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Abbie Mills: Dodging the Double-Binds of Race & Gender

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With the continuing success of Scandal and the debut of Shonda Rhimes latest hit How to Get Away With Murder, editorials on the trend of black women headlining TV have begun to circulate with force. Bizarrely, however, this buzz and analysis frequently – though not always – finds Let. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) of Fox’s Sleepy Hollow conspicuously on the outskirts. Granted Abbie is not the sole lead on her show, as are Annalise Keating or Olivia Pope; hers is most definitely a co-starring role, shared with her counterpart, Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison). However, contra a recent NYT gaffe, she is also certainly no side-kick and as the Scully to Ichabod’s Mulder, Abbie unequivocally deserves to be counted amongst TV’s current black leading-ladies.

But whatever the reason for her head-scratching relegation to the margins (I suspect the chronic cultural devaluation of genre TV is to blame) I would like to take a moment to give Abbie Mills the well-deserved spot-light and talk about the complexity of her new place in the pantheon of female genre stars.

Currently Sleepy Hollow is in the run of its sophomore season on Fox; to quickly recap, Abbie is the modern day police lieutenant who is paired up by fate with the hunky blast-from-the-past Ichabod Crane (of the original Washington Irving story). As the two prophesized ‘Witnesses,’ the pair are fated to jointly battle the evil Moloch who is attempting to coordinate the biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse into bringing about the end of days. Although the show has a fantasy-horror premise, much of its true entertainment value is wrought from the addictive character moments shared between its stellar leads. Ichabod’s fish-out-water 18th century colonial solider who must learn to hack it in the 21st puts Abbie in the place of modern mentor and guide to all things good to be found in this millennia, from showers and doughnut holes, to yoga and video games.

The two predictably share a will-they-won’t-they (but of course they will) romantic chemistry that is currently foiled primarily by Ichabod’s marriage to his literal witch of a wife, Katrina (Katia Winter), whose loyalties are not entirely to be taken for granted. As per usual, the Sleepy Hollow fandom’s main schism exists between those shippers who pair Ichabod with Abbie, versus those who are “no-romo,” or on team Ichatrina. (Ah, shipping wars, the true lifeblood of any fandom). However, assuming the show gets a decent run, romantic consummation between Ichabod and Abbie seems a reliable inevitability.

Yet despite Ichabbie’s all but guaranteed status as endgame, the issue of Abbie as the target of Ichabod’s romantic affections is one which has raised quite a few heated passions and debates. While it is worth asking if there is a racial component to arguments against the ship, straightforward accusation of racism are, I’d like to suggest, perhaps a bit historically misguided. After all, Abbie is not the first woman to endure such heated arguments, nor are they remotely exclusive to black women, or women of color. White female leads as love-interests have been a bone of contention in many fandom shipping-wars, long before Ichabbie was even a gleam in the eye of any fangirl or boy.

Where the White Girls Have Been, and Where the Black Girls Have Yet to Be

The most acute and relevant example is clearly that of Ichabod and Abbie’s most direct cultural predecessors, the aforementioned Mulder and Scully. Although the X-Files duos’ romantic consummation seems inevitable in hindsight, throughout the show’s heyday, fandom divisiveness over Mulder/Scully shipping was ubiquitous and deeply contentious. Fans of the era still bare their battle scars. Indeed, the very term “shipper” – now a universal fandom term and recent entry into the OED – was originally coined by the X-Files fandom specifically to delineate those who were in favor of a romance between the show’s leads, versus those who were ambivalent (fencers), and those who were unequivocally opposed (noromo). When the two finally shared their first kiss – a millennial New Year’s Eve kiss – in the 7th season episode “Millennium,” Mulder muses sardonically to Scully afterwards, in an obvious meta wink to the audience, “Hey, look at that, the world didn’t end.” That’s how divisive the issue of their potential romance was to fans of the time.

(For another example, see the wide-ranging contentious debates about a possible romance between Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler of NBC’s long-running Law & Order: SVU)

Basically from the shows’ inception, no X-Phile forum was free of the Mulder/Scully shipping controversy, and many of the rationales forwarded by Sleepy Hollow fans in protest to Ichabbie actually bare an uncanny resemblance to earlier fights undertaken in the X-Files fandom. The two most frequent oppositions seem to be that a) fans simply do not want a romantic dynamic introduced that will pull focus from the main plot-line of the show and b) they do not want the female lead shoehorned into the status of mere love-interest, as has so often been the sorry fate of female characters across the board in popular culture.

To the first argument I say fair enough – if romance just isn’t what you came for, I can dig it. But to the second, I think a further conversation is warranted regarding the extent to which Abbie is trapped between being The Female Lead, and being more specifically a black female lead. What sets Abbie Mills distinctly apart from the likes of Dana Scully or Olivia Benson is, of course, her divergent cultural lineage regarding her race.

While the feminist criticism that women should not be reduced to one-dimensional love-interests is certainly well-founded, it must still be acknowledged that white women have almost exclusively been called upon to fill that role, historically. And regardless of the gender-based criticisms to be made of this trope, it nevertheless has done a great deal to perpetuate everything from racist white beauty norms, to the notion that black women – and to varying degrees all women of color– are less deserving of romantic love than are white women (particularly love of the more epic, fairytale variety).

As many black women who are fans of the show have asserted, they as a group are frequently entirely excluded from being portrayed as the ultimate, cosmic love of any man’s life (or any woman’s for that matter!) Sleepy Hollow and Abbie Mills constitute one of the very few mainstream cultural narratives to offer even a hint of that possibility to them, and it is entirely understandable why Abbie’s potential romance with Ichabod has become such a site of intense emotional investment for them. It is also why fans who resist Abbie’s romance with Ichabod on the grounds that they do not want her shoehorned as the Love-Interest™ are perhaps underestimating the degree to which Abbie’s blackness alters the larger cultural politics of the show’s prospective love-story.

The issue seems to boil down to the question of who Abbie fundamentally represents to various audience factions. To some she is primarily a female lead, and her storyline seems to be evaluated and debated mainly in reference to the legacy of her overwhelmingly white female predecessors within genre TV (such as Dana Scully). To others, she is more distinctly a black female lead, and she therefore must contend with a whole host of alternate erasures and stereotypes specific to women of her race.

Granted, it is likely that some of the resistance to Ichabbie constitutes racism of the blunter, more straightforward variety. Even in our allegedly ‘post-racial’ society, interracial romance still holds the power to invoke intense anxiety and animus. Just ask Cheerios. But my speculation is that many fans who resist Ichabbie do so not from a place of direct bias against black women, but more from an ignorance as to the ways in which black women have been hurt by their chronic exclusion from the status of love-interest, instead of feeling fatigued by the excess of it historically enjoyed/endured by white women. Racial differences change gender dynamics, and Abbie’s race is deeply relevant to the question of how her potential romance with Ichabod ought to be framed in the larger cultural milieu.

When You Get Caught Between the Damsel and the Strong Black Woman™

This is frankly true not only in relation to the overt romance aspect of the series, but also with regard to the issue of damseling, and Abbie’s perpetual risk of being confined to the role of Strong Black Woman. There is a great deal about the larger premise of the show that inclines Abbie toward this trope – the fact that she is of the modern world, and must therefore serve as Ichabod’s guide to its many mysteries; so too her status as a police woman, i.e. someone who is formally trained to handle herself in situations of danger or crisis.

Again, many find this aspect of Abbie’s character understandably refreshing. She is virtually never made the helpless damsel awaiting the strong, competent man to rescue her. Nevertheless, this dynamic consequently also arguably traps her in one of the oldest and most exhausted stereotypes about black women – that they are all superwomen who can endure any hardship without aid and without consequential detriment to their own mental, physical, or emotional well-being. While no one is anxious for Abbie to be made helpless, more often than not, she is the one risking herself to protect/help Ichabod, and there is much to be said for the sadly rarer moments when puts himself at risk, or makes some kind of sacrifice, in order to protect her.

Notably, these are often precisely the moments when his reserved, gentlemanly veneer falls away, and instead of his typical, formal address of “Leftenant,” Ichabod regularly descends into gut-wrenching cries of “Abbie.” He does not make a habit of using her first name and when he does, the emotion beneath the address is often quite literally breathtaking; it almost effortlessly manages to propel Abbie amidst the likes of love-heroines such as Elizabeth Bennett or Jane Eyre. (In a recent episode, when Ichabod unexpectedly uses her full name “Grace Abigail,” the unmistakable reverence with which he invokes her makes one vicariously dizzy – that’s how high her pedestal has risen)

Chronically damseling Abbie to achieve this emotional effect would indubitably be a disservice to her character, and a step backward for female characters across the board. But again, given black women’s historical exclusion from the ranks of women deemed ‘worthy’ of either gentlemanly courtesy or the white-knight’s steely sacrificial heroism, there is a lot to be said for playing that trope straight once in a while, if only for the ways in which it works to acknowledge both Abbie’s inherent vulnerability as a human being, and her inherent deservedness of the chivalry only a time-traveling gentleman could pull off in 2014.

The Subversive Pleasures of Chivalry

Chivalry is a complicated concept, and while it has had very sexist histories – often framing women as weak and in perpetual need of rescue – it can sometimes be invoked as a genuine demonstration of respect. During Sleepy Hollow’s first season, I was struck by how impactful a small scene from the episode “John Doe” was on this particular count. Ichabod and Abbie have discovered the bridge to an alternate reality – the long lost settlement of Roanoke – and they must walk across a river to reach it.

At the near-side of this supernatural thoroughfare, Ichabod dutifully stands to the side and offers Abbie a hand as she steps aloft the bridge ahead of him (see below).

Sleepy Hollow - "John Doe" (1.05) (GIF not mine)
Sleepy Hollow – “John Doe” (1.05) (GIF not mine)

The moment takes up all of five seconds, and yet the power the imagery seemed to possess to frame Abbie as the novel recipient of this kind of respect and veneration was indubitably immense.

Even in another moment of comedic sexual farce, the show manages to play upon the sexual attraction between its leads while simultaneously maintaining Ichabod’s resolute respect for Abbie’s person. At one point in the episode “The Vessel” he finds himself forced to lift her up by her feet to reach something or other, and the situation results in his face sitting awkwardly level with her derriere. The black woman’s behind has historically been a site of dehumanized sexual fetishization, yet the scene manages to turn that dynamic on its head, and uses to it to reveal both Ichabod’s undeniable sexual attraction to Abbie, as well as his visibly concerted effort not to grossly objectify her or reduce her to a mere target of lust.

Sleepy Hollow - "The Vessel" (1.11) (GIFs not mine)
Sleepy Hollow – “The Vessel” (1.11) (GIFs not mine)

 

Catch-22s are predictable fixture of any experience of marginalization, and black women have endured a particularly painful one in the double-bind between the desexualized, ‘ugly’ mammy figure, and the animalistically lascivious jezebel. Sleepy Hollow, in my opinion, has done a laudable job so far of keeping Abbie Mills outside of that trap, establishing her as undeniable sexually attractive (helped along, no doubt, by Nicole Beharie’s ethereal good-looks), while maintaining a kind of chivalrous reverence for her humanity. How the show contends with the romantic dynamic between Ichabod and Abbie going forward will be a question continually worth revisiting on this front. It is still early in the shows’ run, after all. (hopefully!)

From One Lieutenant to Another

In sum, I’d like to suggest that many heated contention surrounding Abbie Mills within the Sleepy Hollow fandom are arguments perhaps borne not so much from overt racism as a kind of unfortunate race-blindness, a failure to take into account the question of how Abbie’s race changes her relationship to the many classic gendered tropes typically embodied by white female characters. A few decades ago, feminist law theorist Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which race and gender (and other axes of identity) are imbricated. Her claim is that phenomenon like race or gender never act ‘alone’ and that it is only through their particular convergences that our specific experiences of bias, marginalization and discrimination manifest.

No woman is ever just a woman, and the same tropes that can work to render a white female character a pathetic damsels can conversely work to affirm the basic human vulnerability of a fictional black woman. The love story that seems, at first, like a hackneyed, Nicolas Sparks cliché can swiftly become your one bright spot on a bleak horizon when you remember that virtually ALL of our greatest love story heroines, from Guinevere* and Juliet, to Ilsa Lund and Rose Dawson, have been white. It’s not an insignificant exclusion, nor is it a disparity liable to be rectified any time soon.

(*The BBC’s recent Merlin TV series notwithstanding)

Therefore, despite her varying similarities to the many genre female heroines who came before her – Ellen Ripley, Dana Scully, Buffy Summers, Sara Connor – Abbie Mills still bears at least a couple of cultural burdens unique to women of her race. One of them is indubitably tied to the legacy of another famous genre fiction Lieutenant, Nyota Uhura, whose singular kiss with Captain Kirk in the 1968 Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” famously broke the ground Ichabod and Abbie seem imminently poised to waltz all over. As well they should; it is hallowed ground indeed.

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