Thursday, December 9, 2010
Deconstructing black masculinity and white femininity in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The media has had a profound impact in shaping how African Americans’ masculinity and femininity have been constructed in the American mind. Blacks themselves, however, have had relatively little say in their portrayals in the media, and particularly on screen. In class we have discussed Sidney Poitier’s screen presence and how it has, despite its limitations, had a major influence on American cinema, opening many doors for African Americans in Hollywood. It is interesting to consider also how Poitier has played a role not only in reconstructing blackness, but in reshaping popular notions of white femininity. Throughout much of American cinema blacks have been cast as emasculated shells, uttering little more than “yessuh” and grinning. This stereotype of blacks was largely based on the conception of black men that arose following the Civil War. While prior to emancipation blacks were often stereotyped as lazy and crafty, following the war a new stereotype arose: that of the lustful and licentious black man who craves nothing more than a white woman’s flesh. This provided a new form of social control over black men and enabled whites to justify Jim Crow. One sees this representation on film as early as 1915 in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in which Gus, played by Walter Long in blackface, chases Flora Cameron, played by Mae Marsh, to the top of a cliff. While Gus makes no explicit gesture that he intends to rape Flora, the implication is clear, and rather than confront Gus, Flora decides to jump off of a cliff. Here D.W. Griffith was evoking many scholars have referred to as the “mystique of white womanhood.” The representation of blacks as lustful beings allowed white Southern men to control not only the construction of black masculinity, but also that of white femininity. White women were pure and righteous, and it was the duty of white men to protect this purity and righteousness. Black men often were lynched and sometimes even castrated if it was suggested by a white woman that the man had violated her in any way. Black men were thus emasculated, particularly in their relationships with white men and women. In order not to be lynched it was often necessary to show absolute deference to white men, and to not so much as gaze at a white woman. Sidney Poitier’s role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in many ways seemed to challenge not only stereotypes of black men, but also the mythical construction of white womanhood. In the film Sidney Poitier is, as Professor McKinney stated, “the most interesting man in the world.” He is a highly respected doctor who is initiating programs in Africa to provide young men and women basic medical training. He is, additionally, the most polite and gentlemanly character one could imagine. His love interest, however, is a white woman, Joanna Drayton, played by Katherine Houghton, which poses a problem in 1960s American society. It is up to Joanna’s father, Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) to decide whether the couple’s proposed marriage will be realized. Ultimately, however, Joanna’s father is reminded by Poitier’s character’s mother, Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards), that he once fell in love, but must have since forgotten, or he would not oppose the marriage. Mr. Drayton finally realizes that even he, as a lifelong liberal, is under the sway of the mystique of white womanhood, and emasculates himself enough that he is able to forgo his traditional role as a white father in protecting his daughter from a black man. Poitier is not the lustful beast that Mr. Drayton suspected he might be, despite Poitier’s character’s obvious qualifications to marry his daughter. The film implies that black men are naturally emasculated enough that society need not emasculate them further. They are not freakish sexual deviants, but normal human beings, just like white people have always been in American society. An additional implication is that Mr. Drayton’s conception of his daughter is also flawed. He need not protect her, for her mythical white feminine purity is likewise a social construct. Ultimately the film deconstructs not only black masculinity, but also white femininity, though the latter is often overlooked. While the implications of the film are subtle, they are no less profound, and certainly something to consider as one thinks about the Civil Rights Movement and its relation to the mystique of white womanhood.