should the “sassy black friend” have this place in hollywood?

March 26, 2012

If there’s one role that every struggling black actress has had to rely on at some point in her career, it’s the Sassy Black Friend. You know the one. She’s the character who seems to perpetually exist outside of the plot, a sort of one woman Chorus whose main purpose is to cast her eyes to the heavens in the most exaggerated of eye rolls, click her tongue, and make smarmy comments about what’s going on – while never actually being allowed to take part in what’s going on. There are many variations on the type – some less or more sassy than others – but always at the core of the character is the fact that she isn’t a character but a caricature of the black woman.

Words by Zeba Blay

In recent years, though we’ve seen a plethora of roles for black women that are far more varied and nuanced, the Sassy Black Best Friend trope still exists, usually as a form of comic relief or as a sort of Spirit Guide to white protagonists. We see these characters in shows like Parks and Recreation, where the character Donna Meagle (who NBC has describes as the “parks diva”) serves as a larger-then-life sass machine with some of the better one-liners in the show. She’s refreshing in many ways, a fan favorite, and a hilarious addition to the show, but she has yet to have her own, real story line.

The whole “Sassy Black Woman” or “Black Best Friend” thing has its roots in the classic film eras of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when most black actresses could expect to play slaves, maids…and little else. Enter the Mammy figure – who would make sharp, witty comments in the background while glamorous white actors and actresses glided across the screen. The character who always comes to mind when we think of the archetype is Hattie McDaniels’ Mammy in Gone With the Wind. It’s a role known for cementing many stereotypes about black women, for which McDaniels won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black person in history to receive an Oscar.

Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

Octavia Spencer’s portrayal of Minny, a maid in 1960s Alabama (which also garnered her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win), got some flack when The Help was released last year. Some detractors said that the movie conjured up the same stereotypical images that the Mammy character perpetuated. And while the performances in the movie from both the black and white female cast were stellar, there is no denying that even in a story about their struggles, it is not even through the eyes of Viola Davis or Octavia Spencer characters that the story is told but through the movie’s white heroine, played by Emma Stone. In fact, thanks to the telling of their struggles gets a swanky reporting job in New York by the end and, of course, solves racism.

Octavia Spencer in The Help

Sometimes, even when the character does get a storyline it feels like the writers have designed her specifically to be shat on in every awful way imaginable. Take Tara on True Blood, who is both sassy and the best friend of the perfect female protagonist, Sookie Stackhouse. The girl just can’t seem to get a break – she endures a horrible childhood, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment, and nearly every other hardship you can imagine to happen to someone in a cracked out vampire show on HBO. She’s alson one of the most hated characters on the show – fans criticize her for always being “angry” and for her blind hatred of all those super hot “vampires” who have emotionally traumatized her in the past. And to those fans I say – please, don’t hate the playa – hate the game (and in this case I guess the game is the writers of the show).

Rutina Weasley in True Blood

Now, the type has often been turned on its head – sometimes in less and more successful ways. Characters like Dionne in Clueless, Bonnie on The Vampire Diaries, Mercedes in Glee, or Any of Gabrielle Union’s Roles in the 90s offer slight variations on the angry black woman trope, but even in those roles there sometimes lies a certain degree of tension. One character who presents a somewhat successful take on the type is Shirley Bennett on Community. She’s a sweet-tempered mother of two, and a main character on the show rather than supporting. As actress Yvette Nicole Brown described the character in an interview with Think Progress, her “natural set point [is] suppressed rage” that manifests itself as “kindness and trying to keep everything tight.” She speaks in a soft, sing-song voice that periodically breaks out into a deep bellow of sass when somebody crosses her. In a TV show that’s very meta about TV shows, it’s almost as if Brown’s role is to be always aware of that bubbling Sassy Black Woman below, and suppress it.

Yvette Nicole Brown in Community

Of course, the suppression of the inner sass isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Because there isn’t anything inherently wrong with the Sassy Black Woman – and to point out the character type isn’t to say that it has no place in media. What is wrong is when that so-called sassiness embodies the beginning and end of the character, when, unlike everyone else in the cast, she is the one person who lacks any degree of agency or importance past making us chuckle from time to time. We’ve obviously come a long way since Mammy, but the fact that shades of this type still exist in some of today’s most popular television shows and movies speaks to an ongoing idea of black femininity and identity that we wouldn’t even be able to scratch the surface of here.

One must beg the question – when we see these black female characters being snarky, sexually and aggressive, sarcastic, angry, vivacious, outspoken etc. – she’s just a caricature, a type. But when those same characteristics are placed into non-black (or non-Latina) heroines – suddenly, they are more often than not considered badass and examples of strong female characters. Not comic relief. Not support to the main cast. By eliminating the agency of these characters the media is saying that their real-life stories don’t exist or, more importantly, don’t matter.

* Contributor Zeba Blay’s movie blog: Film Memory + @zblay on Twitter