Why I Hated “Jumping the Broom”: Disappointing Depictions of African-American Women’s Agency By Elise Edwards

Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida.  She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining how they inform and shape each other and express the commitments of their communities.

This past spring, I thought it would be fun to spend a leisurely afternoon with a good friend, seeing the movie Jumping the Broom (now available for home viewing).  The film features some of my favorite actresses, Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine, and I like going to movies that show African-American romances, families and friendships if they aren’t too stereotypical or offensive.  My trusted  Entertainment Weekly assured me that this would meet my criteria: “Yes, there really is a way to make a boisterous, dramatic comedy about African-American life better than Tyler Perry does….You’ll laugh — a lot — but you’ll also shed tears of recognition at this funny, salty, strife-torn look at the agony and ecstasy of family,” said critic Owen Gleiberman.

But after the opening scene, I knew it was not going to be a pleasant afternoon.

The movie starts with our heroine, Sabrina Watson, having regrets the morning after a one-night stand.  The man she is with is on the phone talking to another woman.  Sabrina is humiliated and starts praying to God to get her out of this situation with her dignity.  If God helps her get out, she promises to abstain from sex.  Sabrina vows to only “share my cookies with her future husband… and God, because it’s obvious I don’t know how to spot a human being, could you please make it clear who you want me to be with?”  She wants God to make it very clear.  In the next scene, she hits her dream man with car and remarks upon God’s sense of humor.  I was not laughing.

As someone who, for the past few years, has been examining moral agency in light of women’s experience, I was offended and disappointed by Jumping the Broom.  The moral decision making exhibited by movie’s main female characters’ lacks trust in their own voice.  More often than not, they abdicate their own agency, placing decisions in the hands of men or God.  When the women do make decisions, they are questioned and either overruled or forced to face the disastrous consequences of their choices.  In other words, when they choose for themselves, they are wrong.

Viewers are led to believe that Sabrina’s decision to allow God to choose her future husband has paid off.  She is soon engaged to Jason Taylor (the man she hit with her car) and they are having a wedding at her family’s home in Martha’s Vineyard.  This is where most of the story takes place, as the film centers on the days leading up their wedding.  As the couple finalizes plans for the ceremony with her minister, played by T.D. Jakes (who is also one of the film’s producers), the Bible verse she wants read is rejected in favor of one the minister suggests.

Determining which elements represent the couple’s values and which ones are a “cultural necessity” and therefore will be included in the wedding becomes more of an issue as the story progresses.  Whether or not the couple will “jump the broom” is up for debate.  The film presents the issue as a conflict between the “upper crust sensibilities” of Sabrina’s family and the “straight-out-of-Brooklyn” sensibility of Jason’s mother, who jumped the broom and wants her son to do so also.  When Sabrina decides to incorporate the broom at the end their ceremony, it seems to represent her acceptance of her mother-in-law in her life, her desire to make peace with the woman, or perhaps her willingness to see her mother-in-law’s point of view.   I interpreted it differently.  I saw the situation as one in which a woman is being asked to compromise her reasonable position in order to make others happy and to subscribe to the dominant tradition in her culture.  Sabrina states that she does not want to jump the broom because it is a tradition she does not relate to.  Jason agrees with her at first, but when his mother protests, he wants to do it because although he “does not care” about the ritual, it would please his mother.   Sabrina was questioned about the decision, pressured to change her mind, and in the end, happily does so.

Jason’s widowed mother, Pam Taylor, is not nearly as much a people-pleaser as Sabrina.  She is a woman who does make her own decisions and therefore suffers for them.  She provokes several arguments between members of the two families, but her worst decision is to reveal a secret she has learned about the bride’s family.  Although Pam has prayed and read her Bible before this action, her brother Willie Earl is insistent that her actions were not guided by God.   The implication is that if she had really listened to God, she would not have made a bad choice.  Throughout the movie, Willie Earl and Pam’s best friend Shonda act as her moral conscience.  Pam’s own moral judgment is clouded by loneliness and fear of losing her son.  I would have loved to see this woman make a decision that not merely reactive.  I would have especially loved it if her family and friends address the legitimate emotions that provoked her poor decisions instead of lecturing her.  She needed compassion, not a sermon about her failings as a single mother.

Finally, although Shonda performs the function of moral conscience for Pam, there is little deliberation or decision making for herself.  The moral dilemma of this minor character is whether or not to engage in some sort of relationship with a younger man who is pursuing her.  She does not seem to be interested in him throughout the movie, despite finding him attractive.  Of course, for the sake of a happy ending, she gives him her email address to keep in touch after he steps up and kisses her, presumably demonstrating his manhood.

There are other women in the film- Sabrina’s friend Blythe, her aunt Geneva, and wedding planner Amy—who are depicted with similar flaws in their agency.  They are caricatures of familiar stereotypes: the young, single woman whose standards are too high; the aging single woman who gives suitors the brush-off; the white woman who is both intrigued and confused by black culture.  The film’s men help these women see their flaws and soften their harsh postures.

Despite a few scenes where women authentically bond with each other and support one another, I left the movie feeling that the writers and producers either don’t know real black women or they dislike them.  Why else would they portray the women’s decision-making abilities so negatively?  As a black woman myself, the messages I took from this morality tale are: (1) I do not know what I want.  I might I think I do, but in these cases what I want is not what is best for me.  Therefore, (2) decisions are best left to God alone, a man who represents “Him,” or my closest male companion (brother, husband, fiancé, son) (3) When it comes to religious and cultural rituals, it is best to go along with what will make most people happy.  These ceremonies do not need to reflect my specific identity because maintaining cultural norms is more important.  No wonder I felt depressed and angry after leaving this “comedy.”



Categories: Black Feminism, Review, Women's Agency

Tags: , , , ,

7 replies

  1. Wow – this is brilliant Elise! Thank you for a deep and thoughtful feminist analysis on this film. I would love to hear more from you on other films too. I have friends at home in LA who love the Madea films, but really, I’m just not sure how to think of them!

    I often find myself disappointed with films where women are suppose to be the main characters. Even though the films do have the enlightened moments, the glimpses of empowerment, and the centrality of female characters, too often they simply function to reinscribe and perpetuate the limited vision and distorted norms that are socially imposed on women.

    My point being, I really appreciated your analysis. Thank you!

    Like

  2. Thanks, Xochitl. I enjoy your posts and it’s nice to know the feeling is mutual!

    There was so much more in Jumping the Broom that could be written about. One of my friends described it as “a frowning head-shaker from beginning to end,” which made it was a much easier target than other films that center on women but are more subtle in their stereotypes and mischaracterizations. I think one reason why films too often reinscribe and perpetuate distorted, masculinist norms is that they are often have women presented as “types.” The shallow type, the dumb type, the smart but socially awkward type, the romantic type, the girl next door, the bad-ass action type… It results in characters that are one-dimensional and conventional.

    Like

  3. Agree 100%. Although, I can formulate my thoughts into sentences as eloquently as you just did, I absolutely felt the same disappointment at how most of the female characters were scripted to be. Great Write-up Elise.

    Like

  4. Your post brings the consideration to me, which is about the tension between agency and fear of reponsibility for choices. Specifically, in religion field, it is a tension between agency(human reason) and obedience/follow to God. In many cases, obedience to God is interpreted as yeilding all rights to make decisions to God and simply praying and waiting. Especially, under the circumstance where there are strong charismatic pastors, followers tend to abdicate their own agency and places decisions in the hands of pastors, who is almost God to them; furthermore, abdicating is asked as a trait of sincere Christians. Well, this is one side of my religious traidion. I saw that many people were reluctant to make a decision on something not becuase they sincerely tursted on God but becuse they had a fear about the result; they did not want to take responsibility and to be criticized. Under all these phenomenons, there is a thought/belief that humans’ reaon is not fully insightful and incomplete. Well, personally I am in the same line with it; but then, how do I understand the relationship between human reason and God? I would like to refer John Wesley’s note: “God did not take away your understading; but enlightended and strengthened it … God did not take away your liberty, your power of choosing good or evil; God did not force you; but being assisted by God’s grace you chose the better part.” I think that humans can be means of God’s grace to care and assist others to get thorugh difficulites and choose better ones in their own contexts.

    Too long for a comment….. Anyway, thank you, Elise, for making me reconsidering the tension.

    Like

  5. I just wanted to say this, you either going to let God influence your decision making or the devil. I believe she was asking God to help lead her with the decision she may make with man and in general. Yes, God give us freewill to make our own choices, but his word also say if you lack understanding, and knowledge ask and he will give it freely. I personally wouldn’t want to do anything if it’s not in the will of God for me. And she didn’t choose him he choose her. God said when a man finds a wife he fines a good thing. I rather ask God to guide me in my decision making than to lean on to my own understanding. Just my opinion

    Like

Please familiarize yourself with our Comment Policy before posting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: