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.

5 Comments

  • Posted July 24, 2012 at 1:56 am | Permalink

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

  • r
    Posted July 24, 2012 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    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.

  • Posted July 24, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    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.

  • Posted October 18, 2013 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    Well, off the top of my head there is also the female character in the Star Trek movie, First Contact, and I’m sure someone more knowledgeable about film than I could come up with more. It seems to me that the wise, oracle figure is the role these women all shared. But you associate them with the stereotypical archetype of “the mammy?”

    What? Because they served food? Actually, the First Contact one did not serve food that I recall.

    I live in a part of the world where there are many Africans. I have no doubt none of them – zero – would make this connection with the “mammy” stereotype. They would see middle aged black women serving some writer’s purpose to move the story arc along in a sci fi flic. The “mammy” figure is always meant to be kindly, practical about short term goals but short sighted on a more strategic level of thinking. She is a buffo character meant to be laughed at. By contrast, each of these characters helps the story precisely by seeing the big picture, and giving the lead the information needed to complete the journey.

    Charitably, I could say like many writers it’s reflexive to look for something to critique and this was the first possible connection you found to latch onto. But frankly at the least you need to do more than pick out two figures to make any such claim. Here’s a rule: if you can’t find more than two points of data don’t make any broad claim. Never – just put the pencil down. Two points can fit any line of argument you want to draw between them and you’re likely to forget about all the variation as you busy yourself with that line. For my money, neither of the two you picked reminds me of those old racialist caricatures unless you wish to make the claim that all black women over 35 who are a little overweight and speak in a “knowing” tone would fit? Do you really think Whoopi Goldberg would stand for this? Well, then, you don’t know Whoopi!

    • James Wright
      Posted August 16, 2016 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      I think there is a lack of older women in general in science fiction and a most definate lack of diversity! I happened to live in a town Whoopi Goldberg bartended in, so perhaps the role was written for this reason? I also feel her strengths pull her out of the Mammy stereotype, though I do feel they could have done more to expand her character’s storyline and background.