Monday, December 12, 2011
Superheroes, Supervillains and the Black Feminist Brilliance of Badness
"Quirky Black girls are not quirky because they like white shit; rather they understand that because they like it, it is not the sole province of whiteness."
This is not one of the lines of the QBG Manifesta that I wrote. In fact I had to look at many examples on google to even understand how the colloquialism "sole province" is used. And I don't think any of these Black Feminist QBG love letters to date have really dealt with this aspect of the QBG constellation. But from the province of my own soul I want you to know that is not because I am some pure Black feminist who has purged all non-radical women of color generated media from my life. Not by far.
In fact, a few months ago I watched the entire series (the entire series!!!!) of Mad Men in an unhealthily short amount of time on netflix. And I think the show is smart. And also quite depressing. After intentionally filling my days and nights with brilliant, radical, brave, self-actualizing women of color and queer folks of color it is a major contrast to watch straight and closeted corporate white people living awful shallow desperate lives that they sometimes have deep moments about. Why did I do this to myself? I asked (myself) while popping more popcorn one day. And then I realized that my need to know what Don Draper/Dick Whitman, the main character on Mad Men, a rich white corporate bewildered would-be patriarch who stole his identity from a dead superior officer in the army towards a class mobility that provides him with eternal emptiness and shame which he medicates by womanizing and over-drinking and raising his eyebrows ironically at people he never thought would be his peers...was not even new. Could it be? This was not the first time that I, a Black feminist poet on assignment, had identified with a character who shared basically none of my characteristics? A rich, tortured white dude with a secret and his own dark orchestral theme music?
Flashback to middle school Lex, afterschool with her siblings eating snacks and watching Batman: The Animated Series (not to be confused with any other Batman cartoons without that specific subtitle). We loved that show. And we were right to love it. It really was one of the few shows on television accessible to kids that had intelligent writing, developed characters and complex stories. I would never say that it was some sort of precursor to transformative justice (the bad guys usually ended up incarcerated in Arkham Asylum/Prison eventually...at least for a while). But unlike the "perps" on, for example today's Law and Order SVU each villian had a story. There was a backstory that made their supervillian actions seem almost logical. They didn't come out of nowhere. They had been severely wronged, usually by the dominant system. They were freaks and weirdos. They were super-smart and profoundly misunderstood. They had a vision that was completely unacceptable to the ruling norms of Gotham and creative elaborate plans that would definitely cause a lot of damage.
"I'm having a bad day. I'm sick of people trying to shoot me, run me over and blow me up." (Kicks Batman in the head.) Harley Quinn, Batman: The Animated Series
Writing about it now, is it any wonder that my siblings and I, 3 silly black genius scholarship kids in classrooms and hallways all day with rich kids at a white school ate that up. We loved it. If we had been rich we could have supported the franchise. Kept the showing going longer than it did. But we watched the reruns. It seemed to never get old. It seemed to bridge the 8 year age gap between all of us. Even now as grown-ups Batman: The Animated Series (not to be confused with any other incarnation of the Batman myth...although we do collectively endorse and obsess over the Dark Night films) is still a major theme of our gift giving. I almost cried with gratitude when my brother gave me the box set of the entire series for Christmas.
"I tried to be good. I really did. But if that's not good enough, fine."-Harley Quinn Batman: The Animated Series
And when we could, as kids we asked for action figures and got mini-Batmobiles and even a Batman themed batcave tent that we could actually fit in (well not all three of us at once...but), but the thing is the franchise is in support of the hero. Even though on the show there is one Batman and many diverse supervillians, in the toy store there are a thousand varieties of Batman action figures and... not so many villain toys. I never found one of Harley Quinn (erstwhile employee and lover of the joker, and ultimately witty and ironic badgirl on the loose or tricking asylum employees), my personal favorite.
So what did I do? What did we do? We told ourselves that we identified with the hero. We had enough in common with him (sans white straight male privilege and unlimited wealth...small things). We loved the color Black. We rarely shared the complex and sometimes painful stories of our family of origin. We stayed up late and worked really hard. Especially me. I was driven. A person compelled on a mission. A person creating an image for the world of who I was, larger than life, reflected in shadow to hide the smaller weaker person that no one could know about. You know, for the safety of the world. For the sake of my ability to protect the helpless. A superhero. Michelle Wallace did and did not write about me.
I became a superhero. Full package. With the shame of a secret identity (usually my class identity was/is my most closely guarded secret), the self-sacrificial attitude that I was individually responsible for the fate of the world every day, and the utter alienation of would-be friends and loved ones. I wore the cape.
But now, even though superhero language is everywhere and so compelling...within Black sci-fi theorization and activism, within social entrepeneurship narratives for those of us Black girls with our own quirky projects and many other domains of our quirky black girl nerdy amazingness...I realize that I chose to be a super-hero because of the trick of narrative.
But let's look at the facts. I am a brilliant Black girl. My brilliance is criminalized. My plan for the world is dangerously transformative. There are white men with endless money who do not want it to happen. Who will stay up at night to find ways to scare me out of it. They will lock me up if they want to. Like Assata Shakur, I might have to break out. Why mold myself into the lonely posture of the shame-filled, stressed out superhero, when I can be part of a diverse bold, quirky (and sometimes still stressed, still shamed) community of supervillians?
Supervillains unite. This is a love letter for that power in you that will re-create the world. That vision born of oppression that makes those in power wear all manner of costumes. This is a love letter for your genius. Your stolen laboratories, your exasperation with the status quo. This is an affirmation of your belief that things should not stay the way they are. This is a kiss on the cheek of your disdain for the day job. Your profound sense of the unfair. This is love for the supervillain in you, bad puns, elaborate monologues and all. That unvalidated faith in your ability to succeed even when the white guy comes and messes things up every time.
We are here. And those of us who are on the loose?
Got some trouble to make.