Why Is There Controversy Over Mrs. Butterworth’s Race?

By Ethan BrightbillLast Updated Jul 9, 2020 4:16:44 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: SOPA Images/Getty Images

According to critics, the Mrs. Butterworth mascot and bottle design resemble a “Mammy” figure, a racist caricature of Black slave women in the American South. Conagra Brands, the company that makes Mrs. Butterworth, hasn’t specified the race of Mrs. Butterworth one way or another.

Nonetheless, on June 17, 2020, the company put out a statement recognizing that many people interpret Mrs. Butterworth to be a racist stereotype and vowed to change the brand’s design. 


Origin and Portrayal

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Thelma “Butterfly” McQueen was reportedly the original model for the Mrs. Butterworth brand. McQueen achieved widespread fame by playing the slave Prissy in the iconic 1939 film Gone With the Wind. McQueen herself wasn’t a fan of the role. “The part of Prissy was so backward. I was always whining and complaining,” she said in an interview. While the movie made her name well-known in Hollywood, it also led to her being typecast as a maid, something she regretted later in life.

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Photo Courtesy: Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

The character of Prissy is herself largely seen as a Mammy figure, a black woman who is happy and content to be a slave and who cares more for raising the children of her master than her own sons and daughters. The Mammy stereotype became especially popular after the Civil War since it suggested that Black Americans were happy to be enslaved and not treated cruelly.

However, when the first Mrs. Butterworth commercials were created in the 1970s, Hope Summers (of The Rifleman and The Andy Griffith Show fame) was cast to play the part. Summers was a white woman, which supporters of the classic Mrs. Butterworth bottle design often cite as a reason to believe that the company mascot is not necessarily Black.

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Response to Controversy

The killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota on May 25, 2020  led Mrs. Butterworth competitor Aunt Jemima and other brands to drop mascots criticized as being racist stereotypes. The Mrs. Butterworth Brand soon followed suit. While Conagra Brands described the packaging as “intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother,” the company added the “packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with [its] values.” 

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Photo Courtesy: Paul Harris/Getty Images

While planned changes were not specified at the time, the official statement ended with the assurance that, “We understand that our actions help play an important role in eliminating racial bias and as a result, we have begun a complete brand and packaging review on Mrs. Butterworth's.”

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Other Brands Facing Criticism

Aunt Jemima is a brand of the Quaker Oats Company, which itself is a subsidiary of PepsiCo. Inc. On June 17, 2020, the Quaker Oats Company announced that the Aunt Jemima image would be retired and that the brand itself would be renamed in the future. "We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype,” noted Kristin Kroepfel, Quaker Foods North America’s vice president and chief marketing officer said. “While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough." 

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Photo Courtesy: SOPA Images/Getty Images

Uncle Ben’s, a rice brand, has also promised to change. It uses the image of a Black man dressed as a servant, and the name itself refers to a white Southern practice of calling Black people “Uncle” or “Aunt” to avoid using honorifics like “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Cream of Wheat, which uses the image of a black man who was once portrayed as illiterate and called the pejorative name Rastus, is also reviewing its choice of mascot.

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