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June 2024
1min read

Thank you for the delightful article “Mammy: Her Life and Times,” by Phil Patton, in the September issue. It has always seemed to me that in Hollywood depictions of Mammy in movies, such as Imitation of Life , the character is less a racial stereotype than a personification of one-half of the qualities that our social unconscious mythologized the ideal woman of the house as possessing.

In movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties, you see Mammy as supermom, all smiles, with a heart and bosom big enough to embrace half a dozen children at once. She is not articulate, but love gushes freely from her every emphatic word. She spends her days toiling selflessly in a kitchen that is not her own, making luscious things like pancakes and fry pies. Or else she irons and darns with a religious zeal. She is not well educated, but she is life-smart and full of pithy aphorisms. She knows how to get things done. She is a caretaker and confidante to whoever crosses the threshold. Overall, she’s a lot like grandma.

Contrast her with the other mistress of the house—the slender white woman, beautifully coifed. She is sophisticated, articulate, but although she can carry her own in witty repartee with the likes of Gary Grant and Clark Gable, she is a bit daft and helpless. She has a lot of time to fret about styles of ball gowns, colors of wallpaper—decorative, ephemeral things that Mammy, with her down-to-earth sensibility, would never give second thought to. Somehow, though, she is still a woman you admire.

In this context, Imitation of Life becomes a strong parable. Delilah’s lightskinned ingenue daughter passes in society as a white and rejects her Mammy mother, and in so doing also rejects that part of herself that is big-hearted, selfless, and nurturing.

The funny thing is, watching these movies, you want both of these women, the Scarlett O’Haras and the Gussies, in your soul and in your home. Both are stereotypes to be sure, but like Cinderella, they are a beloved part of our society’s fantasy life.

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