Baltimore Mom, Zoot Suit Mom: The Persistence Of Stereotypes

The video of the Baltimore youth whose mother dragged him out of a protest against police brutality has, as they say, gone viral. And within hours of the video hitting the airwaves, my Media 10 students were emailing me. They’d seen this story before – more than 70 years ago.

For if you scroll through the Friday, June 11, 1943 issue of the Los Angeles Times, you will find the following headline:

“Mother Tears Up Zoot Suit Of Boy Wounded In Clash.”

In a nutshell, 15-year-old Vincente Duarte had been shot by a railroad guard in Azusa during the period of anti-Hispanic ethnic cleansing in Los Angeles now known as the Zoot Suit Riots. Duarte’s parents visited him in the hospital, and mother Vera Trujillo tore his fashionable garments “seam to seam right before him in the hospital,” the newspaper reported.

This was big enough news to make it into the pages of the Los Angeles Times. Why?

The message to the predominantly non-Hispanic readership of the Los Angeles Times is clear: The “zoot suiters” – in other words, any young Hispanic male in Los Angeles – were the ones at fault for the riots. If even the mothers of young Hispanic mem didn’t approve of what they were doing, then of course those who were beating the young Hispanic men and stripping them of their clothing were perfectly justified in doing so. The lead of one Times story makes the mainstream point of view clear: “… the zoot suiters, having learned a great moral lesson from servicemen, mostly sailors, who took over their instruction three days ago, are staying home nights.”

So the story of the “zoot suit riot” mom and “Baltimore mom” Toya Grayham are the same – that the subculture is acting inappropriately, and that extreme measures including violence are acceptable for the mainstream to restore order. If “Mom” says it’s bad, it must be bad!

But why is “Mom” so important and effective in making the story newsworthy? What about the “Moms” who were protesting? What about the “Dads” who were taking their children out of the riots? What about the parents who simply explained to their children why they should not be engaging in street protests? Why did none of those stories gather the attention of the “Baltimore mom?”

The newsworthiness of the story is based on our stereotypical understanding of the role of adult females as “mothers.” “Mom” is nurturing and protective of her brood. “Mom” disciplines her young ones. And “Mom” always is right – “Mother Knows Best” is one of the most-overused clichés in our culture (seriously, Google it).

So when “Mom” takes aggressive action toward a young one, it’s clear that the action that the young one is engaged in is wrong.

That is the appeal of the “Baltimore mom” story to the mainstream. And it only makes sense if you understand the stereotype of “Mom” – otherwise, it’s just one person hitting another person.

Our mass media communicates with us in a very simplistic language of stereotypes and stories that are repeated because they have proven to be effective. As a comparison between “zoot suit mom” and “Baltimore mom” indicates, once our text producers have a stereotype that is effective and a narrative proven to be effective in gathering an audience, they will reprise that story, decade after decade. And in doing so, they perpetuate and reinforce those stereotypes.