As much as 2014 has definitely rung in an agreed Golden Age of comic book media (ever forward doth the Marvel Cinematic Universe march), it’s also seen its share of new and continued frontwomen, black frontwomen, in TV. In Shondaland, longtime fan-favorite Olivia Pope of Scandal is now joined by the dualistically vulnerable and commanding Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. At Fox, sisters Abby and Jenny Mills fight evil on Sleepy Hollow. BET’s Mary Jane has a consistent plate of foolery. And, Rainbow struggles to keep herself sane amidst her husband’s antics on ABC’s Black-ish.
At some point all of these characters, both new and old, have been in the (ages old) conversation surrounding the lazy stereotyping of black women. All too often are they relegated on screen to a magical mammy, sassy jezebel, or other such stereotype laden stand-in for a true participant in any given narrative.
While some have been matters of debate for years at this point (I see you Olivia), others are joining and transforming the conversation (the Mills sisters, Rainbow, etc).
While I’ve seen a lot of conversation around the characters mentioned, I also haven’t seen much said about Gotham’s Fish Mooney. Played by Jada-Pinkett Smith (hey boo), Fish is manipulative, aggressive, sexy, and more. At any given point she’s a central threat to Gotham and lead hero Jim Gordon.
But let me backtrack for a minute.
In many of the (misogynistic, racist, and sexist) stereotyping of black women on the screen, there is often this need to demonize them. Case in point is the (never-ending) debate over Olivia Pope’s love triangle (quadrangle, if you include Jake) with the president and his wife. Some consider her choices to be despicable, not on the basis of Olivia as a character, but on her agency as a woman. Comparisons are often drawn up between her and Sally Hemmings, a woman enslaved and forced to be the bearer of Thomas Jefferson’s progeny.
Now, problematic sexual politics of Scandal aside, it’s fairly easy to dismiss these arguments (if you are of open mind) because Olivia has agency. Sally Hemmings never had true agency in her relations with Jefferson. There’s no way around that. That being said, this matter of agency is important to the larger scope of: how do we talk about black women/understand their characters when they are in fact a villain? Unlike Olivia, Annalise, et al, Fish Mooney is almost purely villainous. Albeit she’s a stylized one, but that’s in line with Gotham’s campy noir themes.
I personally think this status partially saves her from the (respectability) politics that often surround conversations with black frontwomen. I’m mostly talking about those that place them on the oft-used Blackness on Screen Pedestal.™
For the uninitiated, the BSP™ is a super-high-meta-standard that nobody actually explains, but we all know exists. As such, we often grade black media and characters against this standard. Unfortunately, the BSP™ is usually wrought in romanticism of The Cosby Show and competing ideas of “excellence.” Anyone unfamiliar with the BSP™ need only to google the onslaught of think pieces about Black-ish’s pilot episode to get a glimpse of how worrying it can be.
Understanding this, Fish as a character affords viewers the opportunity to understand the full dynamism of (female) blackness on-screen, even if just a little. I say this because, unlike Olivia Pope for instance, she is not here to save anyone. Her role as villain affords her the opportunity to be demonized, but on the merits of her villainy, not as a side-effect of her femininity. What makes this even better is the fact that she’s one of the show’s more entertaining and intelligent characters. From sex to machination to outright murder, Fish is not above doing what she needs to. Her plots to cut Don Falcone down at every turn are only matched by her fierce independence, in the face of any man in front of her. The one exception being Penguin, who equals her cunning only because of her arrogance. And even then, they make for exceptionally good rivals.
In all, Fish has the same qualities as her white-hat peers and refuses to use them for good. This is important because it highlights not only Jada’s choice to play a villain, it also behooves us to understand the character instead of dissecting her based on predetermined values and expectations. This is often the case when dealing with black heroes in general, but definitely black women on screen.
Sadly, due to society at large, black folks are often highly conscious of black villains because we have a proven history of being demonized (and victimized) by the media (and society). Thus, supporting a villainous black face in a white space, even if it’s a fictional character, becomes a cautious movement.
Cultural history and societal change notwithstanding, we should welcome any and all well-developed black characters. This of course should be in addition to combatting pigeonholing stereotypes and refusing to bend every black face to the BSP™. Fish Mooney then should be celebrated as a distinct, well-written character. Despite the murderous nature of Gotham, I hope she sticks around a bit to stir things up among the ranks of black women on-screen this year (and hopefully years forward).
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope