Black Leading Ladies: A Threat to Fandom’s Status Quo

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) in “Thor: Ragnarok”

It was the Spring of 2018. Set photos of DC Universe’s Titans were leaked online giving fans their first look of Anna Diop as Starfire.

As should be expected, the set photos were not completely pleasing to the eye. Without the finishing touches of special effects, set photos of any movie or television show of the speculative genre tend to look pretty lackluster. Now, while there were complaints about how the other cast members looked, there was no denying that Diop received most of the backlash. Many complained about how “cheap” her wig looked to them. Others, however, went on express how they felt she looked like a “prostitute.” To this day, even after the second season of the show which featured a new wig and new outfits for Diop’s Starfire, fandom still seems to pick apart both the actress and character more than they do any other actor or character of the show.

Anna Diop? “Ugly”?

Now, if we walk backwards to 2014, we might recall fandom’s similar reaction to Candice Patton’s portrayal of Iris West in The Flash — the consistent love interest of Barry Allen (aka: The Flash). Upon the release of the show’s first trailer in the Spring of that year, fandom already began to ship the lead, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), with Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker) claiming the two had “more chemistry.” Keep in mind, this was in reaction to the first trailer — not even the first episode which wouldn’t premiere until the Fall of that year. Additionally, Patton is still the subject of racial harassment online.

Just one example of the harassment Candice Patton has received online since 2014

In the year 2020, you have Kaila Hale-Stern of the well-known feminist website, The Mary Sue, praising Disney/MCU’s decision to keep Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) as platonic friends rather than linking the two romantically stating, “instead we got the gift of a fascinating, strong, complicated, beautiful female character who befriends the male hero and stays his stalwart friend.”

But I have to ask: Where was this push back towards the relationship between Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Thor? Was Jane — an intelligent and likable physicist — not a strong character in her own right? If being in love and/or being loved by the leading man is a threat against a woman’s strength, where was the desire to keep Thor and Jane platonic instead of romantic?

The Mary Sue author goes on to state, “Valkyrie is also set up, for all intents and purposes, to now be one of the first openly LGBTQ+ heroes in the MCU.”

Pointing this out implies that Valkyrie being with a man erases her bisexuality and ignores the fact that she did have a girlfriend who was shown in Thor: Ragnarok, but the powers that be of Disney and the MCU decided to scrap anything in the script that made it obvious who the two women were to each other. It’s quite interesting that this author, along with many non-Black and white women in the fandom, are spending much of their energy hoping Valkyrie and Thor never become canon instead of fighting for those scenes to be released.

And speaking of LGBTQ+ representation, in the Spring of 2018, Siren — a show about mermaids with themes of environmentalism — premiered on Freeform. Although the writers of the show hinted at the possibility of a polyamorous relationship between Ben Pownall (Alex Roe), Ryn (Eline Powell), and Maddie Bishop (Fola Evans-Akingbola), fandom did what they did best. It didn’t matter that Ben and Maddie were already in a pre-established relationship at the beginning of the show or that the mermaid, Ryn, showed signs of being romantically interested in both of them. Fandom insisted that Ben must be with Ryn and that there was just “something” they didn’t like about Maddie. It’s a little strange with all the talk about “heteronormativity” in the speculative genre that this fandom is wishing for the Black woman to be pushed out of the ship (that has since been made canon) in order to have their preferred white, monogamous, and heterosexual ship.

Ryn (Eline Powell), Ben (Alex Roe), and Maddie (Fola Evans-Akingboa) of Freeform’s “Siren”

But why is this? Why all the push back against Black women as leads in the speculative genre? And why does this push back mostly come from non-Black (mostly white) women in these fandoms?

Well, I believe that in order to try to get a better understanding of this behavior, we have to step out of the speculative genre for a moment and take a look at the price Black women have historically paid for being attractive.

It has been made consistently clear by non-Black (especially white) communities that a Black woman’s femininity, desirability, and beauty are threats to non-Black women (especially white women) and social order. In fact, in 18th Century New Orleans, “Tignon Laws” were put in place which required Black women to cover up their hair in order to prevent drawing the attention of white men. The Tignon Laws are no longer in place, of course, but Black women’s bodies remain policed and viewed as inappropriate. Last year (2019), California became the first state in the US to outlaw discrimination based on a Black woman’s natural hair — in 2019! That’s over 200 years after the Tignon Laws were put in place. This also leaves 49 other states in which employers are still permitted to discriminate against a Black woman’s natural hair.

Jacques Aman’s “Creole in a Red Headdress”

Additionally, Black women are often shamed for having a particular figure. Some may remember the “TeacherBae” story from 2016 in which a fourth grade teacher from Georgia by the name of Patrice Brown was shamed online for being “too sexy.” Brown’s “hourglass” figure is seen by many cultures to be the ideal and one many women go on special diets and exercise plans to achieve. In some cases, women will put aside money to be able to afford cosmetic surgery in order to obtain this desired shape. Despite stereotypes, Black women come in many different shapes, not just hourglass, and women of varying ethnic backgrounds can have this figure, yet it is Black women who receive backlash when we have it.

Non-Black celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Awkwafina, and the Kardashians have made careers surrounding their appropriation of Black fashion, hair, and AAVE. And just last year, a white woman by the name of Sarah Marantz Lindenberg began selling a silk nightcap for $98 and marketed it as something new and revolutionary for hair care despite the fact that Black women have been teaching their daughters to wrap their hair at night to prevent breakage for generations (and bonnets can be found at places like Sally’s Beauty Supply for as low as $3). The fact that Black women are encouraged to be ashamed of our beauty and traditions while white and non-Black women are praised for appropriating and profiting off of it just illustrates that existing as an attractive Black woman is viewed as a threat.

There’s a reason “Blackface” entertainment of the Jim Crow Era is now looked at by many as a shameful part of America’s history. The truth of the matter is this: How Black people are portrayed in the media does affect the perceptions people have of us outside of fiction. The same is true for white women. White women tend to be idealized in fiction while women of color, especially Black women, are the secondary characters. Black women, like myself, often had no problem seeing ourselves in white leading ladies and relating to them. Ironically, it is white women who seem to have trouble relating to characters who look like us — but what can we expect from these women who have always been the default in speculative fiction?

When discussing the relationship between Black women and speculative fandom, it’s also a good idea to take a look at their leading men. I have used Diop, Patton, Thompson, and Evans-Akingbola as examples of Black women who play characters that get a disproportionate amount of hate from fandom, but there is definitely a pattern with all of these women— all of their characters’s leading men are white.

The comments section of a YouTube promo for “Siren” — At this point, the polyamorous relationship between the three characters had been made canon, but as you can see, when a Black woman is involved, it’s always a competition.

The outrage that occurs in fandom when a white character is paired with a Black leading lady mirrors the attitudes that motivated the Tignon Laws. As I’ve mentioned, Black women do not seem to have trouble seeing themselves in white leading ladies. The attitude white women in fandom implies, however, that they do not see us as their equals. And when someone who looks like us is paired with someone who looks like Hemsworth — well, that’s an insult to them.

This is all not to say that white women in fandom straight up hate Black women. Throughout websites such as Tumblr, you will find several pages ran by white and non-Black women dedicated to their love of characters like Shuri from Black Panther, and obviously, writers like Hale-Stern think very highly of Valkyrie, as I don’t believe they would describe her as “fascinating” or “beautiful” if they didn’t. White women in fandom seem fine with Black women just as long as they are either paired with Black men (sometimes even non-Black men of color) or if they have no love interest at all. These Black women in speculative fiction are more likely to be received well or ignored altogether. That is not to say that these particular Black women never receive hate (see: fandom’s reaction to Fish Mooney of Gotham), but fandom can learn to tolerate the existence of Black women in their fiction just as long as the writers don’t cross lines by having white leading men so much as breathe in their direction.

As a Black woman who loves speculative fiction, it can be both mentally and emotionally exhausting having to constantly scroll past the negativity surrounding Black women being loved in this genre. However, there is power in knowing where that hatred comes from. The hatred doesn’t come because we are not beautiful or worthy of love. It comes from the fact that we are. No one — whether it be lawmakers, fiction writers, or consumers of said fiction — would go through such great lengths to make sure our beauty was hidden if it wasn’t there in the first place.

You may call me Shafira. I enjoy speculative fiction, and I write about it here.

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