Feminist triumph in action thrillers has always been for and about white women

By Sherronda J. Brown

*This post contains Wonder Woman spoilers*

The last time there was this much buzz about feminism in a popular action thriller, it was following the release of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road. With a story about women fleeing sex slavery, it was not difficult to find the feminist themes in it.

That same year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke records with Daisy Ridley as the female lead. The conversations about her character largely mirrored what was said about leading women in action films who came before her, and also acknowledged the progress made.

Here we are now, in the wake of Wonder Woman, and we find ourselves amidst these familiar conversations once again, and once again we are reminded that feminist realizations in major U.S. action films thus far have largely been for and about white women.

Wonder Women set box office records last week as the first major superhero film with both a female hero at the center and a female director at the helm. It’s a well-made film. It certainly surpasses what the DC Universe has done so far with Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. People are rightfully excited about it.

Many are also critical of it, especially given that its star is an unrepentant Zionist and that the plot affords compulsory significance to an unnecessary and distracting heteronormative romance in a film that has so much opportunity to be expressly queer. The love story––although barely there––is so integral to the overall narrative that Diana is only able to realize the true magnitude of her power after she suddenly loses her lover, harnessing her pain and channeling it to land a mighty god-like blow against her enemy. It’s a narrative that largely revolves around men and just barely passes the precious Bechdel Test.

Moreover, the film lacks intersectionality in terms of representation for women of color. This is another missed opportunity, and a familiar one.

Despite these truths, Wonder Woman has been and continues to be heralded as a feminist masterpiece and a triumph for women––all women being implied. Bloggers and writers are citing reasons from the jiggle of her thigh to the importance of seeing female representation in a major film. There are lines obviously meant to be interpreted as feminist (and perhaps misandrist) messages, like “Men are easily corrupted” and “Be careful in the world of men, Diana. They do not deserve you.”

It is clear why some audiences are identifying these moments as feminist, but for others this is simply not enough. And the ease with which Wonder Woman fans are able to ignore healthy critiques of the film and its star reflects how mainstream feminism and feminist solidarity have always been for and about white women.

This tunnel vision translates very easily to the reception of action narratives because filmmakers can easily place “strong women” within them. This was demonstrated exceptionally well with the response to Mad Max: Fury Road. It was declared an accidental “feminist manifesto” due to its narrative about Immortan Joe’s “prized breeders” escaping from his clutches, led by Imperator Furiosa. It’s a damn good action flick, maybe one of the best made in recent years.

But, like most others of its genre, it is overwhelmingly white, with Zoe Kravitz being the only person of color present. The film also treats fat characters and people with disabilities as grotesque and immoral clichés (aside from Furiosa’s cool-looking metal prosthetic), but the “sex slavery is very bad” theme was enough to proclaim it as a feminist victory for all, and anyone who disagreed was quickly dismissed.

It seems that all an action thriller needs in order to be considered “feminist” is for a white woman to be present, self-sufficient, physically strong and capable, able to hold her own in a fight without the help of a man, or able to dominate men in a way that is considered traditionally masculine.

Aside from Fury Road, Edge of Tomorrow, Hanna, Lucy, and Star Wars: Rogue One all feature “strong female characters” who have been declared feminist role models in film, as well as the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Terminator, The Hunger Games, and Divergent franchises. This list is in no way complete, and what each of these films and others like them continue to leave out is representation for women of color on par with the representation for white women. When women of color cannot find ourselves in the same types of roles in these narratives, then the “feminism” within them feels hollow.

This issue surrounding women in action films may seem inconsequential, but it is indicative of a much larger problem that is evident in mainstream feminism. Every year we celebrate the 19th Amendment and “women’s right to vote” in the U.S., citing 1920 as the year that solidified the position of women as enfranchised citizens. We do this annually even though the amendment only applies to white women, and it took many years before women of other races were legally able to exercise that right.

The problem is also apparent in how the Gender Wage Gap is discussed, with the claim that women make “77¢ to the male dollar,” despite the fact that this figure only applies to white women and men. It’s in the way that white women encourage us to “lean in,” ignoring that Black women have been doing so for ages. It’s in white women wearing their Pink Pussy hats at the Women’s Marches to protest Trump, but never showing up for Black Lives Matter.

It’s in how mainstream feminism often gets constructed as women being allowed to freely perform “masculinity” through icons like Rosie the Riveter, because while white women have historically been forced into the role of delicate and infantile femininity, Black women have been combating narratives which see us as being nearly always-already too masculine and indecorous. We are constantly left out of the narratives of mainstream feminism, just as we are too often left out of the narratives of mainstream action films.

White women have been starring in these films for years, and while there have been issues with character depth and forms of representation––namely being conceived of as sexualized subjects for the male gaze/consumption and the kind of compulsory heteronormativity which we see present in Wonder Woman––women of color are still mostly starved for any representation at all.

To be frank, we are exasperated with the homogeneity of whiteness, on the screen and off.

When women of color speak about our lack of representation and the inability to see ourselves in spaces where white women have been seen for a long time, we are always met with accusations of divisiveness. Because white women supposedly open the door for all other women, we should be grateful to lap up the crumbs that they leave behind while they feast on their “feminist” achievements. This is how white supremacy operates, by normalizing whiteness and demanding that the rest of us see it as the standard, while simultaneously denying us access to it as a property that affords social privileges. White women winning is simply not enough, and it is past time for white feminists to acknowledge this.


Sherronda J. Brown is a native North Carolinian with an academic background in Media Studies, Women’s & Gender Studies, and African American & African Diaspora Studies. She is passionate about social justice, black feminisms, and zombies. You can support her work at https://www.paypal.me/SherrondaJBrown

White feminism doesn’t know what to do with Amber Rose

By Zoé Samudzi

Since the beginning of 2017, and most notably since the Women’s March, we’ve seen the pussy hat skyrocket to visibility as a totem of the mainstream feminist movement. Inspired by a resistance to President Trump’s endorsement of sexual assault via his recorded “grab them by the pussy” comment, the hat––as well as little cartoonized uteruses and “this pussy grabs back!” slogans––became a reclamation of the power of our reproductive systems and bodies in general.

If Black innocence never exists to the state, how can passivism and perfect victimhood save us?

[Banner photo: A headline from The Daily Kos seeming to play up the fact that Jordan Edwards was unarmed and an “honor roll student”]

By Zoé Samudzi

On May 20, Richard Collins III, a young Black soon-to-be graduate of Bowie State University, was murdered by Sean Urbanski, a member of a white supremacist Facebook group called Alt-Reich Nation, whilst waiting for an Uber. The murder will be investigated as a hate crime. In the wake of recent emboldenings of white nationalists across the country, Black Americans are increasingly caught between a state and non-state white supremacist hard place. What does it mean when our sense of freedom and liberation is tied up, in the words of Shannon Houston, in having been trained to negotiate with terrorists?

Behind Amy Schumer’s ‘Get Out’ joke: The horrible legacy of claiming the Black phallus endangers white women

By Sherronda Brown

Amy Schumer is racist, and white women love her. The White Feminist icon’s most recent public display of Beckery is yet another demonstration of the sexual racism she so often falls back into, using racist stereotypes benefitting her white womanhood while decrying the sexual proclivities of men of color.

Two weeks ago, when asked about past instances of her own rude behavior in the bedroom in an interview with Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens: Live, Schumer answered: “A guy had an uncircumcised penis and it was too big and I just was like ‘Peace!’ Like, I got out. I got right out of there. I was like, ‘I’m not going to be deformed because I had sex with you once.’ That’s what the movie Get Out should have been about.”

Reading came first: how I journeyed from hotep to Black queer feminist

By Myles E. Johnson

“Solitude can be a must-be-desired condition. In silence, we listen to ourselves, and in the quietude we may even hear the voice of God.” – Maya Angelou

The search, as it were, began in wanting to deep-dive into something that was about me, and it began early. I wanted a nappy-headed God. I wanted a history dipped in tar, baby, and I wanted to know about political leaders with Jackson 5 nostrils. This history was not being served to me anywhere, so I reimagined my middle-school classes as spaces for me to find this new world where I was the sun, where I was centered. While my teacher taught the day’s arithmetic, I was slowly, quietly being radicalized by the contents of books. With each page turn, a bomb exploded, and a window was being opened, and nobody was any the wiser.

The authors that I discovered–including Alex Haley, Frederick Douglass, and WEB Dubois–are part of what guided my 13 year-old brain into the place it is currently, and where it is developing into. However, I had a desire for something that made sense of the world I was occupying the way religion does for a new initiate.

Miley Cyrus finally announces the end of her minstrel show, proving once and for all the violence of appropriation

By Sherronda Brown

“When I want something, it’s fucking easy for me.” – Miley Cyrus, the self-ordained savior of our nation

The words “Dumpster Fyre” hover above the head of Miley Cyrus on the cover of Billboard Magazine. Even though they refer to the debacle at Fyre Festival in which rich white kids were finessed out of thousands of dollars and found themselves in a trash pile with bologna sandwiches rather than at the lavish resort they were promised, these words are perhaps more fitting for the interview with the 24-year-old.

via Billboard Magazine

Billboard explains that the Disney Alum “has left behind the pasties, hip-hop bangerz and, yes, weed for her new incarnation: countrified singer-songwriter and hopeful unifier of a divided nation.” Standing among waist-high greenery with her hands in her free-flowing hair, Miley dons a simple pink farm girl dress with frilly lace about the sleeves and bodice. The expression on her face is plain and unassuming. Save for the sporadic miniature tattoos peppering the length of her arms, she is a vision of white Southern Belle innocence and propriety.

Ashanti Hunter

Why seeing the murder of Ashanti Hunter as anti-Black violence does not distract us from fighting for Black men and boys

By Treva Lindsey

Often, there is an alarming silence around the deaths of Black women. From the under-reported murders of Black women by their former or current partners to the vicious and specific targeting of Black trans* women, the killings of Black women rarely garner sustained media coverage, substantive rallying cries, or formidable mobilization and organizing from people other than Black women and gender non-conforming/fluid people.

How Jesse Williams’ divorce highlights the way white-supremacist beauty standards affect relationships

By Catherine Imani

By now, you’re probably aware of the fact that Jesse Williams and his wife Aryn Drake-Lee are divorcing after 5 years of marriage and 15 total together. This is not an article about their divorce, because no one knows what is going on inside of their home but them. This is about the ways beauty politics affect relationships–especially relationships in which one person is more attractive by the general society’s standards than the other.

It’s no secret that Jesse fits many stereotypes for attractiveness. He has light skin, light eyes, he’s physically able and slim-thick with a cute ass. In short, he’s “Hollywood pretty,” and that on top of his acting and social justice politics made him very popular among black women specifically.

Jesse was able to leverage that popularity into speaking engagements, interviews and job opportunities. His wife, on the other hand, while gorgeous and intelligent, is not the kind of woman usually seen in Hollywood. And Hollywood is a microcosm, where the ideals and standards of white supremacy, cis heteropatiarchy, fatphobia, colorism and ableism are magnified.

If the rumors are true, it would be no surprise that a fellow “Hollywood pretty” white woman led to the demise of Williams’ marriage.

Again, this isn’t about the couple’s divorce. But any conversation about love, relationships and community is not complete without talking about who is good enough to love, and how that is often directly tied to what is defined as beautiful in our white supremacist society.

Those of us who are not beautiful enough to love are often left with the opposite: violence and abuse. The fact is, although Jesse leaving his black wife for a white woman might be surprising given his seeming embrace of black feminism, it still fits the trend of “when (a black man) get on, he leave (a black woman’s) ass for a white girl,” which is compounded by the larger trend of “attractive person benefits from the love and labor and resources of their less attractive partner only to discard them when they don’t need those things anymore.” There are so many songs, movies and books normalizing this concept, that its effects on the larger society cannot be ignored.

Studies have shown that black women are viewed as being the least desirable across racial categories. Even within the black community, what is defined as desirable mirrors white supremacists standards. Beauty is often talked about in opposition to blackness, and is instead aligned with whiteness and everything whiteness represents.

Because of this, the pressures around beauty for black women are more pronounced. It makes sense that our community exalts the light-skinned, “mixed”/non-black/exotic, cis, abled, and/or slim women, but what goes ignored are all of the ways that beauty is more than skin deep. Beauty–read: how much a black woman aligns with the white supremacist standard–can be a deciding factor in getting a raise, and changes how that woman is perceived by her coworkers or even the judicial system.

In my community, it was very common for young men who were down on their luck to date women who did not meet social beauty standards but had an apartment or a car. They would dog them out the entire time or spread malicious rumors about them, and then when they were financially stable they would leave them. The women are usually much worse off financially than they were when they first met these men.

When I was more gender nonconforming in my presentation, men would threaten to “beat me like the man I thought I was.” I know many women who did not meet society’s attractiveness standard and have had to physically fight men who would never dream of hitting a non-black woman or black woman they deemed attractive. (And that is not to say that only women who are not stereotypically beautiful are abused, but that their abuse is treated differently than that of other women).

This dynamic is especially evident in the responses to the recent Cleveland Shooting regarding the woman the shooter abused. Once people found out who she was and, more specifically, what she looked like, some noted how weird the shooter was for being homicidal over a woman as unattractive as her. Still others blamed her for his violence and tried to threaten her into contacting him.

Image Descriotion: A screenshot of a Facebook post of a selfie of Joy Lane under the text: “Joy Lane please take that milk dud nigga back you not even all that to be curving bruhh like that you got this nigga going around tripping call this nigga and apologize or i’m fucking you up dude yo peanut head ass bitch you horse teeth dry weave stale ass bitch you betta take him back @Joy Lane.” Joy Lane was tagged by the poster.

 

Image Description: A screenshot of a Facebook message to Joy Lane that reads: “Aye hoe call that nigga Stevie , so he can stop killing ppl!!!!”

Her deviance from the standard of beauty made her someone that a lot of people were unable and unwilling to empathize with. It made her someone that a majority of people did not see as deserving of love, safety or affection. It made people think of her as less worthy of life than the people he could have potentially killed (because I do not believe that she would have survived another 3 years if the shooter hadn’t killed himself).

When a black woman who doesn’t meet the standard of beauty is in a relationship, she is blamed for any failings in that relationship. He cheated? Her fault. He abuses her? Her fault. He leaves her after 15 years of commitment? Her fault, because what should she expect?

When news broke that Jesse was leaving his wife, many people commented that they could see why. One’s alignment to these white supremacist beauty standards has very real consequences on how black women are viewed and treated.

Movement’s like #BlackOut and #DisabledAndCute, and the efforts of black women on social media challenge beauty being about one’s alignment to whiteness and redefine it in a way that is more inclusive. Although this is an issue that can never be resolved quickly, conversations like this help. As Jesse Williams said himself, “Now, this is also in particular for the black women … who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you”.

Further reading:

Romantic Love is Killing Us: Who Takes Care of Us When We’re Single?

What It’s Really Like To Be A Trans Woman

Society (And My Rapist) Says I’m Too Ugly To Be Raped


Catherine Imani is a queer disabled black femme based in Atlanta, Ga. They love art and science and are passionate about social justice and equality. Tip them at paypal.me/catherineimani .

Steve Stephens

Black men, we need to acknowledge that we are the problem. Let’s talk toxic masculinity.

By Shekinah Mondoua

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I began to question the masculinity of African-American men as toxic. At one point I found myself constantly attempting to live up to the standards presumed from my Black male counterparts. Acceptance from my Black male friends was something that I sought out more than accepting my own self.

It might be best to start this conversation with my experiences at 15 years old. I had just left the private school scene and was entering the public school environment that I had once inhabited. The sights, the rhetoric, the style of the students were drastically different from how I last remembered them.

Why intersectional feminism needs reproductive justice approaches to HIV

By Jallicia Jolly

Amidst the recent attacks on access to quality health care and sexual and reproductive health services, the assaults on the lives of racial and sexual minorities specifically reveal the systematic violation reserved for poor women of color, particularly Black and transgender women.

The neglect of Black women’s intersectional health experiences in national discussions about HIV/AIDS, coupled with the growing rates of HIV/AIDS in black communities, beg a critical question: How can a reproductive justice approach allow governments and decision makers to properly invest in Black health?