If you haven’t already, you should read Melissa V. Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. It goes into more depth with a lot of the things I’m going to raise here. If you’re curious about how certain ideas about Black women have an effect on our individual and collective well-being, you should check it out.
Now, let’s get started.
I make no bones about the fact that I identify with Regina/The Evil Queen from ABC’s Once Upon A Time so much because she’s a woman of color whose experience of the world is very similar to mine. Although Regina is not Black, many of the things she goes through and the things that are expected of her mirror my own experiences as a Black woman in America.
Black womanhood often occupies a paradoxical non-space where one race erases gender and gender erases race. It’s for this reason that there’s a book called All the Women are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (which you should also read, BTW).
Nevertheless, I still deal with sexism and racism together because my Blackness is not interpreted the same way the Blackness of Black men is, nor is my womanhood interpreted the same way as the womanhood of White women. So, even though being a Black woman can seem like a contradiction in terms, racism and sexism still impact me in a very particular way.
One of the most pervasive ways that manifests is in the Strong Black Woman (TM) concept.
The central idea of the Strong Black Woman (TM) is that Black women are “born inherently strong, born with the capacity to kick adversity’s butt just because we are black and women” (Melissa Harris-Perry). No matter what happens, we can handle it. We can survive, even thrive in conditions that would make ordinary people fall apart. We are so independent, so self-sufficient, that we need no help. We’re strong enough to handle anything and everything without needing anything from anyone.
“These suprahuman women have been denied the ‘luxuries’ of failure, nervous breakdowns, leisured existences, or anything else that would suggest that they are complex, multidimensional characters. They must swallow their pain, gird their loins against trouble….and persist in spite of adversity.” —Trudier Harris, Saints, Sinners, Saviors: Strong Black Women in African American Literature (via Sister Citizen)
In the case of Black women, an ideal to aspire to becomes an expectation for daily living. Black women are supposed to just shrug off things that would make other people break, and if we fail to do that, it lowers our value as human beings.
The same seems to be true for Regina. It’s abuse, trauma, isolation, and alienation left, right, and center with this woman and often at the hands of the people who are supposed to love and protect her, or at least not do her harm. Then people talk about her like she’s supposed to just keep her chin up and rise above it with no help or support whatsoever. Her failure to do so is not seen as a reflection of structural and systemic issues with how FTL operates, but with her own failure at being human.
You can see why it irritates me when I come across this sort of thing. I have a personal issue with any mentality that reflects the idea that “normal humanity is considered failure and that failure can be used to rationalize continuing inequality” (Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen). First of all, it’s bullshit. Second of all, it’s inhumane.
The problem with the Strong Black Woman (TM) stereotype is that it means Black women “are validated, admired, and praised based on how they behave, not on who they are. […] social acceptance is based on behavioral rather than unconditional human value. Any mistake, bad act, or bad outcome can be translated into a global sense of failure. While all individuals are publicly judged by their actions, the strong black woman imperative is unusual in that it requires tremendous personal fortitude from a group with few structural resources” (Sister Citizen).
We definitely see this in how the narrative and the audience view and treat Regina compared to the White women on the show. For instance (and some of these are repeated from this other Tumblr post):
- Snow White (and you can’t get whiter than that) is presented as pure and innocent and thus worthy of protection and care regardless of the circumstances while Regina has to fend for herself against gross negligence and outright abuse.
- Red can eat people and still be seen as fundamentally good and trustworthy.
- Aurora tries to kill Snow White, but all she gets in response is a pep talk about not mistaking vengeance for justice. As a matter of fact, Snow and Emma go above and beyond the call of duty to show care and concern towards her.
- Regina is the only character who has to “earn” love, despite not being the only one who has done fucked up shit to earn their loved ones’ distrust.
- Emma is immediately granted trust and acceptance even when she’s a complete stranger.
- For white women who teetered on the edge of darkness, there was support available to pull them back, and their flirtation with evil is treated as a lapse in judgment or response to external pressures but otherwise disconnected from who they are. Regina not only has no support, but her misdeeds are portrayed as part expressions of her true nature.
I’m not even talking about how the men can be creepsters, stalkers, liars, abusers, cheaters, and outright douchebags and still have the support of the narrative (ie, by not calling out their shitty behavior as shitty behavior) and the audience. They are allowed to have physical, mental, and emotional limits. Everything they do, even if it’s bad, seems to be understandable and not a genuine reflection on their worth as human beings. That’s because they are human by default and not human after sufficient evidence.
When it comes to Regina, though, the standard seems to shift. She’s not to be viewed as a human being who’d reached her limits. Even after everything she’s gone through and the pressures she lives with (with no support, I might add), she’s supposed to just brush it off and rise above it. It’s not supposed to royally screw her up. She’s apparently supposed to use resources that aren’t there to heal a psyche that’s broken in ways she doesn’t even know. In the eyes of many people, her failure to do this signifies a failure at being human and thus unworthy of respect, compassion, or care. It’s interesting and disturbing to note that only two people seemed to take interest in Regina as a human being, and one of them is dead.
This reflects a lot of what I’m expected to tolerate without succumbing and without complaint.
“The the black man has to fly to get to something the white man has to walk to.” —Chris Rock, Kill the Messenger
If I want to be treated as simply human, I’m supposed to be a paragon of strength and virtue even when everything around me undermines it. It’s like Viola Davis says:
“It [the movie industry] wears me out on a different level because for me there aren’t enough multifaceted roles for women who look like me. And when I say multifaceted roles, I mean roles where I open up the script, and the character goes on a journey. Right, see, a balance, where I’m not just always dignified, I know everything, I see everything, I’m just this straight-backed Black woman/friend/all-knowing-seeing/whatever. I’m talking about a human being, multifaceted human being who actually lives, breathes, all of that, OK? […] my whole thing is: do I always have to be noble? […] I’m saying that as an artist you’ve gotta see the mess. That’s what we do. What we do as artists is we get a human being, and it’s like putting together a puzzle. And this puzzle, it’s gotta be a mixture, a multifaceted mixture of human emotions, and not all of it is gonna be pretty. We’re not gonna win, we’re not gonna be heroes, y’know, OK?” —Viola Davis to Tavis Smiley
“Do I always have to be noble?” indeed.
Does Regina always have to be noble to be seen as human? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes.
And that’s why I identify so strongly with her. Yes, she’s strong. But that strength has a price, and it seems to me that being strong means she cannot be valuable and worthy just because she’s human.