So far in our Black History Month Special Edition (TM) of SFC Friday we've looked at the importance of representation in speculative fiction with Garnet in Steven Universe and the pitfalls of respectability politics with Michaela in How to Get Away with Murder. Now I want to take a hard right and discuss the apparent difficulty in representing black women who are military and political leaders.
Why is it that these characters always seem to fall into the same dang tropes? Black women who lead are often shown as militaristic, "hard", order-barking types, which seems to be an expression of our cultural stereotypes of black women as inherently "strong" and "powerful" and therefore not allowed vulnerability. If you think back to the last fifteen years of television, it's worth noting that the most common place for a "progressive" show to cast a black actress, particularly a black actress over the age of thirty, is in a police station as the police chief. Just look at Forever, iZombie, Southland, Saving Grace, and more.
Think about it. How often do you see a TV show with a black woman as the CSI tech or the medical examiner? Those are roles that could easily have been played by black women but the casting directors apparently didn't think the black actresses were "plausible" in the roles.
Anyway. I'm getting off track. When it comes to representations of black women with power, there's a lot of good stuff along with the bad. So to look at this more fully, both sides of the issue, I want to take a closer examination of Indra from The 100, a black woman with great political power and military command, but who still falls into some of these problematic tropes.
Indra (played by Adina Porter), for those of you who don't obsessively watch this show, is a relatively minor character on The 100 who first appears in the second season. The story introduces her as the chief of a relatively prosperous and powerful tribe, the tribe of Tondc, which has had pretty extensive dealings with the Sky People who fell to earth. Notably, Indra's tribe is the one that Lincoln hails from, and she and her people have not reacted well to his defection. So we first meet her as an enemy.
Over the course of the second season, however, Indra slowly becomes an ally and eventually a friend. When her people are slaughtered by a trigger-happy Finn in episode five, she immediately demands retribution, but she's a strong enough leader and a compassionate enough person to eventually agree that this was the act of one man and not a representative of the Sky People. By the end of the season Indra is backing Clarke, allying with the Sky People, and even adopting Octavia as her second.*
Who is that? Well, as a leader, Indra fits a lot of these stereotypes we have about what happens when strong women, particularly strong black women, lead. She's inherently militaristic and aggressive, responding to threats wisely, but also with force. She is, well, warlike. She responds to threats with war. Admittedly some of that is completely understandable - her village is first shot up then bombed and by the end of the season she and the refugees basically have nothing left but anger and weapons - but it's still worth pointing out. Indra is a "strong black woman" insofar as we define that as a character who always responds with and to strength. Physical strength, that is.
This may not seem like a big thing, and it kind of isn't. Indra's still a cool character who gets a lot of the best lines and is a representative of the Grounders who demonstrates a lot of their better qualities, like a rich culture and a willingness to learn about others. Plus, it's always important to see black women in speculative fiction, as we've said before.
So it's not that I have a problem with Indra, per se, it's that the lack of variety in representations of middle-aged women of color bothers me. Indra is a good leader, but she's a good leader the way most black women are represented as good leaders - she's a strong woman who respects other strong women and who shows absolutely no emotional vulnerability.
Indra is straight up awesome, but I feel like allowing her to express emotional vulnerability would only add to her as a character and it would be hugely impactful for the viewing audience. I'm not the person to have come up with this (because, spoiler alert, still white!), but Bitch Media did an awesome article a while back about black women and their perceived inhuman strength:
And that is what the enduring meme of the “strong black woman” obscures: It ultimately flattens black women’s humanity, making it harder for others to see us as complex beings. Worse, the myth of our extraordinary strength makes it difficult for us to see ourselves.You should totally click the link and go read that whole article ("Precious Mettle: The Myth of the Strong Black Woman" by Tamara Winfrey Harris), but the basic point is that always focusing on how "strong" black women are allows us as a culture to dehumanize them. If we say that black women can survive anything, that black women can care for everyone else, that black women are great leaders because they can always get through, then we are saying that black women are in some ways inhuman. And that is deeply not good.
There's an especially problematic scene with Indra in the second season that at first I read as really really cool and feminist and interesting, but upon later reflection I find very unsettling. Octavia, who has struggled with her identity throughout the show, is trying to join in on the Grounder's military training. To teach her a lesson, one of the Grounders agrees to spar with her. Octavia is beaten. Badly. Indra watches the whole time and then afterwards she goes and finds Octavia nursing her wounds.
Octavia expects to be told that she sucks and shouldn't have tried, but to her surprise, Indra is there to compliment her. She says that while Octavia did get punched around and knocked down a lot, she kept getting up and keeping fighting, which is the essence of being a Grounder or something. Then Indra offers Octavia the chance to be her second, sort of like her apprentice or squire.
It's a huge moment for Octavia and it really cements Indra as a fascinating character and the biggest proponent of a lasting alliance between the Grounders and the Sky People. But. Upon watching this scene again, I was actually a bit alarmed by the idea that Indra is essentially rewarding Octavia for being suicidally brave and unconcerned with her own safety. The attributes of Octavia that Indra is validating are the same ones that value running yourself ragged over self-care, that insist that you're only as important or valuable as your physical strength, and so on.
It's not that the scene itself is awful - in the context of the show it's still pretty cool - it's that within our cultural context this scene purveys a problematic view of black women in leadership and the values they express. By explicitly condoning Octavia's actions, Indra is implicitly saying that she would do the same thing. She is the opposite of vulnerable here, and that allows us as the audience to distance ourselves.
That distancing is really at the heart of the other big problem with Indra on The 100: she really has no plotlines of her own and most often serves to shepherd along the storylines of young white women, like Octavia or Clarke or Lexa. Yes, Indra is a relatively minor character, but again there's something uncomfortable in realizing that she as a person has been given very little opportunity to tell her own story. Even though it was her village that was bombed and her village that was shot up and her people who have suffered the most, Indra is given almost no scenes to express her sorrow about this or to even process what's happened. Instead she seems to have moved on, just like the plot.
This is a common problem with this character trope: the black women police chiefs are almost never given their own storylines on cop shows, they just exist to further the plot. Indra, like these characters, is less a person than a plot device, and that's damaging in and of itself.
I want to make this clear, though: I think Indra is great. I love Adina Porter and I love what she's done with the limited space she's been given. I just believe that there is more out there. We could have more. Black women deserve to see themselves as more than just physically strong, inhumanly impervious drill sergeants. Black women can be soft and feminine and gentle too, and they can be soft and gentle and vulnerable while also being good leaders. These are not mutually exclusive traits.
I suppose this is a call for Hollywood to just plain do better. Indra on her own is great, but as an indicator of a common trend in television writing, she's not a good sign. We need more representations of black women that recognize the complexity of that experience, because without those representations, it'll be easy to assume the stereotypes are true in the women we meet in the real world.
*If none of this makes sense to you, consider watching The 100! It's great. Bleak and dark and devastating, but great.