When You’re Good to Mama

Posted in Uncategorized by cpeverley on March 30, 2010

When I was home for spring break, I went with my family to see Chicago at our local dinner theater. I had a HUGE Chicago phase when I was in middle school– it’s almost embarrassing– but I hadn’t seen the play or the movie in years. Looking back on it after seeing it again, I missed a lot of what was going on in that play, especially during Matron “Mama” Morton’s “When You’re Good to Mama.” You know, the one Queen Latifa sang in the movie version? I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was just a quasi-oblivious twelve year-old who really like jazz, but when I looked into it further I noticed a lot of differences between the stage version I’d seen once and the movie version let’s just say I saw more than once.

First of all, here’s a Chicago refresher from Wikipedia: the play and the movie. If you haven’t seen it, that’ll give you the gist.

In the stage version of Chicago, Matron “Mama” Morton is a butch lesbian. Below is a clip from the movie, with Queen Latifa as Mama singing “When You’re Good to Mama.” Is it just me, or is this Mama neither butch nor even definitively a lesbian?

If you consider the lyrics of the song in the context of the all-women prison that Mama runs, and if you isolate the scenes which take place in the “reality” of the prison, the meaning is relatively clear. What complicates the meaning in this clip, I think, is its layers of performance. Mama sings for a rich, white, heterosexual, and predominantly-male audience. Almost all of sexual innuendo is directed at men in the audience, when in reality Mama interacts mainly with women. The gray uniform (with pants and a high neckline) that she wears to work is replaced by a shimmering and low-cut silk dress while she sings for the audience. Mama is sexualized (read: heterosexualized) in her performance on stage, but is desexualized in the context of the women’s prison.

I’ve created a visual representation of the layers of performativity in this scene, in the contexts of race, class, gender, and sexuality. You can click on it to make it bigger.

graphic representation of intersectionality

The original play does not have this song literally performed to a heterosexual male audience, and I’m not sure whether the movie was trying to make a statement or if the scene was changed for other reasons. The movie medium does allow for more costume and set changes, so the change may have been envisioned to make the scene more visually appealing. The scene may also be playing off of some sort of “girl-on-girl” fantasy of the heterosexual male. Alternatively, the director may be making a statement about the exclusion of a non-heterosexual sexuality from discourse, even in the so-called era of sexual freedom of the 1920s… maybe…

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5 Responses

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  1. extremedancer14 said, on March 31, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    Let me just say, first off, that I think you touch on some very interesting issues whether it be the sexual freedoms affiliated with the time period or the homosexuality that tends to occur within same sex prisons. I think that perhaps the scene (when moma is then turned into a sexaul yet admirable diva) is added simply becuase the director wanted to show that moma has a more feminine side to her. Throughout the history of the hisotry of the musical, the character of “Matron Moma Morton” has always been portrayed as “butch” and taking on a more dominant male role. I have seen the musical performed twice. Once in Cleaveland, Ohio at the Palace Theatre and again last year in Washington, DC at the National Theatre (it too is one of my favorite shows to see over and over again) and never once have I seen Moma portrayed as a feminine diva. She is always protrayed as more masculine and dominating than anything else.
    Kristi Martin, ENGL459Q, March 31st 2010

  2. graylielane said, on April 6, 2010 at 2:19 am

    You’re post has not only raised interesting issues about the sexualizing/hetero or oversexualizing of characters but also what it means to be sexualized. To day that Moma Morton is “butch” means there would have to be a general consensus on what it means to be “butch.” Women come in all shapes, sizes and forms. What’s seen as comfortable for one woman (in terms of attire and behavior) can be seen as masculine or “butch” to someone else. While I do agree the character is meant to be a butch lesbian it’s interesting the way that’s portrayed in media. Once certain images such as button up shirts and pants come associated with being masculine and dresses become associated with the feminine, containment is issued. Women must stay in their space and constantly be aware of their bodies and actions to escape the “butch” label (or “feminine” label depending on how you want to be seen). Men must do the same. Thus, clear lines are drawn which cannot be crossed in either life or media without being noticed. Hence the source of this post and why we look at something like this and think twice. It’s interesting how attire can often speak louder about a person than they can.

  3. bblurbs said, on April 6, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    Being a fan of film and movies, I thought that this post was very interesting. Never seeing a production of Chicago before, let alone the film, I was very intrigued by the double performance that was kind of being displayed during the clip that you posted. It was interesting, because as you said, there were two different depictions of “Mama” (Queen Latiyfa). The lyrics or the words that she mentioned were slightly ambiguous and were easily interchangeable between the two scenes, one with Mama being a highly sexualized object for the white heterosexual men within the audience, the other scene with Mama being an authoratitive “butch”. This part of the clip definitely captures me, kind of revealing the two extreme stereotypes of a lesbian, one being incredibly sexual and attractive (a wet dream for any man, you know the two women menage-trois threesome type wet dream) and the more masculine lesbian or a “butch”. It’s interesting to see that Mama can encompass both within the clip, which actually gives the audience something to think about. Enjoyed your post!

    Brittany Britto, ENGL459Q April 5th

  4. saimaanika said, on April 8, 2010 at 3:00 am

    This was a pretty ingenious post. The layering of one character is pretty amazing to watch. I’ve seen this production a couple of times as well (New York and Washington D.C.) and I also never heard of Matron “Mama” Morton being sexualized and placed in a feminine character other than the “butch” lesbian she always portrays in most production. Turning our focus to your graphic interpretation of Matron “Mama” Morton in this production, I think you hit the nail on the head with the depiction and interpretation of race, sexuality, gender, and class (the 4 biggies) through the position as well as the mindset of the audience verses the character herself. It’s interesting to see how a simple custom change and the shift in attitude and actions of “Mama” also shifts the interpretation of those four paradigms drastically.

    I also agree with graylielane as well when you talk about the containment we have to conform to in order to portray our sexuality in the way we want to display it. It goes for every person, regardless of their sexual orientation, because we want to dress a certain way to show our sexual orientation aspect of our identity so that people will not mistake them for being of another sexual orientation. Even people who are androgynous want to make sure to not be too specific to any sexuality or some may want to stir people in a different direction and dress themselves in a misleading way, but that would be the only exception in opinion (there always has to be an exception. It’s what keeps us on our toes!). 🙂

  5. Elyse Eisner said, on April 4, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    Queen Latifahs character (Matron “Mama” Morton) is quite butch other than in the song “When you’re good to Mama”. She also openly flirts with Velma, Roxie, and gropes Annie’s thigh (the chick who killed Ezekiel Young in Cell Block Tango) when escourding Roxie to her cell. I would also like to point out that all the songs in Chicago the movie besides All That Jazz, Nowadays, and Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag took place in Roxie’s head, as the other performances didn’t actually happen in the world of the movie, which would probably explain why Matron Mama Morton was much more feminine than in other scenes in the movie, as it was before her and Roxie actually met, so before she was flirting with other women, the whole song (in the movie) is a perception Roxie makes of Matron Mama Morton by first seeing her.

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