TV audiences embrace diverse casts, even in white, male dominated genres like fantasy and science fiction. Witness the fandom of women characters on television shows like Jessica Jones, Person of Interest, Sleepy Hollow, and the most recent season of Netflix’s Daredevil. Therefore, Fox network should not have been surprised when Twitter rocked with outrage over the death of Abbie Mills (played by Nicole Beharie) in Sleepy Hollow. The whole mournful cry echoed the disappointment fans expressed (and arguably still have) over the death of another black female lead character, Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson) in Person of Interest.
According to social media, some of this fan love materialized specifically because women of color played these roles. Undoubtedly, Abbie Mills and Joss Carter helped to retain some of the viewership when the plot lines of their respective shows became confusing and bloated. Carter’s limited time on Person of Interest may (or may not) have been planned from the beginning. And Mill’s departure, given the story (we’ll get to this) from season one, sadly could have been predicted. The point of contention, therefore, is not why the characters were killed off, but how.
The storylines of Abbie Mills and Joss Carter particular exemplified the doubling down on media tropes:
1. When major characters of color get a special talent or skill that makes them “exceptional”, they somehow only choose to use their talent to deliver white folks from evil – not themselves, or their people, no matter how dire their own predicament (Magical Negro).
2. It’s good storytelling to let the princess save the prince for a change. But when do we ever get to see a white man give his life for black woman? (The Mammy)
The “Magical Negro” and “Mammy” have been blight on American media since Quaker Oats started pushing breakfast products. It is disheartening to see this endure even in genres were diverse casting could bring endless creative possibilities.
Joss Carter and Abbie Mills might have been played well by actresses of any ethnicity. But the writers chose to place prominent importance on their black heritage. For Abbie, this is demonstrated by the incorporation of her pre-20th century ancestors into the storyline. For Carter, the evidence is in the subtext of conversations she has with crooked white male police officers, like when they tell her in a nasty tone, “Carter, you don’t know your place.” In making these characterizations, the creators remind us these women belong to a people that have had to fight to have their humanity acknowledged. But then the story lines of these series work to diminish that humanity.
The American entertainment industry has never had a problem visualizing black women as strong, nurturing protectors. Black women are often portrayed as selflessly ignoring their own inner conflicts and personal connections to keep things going for everyone else, especially white people. Joss Carter and Abbie Mills essentially become the mules of their fictional worlds. The producers of both series further let down these characters and their fans with an over-used, overwrought creative choice: forfeiting women of color for the white man.
Ichabod Crane would not have survived the premier episode of Sleepy Hollow without Abbie Mills. She protects, shelters, educates, and comforts him throughout her time on the series. A police officer who won a spot at Quantico, Mills handles herself fearlessly and rationally in dangerous confrontations. On the occasions when Ichabod does come to her rescue however, we know the only reason she was in peril was because she was helping him. Abbie’s fate is all the more painful to watch because even if we should have foreseen it, we dared to hope for a better one.
It turns out Detective Abbie Mills and her younger sister descended from black women who suffered over the centuries because of their affiliation with Ichabod Crane’s mystical campaign. For example, Abbie’s ancestor from the colonial American era, Grace Dixon, apparently didn’t feel like using her potent witch magic to stop the enslavement of other people of African descent. But she mustered up the power and time to protect Ichabod’s wife and offspring. To do this, Dixon rescinded magical protection over her home, which also served as a refuge for other free black people and good witches. This act of benevolence won Dixon a demotion from super boss-ass witch to a nanny for Ichabod’s wife. Then the child threw temper tantrums that killed Dixon and everyone else in the house.
Writers never bother to show why any of Mills’ colonial ancestors in Sleepy Hollow choose to help the American Revolutionaries, many of which we know were slave owners. The objection to how the show depicts Mills enslaved ancestors is not raised to imply that black actors cannot be on screen without focusing the story on the racial sickness of America. If a production is going to make significant use of certain periods in history (enslavement, lynching, KKK, Jim Crow, etc.), however, the relevant context needs to be treated with gravity and authenticity.
Sleepy Hollow storyline puts Abbie Mills and her younger sister Jenny through enough trauma during their formative years to stupefy viewers for the entire first two seasons. Their mother, left abandoned with two small girls by her husband, was tormented by magical visions connected to Abbie’s status as a witness. She tried to kill Jenny because of these visions and was eventually committed to a mental institution where she died under suspicious circumstances. Jenny, having been terrorized by her mom’s mental state and the memory of her abduction, was also institutionalized periodically throughout her young life and used as thief by the local sheriff.
Sleepy Hollow calls viewers to escapism largely at the expense of trivializing the humanity of these black women, and by extension the real people who have endured the real world struggles of these characters. We are constantly asked to believe that black women going through soul crushing experiences will happily ignore their plight to chase mercurial goals. Why must our heroines of color fail against or, even ignore her own troubles to rise up for the sake of white protagonists?
In Person of Interest, Joss Carter also deals with personal drama sufficient to break any hero when she get’s caught up in someone else’s mysterious battle. When the series begins, she had put down one cape (soldier) only to take up two others (single mom and NYPD officer). Also like Abbie Mills, Carter risks careers, love, and eventually even her life. Her backstory, carefully integrated into first three seasons of the series, shows an honorable and loyal cop who cares deeply about justice and life. Carter’s established propensity for helping people does not excuse some of the plot points.
In spite of having to raise an adolescent son alone in the city of “Stop and Frisk,” Carter is always available to rescue the white men from their “man pain” and cover up their mistakes. At least twice Carter puts John Reese’s life before her own and her son’s. At one point, in her final episode, we are led to believe (hope?) that a white male character might break with tradition and die for Carter. But, alas, it was not to be. What’s really incredible about Carter’s motivation is that the two outlaw vigilantes never even trusted her with the source of their information on imminent crimes.
Portraying women of color with the capability to only serve others further chips away at how our society can perceive the humanity of these women. The key to understanding the nuances of this argument is an examination of what makes the characters Abbie Mills, Joss Carter, and even Elektra less fully realized than say Jessica Jones. Jones, while coping with PTSD, runs the overall plan to fight against the series threat – which is her own nemesis. Thus, eliminating the villain will help others, but it will fulfill her needs as well. She is fully empowered, not a mule.
Consider also major female characters in Elementary. In this series, Dr. Watson and Moriarty are re-imagined as women with their own journeys. They may not have magical or super powers, but they are not plot devices. Lucy Liu’s portrayal of Dr. Joan Watson does not pander to the stereotypes of East Asian women. Watson supports Sherlock Holmes first as caregiver, then pupil, and finally as an equal partner, all the while employing her right to set boundaries and call out the strong-willed Holmes on his bullshit. Like Jessica Jones, Watson works hard to hold on to the agency that Abbie Mills never had, and Joss Carter seemed to have relinquished. While Watson has personal struggles, none of them make her dedication to working with Holmes implausible.
Another reason why Sleepy Hollow and Person of Interest fails their black women characters is because Hollywood still hasn’t had a “come to Jesus” moment on the harshness of black life in America. Fantasy and science fiction have the potential be the best genres in which to make this happen. Narratives in other genres evoking some of the worse times in history for black Americans either focus the plot on displaying the full reality, as Underground, or, more commonly render the oppression of black people as mere plot devices, like in Mad Men. The only shows that I’ve seen that tried to approach the desirable middle ground was the short-lived BBC series, Copper, and the award winning Boardwalk Empire (which has its own problems with sexism and racism).
Yes, sacrifice is what we typically like from our fictional heroes, regardless of gender or race. Mills and Cater show us that attempts at diversity in fictional media are not only socially conscious but engaging, and good for business. Nonetheless, when marginalized people are objectified as instruments for white characters, there is no true diversity or inclusiveness.