The comparisons between Scandal and Sleepy Hollow are inevitable. Two dramas with black female leads (still a rarity, though they premiered long after the first show that could boast the same). Each have a rapidly expanding popularity, both in spite of and because of their outlandish storylines. And the main characters are powerful, attractive black women who have chosen careers that protect others from harm.
On Scandal, Kerry Washington is Olivia Pope, a lawyer who specializes in crisis management (based on real-life D.C. fixer Judy Smith), helping clients keep their secrets and reputations intact. And on the more supernatural Sleepy Hollow, Nicole Beharie is Lt. Abbie Mills, a police officer in the small eponymous town, where she discovers she plays a role in a potential biblical prophecy. In each of their worlds, Olivia and Abbie must think about the safety and needs of others first, maintain cool heads as they navigate high-stress environments, and quickly and efficiently solve problems. And as in any classic can-she-have-it-all narrative, they’re compelled to sacrifice elements of their personal lives for the work.
Of course, on their own, these characteristics are not unusual for a protagonist to have, but when you add race and gender, it’s clear that Olivia and Abbie come dangerously close to being Strong Black Women: women who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.
The Strong Black Woman is a supposed to be positive, a counterpoint to the negative representations of black women that permeate American culture. Examples range from Harriet Tubman to Michelle Obama. Being called a Strong Black Woman is meant to be a compliment. It indicates that despite challenges, black women are superhuman — but it’s a stereotype that’s just as dangerous as those it’s intended to replace.
The SBW is an attempt to subvert negative stereotypes of black women: the Mammy, the Jezebel, and the Sapphire, as outlined in Patricia Hill Collins’ seminal work Black Feminist Thought (PDF). In basic terms, the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire achieve satisfaction by serving white people, indulging her own sexual appetites, and emasculating men, respectively. In contrast, Strong Black Women have no needs. It’s dangerous — and dehumanizing — to have such a narrow view of the black woman as a source of support while expecting her not to need any herself.
Giving black women superhero qualities is an overcorrection that’s simply limiting in a different way.
Olivia Pope and Abbie Mills push against the idea of the Strong Black Woman through emotional breakdowns and explicitly expressing their wants and needs. As frustrating as it is to see Olivia cry frequently, it’s also important that she be allowed to. Her tears range from expressions of empathy, to reactions to her emotionally abusive relationship with her father, to the often-ridiculous state of her love life — and it’s meaningful that we, the audience, see her experience pain. We’ve seen her turn down safe, practical love while declaring she wants something “painful, difficult, and devastating.”
In Season 2, Olivia rejects the country home filled with babies and itemizes what she wants. And yet, in Season 3, she allows herself to indulge in a similar fantasy with the person she craves. President Fitzgerald Grant (Olivia’s on-again, off-again married lover) offers a scenario in which the two of them live in Vermont with four children. He suggests he would be mayor, and Olivia cuts in to say she would make jam. As saccharine as this fantasy is, it lets us see Olivia in a revolutionary way. With a simple sentence about spreadable fruit, Olivia reveals a desire for a simpler life, with the man she wants, not the one she should settle for.
Black women are practically (and sometimes literally) insensate on many other popular shows.
In a recent episode of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a former operative — a black woman — required eye surgery. Unfortunately, she could only receive a local anesthesia, leaving her awake throughout the procedure. A current S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, already a bit squeamish, hesitated to insert a needle into her eye, so the patient did it herself, unflinchingly, with no reaction. Then there is Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie on American Horror Story: Coven, a “human voodoo doll” whose supernatural power is the inability to feel pain, even as she inflicts said pain onto someone else. On Suits, Gina Torres plays Jessica Pearson, a character who frequently uses her apparent lack of emotion to intimidate those around her. Torres continues this stoicism on Hannibal, where, as “Bella” Crawford, she planned to suffer silently through stage-four lung cancer without telling her husband. These Strong Black Women feel no emotional pain, tolerate severe physical trauma with no reaction, and menace others with stone faces.
Although Sleepy Hollow has only five episodes under its belt, it’s clear that Abbie Mills is a strong character without having to be a Strong Black Woman. In the series, Abbie discovers that an incident from her teenage years connects her to a biblical prophecy from Revelation and to Ichabod Crane, a British soldier from the American Revolutionary War, recently awakened from a stasis spell his witch wife cast after he beheaded a Hessian soldier who turns out to be one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. (Just go with it).
As a teenager, Abbie witnessed an event that sent her into years of denial, but once Crane and the Headless Horseman arrive in Sleepy Hollow, she realizes she can no longer remain silent. In a recent episode, her strength and silence — hallmarks of the SBW — bring a creature of death into her life. She, quite literally, must express her emotions and memories, or die. In order to save herself and her loved ones, Abbie forgoes the stoicism we’ve grown accustomed to. She opens up, and in the process, Abbie sheds the burden of being a Strong Black Woman by expressing her emotional turmoil, freeing herself to fulfill her prophetic destiny.
Obviously, Scandal and Sleepy Hollow aren’t perfect parallels. It’s annoying, at times, to see Olivia Pope break down with wet eyes and a shaky chin. Meanwhile, we see that Lt. Abbie Mills has experienced enough trauma to warrant the tears she’s shed. But for both characters, those tears are important elements in disrupting the Strong Black Woman narrative. Olivia and Abbie are given room to express themselves in full — a luxury not afforded to the majority of black women on television. And yes, Olivia and Abbie still carry the burdens of saving their respective worlds, but with each emotional release, we are also allowed to recognize their humanity.
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