Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Creating the Lesbian Mammy: Boys on the Side and the Politics of AIDS

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Creating the Lesbian Mammy: Boys on the Side and the Politics of AIDS

Article excerpt

Postmodern film theorists often dismiss film criticism that focuses on stereotypes and images of socially marginalized groups as naive and outdated. Ellis Hanson's Outtakes: Essays on Queer Theory and Film characterizes such a focus as oversimplified and theoretically and aesthetically "impoverished" (5). But the virtue of using the images/ stereotypes method is in its rendering of historical and political context-a particularly useful tool in studying films about AIDS. In addition, as Suzanna Walters points out, a blind spot of postmodern "signification theorists" is that they downplay, and sometimes even ignore, how social and political contexts are intertwined with the construction of film narratives (26).

In analyzing one of Hollywood's first responses to the topic of women and AIDS, Herbert Ross's 1995 film, Boys on the Side, I neither dismiss this commercial film as trivial or lacking in artistic skill nor denigrate the importance of the emotional outlet and visual pleasure the film provides the spectator. Boys is clearly a potential source of catharsis for an audience/spectator, and few people with personal experience of AIDS would easily reject discourses that allow people with the disease and those who love them some narrative release and identification.1 However, as with most cultural and artistic works, this one possesses multiple strands and meanings. One meaning notable in Boys comes from the way AIDS and the cultural idea of the black woman as "mammy" dramatically collide in the film in the figure of a newly created role-the "lesbian mammy." This figure emerges in a film about AIDS in order to do what the mammy figure has always done: reassure white spectators that black women's sexuality is under wraps and that the racial boundaries between "white" and "black" are firmly intact. The lesbian mammy figure also manages the boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality at the same time that it offers a message of tolerance and acceptance of AIDS and gay people.

This white heterosexual fantasy expresses the dominant culture's fear of black female sexuality, lesbian sexuality, AIDS, and any demonized sexualities and cultural behaviors that are seemingly linked with the epidemic. The multiple anxieties associated with the epidemic are eased through a nonthreatening, desexualized, maternal, African American lesbian character. In order to address the existence of AIDS in American women's lives, its potent web of stigma must be tempered and made palpable. The result is a plot in which a black lesbian cares for a white, heterosexual, middle-class, HIV-positive woman while putting on hold her own desires and ambitions.

One crucial effect of such a framework is that the impact of AIDS on the material lives of African American women of all sexual identities is strategically erased and displaced onto white heterosexual women. Although "[t]hree-fourths of women with AIDS are women of color," the one (and, to my knowledge, only) commercial film on women and the epidemic organizes the story around the classic figure of the suffering white woman (Denison 4). This interpretation of the film is not meant as moral chastisement of white women or popular feminism; rather it illustrates how the white female heterosexual body is also symbolically used in mainstream film to mediate a threatening social stigma. Such a practice transforms HIV-positive white heterosexual women's experiences and lives into a useful iconography that erases not only the realities and contradictions of HIV-positive white women's lives, but the very fact of HIV and AIDS in African American women.

Black Woman as Mammy

The first identification of black woman as mammy is often pinpointed to the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which, as Patricia Turner explains, "Stowe's physical description of Aunt Chole, the faithful wife to Uncle Tom and loyal servant to the Shelby family, set the standard for future fictional representations of mammy figures" (46). …

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