I have a question for all the television showrunners and writer’s rooms out there: Why is it so difficult for you to write for women of color? Why is it so hard to write us as fully-formed human beings with all the emotions, flaws, weaknesses and strengths that everyone else has? Why do television writers continue to bungle this so badly?
Recent case in point: Grace Abigail Mills. During the last season of Sleepy Hollow, Abbie was sidelined in service to showrunner Mark Goffman’s baffling attempts to make Katrina Crane relevant. Abbie essentially became Ichabod’s sidekick, relegated to bravely swallowing her own pain and fear while acting as a caretaker, marriage counselor, and financial support to the Cranes. For those of you who aren’t aware, this bait and switch resulted in Sleepy Hollow shedding millions of viewers over the course of the season and caused the show to teeter on the verge of cancellation before FOX renewed it for a third season.
I’d venture to say that if it wasn’t for an outcry by the fans, Abbie would still be playing second fiddle to the now-dead Katrina Crane (who likely wouldn’t be dead) and would still be mistaken for Ichabod’s sidekick by the media (yes, that happened).
I’ll admit that while the show has mostly reinstalled Nicole Beharie to her rightful place as Sleepy Hollow’s co-lead, some improvements with Abbie’s characterization still need to be made. Sure, it’s nice that she’s an FBI agent now and that we actually got a chance to see her relaxing at home for a change, but what about things of a more interpersonal nature? We’re into the show’s third season and we’ve yet to see Abbie date, be kissed, or even be told that’s she’s beautiful. The folks over on Bones didn’t seem to have a problem remarking on Abbie’s beauty during the recent crossover, but for some reason the Sleepy Hollow writers can’t seem to muster up the ability. And you know what?
A lot of the people I follow on Twitter are still pretty active in the fandom, and through them I was made aware of a discussion betweeen Sleepy Hollow creator, Phillip Iscove, and several fans. There was a very interesting back and forth that revolved around my above complaint. His response?
And that right there is the problem. Abbie has been pushed into the “strong black woman that doesn’t need a man” box since season one. Yes, she’s guarded and doesn’t trust easily. And yes, she has abandonment issues and takes her duties seriously. But that doesn’t mean she can’t love and be loved. There are plenty of people on TV and in real life that have the above issues and still manage relationships.
Crane’s wife died less than a year ago, and that sure hasn’t stopped the writers from giving him an active love life. He’s had two present-day women making eyes at him, and he went out on a date with one of them thanks to Abbie’s matchmaking. And need I even go into details about the Betsy Ross romance we’ve been forced to endure?
In two and a half seasons, Abbie’s romances have been either offscreen, in the past, or merely hinted at. Luke disappeared after season one, Hawley was her sister’s ex (yuck!), the cute photographer guy from last season was a one-off that we never saw again, and Daniel is an old flame that is currently her boss. She’s breaking dinner dates with Daniel, while Crane gets to go on dates and have cutesy texting sessions. The only thing Abbie is doing is working, Witnessing and playing matchmaker while Crane gets to get his mack on.
And the Halloween episode. Sigh. They dressed Abbie up as Queen Bey herself, yet no one remarked on it. Sigh again. Has anyone in the writer’s room seen Nicole Beharie? She’s drop-dead gorgeous and no one noticed this? They really expect us to believe that Crane wouldn’t react? At all? Not even an eyebrow raise? A lip quirk? Something? Anything?
When Ichabod ignores Abbie’s costume, yet calls Zoe and her ridiculous Betsy Ross outfit “effervescent”, it sends the message that Abbie isn’t desirable. That the black woman isn’t worthy of the male lead’s attention, but the white woman is. Whether that was the intention or not (and I’m going to posit that it wasn’t), that is the sneaky little subliminal message that worms its way into people brains. And that’s why it’s so dangerous.
Women of color characters—especially black ones—don’t have the luxury of “not running to romance” or being solely focused on their careers. Not when everyone else in the cast is allowed to lead full lives. Shondaland notwithstanding, black women are often portrayed as sexless, undesirable, strong (which translates to not needing companionship), not feminine, not vulnerable and therefore, not needing or deserving to be cherished or loved.
Showrunners need to stop ignoring intersectionality when it comes to the feminist ideals they swear they’re upholding and do right by the characters they claim to love. These characters can be strong and still cry. They can be brave and still weak. They can be loved and still be independent. Nothing will be taken away from their characterizations if they are written to be fully-fleshed out human beings. In fact, it will only make them better.
But I’m really preaching to the choir here, because a reminder only seems to be needed when it comes to women of color characters. Either these content creators don’t understand the harm they’re doing or aren’t trying to. Whichever it is, it’s problematic and needs to stop.