On catty stereotypes and racist cartoons.
By Lisa Wade
Michelle Obama gestures and holds flowers as she is received by young students holding the American flag in the courtyard before an event as part of the Let Girls Learn Initiative at the Mulberry School for Girls on June 16, 2015, in London, England. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Many are aghast at a cartoon recently released by a well-known right-leaning cartoonist, Ben Garrison. Rightly, commentators are arguing that it reproduces the racist stereotype that African-American women are more masculine than white women. I’ll briefly discuss this, but I want to add a twist too.
The block versus cursive font, the muscularity and the leanness, the strong versus swishy stance, the color and cut of their dresses, the length of their hair, the confrontational versus the compliant facial expression, and the strategically placed, transphobic bulge in Michelle Obama’s dress — you could hardly do a better job of masculinizing Obama and feminizing Melania Trump.
This is a racist stereotype not only because it posits that black women are unattractive, unlikable, and even dangerous, but because it has its roots in American slavery. We put middle-class white women on pedestals, imagining them to be fragile and precious. But if women were fragile and precious, how could we force some of them to do the hard labor we forced on enslaved women? The answer was to defeminize black women. Thanks for keeping the stereotype alive, Ben Garrison.
What I’d like to add as a twist, though, is about Obama’s expression, purposefully drawn as both ugly and judgmental. Obama’s face isn’t just drawn as masculine, it’s aimed at Trump, and she isn’t just sneering, she’s sneering at this other women.
The cartoon also places women in competition. It tells a sexist story of ugly (black) women who are hateful toward beautiful (white) women. It tells a story in which women are bitter and envious of each other, a ubiquitous story in which women tear each other down and can’t get along. It’s a terrible stereotype, demeaning and untrue (except insofar as patriarchal relations make it so).
And it’s especially reprehensible when it’s layered onto race.