Admittedly, I’ve seen fewer superhero movies than a lot of folks, maybe even fewer than the average American.
It isn’t that I haven’t typically enjoyed the ones I’ve seen — I actually really liked both Val Kilmer and Ben Affleck as Batman and thought you guys were way too hard on those episodes in the Bat canon. I just have some things I tend to gravitate toward when seeking out entertainment. Superhero flicks (and TV shows) don’t typically fit the bill.
I’m disinterested in worlds where Black women are absent, or barely present other than to deliver a dollop of sass/diversity, which leaves a lot of film and TV out. I’m intrigued when we are depicted most realistically: as a diverse group of complex people who are often required to perform great feats of humanity to survive the conditions under which we live; denied empathy, comfort, and understanding far too often; and who deliver and achieve in spite of it all, which narrows my options further. I’m enlivened when we are publicly rendered as happy, beautiful-even-when-darker-than-a-paper-bag/larger than a size 12, safe, protected, loved, and appreciated; which means many of my favorite depictions of Black women live inside my head and the script drafts on my laptop.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.
It’s not surprising that there aren’t any big superhero stories with Black female leads yet, particularly considering how infrequently Black women and girls are centered in worlds that are not of our own creation. If a book/comic/film/TV show was not conceptualized, nurtured, and/or led by a Black woman, we are more likely to be absent than present or relegated to images that align with other folks’ vision of who we are. This goes for Black male storytellers as well as female storytellers of other races alike. Stories that are written about us are often thought to be for us exclusively. As if they hold no value to other people. As if we aren’t human enough to be truly relatable.
Before you can imagine Peter Parker as Spiderman, you have to be comfortable with the idea of him as Peter Parker, ‘everyday man,’ a person who is trustworthy and makes meaningful contributions to society. If you don’t think of Black women as being capable or worthy of non-‘super’ leadership and power, or of being merely decent human beings, what would be the impetus for you to bring us into your fantasy world as superheroes?
Of course, superheroes have long been almost exclusively white and male, much like the Western idea of a ‘regular’ hero. The best-known ones are everyday (white) guys (or in the case of Krypton-born Clark Kent, can pass for them) who, through the virtue of their special powers (or in the case of Batman, his wealth), can do the sort of good guy shit they would have wanted to do if they didn’t have such a special advantage. They’re the same sort of dudes who’d be promoted to editor-in-chief at their newspaper jobs, or to lead Gotham’s biggest corporation. The White dudes a White supremacist patriarchy tells us that we should feel comfortable looking to as leaders. Society’s “good guys.”
“Maybe we are superheroes.”
Historically, Black women have not been recognized in such complimentary terms. In fact, though pervasive mythologies suggest that Black men have been villainized exclusively or primarily, we, too, reside among those whom the Western world envisions as “bad guys.” Much of the justification for the system of slavery rested upon the mythological version of Black women that had been invented by White men who reimagined Africa and Africans in terms that allowed them to conquer, colonize and pillage as they see fit without consequence. Our ancestors were reimagined as lascivious, as capable of enduring backbreaking labor without ceasing, as living without a moral code. Enslaved women ancestors dealt with the horrific burden of forced sexual submission, as the modest protections afforded to protect White women held no meaning for those not considered to be women in the first place. Centuries later, these myths have enabled various forms of forced servitude, devastating demands and restrictions upon our bodies, profound psychological trauma, and the inability of many, many people — even some who look like us and come from us, who share our beds — to see us as human beings at all.
With our personhood constantly up for debate, it’s no wonder that the moniker of ‘hero’ so often eludes us, even when we’re worthy. If you can’t see us as everyday good guys, how can you envision us flying in the sky with the future of the planet resting on our shoulders?
Yet, as the inability to see Black women as human beings makes it impossible for some — including the gatekeepers who decide what sort of superhero story would make it to a mass audience — to see us as regular heroes, let alone to imagine us as the super kind, there is a persistent demand for feats of superheroism from Black women. Despite the number of high-performing Black women in various roles throughout our society, the notion of us existing primarily for the care of others seems to remain just as alive as ever. White folks have modeled their particular blend of contempt, disregard, and reliance upon us for generations of Black men and non-Black people of color to take on the same anti-Black woman mantle.
We are more likely than other groups of women to be heads of household, rearing the majority of Black children in single-mother-led homes. We take on the lion's share of elder care in our community. We shoulder the financial burden of incarcerated loved ones. We protect and care for our men and boys to the point of self-sacrifice; criminalized, too, by the justice system, we are left with no one to call upon for safety when one of them puts us in harm’s way, often forced to consider an abuser’s humanity before our own. We are expected to do more at work, school, church, and home. At every level of society, we are given less than what our output would suggest we are worth. Overwhelmingly, to put it plainly, it really doesn’t feel like people like us very much at all.
“Batman could not buy the composure Black women are often forced to channel in the face of persistent indignity.”
If I am being honest, being a Black woman who has not completely lost her shit and given up on a world that demands much more than it provides, that alone is an act of superheroism. With all the money in the world, Batman could not buy the composure Black women are often forced to channel in the face of persistent indignity.
Sure, there’s been some recent shifting in the zeitgeist. When CaShawn Thompson coined the phrase “Black girl magic” in 2013, those three words spoke a volume about the ways that Black women and girls show up in the world. Is it magic? How do we persist while indoctrinated with falsehoods about ourselves, while denied the care and concern befitting any human being, let alone the ‘special’ protections that a patriarchal society pretends to confer upon women and girls, whom it pretends to treat as a protected class? How do we still look this good when most of us don’t have access to good food, and some of us, good water? How are we still this smart when most of our schools are not? How are we still proud when you said don’t be? Maybe we are superheroes.
‘Cept I don’t recall the people of Gotham looking at Batman to fix shit or else, and though most superheroes tend to work outside of the system, they typically enjoy more public support from the folks they have protected than Black women can reasonably expect in most circumstances. The institutions we serve expect a lot from us for minimal investment. ‘The system’ has a target on our backs, but the men of our own community are so consumed with their own plight — and some of them, so completely deluded by the myth that Black women have been given greater access to White society — that they, too, often expect a lot in terms of love, care and support, without the faintest whiff of reciprocity. White women bask in the faux glow of a femininity created with us as a counterpoint and reap access to opportunities for ‘women’ that often leave women of color behind — and when we encounter them, at work, socially, at school, they, like their men, have no problem saddling us with their unreasonable expectations for physical and emotional labor. Other people of color look to White folks, Black men, and Hollywood for cues on how to treat us; the result is about what you’d imagine.
Perhaps the greatest superpower I/we have is the ability to not scream, and scream, and scream. Because there are days, many of them, when I look at our conditions and I want to open my mouth and roar until my throat is raw. Once or twice a year, it just happens. Most recently, I thought about R. Kelly openly abusing Black girls and women for twenty-six years before he was finally punished and I lost it. If you think about it, so many of my sisters have in their past the perfect makings for a villain origin story: abuse, neglect, access to the inner lives of people who were complicit, if not responsible. If we responded to disappointment the way that other members of society did, we might have turned out a Joker or ten in real life by now.
Think of the tragic events that have taken place at the hand of a White man who simply could not handle romantic reaction, or not getting a job, or otherwise being told “no.” Meanwhile, Black women are expected to — and do! — stay calm and serve despite constant “nos.” No, you are not beautiful or as valuable as other women, no matter how often they imitate you. No, you don’t deserve freedom over your body and your choices. No, you don’t have it as bad as Black men, and no, you cannot make demands for reciprocity from them because they have it too bad. No, you can’t have this, do this, be this, lead this — and you better be dignified in the face of these “nos,” or else you’re just as bad as ‘they’ say.
I wonder if casting or creating Black woman superheroes would put a spotlight on how exceptional we’re often expected to be. If one was written honestly, we very well might see someone who was propping up a whole world even before she tapped into her special powers or found herself preventing crimes. If she were a poor single mother, she’d be loving in the face of open loathing, creating feasts from crumbs, and slaying dragons in the name of her babies. Were she a successful professional, she’d be doing battle with all the micro and macro aggressions designed to throw her off her path. Regardless of how modest or great her means, gender-based violence and misogynoir — the virulent strain of misogyny reserved for Black women — would be an inextricable part of her story. She’d be a hero, to me, before she ever saved anyone else, because saving herself is feat enough.
“Perhaps the greatest superpower I/we have is the ability to not scream, and scream, and scream.”
As much as the idea of a Black woman superhero could be exciting, I’m perhaps less inspired than others might be at the idea of a sister saving the day. After all, is that not the role we so often play in real life? We save elections, we save organizations, we save our bosses’ ass, our lovers, our children. It often feels like we can save everyone but ourselves, and it always feels like if we’re in need of saving, we better call on another sister or handle shit ourselves. “Black women always get it done!” “Black women hold you down, Black women will have your back.” “Trust Black women, listen to Black women.” All this confidence in our ability to give, do and be for others, yet little investment in pouring into us so that we, too, are cared for.
The fantasy version of myself might be more of a damsel in distress than a superhero, if I’m being honest. Of course, y’all struggle to imagine Black women in that role as well, which is why persistent talk about casting Michael B. Jordan as Superman leaves me ice cold. It’s hard to picture Hollywood allowing his Lois Lane to be a Black woman (“that would make it a Black movie!”), for a whole lot of integrationist dreams seem to involve a world where a White woman openly and safely desiring a Black man seems more progressive than one where a Black woman can be openly loved, cared for and protected by a Black man.
It’s worth mentioning that when it comes to the social side of integration, Black men and boys and Black women and girls fare very differently, which is well reflected in Hollywood. Brothers have the ‘cool’ branding; (White and White adjacent) guys want to be them, (White and White adjacent) girls want to fuck them — both critical aspects to superhero success. Though non-Black women will take drastic lengths to imitate Black women’s aesthetics, often without adequate credit for their sources, they are not nearly as open with their reverence for the actual women themselves, and though White and other non-Black men certainly recognize the attractiveness of sisters, our social station is such that it isn’t quite as popular to express that openly as it is for White women to publicly drool at our men and to expect it to be mutual; consider Lena Dunham showing her whole ass after Michael B. Jordan and Odell Beckham Jr. declined the opportunity to flirt with her at the Met Ball a few years back.
“Overwhelmingly, it really doesn’t feel like people like us very much at all.”
We’ll probably see an MBJ-type swooping in to save Lena Dunham from a zombie invasion before we get the sort of Black woman superhero I’d like to see on the big or small screen. I doubt anyone from Hollywood is listening to little old me, but I’ve put together a modest proposal for such a story and I’m going to close this piece out by introducing you to Ms. Ma’am Parks:
Ms. Ma’am Parks is from Detroit, Michigan, like Dream Hampton (who took down R. Kelly) and where Rosa Parks — from whom she chose her name — spent her final years. She was a journalist doggedly covering crimes against Black women and girls until some magic shit happens one night in the newsroom (haven’t worked through this yet) and she is given two incredible powers: the ability to touch a Black woman and restore her with years of overdue rest, and the ability to make other people see Black women and girls as fully human. She goes by Ma’am so that everyone has to speak about her with respect.
One day, Ms. Ma’am Parks uncovers a pattern of abuse taking place against young girls at a local high school. She swoops in and provides the victims the ability to both speak and be heard. The guilty parties are immediately punished. There’s no explosions or flying. You just have to be able to see us.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.