Gender Inequality in “Imitation of Life”

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Over the years, it has been evident that the United States has a long history of imposing racial stereotypes and gender norms upon African Americans and women. This control often occurs through literary and cultural representation such as novels, films, and media with stereotypes often telling women and African Americans what their appropriate role in society is or should be. When examining these past behaviors, one can easily examine the film Imitation of Life which takes place during the early 1950’s. For example, during this era, in 1954 in the Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court declared that “separate educational facilities” for African American children were “inherently unequal”, a ruling that many considered to be the “first nail in Jim Crow’s coffin” (6). Therefore, in order to fully understand the obsession with racism in films like these and for American culture at this time, one can argue that it is very crucial to carefully examine the connection between race and gender during this time period. Sarah Jane, the protagonist who is African American but passes as a Caucasian woman due to her being light skinned, is the topic of both race and gender roles throughout the film. Her character is depicted as an opportunity to resolve problems of race, gender, and identity issues while suggesting that racial passing can cause damage to the status quo and coexistence between blacks and whites.

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With knowledge on the topics of representations and passing, one can easily comprehend that it is not completely focused around race, but the way complexion is accepted and viewed by society. One reason for this lies in the setting of the film Imitation of Life during its pre-civil rights era. As Mary Beltran states, “After World War II, race relations underwent considerable transformation” ending in a “Raised racial awareness of racial discrimination and civil rights activist” (Beltran 5). But, Beltran states, “this struggle against racism and segregation entered the mainstream of American life,” somehow occurred during the time women struggled quietly tremendously as “Advice books and magazines, urged women to leave the workforce and embrace their roles of wives and mothers” (5). Even though, “the idea that woman’s most important job was to bear and rear children was hardly a new one, it began to generate a great deal of dissatisfaction among women who yearned for a more fulfilling life” These racial behaviors and beliefs of the 1950’s are one of the many contributions to the 1960’s civil rights movement, and the restlessness felt from being confined to house daily is what let many housewives uniting through feminist groups to form the feminist movement of the 1970’s. After years of being depicted a certain way through the media for years, both of these groups realized that it’s time to fight for their rights for equality.

Imitation of Life represents race and gender role stereotypes as an answer to the division of these two roles. This film shows a lot of the film’s drama between women and the relationship between a mother and daughter. In the film, one can see the stereotypes between the “mammy” and the “tragic mulatto”, a mixed-race person, as depicted between the mother Annie and the daughter Sarah Jane. In the opening of the scene, the mammy, “the faithful, asexual, obedient servant happy to serve white people and care for their children” (Dines 35). When meeting the African American woman Annie and she sees her with her light skin daughter, Lora assumes that Annie must be a caretaker of the little girl since she appears as a white child. Actually, the roles of each woman turn out to be useful because Annie decides to work as a servant for Lora for nothing really. Over the course of years, she becomes somewhat of a surrogate mother to Susie, Lora’s white daughter who Annie raised over the years, and she even states, “Let’s face it, Mama. Annie’s always been more like a real mother” (1:50:00). These types constantly reappear as a representation of the generation shifts, with the mulatto as Sarah Jane and the mammy as Annie. As a representation of how the women were in the 1950’s, they battled against one another in the conflict between a mother and daughter in an interracial new generation. As Gail Dines states in Racism and Representation: The Social Constitution of “Blackness” and “Whiteness,” the “role that antebellum stereotypes of black women and white women played in the social control of each other, suggests that the stereotypes of the former served to define what was appropriate of the latter” (35).

This film is best understood within the history of mixed-arrangements within the genre of the passing film. Courtney states, “the production’s code sixth regulation on matters of ‘sex’ boldly declared: ‘Miscegenation ( sex between the white and black races) is forbidden” (103). Beltran points out that “solidification of notions of whiteness and related taboo against mixed race relationships was addressed in the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934” which stated “representation of sexual relations between people of different races was forbidden” (7). On the other hand, the Production Code tried to justify that blacks and whites separated was a good thing by stating, “to deny, or at least dramatically revise, narratives that point to the decidedly miscegenated America of the past, in particular the sexual story of white men and black women sanction under slavery” (Courtney 105). At this point, one can see the difference between gender and race roles “sexual relationships between white and black races as significant negotiations of how the very meaning of those identities would be defined in and through film image” ( Courtney 104).

During this period, in Hollywood films, there were a lot of concerns about mixed-arrangements, with fears of white passing. Even though in this film it was never clearly shown or stated, one can infer that interracial sex had to occur in order for Sarah Jane to pass as a white woman. As a result, PCA reads, “Sarah Jane’s light skin and her eventual passing as signifiers of ‘miscegenation” (144). Although some people may feel like it’s nothing wrong with passing, there are some people that feel that there is. By depicting passing in this film, they tried to put a ban on sex and the desire by not breaking the black and white boundaries to prohibit the idea of passing. When Susan Kohner, the actress that played Sarah Jane, was asked about playing her role, she stated, “ I never had qualms about playing a black character because prior to my Imitation role, I played other ethnic characters” (Schuler). She was so conformable playing these roles because she was biracial herself. She is mixed with Mexican and Czech. It was easier for white or light skin women to get roles or jobs in this era. It was easier because As a result, women of different ethnic backgrounds may face similar forms of gender-based mistreatment, such as gender discrimination and sexism ( Settles 455).

The policing of mixed-marriages or relations in Hollywood films censors any relations between blacks and whites. Imitation of Life mirrors these policies by keeping Sarah Jane’s relations in check. The most disturbing scene of the film was when Sarah Jane was brutally assaulted as she always told herself that she was white, only for her boyfriend to ask her “Is it true? It your mother a nigger? Tell me! (1:18:00). Her race is thrown back in her face after all this time, she’s been passing as a white woman. As her boyfriend is beating her until she’s bloody, the music in the background isn’t sad, it’s actually upbeat and jazzy making it seem as if it’s pleasure in her shaming. This scene is approved by the audience after she finds her way back home and yells at her mom stating, “Yes my boyfriend found out, because you keep telling the world I’m your daughter. Anything you can spoil, you spoil” (1:21:00). At this moment, Sarah Jane blames her mother for her boyfriend finding out because she feels that her mom is ruining her and her reputation by not letting her be who she wants to be, which is a white woman. Annie responds so sadly stating, “ I told you, lies don’t help none. This always happens when you lie” (1:21:00). Annie somehow repeats that the moral of this film that punishment passing is sexual violence.

Another example of sexual shaming is when Sarah Jane is at the gentleman’s club as a dancer and a male stranger ask her, “Where do you go when you run out of here every night?” (1:31:00), and she smiles suggesting to that that she would be okay to sleep with him. After her mother Annie sees her as she’s degrading herself, Sarah Jane says to her mom, “Why can’t you just leave me alone. I’ll keep on going until you’re so tired” (1:40:00). Annie replies, “ I’m as tired as I ever want to be. You mind if I sit down?” (1:40:50). At this time, one can see that Annie looks as if she’s going to pass out and according to the film, Sarah Jane’s passing causes Annie’s premature death. Steve acknowledges, “There’s no answer, Lora. Never has been, not for a broken heart” (1:44:00). At this time in the film, passing is becoming more transparent than before by showing that Annie’s sickness and soon death comes from a broken heart of trying to get her daughter to just accept who she is. At Annie’s funeral, Sarah Jane runs to her mother coffin stating, “But it’s my mother! I’m telling you! I’m sorry, Mama. Mamma, I did Love you. Ms. Lora, I killed my mother. I wanted to come, now she’ll never know how much I wanted to come home” (2:02:00). Sarah Jane is finally ashamed of how she’s been treating her mother and even humiliated. This is the only scene in the film where she acknowledges Annie as her mother. As a result, claiming that she is indeed an African American woman.

Beltran characterizes Imitation of Life as a “problem film” that seeks to answer the “race problem” by posing a solution to passing. Courtney interrogates passing films’ solution:

…Even as the fifties interracial film confronts the end of dominant racial regimes, it nonetheless clings—as if all the more desperately—to faith in sexual difference as the last stand, if not the natural bedrock, of identity and social hierarchy. What other films reveal more clearly is that this desperate faith is itself frequently a symptom of profound anxieties about restraining and enforcing differences of sex. Such anxieties are often so severe, the readings to come will suggest, that these films can also be read to tolerate, even cultivate, sexual transgressions of racial boundaries in order to fiercely reassert orders of gender and heterosexuality. (216)

The key to this is based on what Jane M. Gaines identifies in Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era as “something politically retrograde in the commonsense wisdom that you are who you are, which implies that your race identity is fixed” (19). Passing, in its most basic definition, is “the condition of playing on the discrepancy between appearance and ‘essence,’ that controversial core that is thought to be the final determination of race” (Gaines 67).

Not only does this film depicts racial passing and gender, but it also depicts identity issues. One can tell that Sarah Jane has self-identity issues based on her wanting to pass as a white woman. Jackson specifies that “Passing novels and movies foreground the fact that racial passing” is part “of social negotiation (rather than simply choice or biology). Identity is social and political” (14). As a result, he argues that, “passing is less about faking prefabbed social identities than is about demanding appreciation of the idea that all identities are processual, intersubjective, and contested/contestable” (14).

Overall, the film Imitation of Life, is one of the most powerful cinematic films about racial passing, gender, and identity issues. Although she wanted to be white, in order to truly belong to that group and forget her background as an African American woman, she had to face many obstacles and hardships during that time of her life. By passing as white, it affected her identity she put it in her head that she was white and infiltrated it. As Elam explains, those excluded from the norm actually define the normative: “passers, in their supposed orbit of a racial norm, in fact, generate that very norm” (99). In Imitation of Life, it is clearly shown how trying to have interracial relations can threaten racial and gender norms. As Bettez argues, gender norms cannot be considered separately but are always also “situated within perceived ‘race-based’ expectations” (162). By examining the interactions of race and gender stereotypes over the course of time and in this film allowed a better insight into how gender stereotypes can support a racial and sexual status quo. Due to this, such images or films like this can powerfully shape the public imagination and in return hold back the progress for African Americans and women during the pre-Civil Rights era. In this sense, Imitation of Life reflects how powerful, but also how challenging in seeing that the film is a vehicle to change the roles of womanhood. Although passing is a small piece of African American’s history, somehow society is more tolerant of this behavior. Society has come a long way from the mid 30’s and 50’s and today there are more opportunities ahead to become successful regardless of what color a person’s skin may be.

Works Cited

  1. Beltran, Mary, and Camilla Fojas. Mixed Race Hollywood. New York: New York UP, 2009. Print.
  2. Bettez, Silvia Cristina. ‘Mixed-Race Women and Epistemologies of Belonging.’ Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 31.1 (2010): 142-65. Academic Search Premier. Web. 9 Oct. 2012. .
  3. Courtney, Susan. Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903-1967. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005. Print.
  4. Dines, Gail. Racism and Representation: The Social Construction of “Blackness” and “Whiteness” Charlottesville: Dec 31, 1994. Iss. 32.
  5. Elam, Michele. The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Stanford University Press, 2011).
  6. Gaines, Jane M. Fire & Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.
  7. Imitation of Life. Dir. Douglas Sirk. Perf. Lana Turner, John Gavin and Sandra Dee. Universal International Pictures (UI), 1959. DVD.
  8. Jackson, John L. and Martha S. Jones. ‘Passed Performances: An Introduction.’ Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Special Issue on ‘Passing,’ ed.
  9. Settles, Isis H., et al. “Through the Lens of Race: Black and White Women’s Perceptions of Womanhood.” Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 4, Dec. 2008, pp. 454–468, doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2008.00458.x.
  10. Shuler, Deardra. ‘Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner: Honored For Imitation of Life.’ Afrocentricnews. N.p., 2005. Web. 01 Dec. 2012. .
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Gender Inequality in "Imitation of Life". (2022, Feb 03). Retrieved March 28, 2023 , from

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