Monday, June 20, 2011

How Magical is Your Negro

Editor's Note: The following piece was written by ita as a response to the disturbing trend in genre television of portraying people of color as two-dimensional sidekicks with either figurative or literal superpowers, like in Vampire Diaries, instead of portraying them as fully-realized characters.

by ita
Guest Blogger

Look to your left. Look to your right. How are those darkies doing? Are they in any way remarkable? Almost as remarkable as you are? You have a problem, after all, a quest, a deed that needs doing, and those coloured people—they have skills that not only help you on the way to solving this problem, but they help you become the best person that you can be as you do so.

On your journey, you're going to be a better person for having said Negroes at your side.

Then why am I calling them Magical Negroes? Why aren't they just people?

I don't know. How closely did you look? How do they wear their hair? What did they have for breakfast? When's the last time they spoke to their mother? Do they have a pet? What religion do they practice? Is it somehow earthy and simplistic, and will they cast stones in order to answer an important question for you, one that sets you on the right path for not just your problem, but for your soul? Do they die in the attempt, valiantly furthering your goal, no matter the cost to themselves?

Because if you can't answer the first few questions, but have a resounding yes for the latter, you may have a Magical Negro on your hands. Now, we're talking science fiction and fantasy. There's magic everywhere you turn. It would be silly to suggest that every time a non-white character handled magic they fulfilled the sketchy stereotype of the Magical Negro.

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. If your Negro does it all for you...if her character arc looks more like a full stop...or he is as self-realised as he is going to get, in their exotic and highly attuned otherness (merely by virtue of being minority) so they can bring all of this to bear on you and getting you, the priority, through your character arc, with their soulful magic—then you’re in the esteemed company of a Magical Negro. Use them wisely. You don’t know the next time you’ll be blessed with this, the next best thing to a deus ex machina. However, if they just happen to be dark of hue or slant of eye or kink of hair and can wield magic and are on the side of good, they may just be that rarest of things—a fully realised character of colour with their own motivations and character arc existing within a genre story. Not canon fodder, not a mystical prop to the male white hero, or motivation to the white heroine. But a character in and of themselves. Fully-functioning. Not other. Not exotic. A colleague and compatriot of colour.

Why doesn’t this look like your life, you might reasonably ask? Well, your life doesn’t have laser guns or magic bags of holding. No? That’s not what you meant? Oh, why doesn’t the racial breakdown look like your life? I mean, in fact, you could be non-white and reading this article, and that’s not reflected on TV.

Sadly, genre TV is just about on par with mainstream television on this front, and wholly behind real life. You are about as likely, if you’re white, to have a non-white friend, but rest assured, you are white. The shows are not written for you or I. They are written for the advertisers, and so far, the conservative dollar says even the futuristic magical reward is in advertising to the white pocket.

So, until a real tomorrow or when Tyler Perry does more sci fi than just appearing in Star Trek, we assess the strength and viability of best friends of colour. Next year, I’d like this piece to be about protagonists.

Zoe Washburne, stand up and brace your shotgun. Tia Dalma, stand up and wield your magic. Wave that scalpel, Alison Blake. Alec Hardison, hack away. Guinan, sit down. Elosha, sit down. Usutu, sit the hell down. EVERY BLACK PERSON IN MYSTIC FALLS, VA PLEASE LEAVE THE ROOM.

Real black people got some work to do.
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  1. "Sadly, genre TV is just about on par with mainstream television on this front, and wholly behind real life."




    Sadly, most of them have now left the room, via gruesome onscreen deaths. And they took the Asian people with them.

  3. I'm a black, geeky teenager and I really dislike that the new thing for shows is to have a black nerd. I know we're out there but still!

    Part of the reason why I was reluctant for Leverage was because I thought they would make Hardison into a socially inept loser who tries to hard to be cool and awkwardly uses slang to appeal to the black fan base. After a few episodes, I realized I was wrong.

    The roles that I love seeing people in is the ones where it seems like they are really people who you can connect with and they just so happen to be a minority. If the part calls for them to me a minority, then don't just make them a Mystic Minority (a real trope on Make them real.

  4. I'm so glad you weren't bagging on Zoe there - the topic and then the picture had me a titch worried! She's one of my favorite female characters ever conceived. And I adore Joss Whedon, but she might just be the only time he's ever done a military person right.