Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film

Divas on Screen: Black Women in American Film

by Mia Mask

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This insightful study places African American women's stardom in historical and industrial contexts by examining the star personae of five African American women: Dorothy Dandridge, Pam Grier, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry. Interpreting each woman's celebrity as predicated on a brand of charismatic authority, Mia Mask shows how these female stars have ultimately complicated the conventional discursive practices through which blackness and womanhood have been represented in commercial cinema, independent film, and network television.

Mask examines the function of these stars in seminal yet underanalyzed films. She considers Dandridge's status as a sexual commodity in films such as Tamango, revealing the contradictory discourses regarding race and sexuality in segregation-era American culture. Grier's feminist-camp performances in sexploitation pictures Women in Cages and The Big Doll House and her subsequent blaxploitation vehicles Coffy and Foxy Brown highlight a similar tension between representing African American women as both objectified stereotypes and powerful, self-defining icons. Mask reads Goldberg's transforming habits in Sister Act and The Associate as representative of her unruly comedic routines, while Winfrey's daily television performance as self-made, self-help guru echoes Horatio Alger narratives of success. Finally, Mask analyzes Berry's meteoric success by acknowledging the ways in which Dandridge's career made Berry's possible.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252091827
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/01/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

 Mia Mask is an associate professor of film at Vassar College.

Read an Excerpt

divas on screen

By Mia Mask


Copyright © 2009 Mia Mask
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03422-0

Chapter One

Dorothy Dandridge's Erotic Charisma

For this reason above all Dorothy Dandridge is important. I believe she is the only genuine black female star Hollywood ever produced, if by star is meant that combination of an immediately seductive image with the larger-than-life projection of a persona, the combination that also produced Marilyn Monroe. —Karen Alexander

Some drew the seemingly inevitable comparisons between Dandridge and Marilyn Monroe. In the popular imagination, both appeared to be sensitive fragile women in a cutthroat film industry controlled by men. Yet their lives—and the pressures they had to live with—were often vastly different. —Donald Bogle

The American cultural and political landscape of the 1950s was rife with contradictions. As a decade, the 1950s were plagued by fear yet filled with frivolity. The postwar era of relative economic prosperity led middle-class Americans to believe the "good life" had finally arrived. Yet social injustice, institutionalized racism, and bureaucratic mismanagement undermined the promise of democratic freedoms, the enjoyment of civil liberties, and equal access to opportunity. America was legally segregated by race (Jim Crow), geographically stratified by class (in Levittown-like suburban enclaves), domestically divided by gender (through the cult of domesticity), unnerved by McCarthyism (the Hollywood blacklist), and embattled with communism (the Korean War). Ironically, many Americans maintained their faith in "the dream," exhibited patriotic dedication, and displayed the jingoism accompanying the nation's postwar global privilege.

If there was one individual whose personal life and public career epitomized the unfulfilled promise of a profoundly conflicted era, it was Dorothy Dandridge. Too often film historians (Mills, 1991; Bogle, 1997; Conrad, 2000; Rippy, 2001) have narrated the abbreviated days of Dandridge in terms of the exploitation she endured at the hands of unscrupulous industry agents. While there was tragedy in her life and career, there was also much to celebrate and admire. Though stunted by the conservative ideologies of the era, Dandridge's celebrity legacy—which is currently Halle Berry's inheritance—paved the way for black women to portray glamorous, sophisticated leading roles in films marketed to mainstream audiences. More successfully than her contemporaries, many of whom were exceedingly talented (i.e., Fredi Washington, Lena Horne, Juanita Moore, Eartha Kitt, Louise Beavers, Abbey Lincoln, et al.), she became the first major crossover film starlet. With its air of bourgeois respectability, elegance, and sophistication, her persona broadened the image of black womanhood in the public sphere. Eisenhower-era African Americans connected with Dandridge because her élan contradicted segregationist notions of black inferiority. Her celebrity image—like that of Sidney Poitier—progressively negated Jim Crow ideology, which had dictated a discourse of black subjugation. This chapter examines her stardom in the context of 1950s America in an effort to understand how she became one of the first divas of the silver screen.

By examining the public discourse around Dorothy Dandridge's stardom, we gain a sense of how she became a phenomenon of consumption and an icon admired by African Americans, in the same manner as Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth before her were admired and idolized by mainstream America. Through her celebrity, Dandridge was a phenomenon that helped instantiate African Americans as consumers in twentieth-century public discourse. Dandridge's stardom existed in the context of America's changing race relations, but it is impossible to discuss her public persona without also considering how class functioned in the creation and solidification of her image. Heretofore the term black middle class has been utilized, but not in the traditional Marxist-Gramscian sense: as a hegemonic force assimilating to the mainstream and thereby alienating the masses of proletariat black folks from themselves. Instead, the black middle class is discussed here as a group seeking self-determination, economic independence, racial uplift, and broader representation in the media as entitled citizens.

Wherever consumption is linked with class aspirations, and celebrity is linked with consumption, famous people play a role in the formation of middle-class taste. By considering the star discourse revolving around Dandridge, we gain a sense of her as the contested terrain upon which competing cultural discourses of black middle-class identity and comportment played out.

In their study of 1950s American culture, historians Douglas Miller and Marion Nowak capture the irony of the era in their description of the disparity between recollection and reality. They discuss the return of repressive Victorian ideals that sharply contrasted with the expectations of modern life most Americans held as possibilities for themselves. Miller and Nowak are among numerous scholars and historians who have recorded the era as a period of complex cultural anxiety and self-denial. They write:

The fifties witnessed much less happy nonsense, much more conformity. International tensions and conflicts were far greater than had been the case during the relatively isolationist twenties. The daily reality of the cold war caused persons to fear international communism, more importantly, internal communist subversion. Such fears put a premium on conformity. Bourgeois values reasserted themselves in a manner which would have pleased a twenties fundamentalist. Domesticity, religiosity, respectability, security through compliance with the system—that was the fifties.

Miller and Nowak draw parallels between the 1950s and earlier periods in American history. They were not alone in their observations, as similarities between cultural trends of the 1920s and the 1950s are offered in much of the historical literature of the era (i.e., Ellis, 1954; Miller and Nowak, 1977; Oakley, 1986; Halberstam 1993), asserting that postwar periods engender social conformity out of national necessity. Scholars have suggested these are moments in which notions of national community are reconstructed and re-imagined. There is considerable evidence Americans turned away from the realities of the period (i.e., the bomb, the anti-Soviet Cold War, Truman's 1947–initiated witch hunts, and race riots) toward a wistful vision of themselves as happy homemakers, fatherly breadwinners, dutiful daughters, and obedient sons. As a consequence, socially designated roles and identity categories (i.e., race, class, gender, and nation) were more narrowly circumscribed than in previous, or subsequent, years.

Throughout the decade, the cult of domesticity determined many white women's lives. The men they married defined these women, as did the children they nurtured. Beginning in the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, for example, white women endured these oppressive expectations. Many married at younger-than-ever ages and bore as many children as their grandmothers. Masses of women attempted to conform to the dominant regimes of marriage, coupling, and reproduction. Among those of childbearing age, the most common response to the question of how many children were ideal rose from two to four. Second-wave feminists argued that prevailing 1950s discourses of gender and sexuality took their greatest toll on women, holding them unduly responsible for the nuclear family's discontent as well as the uncertainty of modern life. Nowhere was this discourse more evident than in Philip Wylie's 1942 work Generation of Vipers, in which he coined the term "Momism" to refer to excessive mothering and excessive devotion to one's mother. Wylie's thesis was later revived and repackaged in Hans Sebald's Momism: The Silent Disease of America (1976), which offered a sociopsychological study of the tactics, effects, and cultural, legal, and familial ramifications of domineering and manipulative mothering.

For African American women in particular, it was social activism—rather than marital status—that determined family interests. Black women nationwide organized alongside, and in the tradition of, extraordinary activists like Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Height, Marian Anderson, Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks. These women protested lynching, fought for voter registration, campaigned for the desegregation of armed forces, sought reform of the criminal-justice system, and organized black churches. During the 1940s, while black American soldiers were fighting armies of racial supremacists in Europe, their sisters, wives, mothers, girlfriends, and families were fighting the racist dictates of Jim Crow at home. The summer of 1943 echoed the summer of 1919 and proved particularly violent. Race riots erupted in Los Angles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Harlem, Beaumont, and other cities across the country. African Americans, who initially believed they had migrated to a promised land, found northern bigotry every bit as pervasive and virulent as in the South. But in the North they were not the only targets of white racism. The climate was violently hostile toward Filipino and Mexican Americans, who were targeted by white backlash against California's counterculture. Fueled by white supremacy, this backlash was predicated on the perception that Roosevelt's New Deal policies created greater economic opportunities for blacks and other ethnic minorities than it did for European Americans.

Film scholars have noted the relationship between generic conventions and historical discursive formations. Chief among such scholars is Michael Renov, who has analyzed the ties between female-oriented genres and postwar institutional discourses. In his essay "Leave Her to Heaven: The Double Bind of the Post-War Woman," he asserts that the years immediately after the war were confusing regarding the cultural messages shaping women's roles. Work versus motherhood presented one conflict. The ideology of motherhood, the cult of domesticity, and the tradition of black women's activism competed with the emergence of yet another image of womanhood: the sexually ebullient film-star pinup. This was an iconic spin-off of the calendar girl, who typified the image of seductive womanhood popularized in men's magazines before, during, and after World War II. The war sanctified the idea of the pinup, and though some movies concentrated on wholesome family entertainment, men plastered their barracks with inviting photos of film stars. The contrast between sexy film stars and wholesome mothers was one of the decade's social paradoxes, but this contradiction would intensify as American corporate interests increasingly relied on sexuality to revive the financially struggling film industry.

For instance, the disappearing movie audience and the threat to filmgoing posed by television resulted in an economic crisis for the film industry. This crisis played a key role in bringing sexually and racially explicit subjects to the screen. Titillating subjects were used to sell movie tickets, since Hollywood found itself in transition both technologically and thematically. In addition to providing the primary competition for film, television played a role in the demise of the Hays Production Code. As movie audiences opted for home entertainment, Hollywood producers began bending—then breaking—the self-regulatory code to lure paying customers back to theaters. Film producers knew sex and sensuality would sell movie tickets. Other sensational subjects, like miscegenation (Duel in the Sun, 1946; Pinky, 1949), racism (No Way Out, 1950), anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement, 1947), homosexuality (Suddenly Last Summer, 1959; The Children's Hour, 1961), and drug addiction or alcoholism (The Man with the Golden Arm, 1955; The Lost Weekend, 1945), would sell movie tickets, too, but none so well as sex.

The 1950s film star was symptomatic of the sexual and racial contradictions in America. For example, Hollywood feature filmmaking, with Euro-American actors and themes, typically focused on the unmarried, innocent, or virginal ingénue who presented the "repressive sexual bind." Men were forbidden to enjoy her sexually, except in fantasy. Sex, in mainstream films of this era, was referred to coyly but rarely dealt with honestly. The projection of sexual innocence by performers Sandra Dee, Debbie Reynolds, and Doris Day—who laid bare the Oedipal fantasy of "daddy's little girl"—typified the contradictory ideals inherent in the regimes of sexuality.

These contradictions—including the virgin–whore dichotomy—existed in African American cinema, too. In the 1940s, films like Cabin in the Sky (1943) propagated the dichotomy of "good girl" (Ethel Waters's character Petunia Jackson) versus "bad girl" (Lena Horne's Georgia Brown). Even Andrew L. Stone's Stormy Weather (1943) positions Lena Horne's Selina Rogers as desirable because she's virtuous. With a few early exceptions (i.e., Duel in the Sun, 1946), it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the repressive sexual bind linked sex with pathos, murder, and deviance (i.e., Carmen Jones, 1954; Porgy and Bess, 1959; Island in the Sun, 1957; Band of Angels, 1957; Touch of Evil, 1958; Imitation of Life, 1959; The Unforgiven, 1960; Flaming Star, 1960; Rosemary's Baby, 1968). In these films, unrepressed sexuality was punishable by death, social ostracism, abandonment, and disownment.

In addition to their emphasis on sexuality as taboo, women's films (from the 1930s through the 1950s) emphasized physical attractiveness and the dominant discourses of adornment. Many mainstream films divorced themselves from controversial issues and timely plots (i.e., the displacement of women's labor after the war, postwar family relations, birth control, and abortion). Instead, they became "how-tos" on white heterosexual romance, on catching and keeping a man, and on appearance and sex appeal. Examples include Three Coins in the Fountain, 1954; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953; How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, 1954; Father of the Bride, 1950; High Society, 1955; The Catered Affair, 1956; Pillow Talk, 1959; and Boys' Night Out, 1962. But beneath the veneer of fun, frivolity, and flirtation lay profound tensions relating to the regimes of sexuality (i.e., heterosexual monogamy, lifetime commitment, gender roles, and division of labor) exerting power over social life. Studios relied on the proven formula popularized by screwball comedies of marriage and remarriage, as the Doris Day–Rock Hudson pictures demonstrate. With double entendre and subtext, they hinted at homosexuality and called attention to the gender performativity of the bachelor's sexuality. On the surface—where most audiences engage movies—these pictures played out cultural tensions around monogamy and appeared to resolve issues happily, with plots in which women tricked boastful bachelors into becoming obliging grooms. In so doing, these movies ultimately intensified the cultural pressure to marry. Not only did they emphasize the importance of marrying and mating, they suggested women who failed to wed would become lonely spinsters. Finally, they reified the dominant discourse regarding nonmonogamous, premarital, and interracial sex, depicting them as socially unacceptable.

Meanwhile, external signifiers of sexuality—which were growing in importance in the 1950s—entered popular culture and the public sphere. Popular images in film, television, music, and advertising stressed the secondary sexual characteristics of both sexes. Male consumers purchased products to accessorize their masculinity, while women—black and white—became the consumers of mass-marketed femininity. Whether it was hair straightening and bleaching creams for black women, or padded panties, contoured brassieres, and hair bleaching for white women, all women were increasingly fashioning themselves after images presented in the media. Film stars were central to this commercial enterprise. Spectators consumed film stars, and stars, in turn, influenced the self-fashioning of female fans. The film industry produced spectators as consumers of the films as well as the products of other industries (Gledhill, 1991; Stacey, 1994; Cohan, 1997; Negra, 2001). What makes Dorothy Dandridge so important—at this moment of burgeoning mass consumption—is that she was a star during the instantiation of the black American as consumer in the twentieth century. Consequently, her celebrity coincided with, and influenced, the American consumer's image and understanding of black womanhood.


Excerpted from divas on screen by Mia Mask Copyright © 2009 by Mia Mask. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Dorothy Dandridge's Erotic Charisma 2. Pam Grier: A Phallic Idol of Perversity and Sexual Charisma 3. Goldberg's Variations on Comedic Charisma 4. Oprah Winfrey: The Cathartic, Charismatic Capitalist 5. Halle Berry: Charismatic Beauty for a Multicultural Age Notes Bibliography Index

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