“There’s a Black Lady on TV and She Ain’t No Maid” — 10 Black Female Characters Who Built Me (Sci-Fi/Fantasy Edition)
The rankings truly do not matter, btw.
In Diana Adesola Mafe’s book Where No Black Woman Has Gone Before: Subversive Portrayals in Speculative Film and TV, Mafe shares an anecdote that Nichelle Nichols related about meeting a young Whoopi Goldberg:
“I met Whoopi Goldberg when Gene [Roddenberry] was doing The Next Generation and she had told me when Star Trek came on she was nine years old and she had told me when Star Trek came on she was nine years old and she said she turned the TV on and saw me and ran through the house screaming: Come quick, come quick. There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid.”
Seeing yourself represented in media is important, and a lot of time you don’t even fully realize what you have been missing until it’s right in front of your face. I’ve been upset a lot this week because it’s just been an awful Black History Month, but I don’t want to spend the whole month frustrated.
I want to highlight the good and fun things that pop culture have given me, so today I want to speak about some of the Black women in pop culture who have meant to me what Nichelle Nichols meant to so many. Because sometimes it means a lot to just see yourself on screen, even imperfectly.
1) Okoye (Black Panther)
There were a lot of moments in Black Panther that made me cry, but the first time I watched it, the scene that made me cry was watching Okoye (Danai Gurira) in the film. Not only was she gorgeous and powerful, but I appreciated that the movie gave her a sharp sense of humor and a romantic element to the story.
We often talk about how the “strong female character” trope is limiting, because it assumes there is only one kind of strength. Throughout the movie, Black Panther highlights all kinds of Black female strength, but Danai Gurira as Okoye stuck with me the most because she reminded me so much of my mother. The bald head (my mom used to rock) and the layeredness of being tough, funny, and loyal. Okoye is a warrior queen and if I could have any dream, it’d be some way for her and Xena to have a crossover. I’m so glad I have her in my life and that red dress is everything. The coolest big sis.
2) Abbie Mills (Sleepy Hollow)
One of the only reasons I ever gave Sleepy Hollow any of my time or energy was because it featured the first Black female lead character on a supernatural show in Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie. Not the token Black character, not a supporting character, she was the main character/co-lead with Tom Mison, who played Ichabod Crane. Abbie, who started off as a bit of a Scully, took on the role of being one of the two Witnesses who were destined to stop the Apocalypse from happening in the small town of Sleepy Hollow.
Brave, smart, with a dark and troubled past, Abbie was a fantastic character who thrilled me from the first episode. As the story expanded and we got to see her relationship with sister Jenny, the show was able to allow Abbie to be vulnerable. Very rarely do we get to see Black women, especially darker skinned women, as the Chosen One or the romantic love interest, and with Abbie there was a promise of that.
Emphasis on the promise. Through some behind-the-scenes bullshit that included not having Nicole Beharie on the commentary track, snubbing her at events, the season two downgrade of her character, and the loss of Orlando Jones, it became crystal clear that despite the on-screen diversity of Sleepy Hollow, it could not live up to the commitment of actually focusing on Abbie as a character.
When she “heroically sacrificed” herself at the end of season three it was the end of Sleepy Hollow (what fourth season?). Despite all of that, whenever I rewatch Sleepy Hollow, I’m reminded of how refreshing Abbie was in the beginning. Despite all of it, watching her on screen was a big moment for me, and her loss was one of the events that opened my eyes further to the bullshit that Black characters face in genre television.
3) Bonnie Bennett (The Vampire Diaries)
Watching Bonnie Bennett on The Vampire Diaries is where I became aware of the racism in fandom—and certain CW writers, who shall remain nameless. As someone who did read L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries books, I knew that Bonnie was being race-bent from a red-haired Celtic witch to a Black witch with American slave ancestry. In the books, Bonnie was a leading character, plot-important, and had a relationship with Damon Salvatore. In the show, Bonnie was turned into a magical negro, taken out of her plot-box for the occasional trauma and magical solution to Elena and friend’s drama. She got the worst boyfriends on the show and was often sidelined in episodes.
Yet, Bonnie is the best character on the show. Her magical abilities have saved the world countless times and the series finale to the show proved that without her, Mystic Falls would be a graveyard. When Bonnie became a witch, she decided that also meant becoming a hero and protector for the humans in town. That would often put her at odds with the rest of the main cast, but despite that, she stood firm in holding people accountable, especially Damon (Bamon forever). Her sidelining was frustrating and just another part of the show’s really crappy depiction of WOC, but Bonnie herself remained a shining light on the show. I watched TVD much longer than I needed to because of her because I wanted her pain to have been for something. I wanted her to be happy. Bonnie deserved a better show.
4) Gwen Pendragon (Merlin)
Gwen. My beautiful Gwen. I love her so much. I’ve spoken about how much Gwen from Merlin, as played by my personal saint, Angel Coulby, meant for me before. But just in case you’ve missed it: Gwen was everything.
What was especially great about Gwen was getting to see her be the princess/damsel-in-distress/romantic heroine, because I’d never seen someone be so adored and brown on a fantasy show like this other than Gina Torres. Gwen was kind and loving, the complete heart of the show, and like most of the women on this list, had to put up with so much racism from fandom. I saw people say she was ugly, a bad actress, looked like a monkey, and accused people who supported Arthur/Gwen of being homophobic, since Arthur/Merlin was such a popular fandom ship.
It broke my heart, because if the long-haired, lighter-skinned Angel Coulby was being called a monkey, what did that mean for any woman just one shade darker than her? It definitely didn’t help Gwen that the writers—you guessed it—didn’t know what to do with her. Yet no one can replace the space she has in my heart, because she gave me the Black Queen archetype in a way I’d never seen before. I never looked for a Black Guenivere, but watching her coronation, watching her be loved by Arthur (who did not deserve her), it made realize how much I wanted to see that.
Still mad Merlin never told Arthur that Gwen was under a spell when she kissed Lancelot, but whatever, Merlin was a terrible hero anyway.
5) Yalena “Dutch” Yardeen (Killjoys)
If you aren’t watching Killjoys you should watch Killjoys. It’s fun, it’s campy, you get all the Buffy and Firefly-isms you want, but with more queer characters and the normal male characters aren’t douchebags. The most amazing piece of the puzzle is Dutch, played by Hannah John-Kamen, who was all over movies in 2018. Dutch is as if you took what people think Boba Fett is like, with a dash of Han Solo, but the fashion greatness and royalty of Padmé Amidala. A space princess/assassin turned space bounty hunter, Dutch is the extension of the legacy that Lt. Uhura started so many years ago.
A powerful, fun, and dynamic protagonist who is the lead, Dutch gets time spent developing her character and gets to have the moral complexity of typical male protagonists in the genre. I can’t sing Dutch’s praises enough, and I wish the show was better known, because if Abbie Mills was the promise of a strong Black female lead in a sci-fi/fantasy show, Dutch is the fulfillment of that. Not to mention Hannah John-Kamen is amazing in the role and has managed to bring endless fun to the character.
6) Lt. Nyota Uhura (Star Trek)
On May 8, 2009, I found a secret out about my mother: she was a Trekkie. She tagged my young brother and me to see the 2009 Star Trek movie, and while I knew my mom was a sci-fi nerd (she saw Akira in theaters and watched X-Files and Twilight Zone with me as she braided my hair), I didn’t know she was a Trekkie. She told me that as a kid, watching The Original Series was exciting for her because of the space opera elements, the fun characters, and of course, Lt. Uhura. In the words of my mother, “she didn’t do much, but her presence said a lot.”
Watching The Original Series, putting myself in my mom’s shoes, I could see all the things the character made my mom feel. Uhura doesn’t get to do a ton, but the scope of her presence is meaningful. Not to mention when she does get to shine (like in the above clip) you get to see that Nichelle Nichols could have captained her own damn Star Fleet if given the chance.
7) Alex “Lex” Woods (Alien v Predator)
I love Alien v. Predator and I adore love Lex Woods. She helped defeat the Xenomorph Queen, was given a warrior sign on her face, and a Predator Ancient saw how amazing she was and gave her a retractable spear as a sign of respect. She’s a badass and I love her. She and Ripley should tag-team; that is all.
8) Zoë Washburn (Firefly)
Gina Torres, after Nichelle Nichols, is one of the most important women in sci-fi/fantasy. Her filmography speaks for itself, and the Afro-Cuban actress has brought to life characters who are awesome across a wide spectrum, but I think Zoë from Firefly remains one of her best. There is little to be said that hasn’t already been done, but if there is any reboot or sequel of the show, Zoë needs to be front and center.
9) Martha Jones (Doctor Who)
When I first got into Doctor Who, I was warned that Martha Jones was going to suck, and that her season was the worst. So I was mentally prepared to dislike the story. In the end, the character I ended up hating was the Tenth Doctor and I left series three feeling a deep love and empathy for Dr. Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman). Swept off the feet by the Doctor, the fans saw Martha was love-sick rebound who was “dumb” for loving the Doctor and not being able to hold a candle to Rose Tyler.
Well, as someone who did not like Rose Tyler, that wasn’t my problem. My problem was that it would felt the Doctor himself was treating Martha as a rebound and manipulating her clear attraction for him as a salve for his own wounds. Still, that didn’t mean Martha walked through the series passively. She kept the Doctor safe, putting her own dignity aside when dealing with the racist time period during the “The Family of Blood” episodes. Martha Jones saved the damn world and all she got was a fandom that called her names.
Still, she ended her run as a companion by leaving the Doctor on her own terms, and deciding to use her skills and knowledge to protect the people of Earth. Martha Jones’s affirmation of herself and her worth when she leaves the Doctor is one of the most important things I’ve ever watched. She’s a hero: put some respect in her name!
10) Iris West-Allen (The Flash)
When I open my iPad, the wallpaper I have is Iris West-Allen in her purple costume from the episode “Run, Iris, Run.” I would frankly be lying if I said that Iris was a perfect character (however Candice Patton is perfection), but when the writers try to make her part of the team, she shines. Her bravery, her love for Barry, and desire to make a different are super important.
I know a lot of people give her a lot of flack for the “We are The Flash” thing and guys, she’s just saying that to share her burdens with her husband; she isn’t trying to take over the show. That would require more storylines. Her being the leader of Team Flash was also criticized because she wasn’t a super genius scientist so what “what qualified her?” Guys, the solution to everything on this show is often run faster. She’s fine.
I spent the first two seasons of the show being afraid Iris would get replaced as first lady of The Flash à la Laurel Lance, but the writers clearly see what I see: a heroine who just needs stories that highlight her bravery. Also, fandom, sometimes you need to take a deep breath and realize that Iris is not responsible for everything bad on the show. Not when Barry Allen is around.
Who are some of your all-time favorite Black characters in Sci-Fi/Fantasy? I didn’t do any books here, so I’d love to see more from those.
(images: The CW, Fox, BBC)
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