I tweeted this over a month ago from The Nerds of Color handle, when I was excited about the Zendaya news and wanted to quickly hop on the celebrations. Suffice to say the tweet raised some eyebrows. The tweet fails to mention other recent castings or acknowledge the other women of color who came before them, in both film and TV. And from a feminist point of view, the inclusion of romance in a film is often considered a disservice to the female character (coughBruce/Natcough). The complex ways in which women of color are portrayed on screen is worth exploring, so let’s take a closer look at that now. How far have we come in terms of representation? And what does it mean to show a woman of color being loved?
It’s easy to get down about the state of diversity in Hollywood — and to be clear, it still sucks — but the landscape of the MCU and DCEU has changed a lot in the last four years alone. Here is the current slate of women of color in upcoming major superhero films and TV shows (please note this is not meant to be a be-all and end-all list, and some have been left out because we don’t know who they’re playing yet):
As a comparison, here are the women of color with named and speaking roles in superhero films around 2011-2012:
(Yes, that is Angela Bassett as Amanda Waller, and yes, she was completely wasted in Green Lantern.) As for TV, the closest we had to a woman of color around that time was Kristin Kreuk as Lana Lang on Smallville, but she was written off the show in 2009.
This change in just a few years is definitely something to celebrate. Sure, some of these roles were underwhelming — looking at you, X-Men Apocalypse — and we don’t know how much screen time these newer characters will get. And as you can see, Latina and Native American women are also still woefully underrepresented. But progress is progress, and we’ve undoubtedly moved a little closer towards a comic book genre that better reflects the demographics of today.
And while it’s important that each of these women get well-written, complex story lines, it’s also important that some of them are allowed to have well-written romances too. Because here’s the thing: the way women of color are typically portrayed in media is like the Bizarro world version of how white women are portrayed. Many women cheered when characters like Katniss, Rey, and Furiosa came along because they were sick and tired of seeing (white) women relegated to being the damsel, and wanted more badass (white) women who could fight like one of the guys and who didn’t have time for primping or love.
The same cannot be said for women of color. Women of color have emphatically not been flooded with images of being treated as princesses and beloved love interests. The emotionally resilient, invulnerable, no-nonsense woman is all we are often allowed to be in media. We’re used to seeing roles where the women of color are expected to stare death and torment in the face with nary a single tear shed. We’re used to being expected to shoulder some great burden with no complaint. We often see ourselves play stoic bodyguards, hardened leaders, and calculating assassins who will do whatever it takes to survive. Rarely do women of color — particularly Black women — get to see themselves portrayed as precious, beautiful, and in need of protection. Rarely do we see films where we aren’t automatically expected to save ourselves.
This portrayal is even more stark when both a woman of color and a white woman are present in a story, because it almost always works out that the white woman is the one who ends up on a pedestal while the woman of color falls into some amalgam of the Strong Female Protagonist trope and the Strong Black Woman Who Don’t Need No Man meme. We can see these dynamics play out in the MCU and DCEU. In Suicide Squad, June Moone needs to be saved and Harley Quinn is watched over by the whole squad. Meanwhile, both Katana and Waller are barely acknowledged as women and have to fend for themselves, with many of the characters visibly disgusted that they ended up having to save Waller. (Yes, I understand it was a plot point, but also understand how race and gender dynamics make that come off a certain way.)
In Daredevil, Karen Page is most often protected by the men of Hell’s Kitchen while Elektra and Claire are expected to be tougher. X-Men: Apocalypse focuses on the personal development of Mystique and Jean Grey while both Storm and Psylocke are mostly one-dimensional. Captain America: Civil War has fully rendered women like Natasha, Wanda, and Sharon, while the only woman of color who stands out is the “Move, or you will be moved” Dora Milaje. And as Nichole Perkins at Buzzfeed mentions about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in an article about the Strong Black Woman trope:
In a recent episode, a former operative — a Black woman — required eye surgery. Unfortunately, she could only receive a local anesthesia, leaving her awake throughout the procedure. A current S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, already a bit squeamish, hesitated to insert a needle into her eye, so the patient did it herself, unflinchingly, with no reaction.
And we’ve also seen this dynamic play out elsewhere. The director of the 2011 film Drive ended up casting white Carey Mulligan as the Latina main character because according to him, she came off as someone who needed to be protected… unlike all the Latina actresses they screened that day. Sleepy Hollow was a show that routinely had Abbie Mills — the main Black woman — sacrifice her time, safety, and ultimately her life in order to protect the white Ichabod Crane and his white love interests. Michelle Rodriguez’s no-nonsense character in Avatar sacrifices herself to save Jake and the others. Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter films was played by two different Black actresses up until the sixth film, where she was recast as a white woman so she could have a romance with Ron Weasley.
And these troubling race dynamics seep into fandom as well. BrOTPs — a term used to described the ultimate platonic friendship — are often ascribed to any relationship that involves a woman of color. The purpose of the brOTP is often for white fans to emphasize how out of the question a romantic relationship is between the white male protagonist and the woman of color because they are such good friends. The aforementioned Abbie/Ichabod and even Michonne/Rick from The Walking Dead were defended as strictly platonic brOTPs (despite both shows painting both couples as perfect matches, and in Sleepy Hollow‘s case, basically soul-mates), as are Joan/Sherlock and Mako/Raleigh. (As an Asian woman, I can tell you that not giving Mako Mori a romance in Pacific Rim did not feel nearly as revolutionary as a lot of [white] feminists claimed it was, since I can count the number of films featuring non-fetishized, well-written romances featuring an Asian woman on one hand.) Some fans claim that Uhura/Spock is a disservice to Uhura, and while I agree she could be given more character development, they often fail to see how showing a popular character like Spock pining for Uhura is also a huge deal.
And just to make sure I’m being explicitly clear: while all women of color get the short end of the stick compared to white women, the pushback about showing a romance, particularly an interracial one, is 100% more vocal and vitriolic when the woman is Black. The reason Candice Patton’s Iris West and Zendaya’s Mary Jane are vitally important is because of how often media and fandom treat Black women as unworthy of love, respect, and protection.
And we know how these portrayals take a toll on Black women and society at large. We know from dating websites that Black women get messaged the least, and suffer from higher rates of depression than every other ethnicity. We know that some people legitimately believe Black people feel less pain, and that people are all too comfortable harassing them online. We know Martin Luther King, Jr. himself asked Nichelle Nichols to continue playing Uhura on Star Trek because he understood how important representation was. We know that the MCU and DCEU films reach an incredible amount of people, grossing millions of dollars across the globe. We know that media doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and that it’s important to portray Black women as human, and precious, and in need of love. As Tamara Winfrey Harris writes over at Bitch Media:
As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman’s life to have value), women who are perpetually framed, because of their race, as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard.
So yes, while Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is certainly more than just Thor’s love interest — and while she’s a kickass warrior goddess — would it also be so bad to show Thor pining for her too? When you’re somebody who’s routinely represented on screen in a variety of ways, I think it’s difficult to understand how much it means to see someone who looks like you be on the receiving end of a simple act like a gently cupped cheek or a kissed shoulder.
And of course there are aspects to these castings that we can definitely talk about. We can look at the fact that, with the exception of Nakia, all of these women are paired with white men. That issue stems entirely from the fact that a majority of the leading superheroes we have right now are played by white actors. The solution to that is one you all know Nerds of Color has been advocating for since it’s inception: cast more people of color in superhero roles that were originally written as white, and start including canonically non-white superheroes into the fold. Based on the current slate of planned movies and shows, we know this is unlikely to happen any sooner than 2020. I hear the concerns that having the love interest be a white man might play into the white savior narrative. I saw the hot tragic mess that was the 2013 The Wolverine. I hear ya. But for now this is what we’ve got.
We can also look at issues of colorism: the women who we know have been cast to play love interests are predominantly lighter-skinned. Meanwhile, dark-skinned Danai Gurira is likely just playing a Dora Milaje in Black Panther, while Lupita’s Nakia in the comics is a Dora Milaje whose psychotic obsession with marrying T’Challa turns her into a villain by the name of Malice. And Viola Davis’ Waller in Suicide Squad is certainly the embodiment of the Strong Black Woman trope. Sure, that’s who Waller is in the comics and Davis’ portrayal was great, but it’s hard not to see a pattern here. I can only hope the Black Panther team sees how problematic Nakia’s original story is and subverts that. I think we can all agree we’d love to see Lupita fighting alongside the Avengers rather than against them.
As it all stands, I remain cautiously optimistic about the upcoming films and shows. These castings and roles are huge, and I hope we continue to see more diverse castings. We’ll have to see how it pans out for some of these newer characters. I can only hope the writers do right by them.