No More Misogynoir: Challenging the Problematic Depictions of African Women in Chocolate Advertising

Misogynoir: a term used to describe the particular brand of hatred directed at Black women in visual and popular culture (Gradient Lair).

African women have a long history of being mistreated and misrepresented in media, and chocolate advertising is no exception. This essay will attempt to shed light on the infantilization, subjugation, and even dehumanization of black women in chocolate advertising. Achieving that, it will then aim to turn those problematic marketing tactics on their heads by proposing an advertisement that does not rely on racial or gender stereotypes.

In 1947, York-based chocolate company Rowntree introduced a marketing character dubbed “Honeybunch.”

Rowntree's advertisement, 1947
Rowntree’s advertisement, 1947. Found in “Chocolate, Women, and Empire” by Emma Robertson

What can we deduce from Honeybunch as an advertising tool? To begin with, Honeybunch is literally not a person. Though the white mother and her two children are granted their humanity in live-action form, Honeybunch is a doodle, a cartoon. This is a deliberate tactic of Rowntree’s marketing team. Though she appears with the family in-shot, “Honeybunch remains safely distanced by appearing in a different medium—that of animation” (Robertson 44). In doing so, she remains a nonthreatening, easily manipulated tool.

Honeybunch’s language sets her apart as well. Although the white children in Rowntree’s advertisement speak in what we can identify as a “proper English”—“Oh Mummy, may I have something before I go to bed?”—Honeybunch herself speaks in broken, imperfect, and decidedly racialized syntax. “Feelin’ kinda hungry? Me—I’d have a cuppa Rowntree’s.” Her dialect is based off “stereotypes of black speech, influenced by imperialism, minstrel shows and other African and African American stereotypes.” Such details are intentional, designed to make the character an unthreatening cartoon or “Uncle Tom.” (Robertson 44). The difference in her language also infantilizes her, which is a common tactic not just for depictions of Africans, but also for women.

The use of such language by infantilized black characters was intended to amuse the white British audience…the use of non-standard English is amusing only to those who consider themselves able to speak it ‘properly’, a status primarily conferred by being white and born in England…the adverts reinforce ideas about the supremacy of the English language, apparently spoken all over the world, and about the ignorance of those who do not speak it “properly.” (44)

If her status as a cartoon character in a live-action world was not enough, her classification as lower, as “other” than the white family is further enforced by this difference in her speech.

Honeybunch’s broken dialect is consistent from advertisement to advertisement, though her conversational partners are not. In another ad—this one fully animated—entitled “Honeybunch, the Early Bird, and the Worm,” she is drawn next to a bird with a worm in its beak.

rowntreecocoa
Honeybunch peddles cocoa to an Early Bird– from “Chocolate, Women, and Empire” by Emma Robertson

“Feelin’ kinda hungry?” she asks. “Me—I’d have a cuppa Rowntree’s.” Her language is still a broken, racialized dialect, but where before she was communicating with humans, here she is depicted as interacting with an animal. Her interaction with animals is not a far removal from the stereotype of Africans as uncivilized bush savages, worthy of mockery or attention as entertainment (45). Her ability to communicate with a bird connects her to the animal kingdom in an un-human way: if she is able to speak with beasts, how different is she from them?

Honeybunch is subjugated as well as dehumanized in her advertisements, and. Her catchphrase “So grateful–so genial–so GOOD” is not only a description of Rowntree’s chocolate, it is also a commentary on Honeybunch herself. As a black female, she is “safest” to white consumers when she is well-mannered, eager to please, and serving or offering in some way (Robertson 43).

chocolate3
Translation: They think that chocolate will earn them a promotion. They may be right. Be Strong. Be Rowntree’s

How can we combat these problematic elements? The advertisement to the right makes an attempt at doing so. The model has not been deprived of agency through infantilization, nor has she been reduced to a caricature. We have already established that Honeybunch speaks racialized English because it places her outside the realm of what is “normal” to the consumer. This woman’s language is not the broken English used by Honeybunch. She speaks French instead, the language of business in Cote D’Ivoire, a major cocoa-producing nation (Ethnologue). This signifies that the advertisement has not been created for Western consumption, and is instead marketed toward the native population. Just as Honeybunch’s broken, racialized dialect sets her apart from the other “proper” speaking characters in the Rowntree’s advertisement, this woman’s status as a French speaker sets her squarely within her culture. She is not an outsider, or an other: she is acting as part of her community. Instead of peddling chocolate to white characters, she is instead being offered chocolate by someone who she has superiority (hiring power) over. She has full professional agency. The chocolates she is being offered are a mix of dark, milk, and white; she is not a dark person being offered dark chocolate because it matches her skin tone, and she is not a dark person being offered white chocolate because its light color will somehow aid or further her efforts.

Unlike so many chocolate advertisements, this ad does not attempt to erase or capitalize on the subject’s race or gender. It is an attempt to do away with seeing African women as an “exotic primitive archetype” and tries instead to inject something “more dynamic, cosmopolitan, and realistic of African women’s lives” (Leissle 136) Though she is a woman, her attire is not meant to allure or titillate; she is dressed for business. Her garb is not meant to erase her identity as an African; though she is dressed in “Western” clothing, her attire could be an element of “cultural dynamism” signifying that she is one who may “choose for themselves how to incorporate new goods and ideas into their lives” (Leissle 128). Furthermore, unlike other chocolate advertisements featuring black women, she is not working “under the supervision, directly or indirectly, of a white manufacturer” (Robertson 40). To the contrary, the hand that is offering her the chocolate is white, an inversion of the Honeybunch advertisements.

It was worth noting, however, that not all chocolate advertising is so grossly misrepresentative of African women, and that there

A less-problematic chocolate advertisement?
A less-problematic chocolate advertisement?

is at least one company in existence that is taking steps to counteract the current and historical depiction. Divine Chocolate, a UK-based company that buys cocoa from the Ghanaian Kuapa Kokoo Cooperative, ran a spread of advertisements featuring female cocoa farmers depicted as “cosmopolitan consumers of luxury goods and owners of the chocolate company” (Leissle 121). The women in the advertisements were smartly dressed, thoughtfully posed, and shot on the farms themselves, giving the women context, agency, and status.

Chocolate advertising has a history of misrepresenting black women for capital gain. These marketing campaigns rely on subjugation, dehumanization, and lack of agency to construct harmful portrayals of African women as savage, stupid, or inherently “less than” and “other” than their white consumers. Only when we are able to identify these problematic themes and elements are we able to not only reject them, but invert them as well.

Author’s note: no advertisement is perfect, and I acknowledge the flaws in my own. My creation does not touch on many important themes, such as the overlooked African labor force, the role of women in cacao production, forced labor, or child trafficking. Were this advertisement part of a real marketing campaign whose goal was to shed light on the industry and portray African women respectfully and responsibly, those themes would have to be addressed.

Bibliography

“Côte D’Ivoire.” Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Apr. 2015. <http://www.ethnologue.com/country/CI&gt;.

“Explanation Of Misogynoir.” Gradient Lair. N.p., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 Apr. 2015. <http://www.gradientlair.com/post/84107309247/define-misogynoir-anti-black-misogyny-moya-bailey-coined&gt;.

Leissle, Kristy. “Cosmopolitan Cocoa Farmers: Refashioning Africa in Divine Chocolate Advertisements.” Journal of African Cultural       Studies 24.2 (2012): 121-39. Print.
Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: A Social and Cultural History. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2009. Print.
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