Language and imagery are powerful tools to use when conveying messages, which is why media advertisements rely heavily on the use of flowery and creative words as well as visually attractive pictures to lure consumers into buying their products. Most of the time, such techniques lead to stereotypical portrayals of certain social classes or people in roles that are oftentimes regarded as funny, endearing, scary, and in some instances, derogatory. One such example is the Aunt Jemima group of advertisements that began in the late 1800s and still exist today. Through language and imagery, Aunt Jemima depicts the image of the stereotypical "Mammy", a harmless and subservient African-American woman.
At first glance, the image of a doting mammy is what is easily recognizable in the Aunt Jemima ads. Shown in series of comic depictions, it gives the impression that having a mammy means eating healthy and nourishing food, a nurturing mammy, and a remembrance of how it was living in the southern parts of America. It further gives the impression that home living is far better than anything else considering that there is a mammy who will take care of everyone's needs. With a jovial attitude and a pleasant demeanor, the mammy portrayal has always been associated with African-American women, while the white American females surrendered their kitchen duties to "Aunt Jemima in a box" (Larson 1998). As white American women continued to play the role of a welcoming and sociable host, black American women continued to suffer the role of the undervalued servant.
Digging further into the advertisements are symbols and unspoken metaphors alluding to how black women in the late 1800s were treated and regarded, that is, often looking as a matronly woman with aprons and headscarves and happily serving the white American family they worked for. Never in any of the advertisements show how Aunt Jemima's family looks like, what foods she serves her brood, or even describe her dynamics with her own family (Larson 1998).
With a wide smile, Aunt Jemima advertisements have successfully marketed the popular pancakes for more than 100 years now (Larson 1998), but to the consternation of many black women who believe that the advertisements masked how servitude was looked upon earlier. In terms of visual representations of the Aunt Jemima advertisements, initial images often showed her as a black, plump woman often assigned in the kitchen. Now, "the image of Aunt Jemima was updated by removing her headband and giving her pearl earrings and a lace collar" ("Aunt Jemima's Historical Timeline"). Despite the updated look, the connotation about African-American women remains the same.
The words used in the Aunt Jemima ads showed grammatically correct advertorial language, however, Aunt Jemima's speech per se typifies someone with limited educational background. Examples of language used include, "Happifyin' Aunt Jemima Pancakes sho sets folks singin!" and "I'se in town, honey! Happy days is here! Time fo' dee-licous Aunt Jemima's – made with my secret recipe – ready-mixed fo' you!" (Nolan 2008). With these words, Aunt Jemima's place in history as someone who cares, nurtures, and nourishes people is further cemented in the minds of consumers, giving the impression and feeling that it is always good to be home. Nevertheless, the image of African-American women as servants still sticks to everyone's minds.
As language and imagery are taken together, "the supposedly seamless web of economy, polity, and ideology function as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place" (Collins 5). The Aunt Jemima advertisement has successfully stereotyped African-American women as women who are great in the kitchen and working as servants, that is why even in portrayals in movies and television shows, servant roles are assigned to African-American women. As Collins points out, "denying African-American women the credentials to become literate excluded [them] from positions as scholars, teachers, authors, poets, and critics" (40), and with the clichéd illustrations of Aunt Jemima, the more they become typecast in such roles and positions in society despite the fact that many African-American women have excellent educational qualifications.
Even the use of the word "mammy" is considered derogatory as although it connotes warmth and caring, it also means, "a black woman engaged as a nurse to white children or as a servant to a white family" (Dictionary.com). It is never used on white females although it is also an informal term for "mother" (Dictionary.com).
The Aunt Jemima advertisements have relegated African-American women in roles considered as racially, socially, and gender oppressive. In addition, "the [ad] campaign constructed and then reinforced white women's perception that they needed, wanted, and deserved good help in the kitchen" (Larson 1998), regardless that the perceived need meant another race doing the chores. In effect, what is highly evident is the reinforcement of how racially superior the whites are over their black women counterparts (Larson 1998). Despite the happy connotation and interpretation of Aunt Jemima as the ideal mammy, the use of language and imagery classified African-American women in roles that are not necessarily applicable in this day and time.
"Aunt Jemima's Historical Timeline." Aunt Jemima: n.d. The Quaker Oats Company. Web. 29 December 2012. < http://www.auntjemima.com/aj_history/>.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge. 2000. Print.
Dictionary.com. Web. 29 December 2012. < http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/mammy?s=t>.
Larson, Kate Clifford. "Is Aunt Jemima Still In Her Box?". Rev. of Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima, by M.M. Manring. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1998. Web. 29 December 2012. < http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=2479>.
Nolan, Hamilton. 2008. "Just How Racist Was Aunt Jemima?" Web. 29 December 2012. < http://gawker.com/397129/just-how-racist-was-aunt-jemima>.