The Sapphire, Mammy, and Jezebel: Stereotypes of African American Women in The Modern Media

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2896 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Sep 18, 2018

Words: 2896|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Sep 18, 2018

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. African American Women Stereotypes in the Media
  3. The Sapphire
    The Mammy
    The Jezebel
  4. Conclusion


The Sapphire: a loud mouth, no good, stupid girl with an attitude; The Mammy: the rotund, nurturer, and silent caretaker of the household; The Jezebel: the bad black woman. Each one of these terms is a stereotype used to describe African American women that date back to the 1800s. African American women in the modern media are still depicted in the same negative connotations from nearly two hundred years ago. These stereotypes not only encourage the divide between whites and blacks within the United States, but cause institutional racism in modern pop culture and media; such as: the hip hop music industry, television shows, and cartoons. The depictions of the Sapphire, Mammy, and Jezebel stereotypes in today’s society cause young girls to believe in these negative connotations of women and also have a direct effect on their attitudes of how they should treat one another and themselves.

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African American Women Stereotypes in the Media

Kerry Washington plays the lead role of Olivia Pope in the current TV drama Scandal, a television show that is watched by nearly eight million viewers today. However, the character of Olivia Pope is found to fit almost all of the negative stereotypes. The actress, Kerry Washington portrays a high up official in Washington D.C. and resembles the Mammy as she safeguards and cares for the rich and powerful white politicians careers. Washington also is portrayed as a Jezebel in the sense that she is the mistress in a relationship with a white man of power (the president of the United States), which parallels to the derivative of Jezebel, the black slave that was commonly raped by her owners or in Olivia Pope’s case, her boss. Finally, Pope can be related to the stereotype of a Sapphire throughout her relentless authority of her firm Pope & Associates. Washington faces a tough issue in today’s society; she is an African American woman in the height of the media presence that is written into a role that is unethical and unrepresentative of a true African American woman. Kerry Washington, an extremely successful actress, with a strong fanbase, and a highly viewed show is still cannot escape the negative portrayals of African American women in pop culture. Many may argue that Kerry Washington portrays the fierce Olivia Pope who is a rich and successful black woman and is taking Washington by storm. However, I challenge this and say that even though Kerry Washington has a great power to influence a large audience, she still is a subservient to the racism between the lines of a script for a black actress. Kerry Washington has a responsibility to her fans to understand the kind of message that she is putting forth about African American women and how to adjust the misconception of these negative stereotypes.

It is important to understand the different stereotypes that pop culture displays women in because it has a large effect on the mentality of women of color in the United States. The preface Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image introduces the idea that the advertisements and common television shows in today’s society represent bodies of women that are petite, pale, and basic. These different stereotypes affect men and women alike with their interactions with one another because they instills a subconscious expectation of what beauty is. However, these depictions of women resemble the looks of a white woman, not African American. Thus, leading to the stereotypes of African American women which date back to the introduction of slavery in the United States. The Sapphire, The Mammy and the The Jezebel are common stereotypes that still take effect into today’s society. In fact, these stereotypes as they further influence pop culture become a new form of racism in the United States. Derived from racism in the 1800s, the stereotypes of a loud mouth, caretaker, and a whore influences the ideals of the viewers and can perpetrate the stereotype into a cycle of misrepresentation of women of color.

The Sapphire

The stereotypical Sapphire originated from the Amos ‘n’ Andy minstel radio show. The characteristics of a Sapphire are rude, emasculating, loud mouthed women, that are overbearing. Sapphire Stevens was a character on the show who constantly berated her husband for being a failure. Her husband, Kingfish, was the definition of racial prejudice; Kingfish would steal because he was too lazy to work (Pilgrim 4). Dr. David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University argues that the Sapphire’s depiction of anger is “a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate societal norms and encourage them to be passive, non-threatening, and unseen” (Pilgrim 4). White men sought to describe black women as a Sapphire because women would often times suppress their feelings of bitterness and rage. While the character of Sapphire Stevens had anger that was justified by her husband's actions, the representation of Sapphires now focus African American women’s anger on society. The antagonistic Sapphire has evolved to promote lashing out, bitchy-ness, and attitude. This progression from a rebellious, loud mouth, housewive, resonates today in pop culture and celebrities that we come in contact every day.

The Sapphire stereotype has developed into a new kind of stereotype in which the angry black woman is no longer so focused on her male counterpart, but instead, other women. There are several examples of this shift in the Sapphire stereotype are proven through reality television shows. These examples that seek to display the stereotype of the Sapphire include The Real Housewives of Atlanta, and Love and Hip Hop. Shows like these typically display women in an argumentative, extremely vocal, shrewd, women to reinforce the acceptance of the angry black woman. The producers of the shows aim to do this in order to draw attention to a woman’s hate towards her opposers. In order to generate viewers for these shows, producers perpetrate drama between the all female African American casts. In fact, when the different celebrities have refused to partake in the staged aggression, they have quickly been removed from the show (Reid 68). In addition to the furtherance of the aggression throughout the women on the show, the comments of the viewers of the show express the praise for the depiction of the Sapphire’s sassy and argumentative attitude. A specific example comes from the comments found on TheYBF (The Young Black and Fabulous is a blog geared towards Black Television and Movies) regarding the TV show Love and Hip Hop. Commentary regarding an episode “MIAMI THROWDOWN: Chrissy vs. Yandy” expressed violent and aggressive reactions from the viewers of the television show. One viewer commented: “Chrissy shoulda beat that ass;” another stating: “If a chic step out of line she’s going to check them” (Reid 63). The comments listed reflect the Sapphire stereotype in a way that perpetuates the action. Yes, the women are discussing the argumentative nature of the women on the television show but they are perpetuating a Sapphire stereotype in themselves as well by responding in a bitchy, argumentative, and vocal manner. Reality TV shows have found a way in order to tap into a viewer’s aggression and apply it to the aggression of the show which perpetrates the action. This again reinstates the argument that the type of representation we see on screens instills and perpetuates the progression of a negative stereotype in African American women.

The major issue with the reality television being the way that it is is the fact that reality TV has one of the largest sectors of air time out of other TV genres. Andrew Webster from The Verge states that reality TV shows take up 22 percent of the national airtime in the United States (Webster 2). He also writes that: “reality tv took the top spot there, with 4,664 instances of product placement accounting for 58 percent of the primetime slot” (Webster 2). Reality TV is increasingly gaining more of a grip and influence on the viewers of these television shows such as The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love and Hip Hop. In order to combat some of the negative stereotypes of African American women that are not only portrayed in the shows but also perpetuated in the comments, viewers need to first stop supporting the advertisers. Without money that comes in from the advertisements, there is no one to endorse the production of the show. Instead of the continuance of the production of the negative stereotype of African American women, viewers need to realize that they have powers in numbers. With less support from the viewers, advertisers will retract their money and producers will be left with nothing to create fake drama that perpetuates false ideas of the way that African American women act and behave.

The Mammy

The Mammy is the maternal, caring, and nurturing mother figure that runs the household including cooking, cleaning, and is sometimes referred to as “Aunt Jemima” (Weids 3). This stereotype is one that is commonly embraced by African Americans because it is a positive outlook on family orientation. However, this acceptance was not always the case. The Mammy dates back to the time of slavery as women were the “silent caretakers” of the children on the plantation. Women at this time were often depicted as the “obedient servant” to white people (Weides 3). Shauna Weides, the writer of “The Stereotypes of the African American Female” notes that “She loves, takes care of and provides for her White family over her own and is delighted in her subservient place in the social hierarchy” (Weids 3). Whites often used this stereotype in order to combat some of the negative connotations of slavery and to promote the use of slaves and servants throughout the house. While this stereotype is something that is not seen as negative in today’s society because of the progression of equality for African American women, it is important to understand the progression of how this stereotype changed from a negative connotation to a positive one.

Esther Rolle, played Florida Evans as the lead character and mother in the show Good Times produced in the 1970s and was at the forefront of the black feminist organization that began in the early 1970s as well (Springer 128). Esther Rolle’s role as the mother on the television show was at the center of attention during the shows’ height of popularity between 1974-1979. At the time, this feminist movement focused to break the tides of the definition of womanhood that was white-focused and unrealistic. Good Times sought to bring light to the representation of black women by giving insight to the Evans family, a poor black family living in a Chicago housing projects (Springer 127). Good Times showed a family with a strong father presence, a mother who had dreams and aspirations of her own, and two children that had risen above the life of drug dealing and prostitution that surrounded them in their community. This show was the first to depict a woman of color fighting for a feminist movement (Springer 128). Through the popularity of the show, Good Times took a shift with the representation of Florida Evans. It showed Florida Evans, a loyal mother to her family, explaining the importance of the Black Women Organized for Action and the National Black Feminist Organization. This actress was one step in the fight for equality with the depiction of African American women in television. Many people had expectations of Esther Rolle to deliver the right kind of message to black audiences of a woman who works at home but still believes in the movement of black feminism (Springer 129). Rolle’s portrayal of Florida Evans lead to the acceptance of African American women as independent, capable, working mothers at home. With this new independence however, stemmed a new kind of bravery and increase in sexualization of African American women.

The Jezebel

With the black feminist movement increasing its popularity across America, sexualization of black females also increased. This increase in femininity led to sexualization of women in the 1970s and the introduction of a new stereotype for African American women. The Jezebel can be described as a hyper-sexualized, sexual siren who lacks morals (Weides 4). Similar to the Mammy, white males used this stereotype to justify the act of raping their slaves during the time of slavery in the United States (Weids 3). The term “Jezebel” comes from the Bible as the wife of King Ahab of Israel who Janet Howe Gaines describes as: “the bad girl of the Bible… denounced as a murderer, prostitute, and the enemy of God” (Gaines 5). This depiction of African American was yet again, the polar opposite of White women at the time. White women were rather described as modest and self-respected (Weids 3). This contrast between the loving, polite, White woman and the angry, raging Black woman caused for polarizing advertising campaigns, racially divided casting in movies and television, and prejudices to continue to build across America.

The lingering effects of movies like Coffy, a movie that focuses on a black whore seeking vengeance against the white men that betrayed her family, laid the foundation for the continuation of the Jezebel stereotype. In the 1970s gangster female rappers like Foxy Brown paved the way for pop culture executives to exploit the female body for money (Pilgrim). Today, the Jezebel stereotype is continuously found in lyrics and videos of hip hop and rap music. Artists like Rihanna and Nicki Minaj are common examples of female artists that continue this promiscuity of the Jezebel stereotype. Danice Brown, the author of “Breaking the Chains” states, “these images may inform interpersonal interactions within groups… resulting in the perpetuation and acceptance of sexual aggression towards African American women” (Brown 527). Dr. Brown cites the issue that is centered around the misrepresentation of women in pop culture. With the progression of sexualized images, more and more women find it to be socially acceptable to act in this way because so many of their influencers like actresses, performers, and singers are endorsing this behavior. Gone are the days in which men are the ones that are cat-calling women and making derogatory comments, now the women themselves are objectifying themselves. Do not mistake me, Nikki Minaj and Rihanna have both come out in the press and proclaimed their feminist views on some issues, however, they both are so caught up in the hip hop industry’s idea of what kind of music sells, that they unknowingly perpetuate these stereotypes. By objectifying themselves in their music, the women who produce and listen to it fall victim to furthering the prejudice against African American women as sluts and whores.

The Dove Self-Esteem Project, is at the forefront of fighting for more positive body image views. Lisa Lister informs her readers the definition of hyper-sexualization and explains its increasing prevalence in media outlets across the nation. Hyper-sexualization can be boiled down to girls treated like sexual objects. Through media, products, clothing, and marketing projects women are subjected to a hyper-sexualized world which sets an expectation for these girls viewing the media to act this way as well (Lister 1). Dionne Taylor, a lecturer at Birmingham University is interested in the effect of dance culture and hip hop on body image and self-worth. Taylor says that most of the young women that were in her study identify the sexualization due to music videos and the music industry as a whole with the common types of produced music (Lister 5). The article finally moves to a specific example of hyper-sexualization, the thigh gap. The issues that the young girls see in hyper-sexualization directly relates to the themes of the Jezebel stereotype.

There are countless blogs, hundreds of thousands of pictures, and even a hashtag dedicated to this nearly impossible body standard. As a whole community it is important that we address the media directly and provide a solution to the increasingly prominent body issues girls have related to the stereotypes they see on screen. Lister states that, “to combat hyper-sexualization as a whole, the media should begin to appreciate girls for what they are, promote more healthy and well-rounded women in the press, and provide resources as well for girls who are struggling with disorders” (Lister, 5). As an active component of the Dove Self-Esteem Project, Lister has all the reason to want to convince girls and women to love their bodies, and appreciate themselves for that they are rather than what the media tells them they should be.

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It is necessary that young African American girls in our country can grow up feeling confident in themselves and without feeling constricted to societal views of what they “should” be. There is a direct side effect from the perceptions that girls see of themselves in pop culture and the actions they take. It is important that girls seek positive role models in their lives because they influence the way that girls handle situations, interact with others, communicate, and behave sexually. By increasing the amount of positive role models in TV shows, music videos, films and magazines, young African American women will begin to understand that there is not a certain stereotype that they need to bind their lives by. Each person is unique and has qualities and characteristics of themselves that develop through their experience with the outside world. In order to help combat the promotion of these negative body image stereotypes, endorsements for trashy reality TV shows should end, and rap and hip hop singers should understand the importance of the message they are putting forward.

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

Cite this Essay

The Progress of the African American Female Stereotypes from the Slave Period to Pop Culture. (2022, December 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“The Progress of the African American Female Stereotypes from the Slave Period to Pop Culture.” GradesFixer, 06 Dec. 2022,
The Progress of the African American Female Stereotypes from the Slave Period to Pop Culture. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 May 2024].
The Progress of the African American Female Stereotypes from the Slave Period to Pop Culture [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 Dec 06 [cited 2024 May 30]. Available from:
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