Just before the start of the fall TV season, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley caused a stir online for misrepresenting TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes and all of her fictitious black women characters as “angry black women.” Of course, many in the feminist blogosphere rushed to defend both Rhimes and her black heroines, Olivia Pope of Scandal and Annalise Keating of the new show How to Get Away with Murder.
Few, however, came to the same defense over the mischaracterization of police lieutenant Abbie Mills in Stanley’s piece (played by the understated, yet quite impressive, Nicole Beharie) as the “sidekick” to her co-lead Ichabod Crane (played by Tom Mison) on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow (the newspaper has since issued a correction, calling Beharie a “star of Sleepy Hollow, not a sidekick.”) Perhaps that is understandable, given how the show fits into a niche genre—a supernatural thriller that often slides into camp. The show nonetheless has its own cult following, and both Beharie and Mison have devoted fan bases.
In the genre of horror and supernatural thriller, black characters are often portrayed, if not as villains, then certainly inconsequential “others” who are usually the first to be killed off. In his magnificent essay collection on Hollywood films, The Devil Finds Work, James Baldwin once wrote, in response to The Exorcist: “He who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.” Here, Baldwin recalls the ways that American culture has often demonized the black body, and we can recognize this tradition from the first “zombie” movies based in the demonization of Haitian religious culture (Vodou in particular) to the racialized spaces of American inner cities, Asian landscapes, or even the location of Gaza in a movie like World War Z (including a scene of a dark-skinned and dreadlocked black woman scientist zombie played for laughs). This is why George Romero’s positioning of a black male hero in opposition to white zombies in the 1968 Night of the Living Dead is still so groundbreaking.
The non-white presence in horror and supernatural dramas is a signal for danger. And if not danger, then perhaps the origins of the supernatural as depicted on earlier TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which featured an Aborigine woman as the original slayer) or in movies like Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned (the late R&B star Aaliyah portrayed the original vampire queen of ancient Egypt).
So, when a lead character like Abbie Mills is not only positioned as a hero in the town of Sleepy Hollow, combined with her “best buddy” relationship with Ichabod Crane, certain racial revisions are in place. In a rather absurdist occult-like telling, Abbie finds herself working with and mediating for the legendary Ichabod Crane of Sleepy Hollow, who has awoken from the grave 230 years after his death, since he is linked to the Headless Horseman, whom he killed in battle. The Headless Horseman is later revealed in the show to be a rival for Ichabod Crane’s witch wife, Katrina, and also Death, one of the Four Horsemen from the book of Revelations. Things get better: Abbie Mills and Ichabod Crane learn that they are the “two witnesses” who are charged with stopping the evil forces of the Apocalypse.
OK, so the show is certainly not for everyone, and this week the ratings have slipped. Still, it’s one of the few shows featuring a black woman character who is not only kicking butt and taking names in her various encounters with demons, sorcerers, ghosts and zombies, but is constantly saving our white male hero and acculturating him into our 21st-century era: including driving automobiles, learning which mobile phone devices are the most up-to-date, and more recently, practicing yoga. Abbie also has complex relationships on the job and with family, including her sister Jenny Mills (played by Lyndie Greenwood) who was locked up in a mental institution for admitting to encountering the demon Moloch, even though Abbie refused to corroborate the story. Jenny is another tough black woman, but serving on the opposite side of the law to her sister.
Many fans of the show have taken to “shipping” Abbie and Icabod Crane into an “Ichabbie” relationship, but I’m quite content with their platonic, sort-of-romantic friendship. The wife of course poses a problem for anything more to develop between them, but for once we have a TV show that actually privileges the non-marital relationship between a man and a woman over an actual marriage. Still, as a culture, we tend to not be satisfied with the idea of women and men in “friend zones,” unless there is the added burden of interracial representation in which black-and-white couples are often positioned as non-sexual. However, given the excitement among some TV viewers over the hot passions of Olivia Pope with President Fitz or with her latest lover, Jake, or even the fraught marriage between Annalise and her white husband, one could understand the need for “shipping” or at least appreciate a black woman as a desired and sexual subject, as Lisa Thompson noted on the political importance of black women having sex (and lots of it) on television. Nonetheless, in this platonic friendship, Ichabod Crane treats Abbie Mills with far more respect and emotional intimacy than anything we’ve ever seen in the interracial trysts in Shondaland.
While we may argue back and forth on these new sexual representations of black women—or delve into slaying earlier representations of black female respectability to make room for these new images, as Brittney Cooper recently suggested with her think-piece on The Cosby Show‘s Claire Huxtable, the ultimate professional black woman who had it all (career and family)—it is useful to think of Abbie Mills and how she may fit into these paradigms. Abbie is nonetheless far from asexual as she has been linked to love interests on the show, and the chemistry between the two leads is undeniable.
To some extent, she fits into standard tropes—strong black woman, non-sexual partner to the white male hero—but in another instance, she is the ultimate symbol of the Afrofuturistic subject, at least in comparison to Ichabod Crane, who is the ultimate symbol of resurrected Dead White Men in canonical history (there is even a running joke on the show because he knew every single American historical figure ever mentioned in our textbooks—George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross—and he’s always there to give us the real history of their occult ties to the supernatural!) In short, the show is canonical history remixed, which is what occurs when diversity casting alters standard and traditional tropes and meanings.
If whiteness is tied to the past, blackness is very much tied to our present, and as the “two witnesses” to the apocalypse, the show imagines both of their fates inextricably tied to a not-so-distant future, hence suggesting the inevitable fate of an interracial or multiracial nationhood. Abbie Mills is a fascinating alternative to either the Claire Huxtable variety of respectable professionalism or to the messiness in the lives of Shondaland characters. She’s too busy slaying demons without having to wrestle with too many demons within while no longer serving as the demonized other.
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.