Published: July 2, 2010 By

Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I’m sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. (Berry)

[1] Louise Beavers appeared in over 125 films between 1923 and 1960 yet her body of work has received very little attention. In her tearful 2001 Oscar acceptance speech, Halle Berry remembered Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, and Diahann Carroll, but not Louise Beavers, a woman who appeared in more films than all three actresses combined. Film historians have similarly paid more notice to black actresses who had lead roles in a handful of films than to Beavers, who played a servant in so many. The lack of work on Beavers isn’t entirely surprising, however, because her lowly position in the Hollywood hierarchy makes her a difficult figure to write about. Although she made as many films as the white stars she appeared alongside, she didn’t produce as much material for scholars to analyze. In each of her film roles she often accumulates less than five or ten minutes of screen time and she is missing from many of the extra-cinematic texts that researchers mine because she wasn’t central to the production or promotion of her films. The fact that Louise Beavers played a series of domestics that seem indistinguishable from one another has also probably led to the dearth of critical writing about her. In some films her characters don’t even have names; they are known only as “maid” or “cook” in the closing credits, contributing to the notion that her film roles were unmemorable. Critics may also be uncomfortable with the subservience she embodies in each of her roles. Like Halle Berry, who associated herself with the light-skinned black leading ladies who were promoted in Hollywood as exotic variations on the white ingénue, critics have largely ignored Beavers, whose large, darked-hued body marked her as starkly different from her white co-stars and therefore, according to Hollywood’s racial logic, unsuitable for erotic spectacle or narrative prominence. She played a series of maids and cooks who have been described as mammy and “Aunt Jemima” stereotypes, characters who were defined by their excessive loyalty to the white employers. Beavers was one of several black actors whose submissive, child-like servants, and desexualized domestics made the white leads look smart, powerful, and desirable by comparison. Some actors performed their domestic roles with a sarcasm or edge that tempered their subservience, but Beavers usually delivered her lines with a straightforward cheerfulness that implied that she enjoyed her position; consequently, her presence on screen often makes viewers cringe. In short, Beavers’ movie maids can be difficult to talk about and embarrassing to watch but in this essay I will argue that the value of her screen work lies precisely in the discomfort she induces.

 Louise Beavers

Figure 1

[2] An analysis of each one of Louise Beavers’ one hundred plus film performances is beyond the scope of this essay so I will focus on her most representative roles in the decade she worked most steadily, the 1930s. Beavers’ roles in She Done Him Wrong(1933), Bombshell (1933), and Made for Each Other (1939) placed her opposite three stars that epitomized white female Hollywood glamour in the period: Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard. The abundance of black movie maids was, in part, a reflection of the large number of black women concentrated in the domestic labor force in the period and Beavers’ performances in these films helped define the ideal of domestic servitude in white households. In addition, the movies showcase Beavers’ acting range: She Done Him Wrong and Bombshell reveal Beavers’ comedic skills; while Made for Each Other demonstrates her dramatic sincerity. Before I discuss her supporting roles in these films, however, I will look at the one film she had a starring role in, Imitation of Life (1934).

Louise Beavers as archetypal Mammy figure

[3] In Imitation of Life, Beavers stars as Delilah Johnson, opposite Claudette Colbert who plays Bea Pullman. Bea and Delilah live together with their daughters Peola and Jessie; and support themselves with proceeds from a pancake recipe that was created by Delilah and turned into a lucrative business by Bea. The women function like a heterosexual couple: Bea works at her business while Delilah stays home to cook, clean and take care of their children. According to Susan Courtney, the film’s representation of domestic intimacy between a black woman and a white woman was seen by the Production Code administration (PCA) as a potential violation of its prohibition against the depiction of miscegenation. In writing about the filmmakers’ struggles with the PCA, Courtney illuminates how the filmmakers maintained the color line by constructing Delilah as an image of black femininity that is completely distinct from white femininity. Courtney argues that the film’s repeated juxtaposition of Beavers’ dark skin and heavy body against Claudette Colbert’s white and petite body insists upon an essential difference between black women and white women. The film reinforces this ideology of racial difference in a passing subplot involving Delilah’s daughter Peola. Each time the light-brown skinned Peola threatens to pass as white, the camera frames Peola in close proximity to her mother Delilah, who is so dark that she could never pass for white; and refuses to show Peola next to Bea (par. 37). Peola’s potential racial mobility, in other words, is held in check by the film’s insistence on her place beside her mother’s static black femininity and her distance from Bea’s white femininity. James Snead has noted that “stasis” is “one of the prime codes surrounding blacks on screen . . . one much at variance with the narrative codes that mandate potential mobility for other screen characters. The black – particularly the black woman – is seen as eternal, unchanging, unchangeable” (xxx). Courtney argues thatImitation of Life repeatedly works to “immobilize the image of black woman” (par 24):

Delilah’s image is perpetually captured and frozen in a wide-eyed, open-mouthed caricature that becomes the face on the pancake label which makes her white mistress’s fortune. Moreover, in the course of the film that image is perpetually magnified and frozen, plastered on the surfaces of windows and logos, mass-produced on an assembly line production of pancake boxes and ultimately rendered a giant, permanent cut-out surrounded in neon, its only movement from lights that flash “Aunt Delilah” (the name and image) on and off and gradually flip her pancakes out of the pan and back again. (par. 22)

The stasis that describes the black woman is in stark contrast to the mobility accorded the white woman and Bea is the picture of social mobility: she transforms herself from working class widow to upper class executive, using Delilah’s image (and recipe) to build her successful pancake business. Courtney argues that Beavers’ future career prospects were as static as her characters:

For Claudette Colbert (who would take an Academy Award that year for her performance in It Happened One Night), the film served as a star vehicle in which her character’s transformation from widow to CEO facilitates a kind of coming out as erotic spectacle; from struggling to survive in modest working girl outfits to elegantly roaming about her multi-storied mansion in elaborate designer gowns. Whereas for Louise Beavers in the role of Delilah, the same film would signal a future career playing, as Beavers herself described it, “likeable Negro maids—plump and happy and quick to laugh.” (par. 15)

Colbert had a career as a leading lady, the focus of narrative and erotic attention, while Beavers never had another starring role in a Hollywood studio film and was relegated to playing a series of barely individualized maids and cooks with minimal screen time. The stasis, or stereotype, that Beavers repeatedly embodied can be uninspiring, embarrassing, or even painful to write about.

[4] Critics may also find Beavers’ “plump and happy and quick to laugh” maids discomfiting. Manthia Diawara and bell hooks argue that it is especially difficult for black spectators to enjoy Hollywood texts because watching fully fleshed out white characters interact with black stereotypes requires choosing between two untenable subject positions: they can identify against their race, with the white protagonists who are presented as mobile and attractive; or, identify with their race, with black characters that are presented as static and undesirable. Because choosing either subject position entails accepting hegemonic racial hierarchies, they urge black viewers to adopt a “resistant” spectatorship that rejects identification altogether. Hollywood narratives are so seductive, however, that resisting identification and pleasure is probably impossible and ultimately unproductive, and though hooks maintains that black women should not have to choose between identifying with either the victim or the perpetrator of racial hierarchies, I would argue that there is value in identifying with both.

[5] In The Melancholy of Race, Anne Cheng suggests that it is productive for spectators of all races to identify with powerful white and submissive black subjects. Dominant narratives which construct racial others as ugly objects can be debilitating for the raced subject, but Cheng argues that it is even more debilitating to be told “that there is no place for [the] anger and grief” that the narratives cause the raced subject (18). She acknowledges that focusing on the injuries caused to racialized people may naturalize them as injured, or deficient, however, she maintains that it is also harmful to look away from the images that produce abject subjects:

Yet it is surely equally harmful not to talk about this history of sorrow. The ontological and psychical status of a social subject who has been made into an “object,” a “loss” and “invisibility,” or a “phantom” has never been fully explored, since the implications of such study are on the one hand inconvenient to a racist culture and on the other potentially threatening to the project of advocacy – or at least advocacy as it is traditionally conceived. (14)

Resisting and rejecting the abject subject positions of black Hollywood actors and characters may have unintentionally led critics to dismiss much of Louise Beavers’ work. Most of the critical discussion of Beavers bemoans her embodiment of stereotypes or celebrates her few non-mammy roles but there is almost no one who looks closely at her body of work. Gazing at and even identifying with the submissive maids and mammies Beavers played could mobilize a range of sorrowful feelings useful to advocacy projects that address the social and psychic status of women of color in the U.S. and around the world. Though it is difficult to look at her performances, and hard to see an immediate political utility, I will explore the political and emotional value in looking closely at Louise Beavers’ work.

Mining the subversive and the subservient

[6] As a black feminist who is distantly related to Beavers, I am motivated to imitate James Baldwin, Patricia White, and Judith Roof and look for subversive moments in Beavers’ performances. Critics looking for subversive black female images have primarily gazed at the actresses who did not play servants, like Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne; or have gravitated toward the more rebellious performances of Hattie McDaniel, who played her maids as sassy, ill-tempered and, when possible, even ironic. Beavers’ domestics, in contrast, were “cheerful, naïve maids and companions [who] were always there to soothe, never to rock the boat” (Bogle 123). However, at times her maids do offer something beyond the servant stereotypes.

[7] In Bombshell and She Done Him Wrong Beavers shows signs of a sexuality that is usually denied to the maid character. In Bombshell Beavers plays Loretta, a maid to a Hollywood actress Lola Burns, played by Jean Harlow. In an early scene, Loretta enters Lola’s room to perform the duties required of a maid, including tidying up the pillows on the floor, opening the drapes, and waking her employer. Unlike most maids, however, Loretta is wearing a long nightgown and a delicate silk and fur-trimmed robe. She brings attention to the outfit because she constantly has to pull at it in order to do her chores. When Lola wakes up, she has the following exchange with Loretta:

Lola: Say! I didn’t give you that for a negligee it’s an evening wrap.
Loretta: I know Miss Lola but the negligee what you give me got all tore up night before last.
Lola: Your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie.
[Beavers smiles knowingly as she walks out of the room.]

Their exchange is surprising both because it acknowledges that Loretta has a life outside her domestic work – she has a day off – and that her life is sexual, in contrast to the asexual function of most movie maids.

[8] Beavers’ character in She Done Him Wrong also hints at a sexual life. In this film she plays Pearl, maid to Lady Lou, a saloon singer in nineteenth century New York City, played by Mae West. The film provided Mae West with her first starring film role, and contains many of the elements that she would be associated with throughout her career, including bawdy dialogue, an irreverence toward societal conventions, and a black maid character, in this film played by Beavers, whose chief function is to set up Mae West’s jokes (Wojcik). In an early comedic exchange, Pearl marvels at how Lou handles herself with all the men who solicit her affection but also implies that she has been the object of unwanted sexual advances:

Pearl: I just loves to work for you Miss Lou. You buy such pretty things and all of thems diamonds. You’re so rich.
Lou: I wasn’t always rich. There was a time when I didn’t know where my next husband was coming from.
Pearl: Yeah, but whats I means is you ain’t never been in no circumstances in which the wolf come to your door.
Lou: The wolf at my door? Why I remember when he came right into my room and had pups.
[Pearl laughs]

In her admiration for Lou’s financial and sexual independence Pearl alludes to her own sexual vulnerability.

[9] The moments described above are instances where the possibility of viewing Beavers as more than a stereotype is explicit, but, as many cultural critics have pointed out, it is sometimes necessary for viewers to make their own subversive spaces. bell hooks, for example, argues that in order to experience pleasure in mainstream movies, black female spectators must often “create alternative texts” out of the texts given to them (128). David Eng similarly asserts that readers and viewers whose sexuality, class, race, and nationality place them at the margins of mainstream cultural production must play with popular images in order to create texts that they can enjoy (45). Eng draws inspiration from Lacan’s discussion of the gaze and screen in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. In his eleventh seminar, Lacan describes the gaze as the instrument through which individuals achieve subjectivity and become participants in the social order and the screen as those images that contain the array of social identities that it is possible to assume. Lacan links the field of the possible or the screen with the “given-to-be-seen.”

[10] Lacan argues that we come to understand our social and psychic place in the world through images; the given-to-be-seen are those sets of “culturally sanctioned images” which reinforce the valued subject positions in the dominant culture (Eng 43). Eng writes,

Like the spatial point of view from which a photograph’s contents can most easily be viewed, the screen images of the given-to-be-seen provide the ideological point of view from which the spectators are encouraged to identify with those pregiven representations that would most easily accord with the dominant sociopolitical ethos of their time. (In our present era, the given-to-be-seen would most clearly be those visual images affirming the tenets of whiteness, heterosexuality, and liberal capitalism.) (43-44)

Despite Beavers presence onscreen, viewers experience pleasure insofar as they ignore her and occupy a fixed viewing position that focuses on a white female object of desire (e.g. Lombard, West, Harlow.) The given-to-be-seen consolidates what is of value in the culture. The studio pictures Beavers starred in reinforced the idea that the primary looking relationship was between a white male viewer and white female object of desire. Beavers and black women are left out altogether.

[11] Though Lacan doesn’t address how the field of the possible comes into being, scholars like Eng, Kaja Silverman, and Ann Kibbey help us understand how the subject positions available in a given time are determined by “historical, economic, cultural and social contingency.” Silverman tell us to “insist upon the ideological status of the screen by describing it as that culturally generated image or repertoire of images through which subjects are not only constituted, but differentiated in relation to class, race, sexuality, age and nationality” (150). And Eng show us how the images of the screen enable identification and othering at the same time:

The frozen images of the given-to-be-seen not only provide the mainstream viewer with a sense of identificatory pleasure and psychic stability over time, but they are also foundational to the formation of punitive and static stereotypes of the other. These mortifying images are what Homi Bhaba describes as one of the prevailing features of colonial discourse an example of its “dependence on the concept of ‘fixity’ in the ideological construction of otherness.” (44)

Silverman and Eng maintain that the best way to effectively contest stereotypes is to disrupt or play with the images of the given-to-be-seen. In most of Beavers’ films, her static characters and submissive relationship to the white leading ladies reflects an ideology of black female inferiority to white female beauty; however, Bombshelland She Done Him Wrong are two films in the cultural repertoire that suggest ways of playing with the stereotypical image of the asexual, black woman in service to the white feminine object of desire in ways that don’t merely exchange the black woman for the white woman but also disrupt the social structures that cast women as objects of a heterosexual white male gaze.

[12] A simple domestic routine represented in She Done Him Wrong leaves room for reimagining the relationship between Pearl and Lou. The scene begins with Pearl beginning to dress Lou but when Spider, one of Lou’s many ex-lovers, enters the room Pearl puts up a screen to allow the conversation between Lou and Spider to continue without disrupting her work. The narrative focus of the scene is on Lou’s conversation with Spider, but when Pearl puts up the screen she creates an intriguing off screen space and we are left to imagine how Pearl removes a dressing gown and puts a low-cut evening dress on Lou. Rather than seeing Pearl as an abject figure in service to Lou, we can fantasize about how she exercises her power to look at the erotic Lou; a look that, by putting up the screen, she denies the audience.

[13] The given-to-be-seen of Bombshell is particularly inspiring to play with because the comedy about a glamorous Hollywood actress, starring the glamorous Hollywood actress Jean Harlow, is continually foregrounding its own construction. In one scene we see a cadre of hairdressers and make-up artists start working on Lola the moment she wakes up. In another, Loretta helps Lola learn the lines for a scene she will be shooting the following day. In addition, it turns out that the romantic encounters Lola experiences in the course of the film have been orchestrated by the studio’s publicist, Space, to stir up gossip magazine interest in her. In these ways, the film exposes the labor that goes into creating cinematic and extra-cinematic images of white femininity. The film’s deconstruction of the white feminine star also denaturalizes the role of the black female supporting player, thus opening the possibility of seeing Loretta and Beavers in new ways.

Making Beavers a Star

[14] Though Lola is promoted as a bombshell who appeals to men, the only ardent fans we see inBombshell are women. In one scene, for example, Lola is out dancing with her current boyfriend in a nightclub when a group of female fans push him to the side and surround her in order to get close to their favorite star. Lola’s encounters with female fans provide a model for how we might engage with Louise Beavers. We could push the rest of the characters away from her and perform a star reading on her even though she is presented to us as only a supporting player. Stars are produced through their roles and the ancillary products that promote them. While mainstream fan magazines, gossip columns, and publicity materials ignored Beavers for the most part, one could use the few popular magazine and newspaper articles about Beavers to read her performances against the grain. Many articles suggested that Beavers was as obsequious as her characters, however, some paint a picture of Beavers that is a stark contrast to her on screen images (Everett 217). For example, a story with the headline, “Louise Beavers Has Temper as Well as Poise: Resents Slur Made by Impatient Woman; Slaps Her Jaw” appeared in the Journal and Guide. The article details an incident where Louise Beavers allegedly slapped a white woman for challenging Beavers’ right to use a public telephone. In addition, several profiles of Beavers took care to point out that, unlike the domestics Beavers’ played on screen, the actress didn’t like to cook, taught herself to speak in the southern dialect her characters spoke (Beavers was raised in Cincinnati and California), and worked to keep her weight high because she wasn’t naturally overweight. In an interview in The New York Sun, Beavers also put the lie to another oft-repeated “fact” about her:

“I’ve worked with most of the stars, yes, but only at the studios,” she declared, “not in domestic service. I know that’s what they say, that I work between pictures for the stars. But I have never done that except for Miss Joy [whom Beavers worked for before her break into motion pictures.] I don’t mind. I just figure it’s for publicity.” (Creelman)

These articles point out the distance between Beavers and her film roles and can inspire us to play with her screen image by overwriting the given narratives with points of view that are more closely aligned with Beavers’ own feelings. Readings that make stars out of her characters in She Done Him Wrong orBombshell, for example, allow a viewer to imagine Pearl and Loretta expressing Beavers’ disinterest in cooking and cleaning and her refusal to submit to white privilege.

[15] Mainstream periodical articles on stars are often merely publicity material given journalistic touches. Similarly, the black press articles on Beavers read like a publicist’s effort to promote her as a “positive” role model for black people interested in speaking out against racism. The Journal and Guide article, for example, creates an image of Beavers that is almost too perfectly antithetical to her screen persona and concludes with a twist that seems scripted. The article tells us that after Beavers refuses to give up the telephone to the white woman, the very same white woman had an exchange with a friend of Beavers about going to see Imitation of Life:

Later, one of Miss Beavers’ white friends was talking elatedly of the picture and seeking to persuade another white woman friend of hers to go see it and to see Miss Beavers.

“Do you think I’d go to see that picture?” Expostulated the other white woman. “Indeed not. That woman slapped me once.”

Moreover, the story was followed by a short item making reference to Imitation of Life that makes most sense when read ironically:

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – It was the French blood of Claudette Colbert that caused her to accept the role of Miss Bea in “Imitation of Life.” And Louise Beavers is proud of her.

Most any of several of the Hollywood stars could have had the role, but when they read the script and saw what they would have to do in the picture they declined, all but Miss Colbert. She was born in Paris France.

The patronizing language the paper uses to describe Beavers’ attitude toward Colbert makes her resemble the prototypical patronizing white figure and the absurd explanation that Colbert’s willingness to act intimately with a black woman is a result of her French blood is an ironic reversal of U.S. racial myths about black blood. The items seem to reflect a desire by the black owned newspaper to makeover Beavers into a figure with whom its black readers would be proud to identify.

 Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert

Figure 2

[16] Finding subversion in Beavers’ movie roles often feels similarly forced because it requires ignoring or overlooking moments that illustrate the powerlessness her maids experience. Although She Done Him Wrong‘s Lou is friendly with Pearl, Lou repeatedly asserts her ultimate authority over her. For example, Lou scolds Pearl several times for not being around when she needs her and she accuses Pearl of sleeping on the job. And, in Bombshell, we see Loretta on call, seemingly at all hours, performing any task that Lola asks of her, from running movie lines to chasing after Lola’s dogs. More importantly, in order to perform an oppositional reading of Beavers’ sequences in both films a viewer has to ignore, or put to the side, feelings produced by the films’ idealization of white female beauty. Mae West and Jean Harlow look very white on screen: they are dressed in white clothes and white jewels, have white hair, and are lit in a way that makes them appear translucent against even their white male costars. Viewers who are able to consciously reject the films’ depiction of whiteness as ideal beauty may still unconsciously internalize the dominant desire for whiteness and the accompanying rejection of blackness (Dyer White). Beavers’ maids provide a foil to their white leading ladies. Mae West, Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow, and the other white stars Beavers supported all looked whiter when standing next to her – literally, in terms of lighting and figuratively in terms of the ideal of white stardom: beauty, elegance, glamour etc. As in Imitation of Life, Beavers’ large and dark frame is the antithesis of Lombard and Harlow’s delicate white frames. And, though West often relates to her maid characters though alliance rather than difference, as Pam Robertson Wojcik notes, West’s star appeal was also a result of her contrast to her black maids: she was able to perform race and sexuality in a more “fluid” way than her maids who remained “static markers (black and female) of her [West’s] transcendence” (292). While it is fruitful to look beyond the “given-to-be-seen” it is easier to do so if you ignore a lot of embarrassing and debilitating aspects of Beavers’ persona. What should we do with the extreme subservience and objectification she submits to in her roles?

Productive Discomfort

[17] In Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer argues that the national attention to stars underwrites a particular ideology of the individual’s role in a capitalist society. He writes,

The notion of the individual continues to be a major moving force in our culture. Capitalism justifies itself on the basis of the freedom (separateness) of anyone to make money, sell their labour how they will, to be able to express opinions and get them heard (regardless of wealth or social position.) The openness of society is assumed by the way that we are addressed as individuals – as consumers (each freely choosing to buy, or watch, what we want), as legal subjects (free and responsible before the law), as political subjects (able to make up our mind who is to run society). Thus even while the notion of the individual is assailed on all sides, it is a necessary fiction for the reproduction of the kind of society we live in. (9)

Stars are presented as individual architects of a movie persona that they consciously construct and present – a persona that is distinct from their “real” lives. In this way, stars underwrite a culture of “choice” that is essential to the ideology of capitalism. Dyer also argues that as people view stars taking on different movie characters there is a perception that in each new role or job that the star takes on, s/he retains a visible or “feelable” essence that is separate from the work s/he takes on. The notion that there is a personal or private quality to the star, according to Dyer, reinforces the cultural belief that there is a distinction between the private individual and the work they do – a belief, he argues, that is also essential to the workings of capitalism – lest people should carry their class identification to other parts of their life or seek to make their work life as satisfying as their personal/private life.

[18] Beavers’ static, non-individualized supporting roles more accurately reflect the relationship of the individual to his/her work than the star images Dyer discusses. As tempting as it is to read Beavers as a star in order to make her over into a powerful image, she is really, according to the Hollywood schema, a supporting player. There was little publicity material created to distinguish her screen life from her private life and Beavers did not really take on distinctly different roles; she played few non-domestic roles and she usually wasn’t given the narrative time or space to distinguish one maid from another. Most importantly, reading Beavers as a star also ignores the way in which her very subservient presence on screen reveals the lie of capitalism: individuals don’t have the freedom to sell their labor any way they want because most of us, like Beavers, are subject to economic, social, and political processes beyond our individual control.

[19] Another way to approach Beavers’ work is to treat her characters the same way she played them, sincerely. Cinematic maids stand as documents of particular social and political systems of the past but focusing on them in the present has value for thinking and feeling through our contemporary social relations. Our encounters with Beavers and other supporting black actors enable encounters with what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling” (128-135). Williams argues that art and literature offer cultural evidence that can’t be reduced to social theories without the loss of some affective value. He suggests that we return to these cultural artifacts and look for the excess of feeling they generate in the hopes that they may lead us to new understandings that go beyond accepted theories of social processes. Going back to Beavers’ films may give us new insights on the social processes that shape the social and economic value of domestic and childcare work that is primarily done by women.

[20] Gazing at Beavers’ subservience forces one to confront the “real” position of U.S. women of color in the thirties and forties. In Domesticity and Dirt, Phyllis Palmer documents how the pressure to conform to rigid ideologies of female domesticity prompted a large portion of middle class white women to employ women of color as domestics. In the 1930s, after the depression and before World War II, women of color made up the largest percentage of those who worked for white families (13). The heavy set black woman is the iconic symbol of period domestics, though in fact, depending upon where they lived in the United States in the thirties, a white family might have employed an American Indian, Mexican-American, or Asian American man or woman. Nevertheless, Black women did account for the majority of female domestic workers in the period between 1920 and 1945. In the ’20s, ’30s, and early ’40s, black women accounted for 40% to 53% of the domestic work force (Palmer 13). Palmer indicates that real maids served the same cosmetic and ideological function in actual homes as movie maids did for movie stars: white middle class women were able to project an image of themselves as angelic and clean, ideal housewives only because they were able to pay to have women of color perform the tiring, dirty, and rage inspiring work of the home. In a period when “proper” female domestic ideals dictated that a woman attend to all the physical and emotional needs of her family without betraying the labor involved, it helped to have someone else actually do the labor and bear the physical and psychic marks of that labor (13).

[21] The Hollywood image of massive black female maids served to distinguish the sturdy black woman, seemingly built for hard labor, from the feminine, curvaceous and usually thin (with the exception of Mae West) leading lady. Beavers had to work to maintain her weight and in some films she even had to wear padding in order to appear heavy enough (Bogle 63). The notion that black women’s bodies were built for labor denied the real physical toll caused by the backbreaking labor required of maids. In the ’30s, a maid’s typical duties included the following: cooking, serving, daily cleaning, washing clothes, washing dishes, and watching children (Palmer 70). A domestic worker who lived in the house might also be expected to work outdoors shoveling walks and doing lawn care and it was not uncommon for a domestic worker to work thirteen hours a day for seven days a week (Palmer 74). In addition, they had little control over their work hours. They would often arrive to work early in the morning and not be able to leave until they were told to leave. They rarely received breaks; and on the breaks they did get, they might be expected to watch over children (Palmer 74). Archival documentation of domestics’ everyday lives working in the thirties indicated that maintaining a life, familial and/or romantic, was hard for female domestic laborers because they had a hard time getting any time off for themselves. So, while one might want to read the acknowledgement of the sexual life of Beavers’ maid in Bombshell as radical, one could also read it as a denial of the fact that the demands of domestic work often made it almost impossible to maintain any personal life outside of work.

[22] Similarly, Beavers’ trademark cheerfulness should be read in the context of the working conditions of U.S. maids in the ’30s. Her demeanor in films may contradict the documented anger of domestic workers towards their working conditions, employers, and lack of power but, perhaps, is an accurate reflection of the contented mask that domestic workers had to wear for their employers. The organizing efforts of domestic workers have been well documented (Palmer, Boris). In the thirties, a time when labor unions successfully organized industrial workers and the federal government started regulating the hours and working conditions of industrial workers, domestic workers attempted to unionize and advocate for federal regulation of domestic work. Several women’s organizations, including the YWCA, advocated for federal regulation of domestic work but the federal government said it was reluctant to intrude upon the “private” domain of the home, another example of how capitalism’s distinction between “public” and “private” undermines worker’s rights. The unwillingness of the federal government to regulate the home made it impossible for domestic workers to collect unemployment insurance, social security, or health benefits, consequently, they did not have access to the safety nets that protected other workers from the whims of the labor market. So, while a viewer may flinch at Beavers’ excessive subservience, that subservience was a necessary performance for most working maids. In She Done Him Wrong Beavers must say “I just loves to work for Miss Lou. You buy such pretty things and all thems diamonds, you’re so rich.” She also has to set up Mae West’s jokes and laugh at them. Pam Robertson Wojcik suggests that the excessive subservience of West’s maid, including Beavers, is camp – “overplaying the delight in the white star to point to the constructedness and inauthenticity of their supportive role” (297). Her argument is convincing, however, one could also argue that Beavers’ extreme subservience is an accurate representation of the extreme subservience demanded of all maids, who had no safety net if fired from their jobs. Perhaps there is no effective difference between choosing to read her performances as camp and choosing to read her performance as melodrama, but there is an affective difference.

[23] There is also value in looking at Beavers’ own subservient role in the Hollywood studio system. Rather than solely trying to make her over into a figure of resistance, we should also gaze at her capitulation to her position. Though Beavers was sometimes criticized by the black press for playing domestic roles without complaint, she really didn’t have many other roles to choose from. There were few roles for black actors of the period. Beavers got her break in movies when she was working as a maid for the actress Letrice Joy. Though she refuted reports that she worked as a maid between pictures, if she had stopped making films she may have indeed needed to return to domestic service. Looking closely at Beavers means confronting the real hard choices women of color had to make. The long hours and low pay of domestic service resemble slavery; scholars like Judith Rollins have written about how domestic work has been socially and psychically linked to slavery worldwide. Valuing the subservience of movie maids is recognition of a long history of necessary subservience that has shaped the social and psychic images available to men and women of color around the world.

[24] When the U.S. federal government proved unwilling to regulate work done in private homes, the YWCA hoped to enlist white female employers in support of voluntary regulation of the domestic work taking place in their homes. However, the YWCA found that a majority of middle class white women were too invested in the superiority and power of controlling women of color – and the cultural cache it gave them – to submit to the scrutiny of outside social agencies. Ironically, by refusing to have public oversight and acknowledgement of the work taking place inside of their homes, white women ended up reinforcing the denigration of women’s work generally. Federal or voluntary regulation of domestic work was an opportunity to have all domestic work, whether performed by a white woman or woman of color, recognized as work – as symbolically important to the culture as it clearly was and is materially. As Palmer notes, in the fifties and sixties, once women of color had more work opportunities and were no longer a sure source of cheap domestic labor, middle class white women found they had to do more of the physical labor of the home (3). And, not surprisingly, they found the work unsatisfying. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, for example documents white middle class women’s dissatisfaction with “women’s work.”

[25] Since the 1960s U.S. women have been more successful in seeking work outside the home than in bringing about a social and economic revaluing of domestic work. There are economic reasons for this, including the demand for new labor in late capitalism but there are also social reasons, not the least of which is men and women’s continued denigration of “women’s work.” Beavers’ film roles allow us to think and feel through the complicated affective processes that lead women as well as men to reject what, like it or not, is a fundamental part of women’s social identity and material production.

 Louise Beavers

Figure 3

[26] Made for Each Other is a useful vehicle for exploring new structures of feeling because of the way it clearly, if unintentionally, illustrates how ideal femininity and domesticity are dependent upon class and racial inequality. It is a drama which chronicles the financial and emotional difficulties endured by a young married couple Jane and John Mason, played by Carole Lombard and James Stewart. Beavers appears in very little of the film: she plays Lily, the last in a series of women who do domestic work for the couple. Although Jane and John struggle to pay their bills, they use the women in their employ to perform an ideal middle class family life. All the working class white women who worked before Lily quit, or are fired, from Jane’s employ because they refuse to put up with their working conditions. One woman refuses to do childcare because she was hired to cook and another refuses to stay late into the evening and eventually quits rather than live with the uncertainty of being paid by the economically struggling Masons. At one point in the film, Jane has to let Lily go because she can’t afford to pay her salary anymore. Jane tells Lily, “you must be the fifteenth woman I’ve had working for me” but “you’re the best woman I’ve ever had in my house.” Perhaps she loves Lily so much because, unlike her predecessors, Lily doesn’t complain. In this scene, Lily immediately volunteers to rub her employer’s neck, sure that Jane must be tired. Beavers’ performance never indicates that Lily herself might be tired from her grueling day of cooking, cleaning, and childcare. And Lily immediately makes peace with Jane’s need to let her go. She proclaims before she’s even fired, “I’s a luxury” and assures Jane “you ain’t getting rid of me, you’re just getting me off your budget.” When Jane first expresses remorse for having to fire Lily and next worries about how she’ll be forced to do the domestic chores herself, Lily responds, “you’ll step right in and do the job – it’s a good job.” Beavers’ excessive deference to Lombard’s feelings is exasperating: she won’t exhibit the fatigue or anger we imagine she feels. Instead, Lily seems to internalize her social value; she’s a luxury object who doesn’t feel. But, her lecture to Lily on how great her job is could be read in at least two different ways: as further evidence of her internalized subservience and as a lecture on revaluing the domestic work that seemingly has no social value. Identifying with Beavers and Lombard allows us to confront our complicated feelings about female identity. Our impulse may be to look away from Beavers’ subservience, or turn it into something subversive, but by gazing at and identifying with both Beavers and Lombard we are forced to confront how female viewers of all races can simultaneously embrace and reject important parts of their identity.

[27] It is difficult to find a language to express the value of disempowering feelings. It seems that every time I assert the value of exploring affect without worrying about the immediate political usefulness, I attempt to find political usefulness. However, women of color, and all women, need to find a way to explore less empowering feelings because ignoring them is ultimately detrimental to our ability to do political work that benefits the economic and political position of women worldwide. I believe that one of the reasons middle class white women failed to help women of color organize in the thirties was because they were unable to confront their own self-denigrating attitudes. They failed to advocate for women of color because it might have threatened their own ability to achieve ideal femininity. In doing so, they reinforced the culture’s denigration of female labor. If they had supported a national recognition of the labor done by domestic workers, their own labor may have been socially recognized as well. What can we make of this clear case of identification against, rather than with, their gendered interests? The contradictions embodied in these kinds of identification can be explored by examining, or rather, feeling the ways in which denigrated subjects internalize the dominant culture’s image of themselves as deficient. Patricia White argues that the personal affect produced in the spectator can be the “basis of community identification” (xiv). The contradictory affect produced by gazing at Louise Beavers could potentially bring women of different races and classes together.

Conclusion by way of Halle, Jennifer, and Michelle

[28] Since Halle Berry’s Best Actress Oscar win, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has recognized several women of color in the best supporting actress category. Jennifer Hudson won the 2006 Oscar, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis were nominated in 2008, and Mo’Nique won the award this year. Even more remarkably, we have an African American First Lady in the Whitehouse, who is regularly praised for her beauty and fashion sense.

[29] Soon after the 2008 Presidential election, black women and other women of color were celebrating the shift in ideal beauty norms that the mainstream interest in Michelle Obama represents. Indeed, ruminations on Michelle Obama’s body and face have produced interesting discussions about whether appreciations of her physical beauty transform or reinforce stereotypical ideas about gender and race (Kaplan, Mukhopadhyay, “Michelle Obama”). I am most interested in the way that her ability to be seen as beautiful is made possible largely because she now runs the highest U.S. household. Undoubtedly, the housework and childcare necessary for her job as first lady will be performed by hundreds of women.

[30] Barack Obama is largely seen to “transcend” race. Here is how he described himself to the American electorate in his speech “A More Perfect Union”, his response to criticism about his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright:

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Throughout his campaign, Obama positioned himself in a post-racial present, distancing himself from the prototypical black American biography by noting his African and White American genealogy at the same time that he acknowledged how the history of slavery and Jim Crow have material effects on the present. Right after he describes himself in the “A More Perfect Union” speech he describes Michelle Obama: “I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters.” Not surprisingly women, including women of color, have focused on Michelle Obama’s educational and professional accomplishments and beauty, but focusing on her “inheritance” of slavery and Jim Crow would be equally productive.

[31] In interviews, Michelle Obama has repeatedly encouraged readers to see the political in the domestic sphere. In the article that accompanies her March 2009 Vogue cover, she describes her feelings on the night of the 2008 election: “I was proud as a wife, amazed as a citizen” (“Leading Lady” 428). In the May 2009 Essenceinterview with Michelle Obama and her mother Marian Robinson she acknowledges that her ability to take on the varied tasks of First Lady are possible because of the work of many women:

Unlike most women, I have a lot of resources: I have my mother living with me. The White House has a staff of people who are there to make my life easy. I don’t have a full-time job, although I work very hard in the role of First Lady. But I have a lot of resources. So I have been able to achieve the balance because I have the support I need. (“A Mother’s Love”)

The spotlight is on her mother, but she also singles out one of the many women who work in the white house. She tells the Essence interviewer, “The current chef, Cristeta Comerford, is the only female chef in the history of the White House. She’s a young Filipina woman, a mother with a young child, and I am excited to get to know her and for her to know us as a family.” After acknowledging the cadre of women who make her performance of ideal femininity possible, she concludes: “We need to have truthful and honest conversations about what it requires to do all that we ask of families and women.” The nation also needs to have honest conversations about the feelings this work constellates. These conversations may finally lead us to address the fact that domestic workers today continue to be primarily women of color, who are underpaid and lack the basic protections of health and unemployment insurance.

[32] Jennifer Hudson won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Dreamgirls (2006). Interestingly, both she and Halle Berry won their Oscars for playing abject characters, however the publicity surrounding their wins played up their glamorous identities. They each graced the cover of countless fashion magazines, including Vogue, and, perhaps appropriately, Hudson followed up her Dreamgirls role with a part in the ultimate post-feminist narrative, the Sex and the City (2008) movie (Negra). Jennifer Hudson’s large and curvaceous body most approximates Beavers and McDaniel, a similarity that was alluded to in a few movie reviews of the film. New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, for example wrote,

Jennifer Hudson plays Carrie’s personal assistant, and Oh my God, it’s Hattie McDaniel for the new millennium: Instead of cleaning Carrie’s house, she cleans up her computer files (although she does help declutter the apartment, too). She admires her mistress in those beautiful outfits. And check out that smile when you give her a Louis Vuitton handbag! Please, Sex and the City, do not pretend you exist in the real multiracial world. White will always be your new black.

Edelstein’s review suggests that, while black actresses and black women may have access to a wider range of roles and images, they still all too often act in service to the presentation of white feminine beauty. The women of Sex and the City may seem more modern than Mae West, Jean Harlow, and Carole Lombard but they reinforce some of the same old racial hierarchies and gender ideals (Negra). Edelstein’s review also suggests the same old discomfort with Hattie McDaniel, and the domestic and subservient qualities she and Beavers represented in the thirties. Dismantling old racial biases entails confronting how they are tangled with the denigration of women’s work. Louise Beavers is a vehicle for confronting both. Anne Cheng believes that a key part of resistance to racist structures is to “understand subjective agency as a convoluted, ongoing, generative, and at times self-contradicting negotiation with pain” (14). Our encounter with Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Hattie McDaniel, Michelle Obama, and Louise Beavers can be the beginning of a convoluted negotiation long overdue.


I thank Anne Friedberg, Alice Gambrell, Tara McPherson, Mary Jeanne Wilson, Elizabeth Ramsey, Ann Kibbey, and the anonymous reviewers from Genders for their helpful comments on drafts of this essay. I am also grateful to Beverly L. Cannon for her feedback on this project at key moments.

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