Guest Post: Mighty Whitey and Mammy

by Lavern Merriweather

When I was little, there were two different TV shows that I absolutely loved, and they were NBC’s Different Strokes and Gimme A Break. In my house both of those shows were very popular and we watched them religiously. In fact I don’t think I ever missed an episode. Back then I thought those programs were very enjoyable. They were funny, engaging and sometimes even thought provoking. As an adult, however, I have a much different perspective. I still find the shows funny when I watch the re-runs, but now, I watch them with a bit of trepidation over the content.

In one show you have a rich, middle aged, white male who adopts his maid’s kids and in the other you have a fat, loud, ‘sassy’, black woman helping a single, white father raise his three girls. (Give me a minute while my head pounds from the foolishness!) First of all, in what biazzaro universe would you have a rich white male who even knows the last name of his black maid, let alone want to take in her two kids both of whom are male? And you know you are rich when you have an apartment with an upstairs an apartment with a second floor. That’s some Bill Gates bank right there. On top of that, he has a prepubescent daughter himself. So, he’s going to just invite two black boys to grow up around her. Yeah, and I have a bridge to sell in Brooklyn.

Adopting two black boys from the hood. You know the white man is always looking out for us simple-minded, dysfunctional negroes.

Granted, I understand that they would grow up together as siblings, but still, come on now! What makes watching this show especially troubling today is the whole ‘white guy to the rescue’ trope. It’s like a TV version of the Sandra Bullock movie The Blind Side, since us pathetic Negroes can’t truly raise our kids right, white people must take over for you. I could very well be wrong, but that’s the impression that I get. And even when they did have an episode where a black family member came to claim Willis and Arnold Jackson (how original), he turned out to be just a very shady con man trying to bilk them out of an imagined fortune. Now, that I think about it, most of the black people who appeared on the show besides Willis and his brother were usually stereotypes. This is pretty ironic considering that the show, on many occasions, would have that ‘special episode’ where Willis and Arnold would face some form of discrimination. Always with their benefactor, Mr. Drummond, right there to give sage advice. I never saw the episode where they expressed any disgust that he didn’t 100 percent get just how f—ked up what they had to deal with was.

It even spilled onto their real lives. Not a day would go by without some snide or malicious comment being made by a member of the media towards the two sole black stars of the show, usually in regards to their drug problems which inevitably led to other arrests. Weird, but I never heard any vitriol directed towards their white female co-star Dan Plato even though she also many times had ran afoul of the law. In Dana’s case it was ‘sad and tragic’ that her life had fallen apart like that while for Todd Bridges and Gary Coleman they were just losers who couldn’t get their s**t together. I wonder how Mr. Drummond would tell them to deal with such blatant racially selective persecution?

Apparently, all black women are fat and loud according to the media. After all, how many of them do we see in the media as opposed to black women who don’t fit this negative stereotype?

As for Gimme A Break, which starred Tony award winning actress Nell Carter, I always find it strange watching it today how the writers would mock the whole mammy stereotype when that is pretty much exactly what she was. Even if the show did have a slightly more acceptable premise than Different Strokes, she was doing a favor for a dying friend after all. And the show’s gruff father figure played by one time real life cop turned actor Dolph Sweet would have scarred his daughters for life. So, to some extent I found that plotline a little more believable.

What I didn’t like, however, was her overbearing personality. It was stereotypical to the point of being offensive. I mean I know it’s just a TV show but jeeeeez! Adding insult to injury was Ms. Carter’s sizable weight, which has always been a sore spot for most black women still trying to recover from decades of Beulah, Aunt Jemima, and Hattie McDaniel. Apparently it wasn’t enough that she be loud and bossy. She had to also be the same size as a baby beluga whale rendering her completely sexless. The absolute antithesis to America’s standard of ‘beauty’.

Despite how the late Ms. Carter may have felt about her own attractiveness, the show’s writers would never let her forget that it didn’t matter. She was a black woman who was morbidly obese. Therefore, she was the perfect big butt of their jokes. If you watch the re-runs yourself, you can almost do a countdown to the point where her figure will eventually become a punchline. That’s unfortunate, and I see that not much has change, especially when I watch those Pine-Sol commercials featuring actress Diane Amos as the latest mammy model.

The more things change the more they stay the same, and when it comes to racialized images we see in entertainment, that statement is truer than ever before.


27 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mighty Whitey and Mammy

  1. It’s funny you should bring Gimme a Break up, Because my mother always said Nell got on her nerves. Even as a kid Nell was kind of off putting to me. Different Strokes was a strange setup. Now as an adult I never thought of the white savior meme then. But today is is annoying and insulting. That black folks can’t take care of themselves.

  2. OMG! When I was a kid, I watched both shows religiously as well. My mother HATED Gimme a Break. She said exactly what you say, that she was just a modern-day mammy of the 80s. At least her best friend, Addy, was a college-educated Black woman.

    As for Diff’rent Strokes, I liked it. You never really saw any shows that dealt with transracial adoption,with the exception of “Webster”. I just recently watch a DS episode where Kim dons blackface & an afro to prove a point to a White guy she discovers is racist when he does not want Willis to go to a dance with his younger sister. But, yes, as an adult, the White Savior meme is apparent. At least they openly discussed racial issues on the show.

      1. Here’s another one for you. There was an episode where Nell has a falling out with Samantha. So what does Sam do? She has Joey don blackface for a show before a Black audience to piss Nell off. It works.

      2. Yeah I hear you Do you remember when Joey did a routine in blackface? I remember watching that episode as a kid. And it always stuck in my mind. It was one of the few dramatic moments I remember from the show.

      3. I also remember the episode where Sam was angry because someone called her a ‘dumn Pollock’ so she threw the n-word in Nell’s face and Nell defends her to her father I was like WHAAAAT?

  3. I think most black people HATE fat black women like myself whether we act stereotypically or not. I get vitrol & angry looks from other blacks as if I’ve shot their mom or something. Nobody cares to ask what I have been through mostly because they don’t care. I am no where near Nell carters size but that doesn’t seem to matter. I live with PCOS & Cushings syndrome. Wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But honestly, every fat black woman is NOT a mammy just because she is fat. We all don’t act like that. This is a sore subject for me. Sorry for the rant but fat black women hate is an awful thing to go through.
    The whole white savior thing to me is just their guilt over slavery and discrimination. They’re always claiming that we would have been worse of in we stayed home in africa. I call bullshit. Every place they stepped foot in is worse off. America anyone?

    1. I’m very sorry to hear that, but not all or even (I think) most black people hate fat black women. I know there are at least some that do, and those are the ones not to worry about. Most fat black women I’ve known are well liked around my area. I can not apply that to all or most blacks, but I know it’s not ubiquitous and it’s not born from a vacuum.

      Your second statement is true. They can not say that every place they’ve gone they created peace and harmony. There’s no denying it.

    2. It’s Hollyweird telling you to hate yourself because you don’t ‘fit’ their mold. Most women including white ones who aren’t blonde,young,thin and look like Reese Witherspoon don’t matter to them. And if you are a fat black woman then you might as well be the Invisible Girl from Fantastic Four. I know she probably needed the money but I have NO respect for black people who play themselves for fools.

      1. And apparently, with movies like the Medea and Big Momma series, fat black women are Hollywood’s punchline. What’s more sad is that those movies (and others) are portrayed by black males. So, that’s like a double assault on the black woman’s self-esteem to have black men parody them in such an outrageous manner and have audiences gravitate towards that trope no matter how often it’s used.

  4. @ Lavern Merriweather,

    Yes! I also remember that episode when she was trying to get both Nell’s & her father’s attention because they were arguing about something and when neither of them would listen to her about the fight and the ethnic slur, Sam turns to Nell and says, “How would you like it if somebody called you a n—-r?” Her father wanted to whip her ass, but Nell stopped him.

  5. these images where carefully selected and approved by the white male owners of the networks that broadcast them which is why you will not see images of black men who support their families, the mammy gimmick is why i believe oprah was so popular

  6. You know I never thought of that before, Wait yeah I did. Oprah was always kind of mammyish to me. I didn’t want to admit it. But that was what was appealing to whites. If she had been svelt and pretty and smart I don’t think white women let alone white men would give her the successshe enjoys today. Mammies are non threatening and asexual.

    1. @mary burrell,

      I disagree with the part where you state that if Oprah were svelt,pretty, & smart that Whites would not let her have success. Look at Soledad O’Brien on CNN. She fits the bill and she has her own show on that network. (And we all know what kinds of people CNN is run by.)

  7. @mickey, I never really thought about Soledad O’brien. I never knew what ethnicity she was. But as Brotha Wolf pointed out now that you mentioned it she is light skinned. I hate that light skin vs dark skin stuff. But I never thought about her. I never considered her as black. She never entered my mind. But yeah I guess your’e right.

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