Close Reading: “I’se sure got a good job now!”

By | December 18, 2009

Hello, my dears. I apologize for the lack of Fatshionista in your life lately; the past month has been a little off the rails for me. For example: on Thanksgiving, my closet collapsed. By “collapsed” I mean the rod and shelf from whence things were hung? Fell down. Rufus was seen skulking from the scene immediately before its discovery and my husband has posited that possibly he tried to jump to the top shelf and owing to his bulk, pulled the whole mess off the wall. (I think this is unlikely.) Regardless, it was pretty spectacular in an oh-god-please-kill-me sort of way, and further underscored the reality that I own far too many cardigans. I won’t even mention the shoes. All of this is to say thanks for your notes of concern, I am very much alive and have not been swallowed into the black hole formed by the incredible mass of my cardigan collection. Indeed, my closet has since been rebuilt — we have the technology! we can make it better, stronger… faster? — with my own two hands in a catastrophically frustrating two-hour extravaganza that actually took five hours last Sunday night. It is now bi-level and I have shelves for shoes to live on. Closet Destruction 2009 was only one minor setback over the past month, so you can use your imagination for the others.

As a result of the multitude of distractions, I’m a little light on content lately, but I did want to highlight this, which I discovered via the indispensable Vintage Ads this morning.

Terrible, terrible ad.
Click to embiggen, if you’re into that sort of thing.

It really wasn’t that long ago that these sorts of images were common. And, sadly, given the current atmosphere of racial backlash in the US right now, in some quarters they still are (post-racial America, my fat ass). So, while I get that many of us see the above and think, “Wow, that’s offensive,” we don’t always have the words to articulate why — we know we’re seeing something taboo, something bad, but when faced with having to explain it to someone else, having to outline why the above image is so loaded with meaning beyond the basic image it presents, we’re often at a loss.

Thus, I present to you: my unpacking of a problematic image.

We’ll begin with the image itself. The woman in the picture above is a woman of color, and not a white woman. I am personally inclined to think she is meant to be a Black woman, for reasons I’ll get into below, though she could ostensibly also be Latina. The lack of advertisements (and editorials) that feature women of color are often a sticking point for critics of women-focused media today, but this is a good example of how it’s never so simple a matter as injecting more women of color into magazine layouts; it’s about how said women of color are represented. The woman in this image, given her pink uniform and apron, and the text of the ad which references servants, is clearly a maid in the house of a well-off family, more likely than not a white family. If you have a Racial Stereotype Alarm in your head like I do, it should be going off pretty loud right about now. Though we like to think we’re far removed from seeing images like the above in daily life, the truth is that stereotype of the woman of color as housemaid is very much alive and well in American society. Thus I’d argue that while we may no longer allow ourselves to so candidly exploit this archetype as the ad above does, our culture really hasn’t evolved very far from thinking of women of color as domestic servants — or perhaps more precisely, from thinking of domestic servants as typically being women of color.

The fact that this woman is also fat is not incidental, as this aspect underscores one of the most easily-recognizable racial archetypes out there: the mammy. The mammy is unencumbered by intelligence, soft as a pillow, loyal as a dog, and wants nothing more than to devote her whole life to the care of her white employers. She has no passions or ambitions of her own, but exists exclusively to service her so-called betters, an unchanging mother figure to everyone in the household. It’s unlikely that all of this is meant to be transmitted by the image above — in truth, I doubt the artist thought very hard about it at all — but the fact remains that these are very common connotations with this image of a fat Black woman working as domestic labor.

Moving on, the text of this ad has a lot more to impart as well. The woman’s talk bubble says, “I’se sure got a good job now!” Reading this from the perspective of the intended audience — white women of means — the “I’se” denotes a lack of education, another stereotype of both people of color and domestic staff. Because folks learn to speak as much by listening to those in their community as they do from their schooling (or lack thereof), the implication here is that not only is this woman stupid, but she lives in a family and community of people who are also stupid, by mainstream standards. This lack of grammar also suggests lower socioeconomic status, just in case this weren’t already clear, given that the woman in question is cleaning up someone else’s home. So here we have a woman who’s already working a job considered, culturally-speaking, to be a position that is at least somewhat demeaning, and the ad’s copywriter gets to add insult to injury by imitating his idea of Black American speech. To be clear: I am not myself suggesting this is appropriate or true, but suggesting that in a culture that stereotypes the Black woman housemaid as stupid and shiftless, actual Black women who work in such positions may be read by dominant white culture as being demeaned by “fulfilling” the negative stereotype.

The rest of the talk bubble’s speech is just as troubling, though for different reasons. The ad is meant to sell a kitchen time-saver, namely, an “electric sink” with a disposal and top-loading dishwasher. Housework becomes “easier” and less “tedious”, plus your dishes are safe from “handling” (though unless this sink can also levitate the dishes in and out of the dishwasher, “handling” seems pretty inevitable). The woman, who is ostensibly using the new contraption for the first time, says she has “a good job now!” If she were a white housewife, this could mean she has more time to sit around and smoke cigarettes and ignore her children, a la Betty Draper and the malaise of many well-off white women of this time (see The Feminine Mystique). But because the woman in the ad is a Black woman, the expression suggests a reinforcement of an additional stereotype: laziness. Her job is “good” now not because it affords her the luxury of leisure time — something most working women of color in the advertisement’s and the contemporary time periods don’t have much of — but because it involves less work.

It can be argued, convincingly, that making this close a reading of something ultimately ephemeral is at best a waste of time and at worst a self-indulgent exercise in which folks like me can put our culturally-underappreciated critical skills and knowledge to some use and pretend they serve a useful purpose. But the truth is that these images, disposable though they may be, shape how we see ourselves, and how we see each other. Knowing how to read them, and how to explain their problems to others, is a practical skill if it cuts down our culture’s racist/classist/fatphobic assumptions and lays bare their meaning. And my analysis above is hardly authoritative or comprehensive — part of the indisiousness of these bits of media is that they can be read so many different ways, from so many different angles. Do you think I missed something, or misread a cue? Contribute to the process: leave a comment and let us all know.

Further reading:
Fatness and Uplift: Not a Post about Push Up Bras, by the brilliant Julia.
101:(Re)Defining Privilege

Comments are closed.