Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Mammy Archetype in DC's "Someone to Love!"- Girls' Love Stories #159 (May 1971)

Earlier in the week I mentioned the appearance of an African-American character in the 1950 Fawcett story, "Tears in the Night" that embodied the stereotypical "mammy" character so popular in antebellum and early 20th century American culture.

Fast forward twenty years to 1971 and shift your attention to the DC romance comics line -- could this "mammy archetype" still live on, even after the events of the Civil Rights Movement?

As you will see in "Someone to Love!" from DC's Girls' Love Stories #159 (May 1971) (pencils by Werner Roth) the stereotype of African-American women as inherently motherly figures (especially to their white charges) curiously lingers on -- despite the story's good intentions and attempts at diversification and inclusion.

When the Adams family moved into Greenville Heights, twelve year old Celia Johnson was anxious to meet her new neighbors. The rest of the neighborhood, however; was less than amused by an African-American family in their midst; relentlessly picketing and harassing the new family.

No, you are not imaging things.
You have seen that handshake before --
in the saga of Margo and Chuck, also
penciled by Werner Roth.

Accompanied by little Celia, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson are welcomed into the Adams home for a snack of coffee and cake. Celia and fellow twelve year old -- Angela, become fast friends and together, graduate from an interest in dolls to a fascination with boys and romance.

Though it seemed neither one of them would ever find a boy to date, before long Celia woos studly and sensitive Philip. Angela, however; has not yet met anyone and wonders if she ever will.

Love isn't far behind for Angela luckily. When an errant football collides with Angela's hand, dreamy football player Lee Stanley rushes over to comfort her and a romance between the two is quickly ignited.

Ecstatic about their new situations and their packed social calendars, Angela and Celia can hardly contain their joy. As the weeks fly by, the boys suddenly seem to gain popularity with the other young females of the school -- leaving little time for Angela and Celia. Celia racks her brain to think of what they may have done to obscure the attention of their guys. Angela explains that it isn't their fault, but that "...some men are like that! Once they know we love them, they take us for granted!"

Refusing to give up on Lee, Angela is there for him when his adoring female fans leave him in the dust after he costs the school the football game against their rival, Fairfield. Appreciating her loyalty and love, Lee apologizes for his behavior and promises to never hurt Angela again. Philip still hasn't come around to Celia, but Angela promises her friend that she will try to make things right between the two.

Celia is unsure what Angela has up her sleeve, but trusts Angela, who declares, "Never you mind, you just leave everything to Auntie Angela!" It is in this panel that Angela embodies characteristics of the dutiful "mammy."

In the end, Angela's scheme of persuading another boy at school to write a love note to Celia and drop it within eyesight of Philip to make him jealous works like a charm. It isn't long before the two couples are back to double dates and warm embraces.

Overall, while "Someone to Love" is a cute story that attempts to show that skin color has no bearing on friendship and comradery between women, it simultaneously very subtly (and most likely unintentionally) pegs African-American Angela into a motherly role in relation to her white friend Celia. Surprisingly, this "mammy" type character shows up in quite a few romance stories from the 1970s. Though DC made sincere strides in presenting diversity in their romance comics, they were unable to completely shake the specters of the past.


  1. Excellent entry, Jacque. I'm coming at this from a different background (white Brit male) but for me that one panel doesn't colour the whole story in terms of Mammy-ness. Couldn't it just as easily have been Celia Johnson (hilarious name to choose!) who sorted out things for Angela Adams?

    At the very least, it's great that Angela is shown to be smart and take charge, and that DC was continuing the efforts made in books such as Lois Lane (heavy-handed as such stories as 'Indian Death Charge' - the papoose tale - and 'I Am Curious ... Black' were) to promote the message of equality.

    And I like that after the flashback, the fact of Angela's heritage doesn't come into it.

    On a craftsmanship level, boy, I love Werner Roth. And that silent panel is especially interesting, you rarely saw that back in the Seventies.

  2. Thanks for weighing in, Martin! It could have been Celia who acted as an agent for Angela, but for me, it is the "Auntie" reference that situates Angela as a type of "mammy" character.

    This is definitely a more subtle story containing elements of the mammy, and it doesn't really become apparent that this trend exists in '70s DC romances until you read quite a few stories with African-American female romance characters. I will be posting more of these in the future, as I am working on a larger project partially based on this observation.

    I am with you on diggin' that silent panel!!!

  3. Jacque,

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting story. A drawback for many of these stories is that most were likely written by middle aged white men, with preconceived ideas of their own (perhaps this one was written by Robert Kanigher).

    Still, scenes such as the white family welcoming their neighbors, despite the protests, sent strong messages to the young girls reading these comics.

    Having grown up with Werber Roth's X-Men work, its nice to see him doing such a fine job on romance stories, nicely inked by Vince Colletta. (I believe both men did the cover as well)

  4. Nick: I absolutely do believe that this story (and similar ones) were an honest effort at diversifying the romance comics, and as you said, the protest scene is a moving one.

    The more I see of Roth, the more intrigued I am!

  5. Jacque, to me the artist of this story seems to have given it a fairly heavy lesbian subtext.

    He constantly depicts the girls in visual situations usually reserved in such stories for incipient (heterosexual) couples dimly perceiving the possibility of a burgeoning romance ahead of them.

    The girls constantly lean into each other, mirror each other's body language, pose back to back, or stand behind each other in ways suggestive of guys 'spooning' their girl.

    At the Tik-Tok Lounge, (dig that kinky looking set of 'legs' on the clock!), instead of gazing at their guys, they're looking to each other.

    There's the almost constant refrain, to the effect, "Look at all these heterosexual couples: why can't we fit in with them - WHAT'S WRONG WITH US?"

    But most compelling of all to me is the electrifying handshake scene, where they find themselves gazing into each others eyes and, in an absolutely classic sign of impending intimacy, allowing their hands to maintain physical contact that little bit longer than is 'decent'.

    Truly, this was a tale of Girls' Love, but what astounds me most of all is to suddenly realise how much more daring, racy and subversive DC could be than Marvel.

  6. I agree that this is a clear example of the ‘mammy’ archetype. Jacque gets much credit for discovering this character type within romance comics—this is a landmark in the contribution to comic book interpretation!

    However, I do have to disagree with your approach Jacque. I do not necessarily see this label as undesirable. Perhaps it is the identification ‘mammy’ which should be in question here. It might be better to make a statement as such: all of the traits identified in the African-American romance comic book character are present in the mammy archetype; however, not all traits of the mammy archetype are present in the African-American romance character—this is to say, the negative traits are not present in the romance comic book character. By labeling this archetype ‘mammy’ the negative traits are carried over to a positive character type.

    While I am no expert on the history or characterization of this archetype, I am confident in my position regarding this instance. Specifically, I do not see any negative traits within the African-American character in this story. It would be silly to argue that archetypes are only used as a tool to identify negative traits of characters within literature. Moreover, if an archetype reflects a positive role, then its application to any sex, race, class or occupation could even be embraced by those who associate themselves with the archetype. Sure, it could be argued that archetypes are oppressive. But without them literature faces a huge obstacle.

    In any case, as I have interpreted it, the archetype embodies a caring ‘big sister.’ I take Georgia from Night Nurse as my model. This is a positive character role, and I would hate for someone to challenge that. As I have said, I do not necessarily view this archetype negatively. Perhaps it is only a variety of archetypes played by African-Americans which is needed in order to make this unquestionably acceptable.

  7. Borky: Interesting. I would not have read any of those things into it, as I saw it as a story of female friendship and I was more concentrated on the portrayal of Angela. I admit, I do not have a lot of training in Queer Theory. While I do think that there are definitely instances of purposeful subversion ("That Strange Girl" from Young Romance #197 most famously), I tend to read most of these stories as heteronormative in nature.

    On a personal note, I can say with confidence that I think it is natural for young people navigating their way through the scary world of relationships (whether gay or straight) to feel the anguish that is predicated on Angela and Celia's question, "What's wrong with us?" I know I felt it in high school and college, and I think it is an encompassing human emotion than transcends sexual orientation. In this story, I think the question is used to show that even though Angela and Celia may come from different ethnic backgrounds, they still share the universal (or at least American) phenomena of teenage heartbreak and rejection.

    That is my reading in to it -- thank you for sharing yours! :) I think it is great that romance comics can elicit this much discussion!!!

  8. Justin: Thank you for disagreeing with me! Both you and Borky have really brought up points that I wouldn't have thought of otherwise!

    It is true -- not all of the traits of the "mammy" archetype are embodied by Angela. Perhaps there is a better archetype to identify Angela and Georgia Jenkins from Night Nurse. In the romance comics, many of the female African-American characters are portrayed as super motherly (Page Peterson is a great example) but you are correct -- that is not necessarily a negative personality trait to have. It only seems to be curious or problematic when her white friend is repeatedly depicted as the object of desire. In this story that is not the case, as Angela also has a love interest, but in many stories the African-American woman is merely a "sidekick" who facilitates her friend's love life. It is most certainly a striking trend that deserves further discussion and observation!