The film, Coffy, intended on defying stereotypes about depictions of African American women as sapphires; however, it ended up creating a new stereotype. Pam Grier was a refined version of the whore stereotype.
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Coffy played a sexy woman who used her attractiveness to get what she wanted. This portrayal hypersexualized black women and reduced them to sex objects.
Depictions in the film
When Coffy meets with a sex-crazed drug dealer (Arturo Vitroni), she first appears as a non-threatening, if not an unintelligent, woman. The white mobster spits on her and asks her to crawl towards him.
One immediately realizes that he is a racist who only perceives black women as sex slaves. The individual even hurls insults at Coffy in a crude and disgusting manner. The scene is quite uncomfortable to racially conscious viewers as it conjures up images of the dark days of slavery.
At this point, Pam Grier fights back by unleashing a gun from under her bag. However, Vitroni’s bodyguard prevents her from using it and forces Coffy to tell him who sent her. Grier uses this moment to get back at the unforgiving pimp – King George – by naming him as her boss.
Coffy thus punishes King George for being a cause of her sister’s addiction. Her aggressiveness and ability to fight against injustice endear her to audiences.
Therefore, Pam Grier uses the role of a prostitute to disguise her vengeful ways. Additionally, this role is a depiction of camp comedy because it mocks submissive women.
One must look beyond this disguise to get to the symbolic meaning of the scene as well as the movie in general. When Coffy used her body to lure her enemies, she was doing more than just exerting revenge; Pam was representing black women.
We should note that, in the 1950s and 1960s, movie executives repressed or erased black women’s sexuality, as seen through images of the Sapphire and the Mammy. In the 1970s, however, the society exaggerated black women’s sexuality, and Coffy was the typical depiction of such exaggeration.
Black feminists often argue that white women may sometimes appear as sex objects in film; nonetheless, producers often give white women a greater range of characters to depict than black actresses.
This narrows down the portrayals of African American women in films to two possibilities: sexy temptresses or matriarchal nurturers. Producers of the film, Coffy, were reducing African American women to this narrow characterization.
Stakeholders in the film industry have an enormous burden that they must bear; their choices affect how members of other cultures perceive the represented group.
These distortions of what black women are all about hurt their image. It causes members of other races to perceive African American females in a stereotypical fashion without the complexities and dynamics that make them authentic.
One must give credit to the film’s producers as they tried to portray African American women in an empowered fashion. Coffy is tough and will stop at nothing in order to exert revenge on society’s oppressors.
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However, the use of a hypersexualized female as the message carrier neutralized this noble goal of black empowerment.
The producers of the film had a series of roles that they could give their main character, but they settled for a degrading one. This says a lot about what society perceived as an acceptable role for black female characters.