970s. In the early 1990s, films were produced in a “climate of long-muted black frustration and anger over the worsening political and economic conditions that African Americans continue[d] to endure in the nation’s decaying urban centers” (Guerrero 1993, p. 159). In contrast to the riots emerging from social dissatisfaction in the 1960s, at the end of the 1980s black communities were threatened by self-destruction and “the availability […] of crack cocaine” (Guerrero 1993, p. 159).

Although some members of the black community were able to enter middle- class job market, many people came to realize that professional success did not prevent them from being the victims of racial insults and social isolation (cp. Guerrero 1993, p. 159). Besides, popular politicians like senator Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan successfully reinforced white fears of black people for political campaigning (cp. Guerrero 1993, p.162).

These developments lead to an increase in critical and black nationalist arts, like the rap music of “Public Enemy” and “N.W.A.” or movies by John Singleton or Spike Lee. With regard to Spike Lee and his movie Jungle Fever it is noteworthy that Lee dedicated his movie to Yusef Hawkins. Hawkins, a black teenager from New York, was killed by a group of white youths in the predominantly white neighborhood in Bensonhurst for being suspicious of dating a white girl living there.



ISBN (eBook)
Institution / Hochschule
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Interracial Relationships Djungle Fever Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Gender Race Film Studies Spike Lee




Titel: The Depiction of Interracial Relationships in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "Jungle Fever"