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Searching For Sycorax: The Zombie Apocalypse, Black Women, & You

"The Importance Of Neglected Intersections: Characterizations of Black Women in Mainstream Horror Texts"

Thesis: The construction of black women characters in horror, while more bountiful than ever and proving "astronomical" in "advertising revenues" in the 21st century, still fail to escape disorienting and old tropes that diminish the complexities of Black womanhood in the genre. Here, Dr. Brooks "exposes mainstream horror's simplistic characterizations of black women by examining their presence in one of horror's most celebrated subgenres, the postapocalyptic zombie text" because of its varying, layered, and always complicated depictions of Black womanhood.

Keywords:

oppositional gaze - a term coined by feminist scholar bell hooks described as the act of looking or gazing as a potentially revolutionary act (especially for black women) as it asserts existence and legitimacy in the face of sociopolitical opposition. Further, although movies, just as one example are created by the gaze of the dominant in society, the work is vulnerable to critique by the marginalized, creating "oppositional readings" that "formulate and ferment" into creating a discourse that invites perspectives that combat oppressive ideologies. The act of looking then becomes a "site of resistence."

intersectionality - often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The concept first came from legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 and is largely used in critical theories, especially feminist theory, when discussing systematic oppression.
Source: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Intersectionality

Discussion Topics:

This chapter outlines the historic implications of and problems with the notions of inherent strength and the masculinization of Black women which insidiously removes them  from being categorized as women. The enslavement of African women held under a racist, sexist, and classist system forced these women to adapt traits not associated with womanhood or even humanity.

"The display of strength in unimaginable circumstances easily paralells the experiences of the final girl in the horror film's concluding chase scene. The coping mechanisms black women developed to deal with their multiple oppressions become a detriment to this particular characterization in contemporary horror."

The Black woman as monstrous idea stems from "this stereotype of the black Superwoman" (a.k.a. the strong Black woman), a mythology that asserts that strength is a word dominantly associated with maleness/masculinity and a "stark and deviant" contrast to the weakness and femininity that womanhood connotes. This all-encompassing strength dehumanizes Black women and removes them from a sympathetic subjectivity alotted to white female and even Black male monsters in horror films (think to Blacula as the victim of white Dracula's oppressive vampiric curse). (26)

Brooks contends, Black female viewership of horror comes from a point of looking by way of the oppositional gaze; "an act of viewing the horror text from a place of rupture--the marginalized position of black women--which influences their negotiated reading of a text that either ignores them or deems them freakish monstrousities."

Examples:

Michonne in Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead (comic book series, 2003--)

a racialized "rape-revenge protagonist"

- possesses a survivalist adaptability only demonstrated in the male characters prior which can be argued, masculinizes her

- "a sense of capability" (her use of the katana) that separates her from other female (white) characters that are confined to domestic, more feminine roles

- Kirkman successfully shows her vulnerable side with Michonne's development of "dissociative personalities" to cope with the trauma of losing many of her loved ones. There lies a deeper meaning that relates to loss in the history of Black women, especially in the early foundation of America's policies of enslavement; using terror, murder, and separating families for profit, subjugation, and humiliation

- Her sexuality falls on the stereotype of the inherent lasciviousness of Black women

Selena in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002)

"a fresh take on the final girl"

- presents the "strong black woman" trope insofar that she's unconflicted about killing anyone infected immediately for her own survival

- her authoritative position mirrors a 'mothering' role in regards to Jim (early due to his lack of awareness of the severity of the infected threat)

- Selena evolves: automously affectionate, Jim and Hannah, her new "family" work together to survive both the infected and unit soldiers that promised to protect them, uses the stereotypes of Black female sexuality against the soldiers (not explicitly) in order to demonstrate an "intelligence and resourcefulness" and make it out of the situation victimless


Overall, both of these characters expose "constructions of the strong black woman, the stereotypes of black female sexuality, and the powerful race and gender dynamics that influence" the oppression of black women.

Discussion Questions:

"The problematic assumption of whiteness" is a neglect in horror criticism of the genre's multiracial audience. How does Brooks use examples in this chapter to identify this issue and further, find examples that incorporate an 'assumption of intersectionality'?

What are other ways in which Black women have been deemed monstrous and how are they incorporated in film?

Brooks makes a great observation about the contemporary zombie narrative's shift focusing on the "mental and physical states of the survivors" and "the potential to actively revise societal hierarchies as a matter of survival." Thinking about the examples she uses as to why this potential is almost always squandered, what factors into keeping our traditional status quo of who gets and maintains power (over others), even in a reconstructive society like the zombie apocalypse?

How does Brooks conclude Boyle's representation of Selena and Kirkman's construction of Michonne? What stereotype do both characters "complicate" and share?

Further Readings:

All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith
Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover
Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman by Michelle Wallace

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