Last week, I read a great article by Nichole Perkins on Buzzfeed that talked about the way the character development of the leading ladies of both Scandal and Sleepy Hollow were working towards dismantling the harmful depictions of "strong black women" in media. It was a great read, and I loved that someone else shared my conclusions about Olivia Pope's characterization.
What stuck out to me however, was Perkins' characterization of Gabourey Sidibe's character Queenie on American Horror Story Coven as a negative embodiment of the "strong black woman" stereotype. She says:
"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. [...] These Strong Black Women feel no emotional pain, tolerate severe physical trauma with no reaction, and menace others with stone faces."
I love American Horror Story Coven. But even though I had immediately made the connection to the racialized violence against black bodies this season, I hadn't picked up on Perkins' perspective of Queenie as a SBW. After seeing last week's episode "The Replacements", I not only vehemently agree with her, I want to expand on her observations.
Firstly, a definition of sorts: the myth of the "strong black woman" is loosely defined as a black woman who is emotionally hardy to the point of feeling no pain. She is never fazed or hysterical. She is cold and calculating. She has no personal needs or desires and doesn't complain. She can take a beating and come out on the other side unharmed. This is supposed to be seen as a good thing. Black women are "so strong" that no amount of abuse will break them. They will always keep plodding on. "Strong black women" are superhuman.
Immediately, we can see the issues with this so called "positive stereotype". It paints black women as unfeeling, and incapable of emotional pain. It justifies abuses perpetuated against them as "not as bad" because "they can take it." In essence, it makes black women a target for "warranted" violence, because the belief is that said violence will not affect them.
Now, on Perkins' original point, AHSC's Queenie is a black witch (superhuman) whose magical power is to literally injure herself without feeling pain. The only way she is able to inflict pain on other people is to inflict it on herself first. Her suffering is part and parcel of her experience. And yet, she feels no pain, therefore hurting her isn't really hurting her is it? She can take it! With Queenie, Ryan Murphy has conceived of a character that is the literal embodiment of a harmful stereotype.
That's not all. In episode 3, The Replacements, Fiona Goode (Jessice Lange) appoints the racist Madam LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) as Queenie's personal slave as punishment for her bigotry. LaLaurie is openly racist towards Queenie and uses every opportunity she can to demean her, and "remind her of her place" even though their "traditional roles" have been effectively subverted. Queenie takes it all in stride until she realizes who exactly LaLaurie is and recalls her reputation for torturing her slaves.
Later though, the minotaur that LaLaurie created comes back to haunt her, sent by former lover Marie Laveau (Angela Basset). Terrified, LaLaurie begs Queenie to protect her. The very same woman who she said wasn't worthy to be served at breakfast, should put her own safety on the line to save her. And she DOES. Despite all of LaLaurie's ill treatement, Queenie still feel compelled to protect her against the present threat. This plays into ideas about black women being in service to white women, but never equal to them. Think The Help and Hilly Holbrook's "Home Health Sanitation Initiative."
The other major issue I had with this episode was the presentation of Queenie's sexuality. Queenie is presented as being the only one unworthy of love or sex. Early on, we learn that Queenie is the only virgin in the house. Later she tells LaLaurie that she is fat because "Dr. Phil says that kids from broken homes use food to replace love" indicating quite explicitly that love is not something she feels she as access to. After confronting the minotaur to save LaLaurie, she offers to have sex with him as she masturbates:
"You just wanted love, and that makes you a beast. They called me that too. But that's not who we are. We both deserve love like everybody else. Don't you want to love me?"
So, not only is Queenie not worthy of love or sex, the only love/sex is entitled to is from a literal beast. And let's not even get into the demonization of black sexuality by literally and figuratively turning a black man into a beast. Queenie's sexuality is degraded as being less than, a fact that she seems aware of. She is so "desperate and deranged" that she loses her virginity to an animal.
The use of the word "we" is significant to me also. Not only does Queenie see the minotaur as a beast, she sees herself as one too. She has internalized the idea that her blackness correlates to bestiality, and has now literally given into that characterization. The fact that she sees herself as equal to an animal that is subhuman and that that idea isn't challenged in any way is a very problematic and racist way to portray black sexuality.
There is a lot of anti-black sentiment tied up in Queenie's character and it makes me uncomfortable and unhappy. It could be argued that half the story is about a racist slave owner who was renowned for her cruelty, and so anti-blackness is to be expected in the narrative. But in my opinion, not enough is done to subvert those stereotypes. Having Fiona declare that she hates racists simply isn't enough if every interaction of Queenie's upholds the existing status quo. It is a disservice to have a talented actress like Sidibe, who has already been heavily maligned because of her weight, be characterized in a way that reinforces ideas about why she isn't suitable for better more complex roles in Hollywood.
This isn't the first time that AHS has had a problem with women. The show has a long history of disempowering women through rape so it's not surprising that it would also have a problem with black women specifically. But to play into deeply racist ideas about black womanhood is unsettling to me in a completely personal way. Having Queenie be characterized as a superhuman beast who is unworthy of love is a powerful message to send in a world rife with anti-blackness where #stopblackgirls2013 can trend for an entire day. I can only hope that the rest of the season gets better.