"GIMME A BREAK," the prime-time sitcom portraying the ups and downs of a gruff police chief, his three giggly teen-age daughters and his comical housekeeper, has long been on my list of IQ destroyers: Watch three times and you'll begin all sentences with duuuh. But after my 6-year-old daughter begged and pleaded one night, we both wound up in front of the tube.
Even though I could feel my brain go into reverse--click, click, click--throughout the show, the final scene didn't mess with my intellect, it just made me mad. That scenario had the father and his daughters snuggled together in the family bed (no incest, just a little affection). The father is a bit on the heavy-duty side and with the kids, there must have been at least 500 pounds punishing the mattress.
Enter Nell Carter, the black housekeeper, a whole lotta woman by anybody's standards. Carter placed her considerable girth on the edge of the bed and, predictably, it crashed to the floor. My daughter and the studio audience whooped with laughter. I groaned.
"They're making fun of her," I said through tight jaws and moved toward the channel knob.
My child is slim on historical perspective, but I was born in the Golden Age of television and I know a mammy when I see one. And that's what Nell Carter is portraying.
Always smiling, always huge, always single, ever ready to put life and limb on the line for somebody else's child, mammies have been Lawd-have-mercying their way across the vistas of American stage and screen for years. Their image has been perpetuated by executive producers ("Hey, Harry! Get me a 600-pound woman for an ethnic role. You know the type. Dark and with a beam") and, of course, by the host of women eager to have their day in the limelight.
Mammies are not your basic NOW women. For many blacks, they are a shameful reminder of the segregated past when yes ma'am and no ma'am were a black woman's calling cards. Not everyone, obviously, agrees with me--my girlfriend threatens to ship me back to the '60s in a time bomb--but I feel that the stereotypical image of the mammy is still being perpetuated. There have been countless walk-on roles where black women have little to do but beam and look earth-motherish.
I don't have any problem with fat, wise-cracking women starring in their own shows (like Theresa Merritt of "That's My Mama" and Mabel King of "What's Happening!!"), but why is this an all-black genre with little else as a vehicle for black female talent? I've never seen a white counterpart (Asian or Hispanic either) of Nell Carter. (Nannies are slim, stern and cultured, a la Julie Andrews, plus they can fly.) A flick of the channel reveals a more diverse group of whites: fair, dark, smart, stupid, nice, humorous, dramatic.
The pitiful truth is that as multi-talented as Merritt, King and Carter are (all sing and act, and King and Carter are Tony winners), they probably would never have had their own shows if they were slim and trim. They were hired because they fit a stereotype that many Americans find acceptable, perhaps even comforting. The woman on the pancake box makes them feel that all's right with the world.
In a land where slimness is the standard of beauty (whether right or wrong), showcasing obese black women time and time again with little to offset that image sends a not-so-subtle message to viewers. Mammies depict women who aren't desirable or lovable, but fat and funny. My concern is that blacks, particularly young, poor ones who watch a lot of television, may internalize that false image with disastrous results for their psyches.
Perhaps my fears are ill-founded and should have been put to rest two decades ago. My girlfriend swears that black women have met the emotional challenge of these images and emerged unscathed. A 1982 study by Vivian Gordon, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, declares that most black women, regardless of TV, feel competent and attractive. Gordon's random sampling of 100 black women from Muncie, Ind., a "typical" American town, revealed that 79 percent felt that black women were encouraged to feel beautiful. When the women in Gordon's study, who ranged in age from 19 to over 65 and earned from zero to more than $20,000 annually, were asked how they learned what is a beautiful woman, 81 percent said "from family and people around."
Only 21 percent said television and 10 percent said movies. The sociologist says that the black women she surveyed held firm to one feeling: "I'm okay."
While there are undoubtedly many self-assured black women, there are those who travel through life with their heads hung down. Audrey Chapman, a Howard University human relations trainer who works extensively with black women on goal-setting and self-image, says negative images are at least part of the reason.
"We've not come as far as we'd like to believe we have," she says. "When you live in a society that builds its whole premise on making other people feel inadequate and inferior, that's got to contribute to self-hatred."
Black women, of course, aren't the only ones depicted stereotypically on television. On the boob tube there's more than enough room to make everyone feel a little inadequate. Television and films stress that Hispanic women tend to be spitfires ("Can they really do that?"), that Jewish women are nagging mothers ("Eat your chicken soup, Ira, and go study for the medical boards"), that Native American women are sexually available for any cowboy who wipes out the village and that Asian women are all passive china dolls who cover their mouths when they laugh. Nor do all white women, particularly "ethnics," escape derogatory labeling. The closest in size to a mammy is a pizza-wielding mama mia. And aren't all blonds sexy?
Change comes slowly. Occasionally there is a black woman on television or in the movies who is of average intelligence and disposition and falls well within insurance-chart guidelines for height and weight. This woman wears a stethoscope around her neck, or a teacher's smile, an apron maybe, as she does something normal, without grinning and without a chorus of tambourines playing in the background.
Madge Sinclair of "Trapper John, M.D." is one such woman. Cool, competent, capable of a whole range of emotions, Sinclair comes through as a human being, not a stereotype. Although most women can't leap six feet into the air, Debbie Allen of "Fame" portrays more than a dancer; her character, too, is that of a believable person. Unfortunately, that show is being canceled.
Maybe a few carefully penned letters to the right executive producers, a few held-back pennies from misguided sponsors will bring to the screen more normal people and fewer Susie Wongs, Pocahontases with cleavage, brain-damaged blonds and mammies.
Who knows, all of our IQ's might go up.