Over the course of Hollywood’s relatively short history, representations of minority groups have all too often been reduced to stereotypes. Black men and women in particular have had to watch Hollywood represent their own communities through such stereotypes as: the “Tom;” the “Coon;” the “Tragic Mulatto;” the “Mammy;” and the “Buck” (Shohat 195).
These stereotypical roles not only draw attention to the skewed, one-dimensional view of race in Hollywood (and perhaps the United States more broadly), but they also draw attention to the complex relationships between representation, performance, and stereotypes (Shohat 195).
Filmmaker Julie Dash explored these issues in one of her earlier short films, Four Women, which sets dance to Nina Simone’s ballad of the same name.
The four women described in Simone’s song represent four common stereotypes of Black women in America: the strong “Aunt Sarah;” the ‘tragic mulatto,’ “Saffronia;” the sex worker, “Sweet Thing;” and the militant “Peaches” (UCLA Film and Television Archive). Through her performance, Nina Simone brings the voices of these four characters to life in a way that links both their similarities and differences as Black women in America.
My skin is black/My arms are long/My hair is wooly/My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain/Inflicted again and again/What do they call me?/My name is Aunt Sara (“Four Women”).
According to Mirielle Rosello, “the problem in thinking about stereotypes … is our stereotypes about them” (in Williams 82). Linda Williams explores this idea further:
“Rosello argues that stereotypes are important objects of study not because we can better learn eliminate them from our thinking, but rather because they cannot be eliminated. Stereotypes persist, and perhaps thrive upon, the protestations against them … ” (Williams 82).
What is required then, are analyses that shine a light on the changing historical contexts of stereotypes (William 82). In other words, we need to change how we approach the study of stereotypes if we wish to effectively understand how they exist and thrive over time.
For example, Richard Dyer (1984) critiques the stereotypical representations of homosexuality in films, but does so by looking at the roots of the representation, rather than attacking the stereotype itself. As he points out, “Righteous dismissal does not make stereotypes go away, and tends to prevent us from understanding just what stereotypes are, how they function, ideologically and aesthetically, and why they are so resilient in the face of our rejection of them” (Dyer 353).
Similarly, Ella Shohat argues that while “stereotypes and distortions” analyses do highlight the issues surrounding “social plausibility and mimetic accuracy” in media, their “obsession with ‘realism'” tends to paint the world in black and white – as “errors” and “distortions,” between “truths” and “lies” (178).
In other words, preoccupation with the accuracy and realism of stereotyping can be harmful because it ignores the ways in which the politics of representation actually operate within stereotypes. Shohat suggests that this is problematic because it assumes that the reality of a community is somehow “transparent” and “unproblematic,” while inaccurate representations are “easily unmasked” (178). Instead of focusing on the specific realism of certain stereotypes, it is more effective to problematize the social and historical context in which stereotypes are produced.
In the case of Nina Simone, “Four Women” faced ‘righteous dismissal’ upon its release in 1966. It was accused of being insulting to Black women by perpetuating stereotypes, and was subsequently banned by several radio stations.
Perhaps what these critics heard in Simone’s song were the ‘typical’ markers of Black femininity – skin colour, hair texture, social roles, names – the kinds of markers that have been at the root of problematic representations of Black women in the media. While these radio stations may have heard stereotypical representations of women, they did not look beyond the surface to really understand Simone’s message.
In Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and Media (1994), Ella Shohat describes “the burden of representation,” which refers to the synechdochal tendency of ethnic and racial representations (182). For example, colonized peoples tend to be perceived as “all the same,” meaning that any kind of negative behaviour by one member can come to represent the group as a whole, ultimately creating a stereotype (Shohat 183). As Shohat states, “representations become allegorical,” whereby “every subaltern performer/role is seen as synecdochically summing up a vast but putatively homogenous community” (183).
With this persistence of stereotypes, certain communities, such as Black Americans, come to face the “burden of representation” (182-3). Because these stereotypes are produced and projected from outside these communities, sensitivity arises “from the powerlessness of historically marginalized groups to control their own representation” (Shohat 184).
We see this sensitivity exhibited through the critique and censorship of Simone’s “Four Women.” After years of seeing Black American’s being represented in stereotypical roles, it is understandable that some people might not have wanted to hear those distorted utterances on the radio (considering that many of the radio stations that banned Simone’s song were primarily Black) (Virgin Island Daily News n.p.). But as Dyer and Williams warn, stereotypes cannot be eliminated that easily (Dyer 353; Williams 82).
Censorship only prevents us from “exposing the reactionary political force” of stereotyping (Dyer 364).
If we look closer, we might see how Simone’s use of stereotypical depictions of Black femininity operates simultaneously as a critique of stereotyping. Instead of placing a cloak on the stereotypical roles for Black women, Nina Simone sings about them, projecting her voice in a way that works to reinscribe Black female subjectivity into the roles promoted by a white, patriarchal Hollywood (and America more broadly). Through the four women, Simone uses four common stereotypes to challenge the social and historical circumstances through which such stereotypes exist and thrive.
My skin is brown / my manner is tough / I’ll kill the first mother I see / my life has been too rough / I’m awfully bitter these days / because my parents were slaves / What do they call me / My name is PEACHES (“Four Women” ).
Through one voice, Nina Simone relays the many (and different) stories and struggles of Black, American women.
“If Simone’s song suggests a history of black women in America, it is also a history of long-suppressed and finally uncontainable anger” (Pierpont n.p.).
Later, in ‘Part 2’ of this post, I will explore Julie Dash’s filmic interpretation and re-presentation of Nina Simone’s controversial “Four Women.”
Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/74869216.
Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003, http://www.villagevoice.com/music/nina-simone-1933-2003-6410700.
Dyer, Richard. “Stereotyping.” Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer. New York Zoetrope, 1984.
“Four Women.” UCLA Film and Television Archive, 2014, https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/la-rebellion/films/four-women.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned music into a movement.” The New Yorker, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice.
Shohat, Ella. “Stereotype, Realism, and the Struggle over Representation.” Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam. Routledge, 1994.
Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/album/5gHvTZO4alH9wVcWgTjJat.
The Virgin Islands Daily News. “Protests continue to mount against the banning of a recording by Nina Simone,” 1966, Google News, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=grdNAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wUQDAAAAIBAJ&pg=3795,2693076 &dq=four-women+nina-simone+ban+radio&hl=en. Accessed 24 February 2017.
Williams, Linda. “Skin Flicks on the Racial Border: Pornography, Exploitation and Interracial Lust.” Freiburger FrauenStudien, vol. 15, 2004.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca), 2017