I am not sure when my best friend, Jessica, offered up her Disney+ login, though it’s likely I asked for it.
I made a profile, named it Evil Kermit, and then, for several months, it didn’t get much use. Often at the top of my screen were photos or even teasers scrolling by, as these digital streaming devices’ algorithms are wont to do. Big-budget commercial sci-fi fantasy films went ignored. My appetite was for unscripted drama and retro scripted crime shows. It was 2020 and I was in my revisiting-The-Real-Housewives-of Atlanta-as-self-care phase, so these superhero or anti-hero movies and TV shows failed to grab my attention.
Plus, there are too many rich and powerful white men on TV throwing their weight around under the guise of making the world suck less. There was no way in hell I was going to voluntarily watch rich and powerful white men play rich and powerful superhuman white men throwing their weight around saving a generic metropolis. I was in the mood for delusion, just not that brand of delusion.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.
2020 did a number on me. It worked me over, rode me hard, and put me away wet. Despite the magnitude of how my life was transformed that year, it was still inconsequential to the global tumult felt by the ravishing of our understanding of safety and community. Death, poverty, rage, and uncertainty reframed our collective obsessions, politics, and the lens through which we observe our respective cultures. This upheaval stirred Western anxieties and reoriented many folks’ consciousnesses to the most marginalized: those of us who are poor, disabled, queer, Black, and fighting for our lives.
To some extent, my consciousness and politic were already calibrated to work in this way so I was exhausted with the so-called awakening of white America and its media machine. In New York City, the place I’ve called home for all of my life, the streets went quiet, and the rapidly gentrifying culture hoisted up by a ruthless real estate economy went limp. The city’s distress harkened to a time of its ubiquitous grit and palpable danger, and within a year, as 2021 crime statistics reflect, the city became less safe. Naturally, I stayed in the house, on my sofa, watching a lot of television.
“I was in the mood for delusion, just not that brand of delusion.”
The Magical Realm of My Sofa — Dark emerald green, performance velvet, seventy-two inches long. Two cushions of unknown origins and two big (sometimes) fluffy down pillows of that same color and material all rest on the hardwood floors of my pre-war Harlem apartment. Sometimes there is a white and green tartan plaid throw, other times a comforter encased within a linen duvet that’s been washed soft. Welcome to the magical realm of my sofa. Here, a woman can go anywhere she so chooses, without negotiating thresholds beyond the body. Almost always, there is a body.
The word “odalisque” is defined as a Turkish slave or concubine in a harem, but this body is an artful Black queer odalisque, swatting her thumb over the touchscreen remote. She is trying to open a portal to elsewhere, hoping to dull her grim imagination. The body belongs to me, and with just the right combinations of melancholia and marijuana, the alchemy is the perfect escape from the grimier realities of life.
For the better part of a decade, procedural television has been my jam, and when I say procedural, I am speaking strictly of the Dick Wolf Industrial Complex. The original Law and Order is my specific poison, due in part to my yearning for a nostalgic old New York (before 9/11) and mostly because when I was age seven, I met Jerry Orbach while he was filming an episode in my East Village neighborhood.
“I have done the impossible: I've survived this far.”
The predictability of the format was comforting until it wasn’t. The nature of the show, mainly murder, started rubbing up against me when there were only icicles budding from the branches outside of my window, and bodies were still piling up and being counted at morgues across the globe. That was early 2021, I could not take any more murder or wig pulling and drink throwing. I stopped watching it all and I was bummed.
Then social media erupted with collective excitement when the teaser for Wandavision was released. I didn’t know the first thing about Wanda, but I read that Teyonah Parris was a part of the cast. Since I’m starved for dark-skinned Black women on screen, that was all I needed to draw me in. For the first four episodes of the show, I was confused, like everyone else who tweeted about it. The speculative elements paired with the satirized tropes from my favorite childhood shows, like Step by Step or Malcolm in the Middle, kept me (and a lot of the fandom) interested. Plus, there wasn't anything new on TV at the moment.
Watching WandaVision, I found myself feeling relaxed, sinking into the narrative of this woman who had the power to make a nice little life for herself despite all the attempts of the outside world to break into her imagination and destroy her peace. I could relate. Heartbreaks, failed popularity contests, and vanity sizing were the disappointments I had come to anticipate from this world. Half of the time I spent here on earth was spent trying to find a home where my queerness, the richness of my complexion, and the robustness of my body would be protected and celebrated.
But like Wanda, the security of my life, of my world, was under surveillance and could be disrupted at any moment. In a world where I was trained to mind my business, nearly anyone who wanted to use the State as an apparatus against me could, and the consequences though not certain would likely be grim. I needn’t harness any superhuman power beyond the eye-piercing ability of being seen and read as Black, as fat, as other. People were speculating about the episodes while my eyes glazed over after a few subreddits. There was no time to read the actual comic books. That’s when I decided to watch for myself.
During the spring of 2021, I retreated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Then I lollygagged into whatever DC calls its film franchises. I stared at Star Wars and meandered in The Matrix trilogy. I luxuriated in the sweet escape of an eight-figure production. This world where nearly everyone has extra special gifts, talents, and virtuous dreams of offing the bad guys to make the world safer, was an unexpected and welcomed solace. Movie after movie, then a TV series, followed by another movie, I was addicted and there was so much to watch. They were all so easy to devour. The formulaic plots soothed me. The sophisticated special effects were intoxicating. And the predictably subversive humor... well, it made me laugh.
“I luxuriated in the sweet escape of an eight-figure production.”
In the past, I did the obligatory Wakanda thing and saw Black Panther in theatres like many other enthusiastic Black people. But that was the extent of my knowledge of this world and the culture surrounding contemporary superhero film.
But that was back then, BC, Before Covid, Before Crazy. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that felt like it would never end, what was wrong with fantasizing about the brightest minds of the MCU, all the Black people led by a young woman with a Black sounding name, Shuri, shoring up all their talent to cure the novel coronavirus?
I watched Black Panther again, this time imagining a group of covert geniuses saving the most vulnerable of us. I knew they could cure my hyposmia and chronic migraines. I was almost certain that my mother and her sister and all of my friend’s parents would listen to the Black King of anywhere if he told them to stay-they-asses-in-the-house because they for sure didn’t trust the news and were definitely not listening to their “paranoid” children. As the country started to “reopen,” my anxiety ripened thinking about how I might die alone of a new strand of Covid. Instead of rushing outside to eat on the curb as the black snow began to melt, I stayed home and ordered take-out. I continued my binge of these films in the dark cavern of my living room, alternating my body side-to-side on my broken-in couch.
Since I was submerged in these worlds, I went back to the blogs and subreddits to see if my feelings about the discussion about these films had transformed. No, they had not, my eyes glazed over once again. Beyond the piercing racism and misogyny, I wasn’t interested in the discourse or symbolism of the movies. It was better for me that way. It didn’t make sense to me that people wanted these fantasy universes to “make sense,” within the margins of their stale imaginations. Wasn’t that the entire point? To make a shadow world that sought to rectify its struggles with good and evil?
In superhero world, even an arms dealer is virtuous. And if at first, he doesn’t play well with others, he will for the sake of all of humanity. He listens to the covert Black leader in charge of the shadow government running the world’s most powerful intelligence agency! In a world with superheroes, love rules, powers, and motivates all of the choices people make. I desire to embody and receive that kind of omniscient care, to live in a world that gives a fuck so loudly. So, I kept watching.
What’s wrong with wanting to be saved? I’ve been wanting to be rescued from the bad actors of poverty my entire life. I am not talking about the salvation of the afterlife either — it’s my preservation and I need it now! Who doesn’t fantasize about some rich dude curing cancer, or for five multi-ethnic teens uniting to save the planet from the doom of climate change? I’d rather that world than the one I inherited. A world where instead of the memory of being falsely accused of crimes I didn’t commit and then being punished “judiciously,” didn’t exist. I would much rather find myself in a tight spot with the State and before I can be processed the van transporting me gets hijacked and I get to continue on with my important mission.
“Where I felt most seen on screen was on the occasion of the anti-hero.”
But no, that wasn’t my fate, not then when I was 15 facing a judge nicknamed “Remand Rand” and not now, with my fancy clothes, arguable respectability, and high-resolution images on social media. There’s no shadow agency of heroes who will blow some shit up to protect me and my mission. Oh yes, and my important work you ask? Going about living my life as I see fit, trying not to succumb to the misery of the trauma I have experienced for just being me.
I’m tired. I am tired for me, for my mother, for her mother, and her mother’s mother, and all the mothers before her. Tired of all implications of the Plantationocene Era. On the days when I can’t muster up the strength to press on, I want someone to come and save me. I don’t care if I’m indulging in the myth of the white savior when I wish for Tony Stark, or even Black Tony Stark (James Rhodes), to fix all the problems plaguing the planet. The real-life, rich (read: white), powerful (read: white), and privileged (read: white) men don’t possess any of the superhero virtuosity that has become synonymous with the fantasy worlds housing our superheroes we love to watch. Just because I’m a Black, queer, woman, and ostensibly un-Christian doesn’t mean I don’t want a Sky Daddy to come and make things easier for me.
My evolving politics often deny me access to the restorative spaces — spaces that center a superhero too, often cloaked in a messiah’s garment. But my pragmatism (and love for women) remind me that I do not belong. No matter how many times I got down on my knees to pray, trying to invite the spiritual rites of the women who grasped on tightly to this benevolent savior righting their wrongs, I couldn’t shake knowing how hard their lives were. So few of their prayers for abundance, rest, and joy were answered. Still, I am indulging in the savior fantasy because I am the only one who can “save” me, and that idea alone is consuming.
Where I felt most seen on screen was on the occasion of the anti-hero. These characters were often the black sheep of their families or communities — made bad by fate or circumstance and always seeking retribution. I didn’t choose to be born queer, but I chose not to live in secrecy and in doing so, I sacrificed an intimacy with my immediate family. I’m not a black sheep per se but I have deviated the most from my generational trajectory and have done so stylishly. No, I’m not the only bisexual woman in my family but I am the one who declared it and deliberately built a world around that part of my identity. It created a chasm between the life I thought I was expected to have and the one I've made for myself. Most of my life has been spent trying to seal that gap and reconcile my fate. I have often disappointed myself.
“I don’t care if I’m indulging in the myth of the white savior when I wish for Tony Stark.”
The magical realm of my sofa is where I have returned, horizontally aligning myself in the position of the dead, hoping to be renewed — or in recent times, to be rescued and restored. Hoping to chase away obsessive thoughts on how to be better — and trying to outrun the myths of my body. Thinking always about the ways I can earn a living, normalizing the way I love, trying to be beautiful and negotiating those standards and implications in every room I walk into, trying to drink enough water, wanting to laugh more, wanting to cry more. Engulfing myself in the world of superheroes was like a balm when thinking about the world and then ruminating on my interiority became too much.
I have done the impossible: I've survived this far. I've thrived by transforming myself and my life, often to suit the needs of my ever-changing desires, but it has been isolating at times when there is no dedicated path to follow. I have been the superhero to myself, and it has worn me out. There are few cultural touchstones and spaces of escape for us who have been cast culturally as downtrodden. In my life, I have found love and to some extent security. And with that, the supposed safety and visibility garnered from the “respect,” of my communities. But it doesn't really mean what it should because my identity, which empowers me, also leaves me vulnerable to a myriad of harm. So, then I lay back down and watch TV, and try to become new again.
The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.