Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
Black womanhood is often fraught with a myriad of stereotypes. Not just the archetypical Madonna or Whore, but with an added layer of misogynoir that gives us such labels as Mammy, Sapphire, or Jezebel. These labels have led to many writers writing safe and respectable Black female characters in an attempt to erase the stereotypical portrayals of Black womanhood.
In the television version of comic Luke Cage, Luke’s sidekick Misty Knight is a safe Black female character. She is an honest cop who plays the role of Luke’s conscience when he finds himself straddling the line between hero and vigilante. Misty herself is given very little back story and is merely a bit player next to Luke Cage. What we do know about her is that she is a paragon of virtue as a good cop and a former neighborhood basketball star. She’s Claire Huxtable if she had a badge and a mechanical arm.
Having virtuous Black female characters isn’t harmful by itself, but in not embracing the negative aspects of humanity it gives a limited view of the human experience and ignores the vulnerability and complexity that is not afforded to Black women in both real life and media. One of the most familiar and often-used stereotypes for Black womanhood has been of the Sapphire character, what most would now call the Angry Black Woman. The Sapphire stereotype comes from the name of a character in the once popular TV show Amos ‘n’ Andy.
Amos ‘n’ Andy began as a radio show with two white actors mimicking stereotypical behavior and an exaggeration of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). The show aired on the radio from 1928 to 1960 and a television version of the show aired on CBS with television’s first all-black cast from 1951 to 1953 when the show was canceled through efforts of the NAACP for its negative and stereotypical portrayal of black characters.
However, we’re currently at a time where Black writers are taking back the narrative surrounding Black women in popular fiction and media. This has led to a bevy of nuanced Black female characters in speculative pop culture embracing their “bad side”. A new and more nuanced portrayal of Black female villainy can be seen in two popular superhero franchises currently on television, Luke Cage and Black Lightning.
In direct opposition to the portrayal of Misty Knight in Luke Cage is the portrayal of Luke Cage’s nemesis, Black Mariah. Her character has more agency than Misty and is also afforded a depth that is lacking in Misty’s characterization.
One might want to ascribe the Sapphire or Angry Black Woman trope to Black Mariah. She has plenty to be angry about including incest/molestation, teen pregnancy, and misogyny, but she is more than a stereotype. Her character is given a lush backstory as well as her own agency, unlike even some of the ancillary heroes in the show. Mariah wants to create havoc not for the sake of creating havoc, but in an attempt to elevate her family name from being associated with criminality. She wants to clean up Harlem as much as Luke Cage does, but by very different measures.
Of course, every villain is the hero in their own story and this is clearly the case for Black Mariah in her aspirations for a revived Harlem without gentrification and built on the legacy of its Black residents. However, at the same time, she delves into the darker economic forces in Harlem such as drugs and gun-running.
Mariah is also seen in weaker moments with her lover and her family. This is not a one-dimensional portrayal of a Black female villain in which there are no redeeming qualities and no relationships to anything outside of her own goals. And although we know that she has to get her comeuppance from the hero, there is a part of us that roots for her and her ambitions.
Another persistent stereotype of Black female characters is the Mammy stereotype of a large Black woman as a maternal figure who nurtures those around her. She is usually in opposition to the Sapphire or Jezebel character, which shows Black women as purely sexual objects, like Halle Berry’s portrayal of Catwoman in the movie Catwoman. A frequent criticism of this version of Catwoman is her use of sexuality to render Batman incompetent rather than depending on her intelligence or cunning. The prevailing image of the Mammy figure is personified by the eponymous character in Gone with the Wind.
Black Lightning’s female villain character, Lady Eve, might appear at first glance to embody this stereotype. She is a large woman and seems nurturing at first glance with her work as a funeral home owner, but we later see that she is nothing like our first impressions. Lady Eve is a ruthless and emotionless villain and that is shown best when we see her preparing a body for burial. We later learn that the body is alive and immobilized by some type of drug while Lady Eve harvests their organs. After that scene, all visions of her as a Mammy figure are erased.
Like Mariah in Luke Cage, Lady Eve is the lone female villain Underboss in league with only males as her closest counterparts. The villain Tobias Whale, who serves as her surrogate son, is first thought to be the senior villain, but we find out through their interaction that instead, he is a Capo in the regime run by a governmental/criminal agency.
Lady Eve, despite being like a mother to Tobias, shows she can be just as ruthless with him as she can with those she considers enemies. In having such a strong leader and maternal figure Black Lightning’s writers have turned the Mammy stereotype on its head. With Lady Eve we have a female villainess who acts with detached coolness that is usually reserved for male villains while being higher in rank than the other villains that Black Lightning must deal with.
When writers push up against both respectability politics by writing characters that are not only flawed but downright “bad” by exploring and subverting tired stereotypical tropes, they allow their characters’ full humanity to be shown. And at its heart, that is what “Black Girl Magic” is all about. It’s about showing the humanity and fullness of Black womanhood, which is not always pretty, but usually comes from a place of honesty and authenticity. It would be a disservice to portray Black female heroes in full and not give the same respect to their evil counterparts.