For Colored Girls Who Needed Calliope Burns When Buffy Was Not Enough
When I first watched Netflix’s First Kill, I knew that it would be slightly divisive due to its young adult tone, and the fact that it was obviously dealing with budget issues. As someone who grew up in the era of vampire fiction being everywhere, I understand the surface-level clichés can be grating, especially for an older audience. Yet, the moment I really perked up was when I saw Calliope “Cal” Burns as played by Imani Lewis.
Black folks talking about representation have discussed colorism and featurism at length, especially when, only a few years ago, nearly all the Black women we were seeing on the major streaming channels were lighter-skinned and biracial. Imani Lewis is not just a dark-skinned girl, but she is one who feels like the girls I grew up with—a mixture of vulnerability, ambition, and cool that is very well cultivated, yet seems effortless.
Representation does not always mean quality. I think it can be lazy, at times, to pretend that every attempt at diversity is a hit. At the same time, as someone who has been loving this genre of television the majority of my life, we’ve never had someone like Cal.
Variety‘s review of the series has been heavily criticized for its dismissal of the representation in First Kill, and while I don’t want to drag the writer, as someone who dragged Harley Quinn and still stands by it—it sucks to feel dogpiled—one thing that stuck out to me is this:
The Romeo and Juliet parallels are of course intentional, but too obvious to be particularly clever, Sapphic twist or no. The same goes for the show’s blatant attempts to be a new take on “Twilight,” whose doomed romance gets an explicit shoutout in the (admittedly catchy) opening credits song.
I think it is bittersweet that, even while calling out the clichés, we don’t see a comparison to actual lesbian vampire stories, or supernatural queer lady stories—Carmilla, the web series that revamped (lol) the original novella into an inclusive romance between two lesbians; Lost Girl, where the main character was a bisexual/pansexual succubus who has relationships with men and women equally (mostly); or even the popular Wynonna Earp or Supergirl, which both ended with a big gay wedding.
Things are changing, but to pretend there is endlessly amazing wlw representation for teenagers on television—for any kind of representation to be tired, at this point—just doesn’t ring true, especially as a Black fan. When I was scrolling online today, I saw someone drew a fan art of Caliope, and it made me realize something that is missed at the core of this conversation: Black fans don’t see this kind of support.
Most of the wlw shows I’ve watched featured white women/femmes. When non-white women were included, they were on the backburner. As I’ve been rewatching Lost Girl, I find myself frustrated that all of Bo’s important love interests are white, with three of them all being blond. Killjoys broke the mold and the show had a Black woman lead, but it is hard to find the support for the major sapphic couple, which is made up of two non-white evil lesbian space ladies.
Kelly and Alex on Supergirl never got the full support that we got with Alex’s previous love interest. Black men are killed off or underwritten constantly. Even when we get popular wlw couples like Choni on Riverdale (Toni and Cheryl), actress Vanessa Morgan had to deal with being underpaid in comparison to her coworkers.
First Kill having a Black lesbian co-lead with equal screen time, a developed Black family, and a dark-skinned full-nosed woman who is unambiguously Black? Yeah, we don’t get that. We have never gotten that. That is embarrassing for creators, not fans who find comfort and representation in that.
Yes, we have had a long history of sapphic vampire fiction. Most of it was not created to be a representation of queer relationships. They were meant to be erotic horror stories. I’ve watched The Moth Diaries; it is very sapphic but very haunting. There is a place for that, but that is not the same as a lesbian vampire “Twilight-esque” story on a television show.
Even if I disliked First Kill, that aspect of it and how it presents Black characters can not be hand-waved. To do that is also pop-culturally dishonest, especially if you have been listening to conversations from Black writers, fans, and even the actors themselves. We have struggled to be seen as love interests, as equals, and to have our families and experiences be onscreen in genre television.
For the teenager I was, to have a character like Cal is a huge deal, and I’m so glad that other young nerdy Black queer girls can have Cal be their first slayer. As someone who watched Robin Wood on Buffy get tokenized and demonized for wanting to kill the vampire who killed his mother for sport (and took her jacket), I am glad to see Cal and her family taking up much-needed space.
(featured image: Netflix)
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