I'm Demanding Better Representation For Black Girl Nerds In Geek Culture
Quick -– off the top of your head, no Googling allowed -- how many black female characters in comics, sci-fi or video games are you able to think of?
For most people, the list starts off with the predictable: X-Men’s mistress of the elements Storm and the five-fingered feline Catwoman as told by Halle Berry (who for a while seemed to be building a career on destroying characters I love). Others might bring up Disney’s first black princess Tiana, the Walking Dead’s katana wielding Michonne, Avatar’s water bending Katara (though her actual race is ambiguous), or the sharp toothed black-best-friend-turned-baby-vamp Tara from True Blood. And that’s typically where the list starts to trail off.
If you’re nerdier than the average bear, you might have mentioned Justice League’s Vixen or Teen Titan’s Bumblebee. Dig a little deeper, and you’d uncover hidden gems such as Misty Knight, Nubia or Monica Rambeau. Maybe about a handful of characters later, unless you’ve made it your business to be well versed in the subject, you’d probably have to start Googling. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is a problem.
My pre-teen years bordered on Judy Blume levels of awkward. I was tall, skinny, selectively tomboy-ish and in no particular rush to grow up. I struggled to find pants that were both long enough to stretch down my gawky legs and small enough to hang onto my non-existent hips.
To distract from the fact that I was covered in acne, I took my fashion tips from comic strips and sprinkled my frizzy, dried-out jheri curl (yes, jheri curl) with butterfly hair clips and Air Force baseball caps I stole from my dad. I stubbornly clung to my American Girls books while my peers giggled over cheesy Cosmo Mag sex tips and dog-eared copies of grocery store checkout aisle erotica.
Obsessed with Sailor Moon, I penned long, collaborative fanfiction novels with my friends during the day, and rushed home from school to watch anime at night. And while my male counterparts were more than willing to trade Pokemon cards and hold heated debates about who would win in Dragonball Z battles with me at lunch, they were not exactly clamoring to get underneath the sweaty elastic band of my training bra.
Which was perfectly fine by me, because -- much like my patron saint Cher Horowitz -- I could not be bothered with middle school boys. My diary contained pink-ink documented plans to save my kissing virginity for two out of the five members of N’Sync and/or the kid who played Bobby on Cousin Skeeter -– whom I literally just Googled for the first time in years and can confirm is still gorgeous.
All this to say that I was a black girl nerd -– always have been, always will be -– but no matter how far I ventured into the world of geekdom, I had a hard time finding characters who looked like me to identify with.
Growing up, the lack of black characters in my cartoons, comics and video games was a revelation I routinely resigned to –- something I never understood, but on some level, came to accept. It was everywhere. The main characters in my favorite shows didn’t look like me. The heroines in my favorite books weren’t written for me. The makeup tips and samples in the perfumed pages of YM and Seventeen didn’t compliment my skin tone. You start to get used to it.
When you bring up your concerns, you’re told that the interest isn’t there, that a geeky franchise with black characters at the helm wouldn’t sell. But why wouldn’t it?
The problem with having so little representation is that you end up feeling almost obligated to root for characters you don’t have much in common with, in hopes that supporting the few characters you’ve been given will help convince the powers that it would be profitable to create more.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve checked out a new series simply because I heard the cast was diverse. I mean, I’m not really into "Doctor Who," but if I had a dime for every time someone suggested I cosplay Martha Jones, I could probably own the entire series on blu-ray. I’d choose Buffy over Firefly at gunpoint, but I could probably pick Zoe Washburne out of a lineup blindfolded. I don’t even watch "Scandal," but I’m kind of in love with Kerry Washingt-- uh, Olivia Pope.
Last time I was home visiting one of my baby nieces, we hung out on the couch watching Doc McStuffins. I make it my business to be aware of how black girl geeks are portrayed in popular culture, because I need to. I have to. Every Aisha Tyler and every Issa Rae feels like a small victory for me, and for girls who look like me.
We’re given so few characters that I’ve always felt that if I wanted more, I had to be grateful for what I’d been given and put my money where my mouth is. But I’m not going to lie –- that strategy doesn’t seem to be working. I’m getting really tired of just accepting whatever scraps are thrown our way. I’m completely over struggling to find the silver lining in an obvious token black character while on the other end of the spectrum, people who have never had to think about finding racial representation in popular culture feel justified in raising hell over color blind casting in a sea of predominately diversity starved movies -– yeah, I’m looking at you, people who acted like Rue’s casting in the Hunger Games was a personal slight but interestingly enough seemed completely OK with the damn near catastrophic white washing in "Avatar: The Last Airbender."
I’m tired of not seeing faces like mine in my comics. I have had it with people telling me to “stick to my range” when I cosplay my favorite characters, knowing all the while that my “range” is maybe in the double digits on a good day while their “range” is almost endless. I’m sick of the notion that a black female character is a rare treat, a special occasion –- a sparingly awarded privilege, but not a right. Why shouldn’t it be a right?
We’re going to movies. We’re going to cons. We’re paying for comics. We’re playing the video games. We’re an active part of the geek community, and we deserve to be represented. So I’m speaking up. I’m not hoping, and I’m not asking. I’m demanding better representation for black female characters in popular media.
I’m demanding it for the girl sitting alone on the school bus reading manga, escaping into a faraway land swelling with magic and mayhem since her classmates haven’t deemed her cool enough to contribute to the conversations about cute boys and clothes. I’m demanding it for the girl who spends hours engrossed in video games, who picks up a controller and finds strength in virtual reality that she can’t find in real life. I’m demanding it for the girl who writes fan fiction, inserting girls with her characteristics into her favorite stories, in an attempt to finally have someone to identify with.
I’m demanding it for the girls who latch onto each and every character of color that comes out, ecstatic that for once, for ONCE, they’re watching a character that they can physically relate to on the screen.
I’m imploring DC and Marvel comics to hire on more writers of color, so that we can finally have someone (or several someones) pick up the torch that the late Dwayne McDuffie left behind. I’m beseeching more creators to follow the example of writers like Gail Simone, whose latest book The Movement is a breath of fresh air with its diverse cast featuring at least three women of color. Creators, I’m telling you not to be afraid of us. I’m challenging you to give our stories a chance. I want you to take this personally. I’m daring you to be more inclusive.
When complimented, black women are often described as “strong” and “independent,” and sometimes I feel that puts people into a box when it comes time to bring a black female character to the page or the screen. We can be strong and independent for sure, but we have the ability to be so much more than that.
We can be spunky. We can be vivacious. We can be complicated and beautiful and emotional and flawed and we might be all of those things or none of those things at all, but we deserve to be written. We deserve to be drawn.
Writing this, I’m fully aware that people will try to prove me wrong, and will provide me with more examples of characters and stories that I haven’t listed here. I encourage that. I invite that. But I want more.
At Dragon*Con this past summer, I cosplayed Huntress, one of my favorite characters from Birds of Prey. While wandering around the Marriott in search of a Black Canary or an Oracle to take pictures with, I was stopped by a fellow black girl nerd who couldn’t have possibly been more than 13 or 14 years old. She excitedly asked to take my picture, and I excitedly obliged.
When she was done, I thanked her, but as I turned to leave, she stopped me. Her eyes nervously darted between meeting my gaze and staring at the ground as she told me, in an almost hurried, whispered tone that she didn’t know black girls were “allowed” to cosplay, that she hardly knew any black female superheroes, and that she had no idea “people like us” could join in on things like comic books, cosplay and conventions.
Listening to her, my heart stopped –- for once, I was at a loss for words. Because 13 years ago, I probably would have said the same thing. I want better representation for women of color in comics, video games, movies and cartoons for many reasons -– but mostly, I want it for that girl.
I want her to know that she’s allowed to be here, and I want her to know that she is not alone.