A Black Women’s Identity: An Analysis of Vintage Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix Ads

For years, Black women have struggled with creating an identity for themselves in the midst of combating the negative images that precede them. Through the use of the media, anti-black and anti-feminist proponents have been able to oppress black women, pigeonhole them to certain stereotypes, and cast a shadow over their existence in society. Various images that negatively depict African-American women continue to surface and circulate false illustrations such as the mammy archetype. An analysis of vintage Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix ads will uncover the characteristics given to African-American women through the use of brand marketing accompanied by stereotypes and generalizations.

Aunt Jemima has capitalized on the mammy figure, a “model” for black women, through its advertisement of pancake mixtures. The earlier ads feature a heavy-set, dark-skin woman dressed in a plaid top and a bandana. One specific ad titled “How Aunt Jemima Makes Another Couple Happy”, produced in 1940, perfectly captures the “true” characteristics of the mammy character; the ad’s tone alludes to how Aunt Jemima resembles “the help” and how she can make someone else’s day better. Aunt Jemima metaphorically “carries out her tasks” and “serves whites” through her pancake mixtures. The subservience of the character is quite obvious throughout the diction of the image. Another ad even takes it a step further and has a white woman saying to Aunt Jemima that with a box of Aunt Jemima’s ready-mix in her kitchen, it’s like having Aunt Jemima there in person. The ad places the black woman back in the kitchens of white households raising their families.

Another advertisement chose a different alternative and focused more on the southern dialect of Black folk in attempts to attack their lack of education. Aunt Jemima is pictured in the image saying “Mmm! A Feastin’ Delight, Mornin’, Noon or Night”. The phrase is created in context of a jingle to play with the stereotype that all Black people can sing or they use songs to pass time. Most of the Aunt Jemima ads include Aunt Jemima’s words in a rhythmic phrase with a southern dialect.

The Aunt Jemima logo has evolved over the years and has shifted the image and identity of the Black woman. Due to the controversy of the mammy archetype representing the Aunt Jemima Company, the corporation understood it was time to alter the logo. The company held tight to the image of the oversized black woman but they have recently changed it to a slimmer black woman with curly hair. However, this alteration still proves to be controversial; black women in America are now supposed to live up to this image of being slim and having curly, natural hair. It was once about black women struggling to not fit the mold and now it’s about trying to keep up with the image. Aunt Jemima has never had a good reputation with the Black community in America mainly because of the images they create of Black women. Their advertisements are used as tools of oppression for a group in society who hold a lot of weight and negativity on its shoulders.

The concept of intersectionality created by Kimberle Crenshaw still exists today; the study of black women being black and being female does not do anyone justice if those aspects are reviewed independently. The intersection of being black and female affects the average day Black woman on a daily basis. She is oppressed by not only racism, but sexism and classism as well. The advertisement Aunt Jemima creates chooses to attack the Black woman by using those three angles (racism, sexism, and classism). In terms of racism, most ads illustrate the mammy’s dark skin, subservience, and lack of education. The advertisement utilizes stereotypes in “defining” a black woman and the characteristics she is expected to hold. Many promotions of the pancake mixture focus on gender roles in showing how women are expected to be productive in the kitchen through illustrations of women preparing the pancakes; also illustrated is the role of black women or mammies preparing meals for white families. Lastly, the advertisement tends to show the gap between classes of the mammies and the whites they serve.

Hopefully, brands no longer seek to have Blacks represent them or their logo. The use of characters or nonhumans seems to be the least controversial in terms of brand marketing. Aunt Jemima’s use of the mammy figure seemed to have been successful according to the time period in which the advertisements were produced. Although a white woman as the figure for brand representation would have sufficed, the company decided to portray a certain theme that currently affects African-Americans. Many ads attempted to be comedic while humiliating black women in the progress, which is understandable considering the targeted audience (white customers). The company assumed that its customers, primarily white, would find similarities in their perceptions of blacks within the company. Unbeknownst to the company, the advertisement created negative images of African-Americans that are still combated by the Black community today.

Works Cited

YouTube. “Aunt Jemima “I’se in town, Honey!” Online video clip. YouTube, 7 February 2013. Web. 1 December 2014.

Aunt Jemima. Woman’s Day 1 Dec. 1940: 55. Print. Gallery of Graphic Design. Web. 1 December 2014.

Aunt Jemima. Woman’s Day 1 Oct. 1946: 13. Print. Gallery of Graphic Design. Web. 1 December 2014.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color, Stanford Law Review, Vol. 43, No. 6., pp. 1241–1299.

One thought on “A Black Women’s Identity: An Analysis of Vintage Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix Ads

  1. Your analysis investigates the racism issue from a unique perspective that is food advertisements. Growing up, I don’t think my family ever bought Aunt Jemima pancake mix or syrup, so I was never exposed to the inadvertent messages that her image spread. However, you analyze the ads quite clearly and your points come across very clearly. If you choose to revise this post for the portfolio, I would recommend that you discuss the gender roles issues as well. The combination of these two images would make for a stronger argument.

    Like

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