Controlling Images: Welfare Reform, Work Ethic, and the “Welfare Queen”

Toward the end of the presidential election in 2012, Mother Jones journalists released the following footage of Mitt Romney meeting behind closed doors with some of his inside supporters. Listen especially to his characterization of President Obama’s supporters and how he uses the accusation of “entitlement.”

FYI: he’s not just talking about those on welfare and programs like SNAP here. He’s also talking about anyone who gets (“feels entitled to”) money from the government, including, for example, those of us using students loans or veterans receiving benefits.

At the core of Romney’s speech is the beloved “boostraps rhetoric” – the idea that if an individual starting with “nothing” can just work hard and “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” he will be able to “make it”; and that success is so often defined in a narrow, profit-driven way, that is, as the accumulation of private wealth and material goods. Much of the time, the people who invoke a bootstraps story about their immigrant grandparents, for example, don’t recognize that those relatives may still have come to the U.S. with racial privilege, support from family already in the country, political rights, a knowledge of English, etc. (Here’s another controlling image: who do we picture when we think of an immigrant?)

What stereotypes of poor and/or working class Americans does Romney invoke in his speech? How do such stereotypes connect to public arguments about welfare reform?


One of the most pervasive controlling images that exists at the intersection of race and class is the image of the welfare queen. First, let’s clarify, stereotypes are:

implicit biases about how a person’s race, gender, class, or sexual orientation influences the individual’s behavior that become strong beliefs that influence individual or collective behavior.

A controlling image goes farther than a stereotype and its effects are more insidious. A controlling image is:

a stereotype that has become so ingrained in thought that it becomes a means to control those who are stereotyped and justifies the beliefs of those doing the stereotyping.

In other words, a controlling image is one that has a cumulative effect, that we see over and over to the exclusion of other images or narratives, until we internalize it and believe it to be true.

Such images have the ability to “guide behavior toward and from those persons [depicted], constrain what is seen and believed about them, and when internalized, profoundly influence the self-perceptions of the marginalized” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman).


Let’s think more specifically about how the stereotype of the welfare queen is often used to justify cuts to welfare programs and other restrictions on the poor and working classes.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

A political cartoon of the stereotypical image of the welfare queen living off the government, linked also with Democrats, who have historically been defenders of welfare programs.

The welfare queen was coined by President Ronald Reagan during the late 1970s and was based on a specific Chicago woman, Linda Taylor, who was clearly a grifter and con artist, suspected even of homocide and baby trafficking, and an exception. In an article for Slate, Josh Levin sums up the power on Reagan’s controlling image, embodied by Taylor, who was tried and sent to prison in 1977:

With her story, Reagan marked millions of America’s poorest people as potential scoundrels and fostered the belief that welfare fraud was a nationwide epidemic that needed to be stamped out. This image of grand and rampant welfare fraud allowed Reagan to sell voters on his cuts to public assistance spending. The “welfare queen” became a convenient villain, a woman everyone could hate. She was a lazy black con artist, unashamed of cadging the money that honest folks worked so hard to earn.

Taylor’s story was picked up and carried widely in national newspapers, and her story made a lasting impression. Listen to NPR’s interview with Josh Levin on All Things Considered.


On November 1, 2013, welfare recipients saw dramatic cuts amounting to a total of $40 billion to their SNAP (or food stamp) allowances. More recently, states like Maine and Missouri have passed bills that prohibit individuals on SNAP from buying particular food items, including cookies, chips, soda, canned tuna, steak and seafood.

welfare queen before and after birth

And many states continue to enforce mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients, despite the fact that such tests have proven to be a monumental waste of government money (typically less than 1% of those on welfare ever test positive for illegal drugs, and in some states, certain prescription drugs found in urine can still be grounds for losing one’s benefits, even if that person has a prescription from a doctor).

According to Lister, who recently published an article in The Washington Post, writes of her own experience:

When I drive my 19-year-old car, with its drooping bumper, peeling paint and loud muffler, the police follow me. Utilizing American safety-net programs (which, by the way, I paid into for years before receiving any “entitlements”) requires that I relinquish my privacy multiple times. I have to reveal how much I pay to live where I live, the amount of my utility and medical bills, what car I own, even whether I have a plot to be buried in when I die. I have to update the local office any time my income changes, or if a family member moves in or out, and even when my college-age children come home for the summer.

Why would policy makers and government officials spend so much money policing the bodies and choices of poor people? Why do we believe that some citizens are more deserving of privacy than others, and who gets to determine this?

Last year, Congresswoman Speier (D-CA) gave this speech in an attempt to put such cuts in perspective, especially in an age of “austerity panic”:

Do you think you could take the SNAP challenge and eat on just $4.50 a day?

Want to now more about common myths the media uses to undercut welfare and perpetuate those stereotypes of the poor that Adair talks about? Read “What the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Welfare: 9 Myths Exposed.”


“Killing Us Softly 4”: Images of Women in Advertising

Let’s continue our discussion of representions of women’s bodies this week by thinking about how we “read” bodies (Susan Bordo) and about what bodies we see, value, and/or use and how this affects how we relate to our bodies and how we move through the world.

Watch jean Kilbourne’s (in)famous video lecture below. You’ll never look at advertising the same way again:


Understanding Intersectionality: Navigating Racism and Sexism


The theory of “intersectionality” was first used by African-American legal scholar and critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, though we can trace the concept back to Sojourner Truth’s 19th century speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” where she questions the race and class ideologies lurking beneath the idea of “woman” and of femininity as something delicate and in need of help.

Crenshaw’s theory asks social science scholars, and feminists in particular to: examine how various biological, social, and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systemic injustice and social inequality. That is, Crenshaw asks us not to generalize experiences of oppression (for example, among all women or all women of color), but to understand that forms of oppression do not act independently of one another and that they interrelate, creating for some, multiple forms of oppression at once, thus becoming “multiply marginalized.”

Consider how scholar Kate Flach’s talk about Angela Davis highlighted her intersecting identities as the reason she became the focal point for so much hostility that led to her being targeted by the U.S. government and becoming a political prisoner.

angela davis




In her book Sister Citizen, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC references the following stand-up performance by comedian Chris Rock, who claims that a Black woman cannot play second seat and be the first lady. White women, on the other hand, will “play their position.”


Consider how Rock invokes the same stereotypes of Black women found in the media and even in Zora Neale Hurston’s collected folk tales: that they are loud, demanding, and emasculate their men. Now consider this fact:

“Rock’s comic imagination is fueled by widely held assumptions about who black women are in relation to black men: that African American women are strong, unyielding, and uncompromising while black men are endangered and emasculated. The image of aggressive black women dominating their male partners persists despite empirical evidence that African American women are more likely to be victims than aggressors in heterosexual partnerships.

Black women suffer higher rates of domestic assault and homicide than women of other racial and ethnic groups. Their romantic attachments are also linked to their growing incarceration rates: black women’s crimes tend to be ancillary to those of their male partners. Black women are also the women most likely to face unassisted child rearing and the vulnerability to poverty that single parenthood entails. The reality is that black women’s political, social, and economic marginalization ensures that they nearly always ‘play the background,’ but Rock can get an easy laugh by evoking the familiar stereotype of the domineering black woman” (Harris-Perry, 288).


  • Why do you think some black men are threatened by black women’s strength and outspokenness? (Consider what hooks and Audre Lorde might say.)
  • How can black men better support black women?
  • How can white women be better allies for black women?


Racial Profiling: Reading Race, Gender, and Representations of Criminality

“[Race] is not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look.” – Robin D. G. Kelley, Historian

Both race and gender shape our social interactions according to our expectations of how others should behave based on their “role.” This is particularly true when it comes to our perceptions of deviance and criminality. For example, watch how individuals in a public park react to three different actors in the same situation in the following social experiment:



In their essay on racial formations in the U.S., Michael Omi and Howard Winant discuss the importance of the media in both shaping and disseminating racial caricatures:

“Film and television…have been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and ‘who they are.’ The power of the media lies not only in their ability to reflect the dominant ideology, but in their capacity to shape that ideology in the first place […This] has led to the perpetuation of racial caricatures, as racial stereotypes serve as shorthand for scriptwriters, directors, and actors” (17)

These caricatures have serious real-life consequences for people of color. As the author of “White Privilege Radically Changes Appearance of Tsarnaev Brothers” points out, recent portrayals of Muslims in the media since 9/11 reinforce “the current dehumanizing ‘Other’ label that whiteness has constructed as a sanctioned target for violence in US popular culture” (emphasis mine).

Consider how the decision to lighten or darken the skin color of the following two celebrities makes an argument about who is “othered”:

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

In 1994, former football running back O.J. Simpson made headlines after a dramatic police chase. Simpson was arrested and accused of murdering his wife Nicole Simpson, and the trial was widely televised. He was eventually acquitted of the murder charges, but opinions about his innocence or guilt divided the public for years. Compare the representation of Simpson on these two covers.

On the other hand, consider how often the complexion of Black performers and models are often lightened:

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L'Oreal's advertising campaign for Feria hair color.

A photograph of Beyonce (left) compared to the representation of her in L’Oreal’s advertising campaign for Feria hair color (right).

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

Debate erupted about whether Rihanna had been airbrushed to appear whiter on the November 2011 cover of British Vogue magazine.

Feminist Dialogues: bell hooks’ Interviews at The New School

bell hooksIn preparation for bell hooks’ visit to Purdue next week, I’ve posted links here to two of her recent interviews, part of her current (and second) residency at The New School. During next week’s Tuesday lecture, Dr. hooks will respond to student questions, which means that you all have the opportunity to shape the conversation with this prominent feminist, writer, and scholar. The following interviews, in addition to the assigned reading, should help you come up with some provocative questions.

In the first interview here, bell hooks speaks with trans actress Laverne Cox, who stars as Sophia on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. The second interview is perhaps the most controversial. hooks sparked much debate and controversy on this panel when she equated Beyonce with an anti-feminist “terrorist,” despite Beyonce’s recent claims that she is, in fact, a feminist (see Beyonce’s much talked about performance at the VMA awards this year). hooks’ comment arose out of a larger discussion with activist and author Janet Mock about Black women’s bodies and the impact of Beyonce’s music and image, in particular, on young women and girls.





In a post on The Root, the author summarizes the controversial conversation between hooks and Mock:

“I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist—that is, a terrorist—especially in terms of the impact on young girls,” hooks said.

The writer and scholar raised a question about whether Beyoncé had control over her image on the Time cover.

“Let’s take the image of this super-rich, very powerful black female and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because she probably had very little control over that cover—that image,” said hooks.

Mock spoke in Beyoncé’s defense, arguing that Beyoncé was likely in full control of her image. “I would argue she chose this image, so I don’t want to strip Beyoncé of choosing this image—of being her own manager.”

In hooks’ eyes, Beyoncé not only may not have been in control of her image but was a slave to it.

Now might be a good time to review bell hooks’ definition of feminism, as well (handed out the second week of class), which sheds some light on her analysis of Beyonce above:

“Feminism is a commitment to eradicating the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels -sex, race, and class, to name a few – and a commitment to reorganizing U.S. society, so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desires.”  (1981)



A More Feminist Halloween: Rethinking Costumes

Halloween is nearly upon us! Unfortunately, along with the usual witches, monsters, and superheroes, it’s also common to see some of the following costumes, especially on a college campus. This campaign – “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” – targets costumes based on racial stereotypes that make perennial appearances at Halloween parties and asks all of us to rethink what we’re unwittingly reinforcing when we wear them (even if our intentions were just to have fun).

Think back to Chimamanda Adichie’s talk “The Danger of a Single Story” from the beginning of the semester. How do each of these costumes capture her point?



photos for poster


Read about actor Julianne Hough’s poorly-thought-out Halloween costume, which included blackface. She dressed as one of the characters from the TV show “Orange is the New Black.”

Julianne Hough sports blackface as one of the characters from "Orange is the New Black" for her inappropriate Halloween costume this year.

Julianne Hough sports blackface as one of the characters from “Orange is the New Black” for her inappropriate Halloween costume this year.


Like Jason Alexander, whose lengthy and well though-out apology we read earlier this semester in our unit on derailing, Hough issued her own apology on Twitter. Now that you’ve learned about derailing, what do you think of Hough’s apology? Is it as successsful as Alexander’s? Why or why not?