Written by ‘Toritse Mojuetan
Graphic by Hengjia Liu
“I am a Black Feminist. I mean I recognize that my power as well as my primary oppressions come as a result of my blackness as well as my womaness, and therefore my struggles on both of these fronts are inseparable.” – Audre Lorde
In the English language, we subconsciously place our words in a particular order; articles follow adjectives, with nouns close behind. Perhaps in an example of life imitating art, we order our intersectionality in a manner that mirrors the structure of the English language. Even if I were to put aside complicated interactions between history, culture, and society, grammar would stand as one of the more benign reasons that I am Black before I am a woman. Upon witnessing me, a femme-presenting African, one would struggle to decide which part of me they see first, my skin or my gender. Yet consistently society has informed me that my qualifier is my skin. If rights were awarded categorically, as is quite often the case, my femaleness would present only a minor uptick in my standing. My race, however, would place me several leagues below. Therefore, I dream of grammar, a reason with significantly less far-reaching consequences, explaining away my subterranean social status. But alas, grammar is not my saving grace, and I am forced to use the intersection between history, culture, and society to explain away the wide variety of challenges that come in tow with being a Black woman. Challenges that among which the lack of accurate Black female representation in predominantly white media sits surprisingly high.
I am Nigerian-Australian-American. Sometimes the order changes, but my composition remains the same; Nigerian by genetics (more specifically Itsekiri), American by birth, and Australian by naturalisation. I make this distinction to highlight the fact that I have experienced, and continue to experience, the struggle Black women face in creating a palatable version of Blackness that does not inspire fear in white people. In retrospect, it would have been monumentally life-changing to have seen the complexity of this struggle represented in the media, in books or in school. As I write, I can think of so many situations I would have walked away from, if I just had an inkling it would all end up okay. Instead, I never received the memo and had to figure that out on my own. That isn’t to say that Black representation was entirely missing from 2010s media. It is to say, however, that as a young woman I find myself better represented in narratives concerning young Black men. This is all underpinned by the fact that in white contexts, Black female characters either lack in their femaleness or their Blackness, quite often in both. Usually, the characters are created to embody some sort of colour-blind version of feminism, at the expense of their race.
You see, it is far easier to find commonality through culture than through gender. Culture colours gender far more than the reverse. For instance, while I disagree significantly with the patriarchal heteronormative components of Itsekiri culture, I do so as a culturally literate Itsekiri woman. This means I see nuances that only those within the culture understand. I’m sure feminism looks very different in traditional Norwegian communities, and more power to them; equality and equity are not one size fits all. Therefore, attempting to translate this nuance to media, and transposing it into a white context, we get Black female characters who try too hard to fight gender and race stereotypes which results in them either being overeager or falling predictably flat.
In Black media, this is not necessarily the case. Given a context in which Blackness does not have to be curated, focus can be placed on exploring the complexities of womanhood. Complexities that can only be given justice when cultural and historical foundations have been solidified. A Black Lady Sketch Show, a fantastic comedy series with a star-studded cast of hilarious Black female comedians, is a great example of this. The very premise of the show is Black femaleness; therefore, with solid foundations, exploration of other topics through the lens of Black femaleness is possible.
However, for every example of positive Black female representation, there are a plethora of heinous portrayals that solidify already established tropes of the Black female. Hairspray is a wonderful example of shoddy Black character craftsmanship for a whole range of reasons. Set in 1950s segregated America, the musical’s plot revolves around the ‘humorous’ escapades of a dancing plus-sized white girl and her puritanically-raised skinny, white best friend as they attempt to get on an after-school TV special and find love. The Black female characters come in two flavours; loud, plus-size, and carrying a mystical level of wisdom reserved only for the white characters’ story arc or backup singer/dancer. They are one dimensional, with plotlines – if they have one – that never take them anywhere.
Inez Stubbs is a wonderful case study. Her arc is based on her dream to become a Negro Day backup dancer on the aforementioned racist after-school special. That’s it. This is doubly depressing when you find out that Inez Stubbs was partially based on Ruby Ridges, the first Black girl to attend an all-white school in Louisiana at the age of six. I was angry, disheartened, and not at all surprised when I found this out. Ruby Ridge was six years old when white parents would picket outside her school. These parents somehow found the time between their other racist appointments and made dioramas of Black babies in coffins to send her a warning. People wanted to kill her so badly that she had to be escorted to school, at the age of six, surrounded by FBI agents.
Let me reiterate, the musical is set in segregated 1950s America. So, when Inez Stubbs, an already whitewashed caricature of a Black woman, is persuaded to stick it to racism by Tracy Turnblad, that doesn’t read very well. The interactions between the two girls puts forward this ‘girl power’ feminism that fails to recognise that if Inez were to break the rules, Inez could most likely die. This was 1950s America, so killing a Black person – particularly a Black woman – because they entered a white space without permission, was very much within the realm of reality. But alas, Tracy Turnblad is colour blind and therefore believes she ended racism by breaking social norms with no consequences. Her prize for which was kissing a greasy-haired Zac Efron. As for Inez, you never really know what happens to her, she kind of just dances off into the end credits and that’s about it.
People are likely going to argue that Hairspray was targeted towards children and couldn’t discuss sensitive issues such as racism. I’d like such people to remember that Black children live an experience heavily influenced by racism, therefore it is not fair to prioritize the ignorance of white children and adults over Black representation. Black people, particularly Black women, do not live as secondary characters in the main character storyline of white people. Unless they’re in Hairspray. In that case, they dance into the sunset because before Tracy Turnblad came along, no one had any idea what to do.
Hairspray gives us a segue into history so let’s take a short trip down memory lane, because the prioritization of Blackness over womanhood isn’t new. The scene is 1960s America, a hot bed of activism and civil unrest. The concurrent movements of Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights have forced Black women to make the impossible decision; do they fight for their rights as women or as people? Unfortunately, this decision was not as hard as it seemed because women can be racists too. These newfangled feminist spaces created what we call white feminism, a branch of feminism which focuses on gaining equality for white women while failing to acknowledge the intersectional oppression that ethnic minority women face. White feminism seeks only to challenge the patriarchy, while still allowing for white women to benefit from the structures of imperialism and capitalism.
Let’s come back to our discussion on Black female representation in media. Quite frankly, I don’t want to watch a movie about a Black and a white woman making it big in New York City all while fighting the patriarchy. Why? I’ve created a little drinking game as an explanation:
Take a shot if the Black female character is relegated to the role of best friend. Take a shot if they use a significant racial trauma or struggle to educate the white woman. Take a shot if the Black woman is not the love interest. Take a shot if the Black female is a caricature of Black femininity because the writers don’t know how to write Blackness and femaleness in a way that straight white people can understand. Take a shot if they fail to mention that even if they both get a raise, the Black women will still receive 21% less. Finish your drink if there is no mention of the fact that the Black woman will be facing racism as well as sexism. Likely her white counterpart will be oblivious, or worse yet, will be pretend to be ‘woke’ while speaking for the Black female character. You can take extra shots for that one if you like.
I find myself gravitating towards Black male characters because in white contexts, their gender is not in question. Their struggles in white contexts more accurately mirror mine because (for some reason) it is easier to write a man than it is a woman. One of my favourite movies of all time is Spiderman: Into the Spider Verse. The first time I saw it, I cried. Not because the ending was particularly heartbreaking, but because the 11-year-old me that still sits within my 21-year-old body felt seen. Miles Morales, the Black Spiderman, embodied the struggles Black children face when trying to fit into white institutions. Never once did they mention his race nor was he a caricature; he was simply a young Black man existing as a young Black man. I am waiting, and hoping, for the day I’ll find a young Black female character that can exist in the same way; both Black and female, simultaneously and as a whole.