HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman: The New and Improved Magical Negro
In 2001, Spike Lee popularized the term the Super Duper Magical Negro (SDMN) while speaking to students at Washington State and Yale University. The reference was about the stereotype of the magical Black person who is written into the story to help the white protagonist on his journey. The characters are often uneducated, male, and desexed. They do not have families of their own (The Stand's Mother Abigail—the human race is her family) or desires of their own (The Legend of Bagger Vance's titular character—his sole purpose is to help the white character). Nor do they exist outside of the white characters' constructed idea of them (Noah Cullen—willingly dies to protect the white criminal character in The Defiant Ones). None of this is news. Everyone's been bombarded with the image of the passive, Black person who only wants to serve.
A little-mentioned incarnation of this archetype, however, has gone relatively ignored or unrecognized. Henceforth called the Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman (SDSPBW), this epitome mixes the fictional SDMN character with real-life stereotype of the Strong Black Woman to create a character who is a seemingly powerful representation of strong, self-assured authority.
To understand this incarnation, it's best to start by looking at the societal image of the Strong Black Woman (SBW). Supposedly a positive image, this stereotype is constructed as an example of true Black womanism. This stereotype is depicted within society as a Black woman who willingly suffers quietly without help, supporting others selflessly and without reward to herself. The SBW does not complain about her place in society and is held up as an example of how others should be. She is content, accepting, and although not necessarily happy, she is proud of the society she supports.
Unfortunately, within the speculative genre, the real-life image of the Strong Black Woman is often conflated with the Magical Negro to create the Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman, which endows these characters with powers that are not only used for the good of the broader white society, but that are also not powerful enough change her status in the world.
For the purposes of distinction, I differentiate the SDSPBW image from its predecessor, the Magical Negro, because of the use of three important factors: submissiveness, mysteriousness, and sexuality. Although the SDMN trope sometimes includes the first two, it is the third aspect that separates the SDSPBW from its antecedent. As a construct, both images work to affirm society's ideology and current structure, but only the SDSPBW image uses the sexuality of Black women as a way to defend their current social status.
In other words, much like the Strong Black Woman real life stereotype the Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Woman image not only justifies the marginalization of Black women, it is an acceptable fantasy for white society, much like the Magical Negro stereotype. It attributes a false sense of power to Black women through their sexuality which does not translate to actual autonomy for them. Instead it allows white audiences to uphold racial segregation philosophy and ideology.
The sexuality of Black women has been a constructed reality for U.S. society since its beginning. From the image of the temptress slave woman to the Black jezebel, our society has used these images to control Black women's movement within society. For the speculative genre, Black women have often become a fantasy of hyper-magical femininity portrayed through sexual prowess.
Of the many popular and recurring images that support this idea, perhaps most obvious one is the Tia Dalma character from The Pirates of the Caribbean films. Introduced as Davy Jones' erstwhile lover, Dalma is a flirty seductress who is more than willing to help the white characters for little or no reward. Originally the powerful goddess Calypso, she once held control over the seas and everything within it. Now she is "bound" into human form because she rejected her white lover, Davy Jones, and her power is reduced to only aiding the heroes on their journey, as she has been denied one of her own.
For this character, the message is clear. Black women are meant to support white men. If they are unwilling to do this, the punishment is swift and uncompromising. Dalma has been relegated to a mere shadow of her former self, and society is better for it. Without Dalma's current submissive state, the journey of the white men would be in jeopardy, and all of the fictional society would be threatened by the presence of her Black superpowers. Instead, she is depicted as an overly strong, sexual woman, who is rightly regulated to a submissive role for the benefit of this wider fictionalized world.
Another popular image is the longstanding Marvel comic book character, Storm. Best known as the on-again-off-again leader of the X-Men, Storm is the queen of Wakanda (due to her marriage to the comic character Black Panther) and possesses the ability to control all elements of the weather, both on Earth and beyond. Despite all of this power, Storm, like most female comic-book characters, is portrayed in scanty attire, exposed breast and skimpy thongs, as opposed to her male counterparts whose costumes cover their entire bodies. Not surprisingly, her race is a constant presence as Storm is considered beautiful and sexy because "her features don't fit any conventional classification. Not Negroid, Caucasian, or Oriental—yet somehow, an amalgam of the rarest elements of them all. White hair. Blue eyes."
This is quoted directly from an issue of Uncanny X-Men published in 1989—not 1889! Through her white features and the quiet strength of the Strong Black Woman, Storm is accepted as a member and often leader of the X-Men. As with Tia Dalma, the endowment of supernatural powers has not changed Storm's position in society. Rather, these powers have made her more white, relegating her Blackness or "Negroid[ness]" to second-class status. For Storm, supernatural powers not only do not upset the racial and gender hierarchy but they forge a constant battle between her race and gender, causing a binary opposition where she is forced to choose among these two identities. Needless to say, the genre has often chosen the more white identity for her, as evidenced by the light-skinned Halle Berry who played Storm in the X-Men films.
Trying to move outside of these images often proves difficult for Black women. Genre fans sometimes level anger toward Black women when they step outside of their accepted roles. An obvious example of this is with the 2012 controversy of the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Although the characters of Rue and Thresh are described within the book as having "dark brown skin and eyes," many fans leveled racist insults at the Black actors playing the roles. However, it was the actress Amandla Stenberg (Rue) who received the most flack. Fans tweeted that they were unable to connect to the character after being confronted with her Black presence in the film. The problem was not only that this Black girl did not deserve sympathy, but that she was in the wrong place; she did not belong in their fantasy futurist society. Give her a couple of years, throw her on stage as a teen seductress (àla Lisa Bonet in Angel Heart), and everything will be exactly as it should be.
Taking a look at the broader genre, it's easy to see that not all Black female characters are depicted as Super Duper Sexual Spiritual Black Women. However, it's also easy to see that way too many of them are. The problem is not that there are negative characters who also happen to be Black women (and minority people as a whole), but that there are rarely any contrasting positive images. Even the character of Rue dies after granting wisdom and medicine to the white protagonist. So while the obvious racism is held under scrutiny, the problematic issue of Rue being placed within the text simply to advance the plot for the white character has been left unexamined. Real life Black women don't have supernatural powers, and they aren't stronger than white women—but they are expected to be, so this effects the way people interact with them.
One of the problems for genre writers is that, while trying to be progressive by endowing these characters with supernatural powers, they have simultaneously relied on old, worn-out stereotypes—including the sexual aggression of Black women. Whether inadvertent or not, these genre conventions very well may create a space where Black women are more subjugated through the bestowment of supernatural powers, as that appearance leaves the mostly white audience unthreatened in their patriarchal and racial positions in society.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chesya Burke has been writing speculative fiction for over a decade. Her work has appeared in such publications as Dark Dreams I, II, and III: Horror and Suspense by Black Writers, and her short story collection, Let’s Play White, received high praise from Samuel Delany and Nikki Giovanni. Several of her articles appeared in the African American National Biography published by Harvard and Oxford University Press. She is the recent recipient of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) scholarship, and is a juror for the 2012 Shirley Jackson awards.
ISSN 1937-7843 Clarkesworld Magazine © 2013 Wyrm Publishing. Robot illustration by Serj Iulian.