Persistent Cross Media Stereotypes of Af-Am Women page
Suffocating Jezebel, Sapphire and Mammy:
Persistent Cross-Media Stereotypes
Of African American Women in
"WAITING TO EXHALE"
Submitted to the
Commission on the Status of Women
AEJMC Annual Convention
August 5-8, 1998
E-K. Daufin, Ph.d.
Alabama State University
Department of Communications Media
915 South Jackson St.
Montgomery, AL 36116-0271
Private Office Line: (334) 229-6885
Fax: (334) 229-4976
Email: [log in to unmask]
Suffocating Jezebel, Sapphire and Mammy:
Persistent Cross-Media Stereotypes
Of African American Women in
"WAITING TO EXHALE"
The film "Waiting to Exhale" continues to impact the film and video industry,
as well as on the fabric of African American women's psyche and intimate
relationships in the Black community. This study is based on a focus group of
28 African American viewers and a social-reality model critique. It looks at
cross-media stereotypes in the film and their social, cultural and marketing
The film "Waiting to Exhale," begins with a New Year's Resolution. We see the
character Savannah, in an expensive silver convertible, cruising somewhere
between Denver and Phoenix. She muses that "the men are dead in Denver...They've
got to be better in Phoenix." In the book version of this tale, Savannah's
resolution is more specific,
"On the top of my list is finding a husband. I promise myself in
1990 that I will not spend another birthday by myself, another fourth of July by
myself, another Thanksgiving by myself and definitely not another Valentine's
Day, Christmas or New Years by myself." (McMillan 10)
New Year's resolutions express our desire to transform our lives and ourselves
into something better. Black women went to see the film "Waiting to Exhale"
perhaps in greater numbers and more times per viewer than any film to date with
because their lives, and desire for transformation and something better were for
once being validated on the big screen.
It is obvious that this story about four, thirty-something, single,
middle-class, African American women is a contemporary drama based on an old
theme, recognizable wherever the romantic West has won -- the desire for true
love. However, this film based on Terry McMillan's best selling novel, is much
more than an old story in sepia.
An Industry Anomaly
"Waiting to Exhale" debuted, on Friday, December 27, 1995, to packed houses
across the country. Not since Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" had African Americans
pre-purchased tickets and waited for hours on line, en mass, to see a film.
Waiting to Exhale broke all box office gross records for Black films, drawing
interracial audiences that were largely female. On the weekend it was
released, "Waiting to Exhale" was number-one nationally and even beat the stiff
competition of Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (Eveld E1). The film soundtrack's title
song has been called "The Woman's National Anthem."
The soundtrack also broke sales records. Several talk show hosts spent
multiple episodes on the film. Women across the country held "Waiting to
Exhale" parties. The book was one the ten most-read books on HBCU campuses for
more than seven months (Black Issues 25). HBO aired "Exhale" four times in
November 1996, as their viewing guide cover feature. "Waiting to Exhale" made
way for other African American women's stories to be told if film such as "Soul
Food" and "Eve's Bayou." Yet nothing since "Waiting to Exhale" has earned its
Black-oriented box office or stirred the same controversy in the Black
community. The "Waiting to Exhale" phenomenon begs exploration of the social
processes of mass communication.
"Exhale" is the first African American oriented "chick flick" to ever become a
major motion picture. That the story of middle-class, African American women,
based on a novel by an African American woman, directed by an African American,
with African Americans in all principle and supporting roles, ever made it to
major distribution, is a miracle in and of itself. "Exhale" is not about men,
as are most Black oriented films. "Exhale" was sure to be a hit with African
American movie goers because many of them were members of the silenced Black
middle-class eager for the rare opportunity to see a slice of their lives on the
screen (Morgan 10). Yet as dance teacher, nee_ Debbie Allen, cautioned
ambitious performers in the header of each episode of the old television series
based on the New York High School of the Arts, "FAME", "Fame costs." In
"Waiting to Exhale," African American women paid for fame in every other frame.
Every story changes as it is transformed from one medium to another. However
in Exhale's metamorphosis, to assure a large, White, female cross-over market,
the film writing team chose to emphasize the sexuality of the women in the film
because White women can identify with the difficult search for loving
partnership but perhaps not with the racism with which Black women must deal and
the middle-class African American sense of social responsibility apparent in the
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Exhale novel writer Terry McMillan,
expressed her frustration with the team effort that film writing is, compared to
the greater creative control that she wields when writing her books. The
emphasis on the character's sexuality in the film that was not in the novel,
deeply troubled many African Americans.
One critic addresses this effect when she says that, "Even Waiting to
Exhale...in the end was no more than a cartoon cutout version of the feisty
novel upon which it was based" (Rapping 39). Beverly Guy-Sheftall, author and
director of Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College was
disturbed by several differences between the book and the film that caused the
women in the film version to be,
"portrayed as apolitical, without racial consciousness or ties to the
community...They don't read or appear to care about their professional
development, what's going on in the world, or the problems which ail the Black
community." (Exhaling 121)
Typically films about and by Black women like "Exhale" ("Just Another Girl on
the IRT," "Daughters of the Dust," etc.) do not gain as high a profile launch
as "Exhale" because movie industry executives and investors fear that Whites
will not pay to see such a film (Rodriguez 21) and thus limit potential box
office revenue, even if large segments of African Americans (about 13 percent of
the nation's population) do come to see it. Filmmakers banked on the
a-good-man-is-hard-to-find theme, in addition to several proven cross-over stars
(including Whitney Houston as Savannah; Angela Bassett as Bernadine, who starred
in Tina Turner's story; and actors such as Wesley Snipes and Gregory Hines in
supporting roles) and changes from the book version, to make the movie more
palatable to White women, to assure a better return on their investment.
The HBO viewer guide obviously seeks to draw the White female audience in their
two-line description of the film that ends with a New York Post review,
"This movie's got it all: a screenplay based on a best-seller, four
hot actresses and a soundtrack by some of the biggest divas in pop! 'An
experience to be shared among girlfriends, sisters, mothers and daughters.'"
Despite the over-sexualization and de-culturalization of the principles, Black
middle-class viewers did find some things to like about the film "Exhale."
Though three out of four of the principle characters were portrayed as
promiscuous, in "Exhale" at least none of the Black women sold their bodies for
a living. Many viewers have become desensitized to the media stereotype of the
Black whore. For example, few attended to the only Black women in the cultural
epic "BATMAN: Forever." Besides one asexual secretary with approximately four
lines of dialog, the only women of color in "BATMAN" were feathered prostitutes
fawning over the bat mobile. They offer to nest with Robin for free just to
ride in the fancy car that is not even his.
At least, as University of North Carolina At Chapel Hill author, Dr. Michael
Eric Dyson, says, "Exhale" is "....extremely important (because)... it presents
four...'sisters' (who are) neither Jemimahs nor Jezebels--whose stories reflect
the lives of millions of real, but largely invisible Black women" (Exhaling
Old Stereotypes With a "$" Twist
Mammy Owns Her Own Business
Though not as obvious as that of the Black whore/junkie, stereotypical images
of Black women as Jemimah or Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire do appear in "Exhale."
Gloria is the "highly maternal, family oriented and self-sacrificing" (West 459)
Mammy. The Mammy is stereotypically presented as an "obese, dark complexioned
woman with African features." (West 459) Widespread White standards of beauty
exclude this character.
Though not so described in the book, in the film version of "Exhale," Gloria is
the darkest of the four women with the most stereotypically West-African
features. Guy-Sheftall calls this casting pandering to skin-color politics where
the "'beautiful' women are lighter-skinned and thin (Inhaling 120). Skin-color
politics or colorism refers to the favoring of lighter skinned and eyed Blacks
with straight (at the root) hair over darker, kinky-haired African Americans.
It is another contemporary malady that had its birth in European colonialism and
Parallel to the book version, Gloria is also plump, a compulsive overeater
and an over-protective single mother. She is the one who begs her friends to
eschew anger and deny themselves sexual gratification. She chastises them for
seeking sex even if no appropriate man for committed relationship is available.
In the film Gloria is shown as a regular church member, whereas the other
principles are depicted as Easter-Christmas church-goers. In Exhale the book,
Gloria rarely goes to church as a teenager or an adult (McMillan 98).
Gloria selflessly serves the needs of others and is imprisoned by the Mammy
stereotype that does not allow her to be vulnerable, fearful, desirable or
desirous. As Bernadine says in defense of her one night stand with a married
man, "I'm not like you Gloria. I need someone to hold me." Gloria can not
express the desire for physical intimacy and uses her service to others to fend
off the resultant despair. A significant difference between the complete Mammy
stereotype and Gloria is socio-economic.
Mammies serve the community, usually not even their own communities, as maids,
wet nurses, nannies and cooks. However, Gloria owns the type of business that
is at the very center of African American women's culture--the head shop. Also
Gloria is a central character with a family and a life. Older versions of this
stereotype have the Mammy as a functional brown breast, in service to a White
family, with no interest in her own family or community (as in the classic "Gone
With the Wind," the maid in "Driving Miss Daisy," Nell Carter's television
character in "Gimme a Break").
"The Mammy image...(reinforces) the stereotype that Black women
happily seek these multiple roles, rather than assuming them out of necessity,
and effortlessly meet these obligations without any desire to delegate
responsibilities to others." (West 460)
In Exhale the book, Gloria finds true love simply by being her warm, neighborly
self, and open to the affections of an older man (in the book version Marvin is
in his 50's). She already knows she will let her son, Tarik, go on tour, if he
will work to earn a portion of the cost. However in the film "Exhale," it was
Gloria's piousness and the ultimate sacrifice of letting her son go to Spain,
that were rewarded with true love which the stereotypical Mammy was never
allowed. No matter the reason, for the Mammy to find love is a significant
variation from the strict stereotype because Mammies are supposedly fulfilled by
an intrinsic joy of service and lack of personhood.
The film's moral though, is that a Mammy's sacrificing sexual satisfaction and
even the continued companionship of her son, is rewarded with the love a good
man. This morality tale may give hope to many Black women who identify with
Gloria as a woman who does not measure up to White standards of Beauty.
"Black women, as a group are more likely to be overweight than Whites or Black
men."(West 459) More Black women than White know the added social and
professional discrimination fat women face. Contrary to the myth, reinforced by
the film, that Black women are culturally insulated from the trials of "sizism,"
the book version of Exhale makes painfully clear that middle-class African
American women are not only pressured to be light-skinned with straight hair,
but also to simultaneously be thin and big breasted in order to be considered
attractive or professionally competent.
Though sizism in the Western world affects all women, potentially leading to a
negative self-image, feelings of inferiority and depression, these issues are
intensified for Black women because "this image of thinness has historically
been based on a White, middle class standard of beauty" (West 459). Gloria can
be fat and s successful entrepreneur only because she owns a service oriented
business, in which she herself does a lion's share of the service. As a
hairdresser, Gloria literally gets her hands dirty.
She also caters to the needs of Black women and does not have to work as a
token African American in what can be an isolating, sometimes hostile White work
environment, as the other principle characters do. Upwardly mobile Black women,
such as the characters Robin, Savannah and Bernadine (who in the book Exhale
does not lead a life of leisure but punches in each day, at a job she hates,
while her children go to the baby-sitters) are even more prone to developing
eating disorders in the attempt to be thin and distance themselves from the
obese Mammy image (West 460).
The film only hints at this prevalent pressure when Savannah says to herself
that if she had the nerve she would buy herself "some real breasts" and when
Gloria, upon meeting Marvin, says self-depreciatingly that at her size, she had
"no business" eating soul food. However the book Exhale is full of examples of
Black women's poor body image and the worries it causes them romantically,
socially and professionally.
In the book the thinner characters are not beyond, nagging, criticizing, and
even cruelly jesting about, Gloria's weight. Perhaps the cruelty and criticism
around body size did not make it to the film version because it contradicts the
pervasive myth that Black women are unharassed about body size and form
cohesive, supportive relationships with each other more naturally and easily
than White women do.
Actually, because of the shortage of eligible Black men, and Black women's more
intensified competition over them, it may be more difficult for Black women to
form the idealized bonds the film version of "Exhale" presents as automatic.
The resolution of Gloria's story in the film "Exhale," is the Black woman's
Cinderella tale. In return for submitting to the extended family and community
pressure to be a chaste, and a "'strong Black woman' able to selflessly meet the
needs of others," (West 416) Gloria gets the handsome, handy prince after ten
years without sex. "Exhale's" Gloria is a Mammy but she is also a business
owner, with a son, friends and finally a lover.
It is not the Mammy's role of constant service that makes so many real life
Gloria's despair. It is the absence of hope that they will receive her reward
that depresses them. Despite tampering, the film character Gloria provides hope
of desire fulfilled for the many Black women who identify with her.
Jezebel Without a Sugar Daddy
Turns Sapphire When Love Goes Sour
Probably most troublesome to those African Americans who did not like (but
certainly saw, sometimes repeatedly) the movie was the over-emphasis of the
Jezebel stereotype that was more balanced by other character aspects in the
"(T)he bad-Black-girl' (image of Jezebel) originated during slavery
when White slave owners exercised almost complete control over Black women's
sexuality and reproduction...rape perpetrated by both Black and White men, was
routinely used to augment the slave population." (West 462)
The loose, ever-ready Jezebel myth was used to rationalize and justify the mass
rape of generations of Black women and girls. Such stereotypes persist in the
current era. When then World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion Mike Tyson was
convicted of raping 18-year-old Deseriee Washington, Black men and women rallied
around the rapist rather than the victim. During the controversy, a Black
journalist in Los Angeles said, "'You cannot rape a Black woman.' He drew this
conclusion from personal experience explaining how he 'scored' on some first
dates while being rebuffed on others." (Fanning 12)
The media image of the Black woman as Jezebel, one who is not virginal but on
the contrary desires and initiates sex, often outside of marriage (West 462)
reinforces the dangerous myth that a Black woman can not be raped because she
never wants to say no to sex with anyone, anywhere. (West 462, Wyatt 92, Wilson
However, empirical evidence suggests that in America, Black women are more
frequently victims of rape, attempted rape and child sexual abuse, across all
race and age groups (Wyatt 507). African American women are the least likely of
any other race woman to win a rape conviction. Moreover, when a Black woman
does win a conviction, her rapist, whether White or Black, is likely to be
sentenced to less time than a man who raped any other race woman. (Sentences
In "Exhale" three out of the four principles, Robin, Bernadine and Savannah,
are all Jezebels who find their power only by becoming Sapphires. Sapphire is a
stereotype epitomized by and named for the angry, castrating wife of Kingfish in
the radio and television series "Amos and Andy. " Sapphire is,
"...iron-willed, effectual, (and) treacherous toward and contemptuous of Black
men" (Bond & Perry 113).
The film's Robin is a Jezebel when she wears sexually suggestive clothes, even
to work and pauses to drink-in Black and White men's ogling her lustfully. She
also has no compunction about having affairs with married men. However in the
book Exhale Robin and Savannah purposefully avoid married men (McMillan 171,207,
258, 263). Again the film version of Exhale oversexualizes and de-moralizes
these Black women.
For Robin as Jezebel, as we saw for Gloria as Mammy, one contrast to the
complete stereotype in Exhale is economic. Though Robin lives in a small
apartment, she is an insurance company marketing executive with the Sapphiric
power to hire and fire wayward lovers. The true Jezebel uses her sexuality to
gain material goods rather than committed relationship as Robin does. In the
book version Robin is deeply in debt largely because student loans, helping her
aging parents and outstanding loans she makes to, or co-signs for boyfriends .
The Mammy is a free servant. The true Jezebel is the hot, kept courtesan.
The Jezebel stereotype of Black women in the media is even more damaging than
the over-sexualized media stereotypes of White women: the whore with a golden
heart, the gold digger or the dumb blond. Jezebel is not just bartering with
her body for material goods but has a supposedly insatiable sexual desire.
Jezebel's heart is never even mentioned and she is portrayed more as an animal
in estrus than a beautiful human being with a low IQ.
The film "Exhale" again traffics in despair and negative stereotypes of Black
women and men when it changes the book's version of Robin's romance with
Michael, an employee. In the book, Michael is an executive in another
department whereas Robin is the lower echelon underwriter. In the book Robin
"fires" Michael as her lover. She does not have the power to fire him from his
job. In the film Michael purposefully undermines Robin in a meeting in front of
her mostly White subordinates at work. In the book Michael makes a sincere
effort to improve his poor love making and is very generous to Robin. In the
book, it is Robin who can not move past the lack of chemistry, or perhaps her
own superficiality, to stay in relationship with Michael.
In "Exhale" the film, Robin's journey from victim to self-possessed woman goes
over the "dead bodies" of two Black men, as she transforms from Jezebel to
Sapphire. Again the film panders to racial-sexual myths of Daniel Moynihan's
fictional Black Matriarch, who has more power than the Black man, makes more
money, etc. In actuality, Black men hold the lion's share of the money in the
Black community and seats in the White board room (where a brown face does
appear) than Black women do. For every dollar a White man earns, a White woman
earns 80 cents, a Black man 73 and a black woman 63.
Another Jezebel-turned-Sapphire episode in the film, that is absent from the
book, is Robin's resolution of her relationship with Russell. Rather than
confronting married, drug using and handsome Russell for what he has done wrong
and tell him what he will have to do if he wants to be part of his child's life
later, Robin tells him she is pregnant with his child and that neither of them
need him. She slams the door in his face. Russell does behave badly throughout
the relationship and when he discovers Robin reading a book on childbirth.
However, she intends to also punish her baby for the sins of the father, by
locking the father out of their child's life.
The Sapphire's problematic manner of expressing anger is unfortunately
"embraced as one of the few 'positive' traits available for Black
Women...aggression is used to mask the appearance of vulnerability...(and)
represents the only avenue for the expression of rage and dissatisfaction."
(West 461) Homogeneous African American audiences are particularly expressive
because of the call and response nature of the cultural communication dynamic.
Black women, squeezed close together in theaters across the country cheered when
Robin, Bernadine and Savannah metamorphosed into monstrous Sapphires because
rage and aggression are preferable to the despair of continued victimhood.
Savannah is portrayed as a milder Jezebel than Robin. Though the film version
still makes her more of a Jezebel than the book. For example, in the film,
Savannah contemplates taking other women's men when she sits down at a table of
strangers during a New Year's Eve celebration. In the book version she just
wants a group to sit with while she looks for her blind date. The women at the
table give her a cold shoulder because they assume any unescorted "Sistah" would
steal their men.
Savannah as Jezebel, in both book and film, at least momentarily tolerates the
jazz of a gigolo (Lionel) in the hopes that she will get the first sex she has
had in five months. However in the book version, Lionel is the entrepreneur
Savannah's sister has set her up with, though he turns out to be a pretender.
Lionel is also Savannah's last resort to help her move to Phoenix, after
so-called friends leave her high and dry. Again, in the film version, Savannah
is the truer immoral Jezebel when she gets involved with a married man, Kenneth,
for the second time in her life. In the book version, Kenneth was not married
the first time they were involved.
African American female audience members cheered when Savannah turns Sapphire
with Kenneth when she breaks up with him. In the book version of their
telephone break up Savannah is less of a Sapphire. She does tell him to "leave
(her) the fuck alone," and hangs up on him twice (McMillan 383-6). However in
the film Savannah curses Kenneth directly, spills ice water in his lap and says
that she would not trust him if he did divorce. In the book she tells Kenneth
to divorce his wife first before pursuing their relationship any further and
then she stops answering his phone calls.
Though Black women cheered wildly at Savannah's Sapphiric film version of the
breakup, it is clear that Sapphire's anger is only laudable when it is turned on
a man. When Savannah gets angry at her mother for pressuring Savannah to
continue the affair with Kenneth, Savannah says the word "damn" and hangs up on
her mother. The Montgomery premiere theatre audience audibly gasped. In two
seconds Savannah redeems herself by calling back her mother to apologize, saying
she will never disrespect her mother again. The audience exhaled. Sapphire's
anger must be aimed at a man and for virtually all Black women, if there is a
man around, that man will probably be Black.
African American women are the most likely, across all race, gender and age
groups, to never marry, to be divorced or to live alone . Even in
interracial marriage, a Black woman is the least likely bride, of any race,
across all classes. The ratio between Black men and women (7:10) is more
unbalanced than any other ethnic group in the United States (Love 19). This
already unbalanced ratio includes confirmed bachelors, those incarcerated,
married to other race women, gay or other wise unavailable for partnership with
an African American woman. All the of Exhale's principles are college educated.
In college the ratio between Black men and women is 1:2 (Love 19) even worse
than the uneducated class, whereas the ratio of collegiate men to women, in
other race groups, increases rather than decreases.
In a study that sought to determine if African American men, who are literally
surrounded by available women, "tend to become arrogant, shallow and
uncommitted," Drs. Larry Davis and Michael Strube of Washington University in
St. Louis Missouri found that Black and White college men in committed
relationships hold similar views on "love, liking and commitment." They did not
however study African American men who are playing the field, who may be
exploiting the availability of mateless, African American women. Many African
American women not in committed relationships report that "Exhale's" depiction
of men mirrors their lives without hyperbole.
Many African American women from psychologists, to Oprah to the author herself,
answer criticism about the predominantly negative images of African American men
in the film and book by saying that "Exhale" is not so much about bad men but
smart women making stupid choices. However the majority of single African
American, heterosexual women may only have Gloria's choice of
celibacy-by-the-decade or bad, but at least partially available, Black men.
Bernadine, the last of the Jezebel/Sapphire characters in "Exhale," decided not
to choose celibacy even before her difficult divorce proceedings were over.
Again, probably to increase the cross-over White box office,
"the only healthy love relationship in the film is the one
Wesley Snipes (James Wheeler) the civil rights attorney, reports about
White wife, whom he loves and supports as she dies of
the novel) that marriage was on the rocks and ...James was
divorce...One wonders why in the film, the only love that a Black man
openly expresses if for a White woman." (Inhaling 22)
Bernadine begins as a jilted, raging Sapphire and becomes an adulterous
Jezebel, only after: burning her husband's clothes and BMW, selling off the
rest of his possessions for one dollar and slapping his White mistress after
Bernadine rages into an otherwise all-White board meeting at her husband's
company that she helped him start. Again the African American women in the
audience cheered at each Sapphiric explosion, in a cathartic release of their
own frustration and despair.
Whitewashing Black Women's Blues
The controversy regarding the relationship between Black men and women in the
film continues. In television interviews, many White women attested to the
universality of the film. Many African American women viewed White women's
identification of the Black characters as another form of White aproprietism of
something uniquely theirs--their men as well as their level and flavor of
despair. What is purposely de-emphasized in the film (but apparent in the
book), and about which few White women are aware, is Black woman's sense of
social/cultural responsibility and the intensified and more complex despair of
Black women related their desire for loving relationship. Middle class Black
women, such as the characters in "Exhale," must simultaneously deal with
manifold obstacles to relating with Black men:
y Racism and racial isolation in the larger White world
The emotional, social and professional isolation of the Black women in "Exhale"
is intensified because it takes place in Arizona. Census reports have
consistently shown that there are fewer Blacks in the West than in any other
region of the country. Only hinted at in the film, the book makes explicit
the isolation Black women suffer when they move to White neighborhoods for the
benefit of personal safety, cleaner neighborhoods, or better schools, places
where "all your neighbors (are) White and not all that neighborly." (McMillan
y Internalized racism
Both their own internalized racism and that of Black men, as epitomized by
Bernadine's husband John and his distancing himself from all things and people
African American. For these reasons, much greater proportion of Black men,
than Black women, marry White or other race spouses. Black men dating White
women is also a more common phenomenon than Black women dating White men, as
depicted in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever."
A problem both in preferential treatment of lighter-skinned Blacks by the White
community and an ante-Bellum legacy of light-skinned privilege and prosperity in
the Black community (also explored in "Jungle Fever" and hinted at in the book
Though White female audiences clearly understand the burden of sexism, they too
often invest in the myth of Black female supremacy in the Black community and
the mainstream workforce, or equate sexism with racism, rather than
understanding that Black women must cope with both.
White female audiences, as exemplified by the popularity of Naomi Wolf's Beauty
Myth, are also aware of the social and professional discrimination against women
of size. However, Whites often hold "the false belief that cultural standards
of weight insulate Black women from eating disorders," (West 310-11) The book
"Exhale" clearly shows that upwardly mobile Black women also torture themselves
about body size and proportion, as well as the reality of cruel judgment and
social rejection of fat Black men and women experience in a Black community that
has internalized White and thin standards of beauty.
y White standards of beauty for women
Though unobtainable for most White women, these standards are even more out of
reach, of an even a greater proportion of Black women. After a brief
infatuation with the idea of "Black is Beautiful" during the height of the Civil
Rights Movement, there is no uniquely African American standard of beauty
separate from whiteness.
y Isolation from, and complications in maintaining relationships with, other
African American women
Unlike the book, the film "Exhale" reinforces another myth some White women
hold about easy, automatic, supportive sisterhood among Black women. Exhale the
book shows that the friendships between these Black women are sometimes hard won
and for which they make great sacrifices to maintain because the shortage of
available Black men makes them rely on other Black women more for what they
haven't "had in a long time: somewhere to go, something to do and somebody to do
it with." (McMillan 34)
Non-African American women's ability to identify with the universal theme of
the heart break of searching for true love in a shifting society that no longer
provides regular, healthy opportunities for courtship, nor safe, if restricting,
roles and rules in which to play--was good for box office business. However,
the whitewashing of Black women's blues to draw this audience only reinforces
the myth that the dilemma of Black women is no different from any other group.
Even among other women of color, African American women as a group have the
most limited social outlook. This dismal lack of opportunity for intimate
partnership affects Black women economically, socially, psychologically and even
spiritually. In both the film and book versions of "Exhale" the women earnestly
pray for a good man. In the book Gloria's son even loses his faith in God
because God is deaf to his prayers for a man to be a father to him and a husband
to his mom(McMillan 69-70). Thousands of Black women may similarly despair
that their prayers go unanswered while media stereotypes provide
blame-the-victim pabulum such as that the pious, maternal Mammy has no need for
the love and support of a man because she is an asexual zombie. The loose
Jezebel and the castrating Sapphire could not reasonably expect their prayers to
be answered considering their sinful natures.
This potent, volatile movie continues to impact the film and video industry, as
well as on the fabric of Black women's psyche and intimate relationships in the
Black community. The film's title is used in regular conversation among Black
baby boomers and Generation Xers alike. If one is "exhaling" one thinks one is
in love with a good man in a stable relationship (Dunbar 96). If a sister is
"waiting to exhale" she is still dateless and desiring love. If one says one
"is (emphatically) not gonna' wait to exhale," it means that though without a
mate the woman is concentrating on what else may be at least partially rewarding
in, her life--friends, family, work, church. In the book Gloria "divided her
attention among God, hair and her son" (McMillan 71) but even for the Mammy
Gloria, salvation, styles and offspring were not enough. Despite its critical
short comings, middle-class African American women found respite in no longer
being so invisible on the big screen even if what they saw in that mirror may
also make them sad.
In the Black community, when a man marries and supports a woman, so that she
does not have to work inordinately difficult to fulfill her complex social
roles, it is said the man has "set her down." This means she does not have to
stand, labor, run, all alone, all the time. She can sit down. She can exhale.
By portraying this objective reality, the film violated the social reality of
the Black community that seeks to overcome the over-sexualization of Black women
and protect them from incapacitating despair by forcing middle and upper class
Black, single, women to be void of sexual desire and to reject the despair
voiced by the character Savannah near the end of the film. Savannah told her
mother that she would rather be alone than with a married man (or the other
destructive choices available to her and her friends) and that she had to accept
that she may be alone for the rest of her life. Savannah decided to ease her
despair by focusing on her own talents, character and the love of good friends.
She decided not to hold her breath, even if she may never "sit down."
Bond, J. C. & Perry, P. "Is the Black Male Castrated" in T. Cade (ed.) . The
Woman: An Anthology. New York: The New American Library, Inc., pp. 113-8.
"Black Issues In Higher Education: Top Ten Books on Campus." Black Issues in
Higher Education. August 8,1996 p. 25.
Dunbar, Donnette. "On Turning 30." UPSCALE NOVEMBER 1996, p. 96.
Eveld, Edward M. "A Sisterly Thing." Kansas City Star. February 12, 1996. p.
"Exhaling and Inhaling: S Symposium -- Was the Movie Fair to Black Men and
Black Women?" Ebony April 1996 p. 120.
Fanning, Ruby L. "Date Rape, Helping the Black Community Understand," Call and
Post. vol. 77 no. 17 April 23, 1992, p. 12.
HBO Guide. November 1996 p. 4.
McMillan, Terry. Waiting to Exhale. New York: Pocket Books, 1992.
Morgan, Joan. "We Want to Read About Ourselves: Writers and Scholars Assess
State of Black Literature." Black Issues in Higher Education. December 12,
"Study in Dallas Fins Race Affects Sentences." New York Times. August 19, 1990.
West, Carolyn M.. "Mammy Sapphire, and Jezebel: Historical Images of Black
Women and Their Implications for Psychotherapy." Psychotherapy vol. 32/Fall 1995
number 3. pp. 458-466.
Gail Elizabeth Wyatt. "The Sexual Abuse of Afro-American and White American
Women in Childhood." Child Abuse and Neglect. vol. 9 1985, p.507.
G.E. Wyatt. "The Sociocultural Context of African American and White American
Women's Rape." Journal of Social Issues vol. 48 no. 1, p. 77-91.
 An excellent 58-minute documentary on this subject is "A Question of Color,"
by Kathe Sandler, available through California Newsreel, 149 Ninth St./420, San
Francisco, CA 94103, (415) 621-6196. Also see The Color Complex, by Kathy
Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,
Publishers), 1992, 189 pages.
 Actress Loretta Devine was forced to gain 20 pounds for the part.
 Law professor Anita Hill, famous for her sexual harassment charges, under
congressional subpoena, against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has
said this during lectures and West p. 463.
 The NAACP led a successful political struggle to have the television show
taken off the air because of its negative stereotypes of African Americans.
 "No Matter What Their Race, Men Earn More Than Women of the Same Ethnicity"
in Ms., March/April 1996, p. 37, from the International Labor Office, U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Latin men and women, in descending order, make
fewer pennies on the dollar than African Americans do.
 U. S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, P20-450 and earlier
reports and unpublished data covering 1970 - 1994, p. 55
 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Table No. 61 Married Couples of Sam or Mixed
Races and Origins: 1970 to 1994.
 Such were the findings of a focus group media uses and gratifications study
by the author of African American viewers in Montgomery, Alabama during March
1996 as well as various articles and television interviews about "Exhale."
 Focus group, Montgomery, Alabama, March 1996.
 "Table 3. Distribution of the Population, by Region, Residence, Age, Sex
and Race: March 1994", The Black Population, p. 35.
 Sandler, "A Question of Color."