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

Henrietta Lacks

Oprah Winfrey brings power and emotion to ‘The Immortal Henrietta Lacks’

By Imani J. Jackson

If nothing else, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a cautionary tale conveyed cinematically.

The HBO film, which premiered Saturday, April 22nd, and is based on Rebecca Skloot’s bestselling book of the same name, presented an incrementally improving story about Lacks, an African American woman whose cells changed history.

George C. Wolfe directed the film, which presented Lacks’ life primarily through her daughter Deborah, portrayed by Oprah Winfrey and partially through Skloot, portrayed by Rose Byrne. The Immortal Life demonstrated personal power along with a story about medical misrepresentation, female friendship and race.

Initially, I was unsure whether this film would live up to expectation. Would the star-studded team project an intricate and intimate story of a Black woman whose cells innovated medical science  — including in vitro fertilization, the AIDS cocktail, the impacts of radiation and toxic substances and more? Would they render Lacks human, even though her cells continuously multiply, as if a higher power placed limitless potential in her?

At first blush, the characters seemed like stereotypes on steroids. But, as time continued, the utility of the stereotypes came to the forefront. Viewers saw cackling medical experts (read: mad scientists). Viewers saw Skloot as a harried white female reporter who was sometimes savior and sometimes sisterly. Viewers saw a religious, respectable, angry, close-knit and skeptical Black family with every reason to have each of these characteristics and then some. As the story unfolded, I was reminded that stereotypes do not fit everyone. However, they certainly fit some.

The medical experts seemed to compromise Lacks’ humanity through taking her cancerous cells without her or her family’s permission. They did not offer or award financial compensation for the human matter from which many of them profited. Instead, their actions offered a commentary on Columbusing and its scope.

More than just the feigned discovery of people or places that already have histories, Johns Hopkins Hospital staff extended their exploration into biomedical human material. These medical professionals’ cell harvesting can be likened to “ghost values”, when white settlers affixed prices to enslaved African people’s bodies after the Africans died.

When Johns Hopkins staffers said things like, “Would you patent the Sun?” in relation to stealthily stealing from Lacks, white medical professionals’ privilege and immoral practices were re-emphasized. And yet, these actions simultaneously reflected the experts’ own inhumanity.

The Immortal Life showed medical communities’ poisonous histories of negligence and malfeasance in vulnerable communities. The film referenced the American government’s unethical experiment on another group of Black people in the South, the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.” In The Immortal Life, the doctors and hospital employees were portrayed in ugly ways because their actions were ugly.

Conversely, Oprah Winfrey’s performance was beautiful. She brought depth, vitality and community wisdom to Deborah, Lacks’s daughter. Winfrey conveyed inter-racial tensions, that smart people are not always formally educated, and a spiritual connection with her deceased mother and sister.

By having the world’s most respected journalist amplify a Black woman whose cells propelled science into uncharted terrain, Winfrey reminded viewers and creators to dig deeper for stories. Further, unlike those who profited from the Lacks family without their blessing, Deborah actually wanted Oprah to portray her, since Oprah could not play Henrietta. (Watch around the 6:40 minute mark).

Thematically the film portrayed female friendship. Viewers spent substantial time with Deborah and Rebecca. So much emphasis was placed here that a legitimate concern arose: whether Skloot is centered, instead of Lacks in Lacks’ story.

Skloot showed curiosity and journalistic diligence. She was also an overly eager to record reporter. Her character was crafted toward likability in that she was not moneyed. Skloot did not seem to have much beyond the ordinary capital of whiteness. The reporter’s bill-juggling, document diving and late nights positioned her as a good white person, which contrasted with the others whose careers sketchily jumped off from HeLa cells.

I understand frustration with Deborah and Rebecca’s relationship, but also understand white viewers want to see white characters deploy their whiteness and work ethics to help people of color. To that end, the relationship seemed well intentioned albeit obligatory.

One of the more relatable race dynamics played out when Skloot was irritatingly casual with the Black family she grew to know and researched alongside. But that lack of formality is truthful. Rebecca often called Black people old enough to be her parents by their first names, even when they called her “Ms. Rebecca.” For all her friendship and persistence, she still reflected privilege.

Renée Elise Goldsberry portrayed Henrietta Lacks as a stunning, family-oriented and vibrant woman. I loved that Henrietta practiced self-care through beauty routines and displayed southern hospitality to people in her home. Henrietta was shown to viewers through flashbacks as an everyday Black beauty who knew her body and her family and lived with grace.

In the end, this story was necessary. However, the presentation was not faultless. The relationship between Deborah and Rebecca could have been deeper. The remaining Lacks family members could have seemed less knee-jerk. While I would award the film generally three stars out of five, Winfrey and Goldsberry’s performances deserve five stars out of five.


Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365. 

Miami-Dade County To Rename Street After ‘Moonlight’

Groundbreaking motion picture Moonlight continues to be celebrated. It was a box office success, won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and audiences everyone adored the film. However, the citizens of Miami, and Liberty City, specifically, view the film as a shining beacon on their life experiences .

To show how proud local residents are of the film, Miami-Dade County has announced that it will be renaming a Liberty City street “Moonlight Way,” according to The New Times.

james baldwin

ICYMI: Check Out This Video Of Celebs Who Want You To Know James Baldwin’s Legacy

Not everyone has seen the new James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016) yet. So, Mic has created a new video comprised of stars like Samuel L. Jackson, Janelle Monae, Lupita Nyong’o, Common, Chris Rock, Yara Shahidi and so many others who want you to “read James Baldwin” and know they iconic thinker whose work lies at the foundation of much of the movement building work that is happening today.

Academy Awards Highlight Black Hollywood

Many predicted that this year’s Academy Awards would go to great lengths to celebrate diversity after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy came to a head last year. Fortunately, this year saw a surplus of quality content starring Black actors and actresses for the Academy to choose from.

As a result, Black Hollywood was celebrated in front of the entire world last night. 

REVIEW: ‘Hidden Figures’ Amplifies Black Female Brilliance and Community

By: Imani J. Jackson

When a movie theatre packed with people of varied races, ethnicities, ages and genders erupts into simultaneous applause and cheers during a film’s closing credits, it’s safe to say the story resonated. That human happiness is exactly what manifested on Saturday when my mother, a grandmotherly elder, my younger sister and I attended a Hidden Figures showing.

Cinematically, Hidden Figures demonstrates creative power and how to sensitively wield it. Theodore Melfi directed the film and co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, which is based on the non-fiction book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.