Saving the Day: In Search of Today’s Black Supersheroes

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by Lyndsey Ellis

National Comic Book Day typically involves witnessing people honor the geek within as they reminisce about magazines that once contained versions of their alter egos. I don’t know if it’s a replenished creative drive brought on by the change of seasons or a thirst to read more science fiction lately, but this year’s celebration sparked nagging thoughts about black women’s absence in the world of superheroism.

One of the highlights of my childhood was Saturday morning cartoons. I remember rolling out of bed at daybreak--careful not to wake my parents--and plopping down in front of the living room TV with a bowl of Cheerios in my lap. There, the screen held my attention until noon with several caricatures doing outrageous things I'd only dreamed of, like making their eyes bulge to illustrate shock or bursting out of a lit canon and remaining in one piece.

Sometimes an inflated imagination made me believe I actually could get away with such outlandish stunts. The time my mom found me on top of the refrigerator with a cape-like sheet tied around my neck and a toy wand in my hand would’ve surely ended in a trip to the ER had she not caught me in her arms. Still, suffering injuries or being punished by my parents didn’t outweigh this fantasy of being as invincible as the characters flaunting their super powers every time I turned on the tube.

This was the 1980’s, arguably the best time for a kid to grow up, in terms of the new wave of ideas that revolutionized the entertainment industry. Dozens of animated series, movies, products, and comic books mesmerized the masses with extraordinary novel beings, as well as radical adaptations of old creations. It was the age of ET, Gizmo, and Teen Wolf. Care Bears, The Muppets, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Ghostbusters were icons. GI Joe, Shera , He-Man, and Strawberry Shortcake reigned over purpose-driven groups.

The majority of fictional characters that assumed lead roles in these ventures were men, if not creatures with human qualities. A handful were females. None, black women.

Before you start opening new tabs in your browser and searching Wikipedia pages on dozens of action figures to prove me wrong, allow me to fully present my case. There’s no denying that some inventions featured superheroes who were women of color in supporting roles. Action figures like X-Men’s Storm and Zula from Conan the Barbarian certainly added diversity to an otherwise all-white cast. But, just as Storm’s ethnicity was somewhat questionable until played by Halle Berry in later years, black viewers may have been less than pleased at the savage Amazon-like appeal given to Grace Jones in one of the Conan classics.

To date, every attempt to create a positive image of an African-American heroine in the entertainment world has failed for one reason or another. Black female characters in comic books, cartoons, sci-fi series and action films have been portrayed in one of 3 extremes that help to reinforce harmful stereotypes: the sextress, the vixen, or the sheep.

Need more examples? The handful of Foxy Brown-like figures in 1970's Blaxploitation films which promote intelligence and bravery, but this brilliance was often overshadowed by exposed cleavages and over-the-top love scenes. This emphasis on sexuality made it easier for black women to be taken less seriously than the black male protagonists of that genre.

You also have the black female heroines who would have the chance to be recognized for their intelligence if it wasn’t for their villain-like qualities. Although the creators may have had decent intentions and wanted to portray toughness, the idea produces the other extreme: a deep-rooted bitterness that continues to haunt the image of African-American women regardless of how we try to challenge this misconception with class and kindness.

Vernita Green, the rival of Kill Bill I’s lead character, is a prime example. Fascinating and quick-witted, Vernita could also be seen as the downside of the Bride. Her smugness quickly leads audiences to suspect something dreadful will happen to her and surely, she’s killed off within the first half hour of the film.

On a seemingly lighter scale, even Rainbow Brite’s Indigo and the the only character of color in the cartoon, was described as ‘the dramatic one.’ This might sound harmless, but I'm still left wondering why the black girl is sometimes fated to have a child-like emotional fragility.

Shana Elmsford in the Barbie-style coming-of-age series, Gem & the Holograms, is similarly depicted as the shy girl of the group. Although she's among a diverse group (one of the band members was Asian-American and another, Mexican-American), I still got the impression that she was consciously presented as the weakest link to make her appear less threatening.

Dr. Karen Jenson of the Blade movies appears to be the only positive portrayal that African-American women can feel confident calling their own. She’s a gifted, attractive scientist who perseveres at the male half-breed vampire hunter’s side and even manages to find a cure for those who’ve been bitten. Unfortunately, her character has yet to inspire new acceptable images.

Bottom line: the lack of adequate black female representation in the world of science fiction, superpowerdom, and cartoon/comic book relief needs to stop. This isn’t to say black females need to get back on the bandwagon of the false macho Superwomanhood that we’ve gone through pains to dismantle. And, we certainly can’t accept another savior to grace some fictionalized ghetto.

But, we could use a leading force (ie non-sidekick character who can hold her own) that embraces a blend of complimentary, but humanistic, qualities that we can identify with. She’s assertive but classy, compassionate but fierce, elegant but grounded. She’s not without her flaws, but she has shortcomings that could be apparent in any human being, not those that are wrongful generalizations of black females.

Regardless of the character’s specific traits, young black females need to see more females that look and act like us in popular culture. We’ve seen it happen in music, fashion, books, plays, dramas, and sitcoms. Why not projects with a focus on super-heroines? These kinds of images, minus the distorted illustrations we’ve seen thus far, can serve as self- esteem boosters and continue to encourage diversity at every angle of the entertainment world.


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