Women in Science Fiction Week: 21st Century Mammy: Older Black Women Are the Lowest Rung on the Visibility Ladder of Science Fiction

Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in Star Trek: The Next Generation

 Guest post written by Joanne Bardsley.

At some point in the near future, a mass genocide, coupled with a widespread sterilisation programme, occurs. This results in an overwhelmingly white population (genetic preservation orders are been enacted for redheads and natural blondes). Compulsory euthanasia exists for the elderly, although four people at a time are excepted because of their great leadership skills. Babies are raised Brave New World style in farms far away from the public eye but girl children often succumb to a mysterious illness which kills them before they reach adulthood. The women who do survive this mysterious illness suffer changes to their metabolism so that they never need to eat and never put on weight.

The two older black women who have survived the depredations enacted on non-whites, females and the elderly are so relieved to be alive that they devote their whole lives to the service of others.

The Oracle (Gloria Foster) in The Matrix and The Matrix Revolutions

The lack of representation of older black women in science fiction is coupled with a complete lack of interest in developing any kind of independent agenda for their characters. Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the Oracle in The Matrix, the only two named older black women that I (or anybody else that I asked) could think of,  are recycled wholesale from the stereotypical mammy of the slave era.

Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone with the Wind

The main features of the stereotypical mammy are grounded in a white fantasy; often these women were wet nurses, bringing up their white charges in a far more intimate relationship than either have with their biological families. It is not Scarlett O’Hara’s mother who fusses about her eating habits, does up her dress, or worries about her relationships. It is Mammy. Scarlett, and the viewers of Gone With the Wind, never consider what Mammy might think of their relationship, or worry that she might have children of her own whom she cannot raise. We are content to construct a fantasy in which Mammy wants nothing more than to feed, clothe and care for her white charge.

Neither Guinan nor the Oracle appear to have any other desire than to help others. Guinan does have hidden talents; she can outwit Captain Picard and outshoot Lieutenant Worf, she is even prepared to take on the omnipotent Q. However, her main preoccupation is serving food, drink and advice to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. The Oracle literally only exists to guide others, she is the matrix’s help programme. Her help comes with a side of cookies and is served in a dingy kitchen.

The preoccupation with food seems to be a particular feature of the mammy and possibly explains her continued presence in our fantasies. She exists to feed us. She alone of all women in the future is allowed to be plump and to wear less than skin tight clothing. Her presence is symbolically and physically maternal, yet her slave status denies her the independent desires of a mother, and removes the rival demands of a father; she exists for us alone.

Joanne Bardsley teaches English and Media Studies in North West London. She is currentlystudying for a Masters in Education.

  • that moves even past the science fiction genre. that’s really across the board in mainstream movies.

  • r

    I never made the association with the mammy figure in sci-fi until I read your post, plenty examples outside it though. I would have liked to see more examples. I liked the beginning.

  • Thanks. There are lots of examples in other films and fiction; The Help, The Secret Life of Bees, To Kill a Mockingbird etc.

    Older black women are represented elsewhere in The Matrix series, particularly on the council. In this case the prevalence of blackness is used as a sign that we are looking at a dystopia (think Soylent Green, I am Legend and Omega Man). The fantastical reality of the Matrix is predominantly white while the gritty reality is predominantly black.

    As I said in the article, it is very hard to find examples of named older black women in science fiction. When we look to the future, we don’t see them. This is more about our blindness than their presence/absence.