As a queer Muslim woman of colour witnessing a raging pandemic and racial reckoning, I’ve frequently been left wanting when it comes to stories of heroism.
Finding characters who are even remotely like me (queer and/or BIPOC) is difficult. Finding heroes who fit this bill is even harder.
I noticed that so many of these characters are in the military or law enforcement – from Nile Freeman in The Old Guard (2020) to Renee Montoya in Birds of Prey (2020), and Sophie Moore on the CW TV show Batwoman. Lost in my admiration of their valour, I failed to see their deadly weapons and the systemic violence of the institutions they symbolise.
This raised the question: How could I enjoy media featuring these characters, given their association with brutality and injustice?
Since the protests last year over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, my convictions on policing went from ambivalence to outright opposition. How could they not, when the racism inherent in law enforcement came out in full force in 2020? And I know my queer history – my heart breaks hearing about the police violence faced by my trans siblings, particularly trans BIPOC.
My reaction was twofold: first, my privilege, as a non-Black person, clouds my perspective. I’ve never been stopped and searched, nor overly feared for my safety in police presence. Second, my willingness to give police the benefit of the doubt came from me associating police with certain Black and brown faces on my screen.
Thinking back, many fictional queer and BIPOC police officers have shaped my perspective. Dinah Drake is introduced on Arrow as an undercover detective turned vigilante, leaving behind collateral damage in her quest for vengeance. Drake then joins a team of vigilantes as the Black Canary. She also returns to the police force, climbing the ranks and becoming a police captain. By day, Drake fights criminals within the confines of the law. By night, she dons a mask and uses her signature sonic scream, pursuing criminals on her own terms. I related to the duality of her identity and her brown skin and was endeared to her greatly.
David Singh also a police captain, of Asian descent, on The Flash; Sophie Moore is a former soldier on Batwoman, and Renee Montoya, a detective in Birds of Prey, are three key examples. All three have canonically queer relationships that are mentioned – albeit fleetingly – early in their intros, lulling me into a false sense of security. Simply put, cops and soldiers being queer BIPOC quite literally colours many people’s perceptions of the institutions they represent. By having something in common with me, I instinctively thought of these characters sympathetically, thus proving right there that copaganda and military apologia works (Montoya leaving the force notwithstanding). On my screen, I couldn’t see past the novelty of including people like me in these systems, rather than how those institutions were rotten to their core.
Untangling those narratives is tough. The police and military forces in the US do have BIPOC and queer people serving – but not without difficulties. For queer people, serving in the military is far from easy. BIPOC may serve for the financial incentive, or maybe in wanting to change the system from the inside. These nuances aren’t explored in comics adaptations, though, because that would mean confronting the terrifying reality that white supremacy has infiltrated both the military and law enforcement, with key leadership positions being largely white and male.
To be clear, I am not shaming anyone who enjoys these shows and movies – to do so would be vastly hypocritical. But I am simply asking for these adaptations to do better – for audiences and creators to acknowledge that these tensions exist in today’s political context.
For instance, I disliked Nile Freeman’s intro on The Old Guard as an American Marine, stationed in Afghanistan. After smilingly handing out sweets to kids, she proceeds to enter an Afghani home carrying a huge weapon, seeking the whereabouts of a man from the Afghani women living there. Freeman informs them that her target has killed “our people” (meaning Americans) and “yours” (other Afghanis), reinforcing the common “us and them” mentality driving such wars, to begin with. But my discomfort at this blatant military propaganda didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate Freeman’s front-and-centre role in the movie, exactly as Black director Gina Prince-Bythewood intended.
Kelly Olsen and Sophie Moore are both queer Black women and former military, on Supergirl and Batwoman respectively. Both had clandestine relationships with women that affect them deeply. But addressing the military’s homophobia is at best a shallow effort. The more insidious racism that intersects this remains largely hidden.
On The Old Guard, Nicolo di Genova and his husband Yusuf “Joe” al-Kaysani are former soldiers for the Crusades’ opposing forces. Though I love their genuinely emotive relationship, I also wince at every shot of them with sniper or assault rifles.
Militant aspects aside, embracing queerness, melanin and nuance are possible. But it’s important to take a step back from the excitement of being fed after being starved of representation. We need to better understand why casting and story choices have been made in the wider social context, even in comics. Within the narrative, I would like to see more explicit recognition of the white supremacy inherent in these institutions, and their culpability in the Black and brown lives lost due to their very existence.
These issues deserve more attention than to be reduced to a throwaway line, or a special episode (Arrow did one for gun control). The very few Black-led comics adaptations do a better job of this. Black Lightning integrated Black Lives Matter from the very beginning, with Anissa Pierce (a Black lesbian superhero) being arrested after protesting in the pilot. But the onus shouldn’t be on Black-led shows to lead with everyone else trailing far behind, especially given Black Lightning was not renewed for another season.
So while I’m not calling for this genre’s cancellation by any means, I am calling for a change in the way the military and law enforcement are portrayed. Queer and BIPOC representation need to be accompanied with meaningful, progressive commentary to be authentic in proper context.
Make no mistake, watching or not watching diverse TV and movies alone isn’t activism. But the people behind these shows and movies need to do better to be more in tune with what social justice really means for their audience. Their silence on the racism that undercuts these institutions is deafening, exacerbated by the propaganda on the screen.
Finally, acknowledging white supremacy is the first step in diversifying television and movies, not the last. We need queer people and BIPOC behind and in front of cameras, in senior executive positions, writers’ rooms and production meetings. Specifically, we need more Black people, especially given Black writers have been sidelined, including in comics adaptations, for pushing for diversity or anti-racism. Black Lives Matter is a conversation that continues to be relevant, even if the peak of the protests has passed, because Black people continue to be killed by police, including in the very city George Floyd was murdered in.
Nothing will ever bring those people back. But the systems in place that allowed for these atrocities to happen are still being glorified in popular media. The only way to combat this is by viewing these problems through a progressive, anti-racist, pro-queer and pro-Black lens, and that is only possible by increasing the presence of people with those views behind and on the screen.
*Please note that this article was written before the latest episodes of Batwoman had aired. The Batwoman series has since included progressive commentary on BLM.