Film

A Witness for Abbie: How Genre TV Systematically Lets Black Women Down

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On the surface, there has been a lot of forward movement on television for black women. We’re now able to see an incredible breadth of black female characters, including Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) on Empire, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on Underground, and Dr. Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) on Black-ish. But all representation isn’t created equal, and it’s important to not confuse this new hyper-visibility for total progress. Genres like science fiction and fantasy — which trade in visceral pleasures and fun rather than the literary, downtempo feeling of so-called “prestige” television — don’t make much room for black women. Instead they demonstrate a frustrating lack of imagination when it comes to crafting any interiority or narrative purpose for their black female characters.

This year has been pretty terrible for women in television, particularly genre television, which tries to keep audiences on their toes by making it seem like anyone can die at any time: Important characters like Arrow’s Laurel Lance/Black Canary have been brutally killed off, with their deaths framed as primarily painful setbacks for the typically white, male leads. As Maureen Ryan states in Variety, this doesn’t feel true when “I can think of dozens of gay, female, and non-white character deaths that were used to prod growth or vengeance in white, straight or male characters — but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen that dynamic play out in reverse.” Out of the many startling deaths to happen this television season, it’s the loss of Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) on Sleepy Hollow that hits the hardest.

In its first season, Sleepy Hollow found success thanks to the chemistry of its leads, Abbie and the out-of-time Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). The show quickly developed a dedicated, vocal POC following thanks to the diversity of its cast and its depiction of Abbie as a capable, badass, funny, smart lead in a genre that often had great female characters but rarely any who were women of color. She completely lived up to her destiny as a “Witness,” an emblem of good and slayer of evil named in the Book of Revelation as key to fighting against the apocalypse itself. But between the first and second seasons, the show went through great upheaval, switching showrunners and changing up its writing staff. That wound up reflected onscreen in a second season that effectively sidelined Abbie and her importance in the narrative.

It was as if those behind the show had no idea why it was successful in the first place. Sleepy Hollow became more interested in Crane’s family and romantic drama, while treating Abbie as a glorified guest star who delivered exposition rather than playing any instrumental role in stopping the hordes of evil she’s meant to face. It’s a testament to Beharie’s impressive screen presence that so many fans held on to the show as long as we did. Her death is just the final insult in a long line of miscalculations made by the writers.

The third-season finale involved Abbie sacrificing her life to stop the apocalypse, using her soul to power Pandora’s box. In that, the statement Sleepy Hollow makes is that Abbie’s life as a Witness — which since season one has been depicted as being incredibly important, even if the show didn’t always back that up — was actually only meant to set Crane onto the right path. Now that the job is done, she’s served her purpose. By killing off its co-lead and most important character, Sleepy Hollow in one fell swoop embodied a slew of the most repugnant storytelling stereotypes: Women in Refrigerators, the Magical Negro, and the Mammy.

Much science fiction and fantasy TV offers audiences pleasure and escapism, dynamic plotting, and cast chemistry. But it’s hard to miss when the characters who look like you are consistently backbenched and underwritten. Abbie may be the most recent, high-profile example of a black female character being mistreated, but she is far from the first.

When I was younger, I became obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In many ways the show’s mix of wit and pathos for its teenage characters felt like my own experiences writ large. But I also quickly noticed the nearly complete absence of diversity, a trend that has continued throughout the series and films from Buffy‘s Joss Whedon. So when the show introduced the new slayer, Kendra (Bianca Lawson with a comical Jamaican accent), I was utterly excited. Rewatching Buffy as an adult allowed me to see just how terribly Kendra was written. Despite being a slayer like Buffy herself, and seemingly important to the mythos, Kendra only lasts for four episodes, has little apparent inner life, and receives one of the most lackluster deaths in Buffy’s history: getting mesmerized by the vampire Drusilla (Juliet Landau) and having her throat slit with a fingernail. Trust me, it’s even worse than I’m making it sound. Kendra’s death meant little in the Buffy narrative except for a moment of angst for the white characters around her before they pivoted to the next plot point.

Just because a show has some diversity onscreen doesn’t mean it does those characters justice. Netflix’s Daredevil in its second season continues its appalling trend of construing all its villains of color as either empty clichés or outright regressive stereotypes that should have stayed in the 1960s, including everyone from the anonymous ninjas that somehow populate New York City unnoticed to the black female district attorney. The show’s misuse of Afro-Latina Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) as nothing more than emotional and physical labor for its white lead only makes things worse. Shows like True Blood and Supernatural haven’t been able to find a black female character worthy of not dying or being sidelined. Even characters as beloved and iconic as Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) on the original Star Trek run get questionable treatment, despite being considered as intelligent and accomplished as the rest of the crew.

You can almost pick any black female character from a fantasy television show, past or present, and find evidence of the genre’s issues of representation. But Iris West (Candice Patton) on The Flash strikes me as perhaps the greatest example, bringing up questions about diversity in front of and behind the camera.

Since her creation in the Flash comics, in the mid-1950s, Iris has proven to be important not just because of her relationships with the men who have taken the mantle of the superhero (her love interest, Barry Allen, and cousin, Wally West). She’s depicted as a whip-smart, brave journalist à la Lois Lane. There’s no Flash without Iris, basically. Casting a black actress in the role ,and other people of color as major characters, seemed to signal that showrunners Geoff Johns, Greg Berlanti, and Andrew Kreisberg understood the diversity their audience seeks.

But while Patton brings a refreshing warmth to the role and has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, the writing of her character often relies on the clichés that have come to define the girlfriends of superhero characters. Iris is gaslit by everyone on the show, including her own father, in order to keep Barry’s identity a secret, undercutting the intelligence and dramatic potential of her character. Through most of the first season, and even part of this one, Iris is often either sidelined from the main plot due to being in the dark about Barry being the Flash or used as occasional emotional support. The show is at its best when its creators remember how valuable she is to its emotional landscape.

The Flash’s biggest mistake with her character came this season with the introduction of her mother, whom she believed to be dead. Despite its character deaths and crazed superheroes, the world of The Flash embodies a certain Silver Age zaniness that borders on an outright utopia. That makes it notably tone deaf to write Iris’s mother as secretly being a messy drug addict once forced out of town by then-husband Joe West (Jesse L. Martin). That bit of backstory doesn’t just contradict the show’s sunny world-building; it points to the larger dynamic of these characters of color, who are often written by white writers unaware of the harmful stereotypes they fall back on. This irresponsible, drug-addicted black mother incapable of taking care of her children or herself suggests a conservative fever dream.

Few characters of importance have been black women (or pretty much any minority) in the glut of superhero adaptations. Great comic characters like Nubia, Storm, Monica Rambeau, and Vixen are all terribly written, minor to their narratives, or not even adapted at all. Perhaps this is why characters like Abbie Mills feel like superheroes by proxy. They may not always have superhuman abilities, but they embody the ethos of bravery, heroism, and wit we look for in great superheroes. That’s why losing them hits so hard.

The casting of Iris West and other characters makes it apparent these showrunners know that diversity matters to their audience and can gain them kudos. But in genres that rely on imagination and fresh perspectives the way that science fiction and fantasy do, what does it say that writers can’t imagine the interior lives of their black female characters, even when they’re the leads of the show? Television has the appearance of greater diversity than Hollywood films, but what’s going on behind the scenes in terms of who is writing, directing, and running these shows is instructive as to why this pattern persists.

More than 70 percent of showrunners are men. A tragic 84 percent of television writers are white. The death of Abbie and sidelining of other black female lead characters isn’t a bold, risky storytelling move — it signals a racist mindset that can’t see the humanity or importance in women of color that has existed in Hollywood since its inception. Until the growing diversity of black women and other people of color in front of the camera extends to the writing staff, showrunners, producers, and directors, the “progress” we see onscreen will remain hollow.

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