What do Doris Day, Katherine Hepburn and Vivica Fox have in common? They are each icons for a generation of women struggling to sort out the primacy of men and matrimony in their lives.
Of course, icons don’t just happen. They are created by repetition and a great distribution deal. And as in the days of Hepburn and Day, the “culture industry” is working overtime to reach African American women with movies like Soul Food and books like The Sistahs’ Rules to drive their message home: real women have husbands — and will do anything to get and keep them.
The Sistahs’ Rules is the trite, “black” version of The Rules, an insipid book on dating and duplicity that got lots of publicity last year. The Sistahs’ Rules is one of a number of best-selling books seeking to capitalize on the insecurity of single black women in search of companionship. The book features advice like “the way to a man’s heart is through a great plate of greens,” and encourages women to learn sports, not be “too independent,” and “let a man be the man.”
Soul Food (which virtually swept the NAACP Image Awards for its “realistic and sensitive” portrayal of the black family) is the story of three black women — sisters grappling with marriage and family in the wake of their mother’s untimely death. The film is mostly a cautionary tale for black women designed to reinforce the importance of patriarchy to the black community. The happy sister is an adoring housewife satisfied with quietly using her power in ways that do not upset her husband. The miserable sister is an accomplished lawyer whose need for independence and control ruins most of her relationships. The youngest sister struggles with how independent she should be. Of course, by the end of the movie, she learns that smiling domesticity is the way to go.
Both the book and movie are reminiscent of films from the 1950s and early 1960s, when the film industry was recruited to convince working white women who joined the workforce during WWII to quit their jobs, get married and have babies. And as white women were metaphorically tamed through the exploits of Hepburn, Day and Lucille Ball, black women are “put in their place” by this latest cinematic and literary redux of the tragic woman with “everything but the guy.”
However, these trends are more than just fodder for plot lines. They help solidify African American women as the new scapegoats in the war against affirmative action by promoting the perception that African American women professionals “occupy” jobs that should be held by men.
For some, this means white men. There are plenty who say they’ve lost their jobs to African American women due to company affirmative action policies. Black women, they say, are hired for these professional jobs because, being both black and women, they count as a “two-fer” toward an institution’s diversity goals. Challenges by white men in these cases have been vicious and one high profile case even ended in suicide. High-powered black executive Dianna Green killed herself after being harassed by a white male colleague who thought she got “his job” as a result of affirmative action. Of course, African American women still hold very few managerial positions compared to white men. The higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer black women there are on the payroll.
Then there are those in the black community who think black women are taking the good jobs from black men. It is true that African American women are much more likely to attend college than black men, but it has little to do with competition. In 1965, black men and women went to college at roughly the same rate. However, in 1980, that gap began to widen and in 1994 (the most recent data available), the number of black women enrolling in college outpaced black men by more than 180,000.
Many factors contribute to the increasing gap between the number of college-educated African American men and women. The so-called war on drugs has more than tripled the rate of imprisonment for black men under 30 years of age since 1980. Homicide and other violent deaths also rose dramatically among African American men during that same period. The result: fewer African American men alive or out of prison that might attend college. In addition, studies indicate that tracking of young African American men into vocational education and fear of black males among public school educators present barriers to academic achievement.
Some suggest that black families have historically sent more daughters to college than sons (the reverse of what is often considered the norm) because they believed their sons had a better chance of employment without a college education than their daughters. Young black women had few choices besides domestic work. Parents did not want their daughters working in the home of affluent whites for fear of sexual abuse. Families that could sought to protect their daughters with an education.
Regardless of the reasons, most African American women do not attend college at all and precious few hold down coveted, high paying jobs. Gaps in academic and professional achievement between black men and women are not a result of too much attitude and independence among African American women; they are symptoms of deeper problems of systemic social and economic injustice.
Blame For Profit
This latest round of blame in books and film provides the cultural cover for what’s really a facile macroeconomic approach to job creation. In life prescribed by the culture industry, black men will take their “rightful” place as king of the castle and wage earner — preferably at a blue-collar job. Black women — scared of the prospect of a life alone and with “how to” books in hand — will shape up, find husbands and leave their “good” jobs for the men who “deserve” them. We’ll learn to live for our husbands and sons like the “happy wife” in Soul Food and not dare to be powerful like the evil, wretchedly unhappy woman lawyer in that movie. We’ll play by The Sistahs’ Rules and live the dream of Leave it to Beaver in black face.
Of course, it’s a pipe dream. Few families black, white or otherwise can afford for a parent to stay home full time. But it’s a much easier explanation for what’s wrong with the economy than the stasis of capitalism, lower wages, and the changing means and processes of production. When economics gets too complex, it’s always simpler to blame the women. After all, from book sales to beauty products, making African American women feel insecure and abnormal is a mighty profitable industry.