Thursday, June 18, 2020

Problematic Iconography

In our awareness of problematic iconography across the country, many food brands are changing their mascots or dropping problematic figureheads.  The Aunt Jemima product line is being closed and rebranded by Quaker Oats.  Uncle Ben, Mrs. Butterworth, and Cream of Wheat's Rastus are all being looked at for similar rebrandings.  

And, as expected, the reaction has been a bit incendiary.  For many people, this is a sign of how far we've fallen.   How stupid this has all become.  They can't believe anyone would see this imagery as racist and can't imagine why it needs to be changed.  It's just one more way American society is being destroyed, by us tearing down everything that anyone claims to be offended by.

The thing is, I doubt many of them know the history of these brands.  I doubt they give them any thought when they see them in the store, or if they do, the get the exact message that these fictional brand spokepersons are supposed to convey.

Let's look at Aunt Jemima.

Despite what you may have read on the internet, Aunt Jemima pancake mix started in 1888, when St. Joseph Gazette editor Chris Rutt and his friend Charles Underwood bought a flour mill in St. Joseph Missouri.  They began selling their excess flour as a ready made pancake mix with an Aunt Jemima character used to market the mix.  They were unable to make the project work, and sold their company to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Company in 1890.  Davis Milling Company was renamed Aunt Jemima Mills in 1913.  This branding took off, becoming so well recognized that it changed trademark infringement precedent.  The Quaker Oats company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills Company in 1926, and registered the Aunt Jemima trademark in April 1937.  It remains one of the longest continually running logos and trademarks in history of American advertising.

The Aunt Jemima image comes from the "Mammy" stereotype in minstrel shows.  This character type started appearing in the late 1800s and with a character named Aunt Jemima appearing as early as 1864.  The character gained national recognition with an old minstrel song "Old Aunt Jemima," written in 1875.  The song would be performed by a white actor in blackface, wearing an apron and a kerchief.  Both of these attributes were captured in the Aunt Jemima logo.  The portrayal of Aunt Jemima harkened back to an idealized and glorified view of the antebellum South, with Jemima as a happy house slave.  This aspect of Aunt Jemima would be continually updated throughout the decades, as we became more and more uncomfortable with that image.

What social media has gotten right, is that Nancy Green was involved in the early images of Aunt Jemima.  The R.T. Davis Milling Company hired Nancy Green as their spokesperson for the Aunt Jemima Pancake mix in 1890, a role that she held until her death in 1923.  Green was a storyteller, cook, activist, and model.  But her heirs also felt that she was exploited for her role as Aunt Jemima.

It's hard not to look back at the early Aunt Jemima logos and caricatures and cringe. They start flat out racist and then move into problematically stereotypical at best. The earliest ones have the over-exaggeration of lip size and color, over-exaggerated teeth, and blackface skin. Almost blackface makeup on black performer skin, a technique that was used in Hollywood for African American actors that were too light-skinned.

As the years progressed, the overly exaggerated features of Aunt Jemima were toned down, but the stereotypical language was dialed up.  "I'se in town honey!" became almost a catch phrase. The apron and the kerchief from the minstrel shows remained.

The revamped version today has removed the kerchief and apron, opting for a more businesswoman like look.

That still doesn't change the problematic roots.  Ignorance of these problematic roots doesn't make it go away, neither does not being able to see the problem.  

Perhaps you are in that situation, you don't see the problem with the later logos.  you just associate Aunt Jemima with a good, happy black person.  You think it has positive association for you.  That is part of the problem.  That's what the iconography was designed to do.  It was designed for you to link African Americans with subservient roles.  Like the cook.  For you to see them as still part of the help and happy in that role.  

You can see that over and over again in older food brands. Ones that are far worse and have disappeared.  How many Sambo's restaurants do you see today?  And you see it still today in a few brands.  Uncle Ben.  Cream of Wheat's Rastus was a compatriot to Aunt Jemima in the same minstrel shows.  Mrs. Butterworth.  

At some point we have to value our fellow human beings over brands.  Over our attachment to problematic parts of our past.  Over our misunderstanding of history.   

The recipe of Aunt Jemima isn't going to change and for those that love it, they still be able to find it under another name from Quaker Oats.   Brands can change and update.

Maybe, just maybe, we as people can too.

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