“These White [Wo]Men Are Dangerous”: A Brief Look at White Women’s Violence in Entertainment
There is a line, it seems, to discussing racism in pop culture, and for many years, the line has been drawn around white women.
While watching Awkward Black Girl in 2011, aghast at the white Boss Lady wearing cornrows, I started thinking about the representation of white women’s racism in media. It, like white women ourselves, is often protected. This is evident in the real world, of course: white women are pros at deflecting accusations of racism with profusions of “we’re all women,” and somehow the face of racism ends up as an elderly man with few teeth. White women — particularly young white women — almost always tend to come up clean, as innocence and white womanhood are perceived as being synonymous, and this specific phenomenon of whiteness has traditionally been reflected in mainstream television and film. Obviously this is the case in white-created stories — we could start at Gone with the Wind and work our way through nearly a century of representations of benign white womanness, but it would be a tome — but also in media geared toward Black and Brown audiences. There is a line, it seems, to discussing racism in pop culture, and for many years, the line has been drawn around white women in a Hocus Pocus type circle of protection. Awkward Black Girl was one of the first storylines I recall where the violence of white women was addressed head-on and without apology.
This is certainly not to say that pop cultural awareness of white women’s violence is new. As long as there has been Whiteness there has been white women, and therefore people of color affected by our violence, and therefore art created to reflect those experiences. When I think of earlier examples, I think of Waiting to Exhale, Girlfriends, and The Fresh Prince. The topic of white women’s racism was often in the context of romantic relationships, a mostly toothless joke, or revealed almost in code: a white female character who, to those who know the code, is acting out racist microaggressions, but to a clueless white audience might allow the interpretation of “just a nasty person who just happened to be a white woman.” One example of this that comes to mind is the famous 1991 “Big Four-Oh” episode of Fresh Prince in which Aunt Viv is faced with two snotty white girls in a dance class who automatically underestimate her ability to keep up, and who she shuts down with a flawless execution of the choreography.
Or in Girlfriends, when one of the characters — I think it was Maya — is faced with confrontation while attempting to return an item to the store where she purchased it. The source of the tension is the white female clerk, and although the writing is subtle — the woman’s whiteness and/or racism is never cited as the cause of the friction — the message is clear. But Awkward Black Girl was the first time I remember seeing “white nonsense” so blatantly depicted, and I remember mentioning it to my friend: “You know what nobody talks about? How fucking scary white women are.” She eyed me and said, “I mean, we do. Y’all don’t.”
Touché. But now, several years later, I think the way this harm is portrayed has changed, extending into the boldness I’ve noticed in literature for years. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, to name two, have never shied away from presenting the “scary white woman.” Miss Millie of The Color Purple is an enduring example of the evils white womanhood is capable of. More recently, in Zadie Smith’s newest novel Swing Time, the nameless protagonist observes Aimee, the Madonna-esque pop star to whom the protagonist is an assistant: globally recognized, endlessly wealthy, and very white. The protagonist, a biracial woman, watches as Aimee appropriates West African culture and music, wreaks havoc in the village where she envisions building a school for girls, engages in an affair with a young man from the village, and adopts a baby by problematic means and with questionable motivations — all under the guise of just loving Africa so much and being so inspired by it. When the protagonist bursts Aimee’s bubble — no spoilers — it is she, of course (the woman of color) who is vilified and spurned by the media and everyone else. The idea that a white woman could be anything but generous and pure of intention is never even a consideration for those on the outside looking in. It is the protagonist alone who sees through the shiny veneer of white womanness and into the mess of egotism, arrogance, and entitlement that fuels so many of Aimee’s pursuits. But whenever Aimee feels threatened, she is able to retreat into the safety of her good intentions, which white women so often use as our bomb shelter. It is Old Faithful and a very real aspect of white supremacy as it pertains to white womanhood. We do racist harm, then retreat into the protections of both Whiteness and White Woman Goodness, leaving the so-called aggressors to be punished. More on this notion of Goodness in a moment.
Literature has racist gatekeepers that silence the perspectives of creators of color, and TV and film are no different. Previously, when the subject of dangerous white women has been broached, it was done almost with kid gloves or with a plot device built in that protected the white woman in question from the criticism directed toward her. Consider 1996’s The Craft, which is often called a feminist film (a claim that baffles me, I admit). In it, the lone Black girl Rochelle, played by Rachel True, is victim to racist bullying by a blonde cheerleader-type who at one point blatantly says “I don’t like Negroids.” This could have been an example of white women’s violence laid bare…especially given the fact that Rochelle is able to take a small amount of revenge by casting a spell that make the white girl’s hair fall out. Yet the film ends up punishing Rochelle for acting against the racist harm inflicted on her by the white girl: toward the end of The Craft, Rochelle gets her comeuppance when her own hair falls out in a hallucination. Message: “White women may do bad stuff, but you’re just as bad if you defend yourself…and look how upset the white girl was! Don’t you feel sorry for her?”
Also consider the Save the Last Dance in 2001, in which Bianca Lawson’s character Nikki says to Julia Stiles’s character after beating her ass: “The whole world ain’t enough; you gotta conquer ours too.” Given that Stiles is the perceived heroine in this story, the altercation is designed to garner sympathy for the poor vilified white girl who is merely a victim of her skin color, as well as Black Girl Aggression. (Extreme sarcasm font.)
But what about White Girl Aggression? What about White Woman Violence? A key feature of white supremacy is the function of womanhood within it; white femininity being the standard against which non-white women are judged and the precious token which must be protected from the “dark-skinned aggressor.” But if we regard womanhood through the lens of white supremacy, there is no such thing as WWV. Zoé Samudzi writes of the Virtuous White Woman Trope and how its construction leads to the criminalization of men of color and the dehumanization of women of color. Indeed, this idea of virtue and goodness is woven throughout the way we understand racism and violence in America’s history. Whiteness as a system is often still ignored or undermined, morality — “Bad people are racist. I am a good person, therefore I am not racist.” — being the preferred area of focus. White people tend not to racialize ourselves as it is, preferring instead the vision of Default afforded by supremacist privilege, but this notion of goodness complicates things further when it comes to white women.
Since white people in general are unwilling to engage (honestly) with the overarching power and system of whiteness, white women are consistently painted as bystanders by white history-makers (some of which are actual historians and some of which are more along the lines of history-shapers; that is, film directors, writers, etc.). The subconscious desire of liberal whites to imagine whiteness as nonexistent and therefore powerless and therefore not a factor in their success (while, of course, relying on the power it affords) assigns white women even further as perpetual witnesses and never perpetrators. Racism requires power, and one who refuses to fully engage with the function and methods of white supremacy would argue that, during the time in America’s history when it was legal to enslave Black humans, for example, white women had no power and were therefore not culpable. Whiteness is a lie, and therefore it lies. Woman or not, white women had (and have) whiteness, and that offered/offers significant power.
Often it seems that white creators can’t be trusted to tell this truth. Whiteness (and patriarchy) affects the lens through which white male filmmakers, writers, directors, etc. perceive white women. The impulse to protect white women — a certain kind, usually: those of us who uphold the feminine values deemed worthy of protection — is strong. This results in the depiction of nonracist versions of white female characters but also sexist ones. Intersections matter. But of course, white women writers, directors, etc. do something of the same: we often imagine ourselves as the friend and “natural ally” to people of color, specifically women of color, rallying under the banner of “we’re all women” which always ignores intersections of privilege and oppression. This results in stories featuring white heroines with a Black sidekick, or the boss with a Latina assistant, to whom she is very kind and generous and who of course adores her as the good, kind, moral, non-racist white woman the white writer imagines herself to be.
In 2013 I wrote about the power of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, and the manner in which it represented white women as what we truly were as the wives of slave owners: not the gentle powerless victim who snuck bread and water to the half-lynched black man in the yard but the person, the active agent, who stood on her porch in the Southern sun and watched him with a scowl on her face. Not the butterfly caught in a bad situation and pitying the Black women her husband raped, but the vengeful racist swine who beat those same Black women, burned them, split up their families out of spite. The woman who took the little power she had and wielded it hard and viciously.
Last year we were blessed with Hidden Figures, which though directed by a white director is based upon the nonfiction book by Black author Margot Lee Shetterly. In the film, Kirsten Dunst appears onscreen looking pinched and frozen and I was relieved to find that this was the version of white womanhood we would be given in the film. Not the fantastically declawed unifier who speaks in bumper sticker slogans such as “we’re all women!” No, Dunst was a harm-doer. She builds roadblocks, she stalls careers. She protects her interests as white women and white people have historically done. Still, Dunst in Hidden Figures might be an easier representation of ourselves for white women to swallow, particularly younger white women. Time and space and laws and generations stand between us and these histories that still offers us the option of wiping our hands and saying, “Whew, glad that’s over with!” That’s the problem of historic films that tell tales of our ugly racist past — white audiences are eager to mark how far we’ve come rather than how little has changed.
To many, Dunst’s character is a vestige of the past and not a mirror. Not so with the white women in Issa’s organization “We Got You” in HBO’s Insecure. The white women she works with could very well be the white women watching the show from their couches, and while Insecure is doing amazing numbers — and not just with Black audiences — I saw more than a few passive aggressive tweets from white women on Twitter expressing disinterest in the weeks prior to Insecure’s release. It’s a fascinating balance that begs analysis. We know white people are enthralled by Blackness. It’s why we steal Black styles and Black speech and Black dances, all of which we gleefully co-opt and poorly imitate. Whether it’s a question of entitlement, or a question of our own empty culture, the white fascination (and even obsession) with Blackness is undeniable. Yet studies have shown that white moviegoers are less interested in films in which Black actors star in leading roles, which more often than not translates into “Black movies,” that is, movies made by and for Black audiences. I suspect that this is partially a white preference for Black characters told through a white storyteller’s lens. We like our version of Black people better: the one we can control, the one that lacks context because context requires understanding when all we really want is entertainment. White creators who write two-dimensional characters of color do so for many reasons. Laziness. Incompetency. Ignorance. And also because anything more might contain a mirror — of us — and we want to look at something that doesn’t look back.
Insecure looks back. Issa’s coworkers at We Got You are mostly white women who congratulate themselves on doing the kind of work they believe insulates them from racism, and yet the organization took a group of Black kids to the beach and didn’t bring sunscreen because they didn’t think the children needed it. When discussing field trips to take the kids on, the overwhelmingly white group of faculty looked perplexed when Issa suggested that it might be valuable for Black kids to see beauty and resources in their own neighborhoods. This is a portrayal of the harm of white women that we don’t often see in white-created media; the means-well-but-perpetuates-racist-bullshit white women that we have the luxury of being oblivious to but the burden of which people of color are forced to bear.
Insecure effectively illustrates how micro-aggressions aren’t micro at all: a gossipy email between white coworkers questioning whether the lone Black woman on staff can actually do her job is a collusion of power, bias, and consequences. A white woman’s cluelessness about the needs of Black children isn’t harmless: her position is one that affects children’s lives, and in this way Insecure exposes one of the very real and very overlooked modes of White Woman Violence: that which is inflicted by teachers, social service providers, caregivers, and other roles often perceived as female and rarely perceived as violent. One need look no further than the bevy of teachers who, though supposedly “the gentler sex,” pass countless Black and brown children into the school-to-prison pipeline — Mikki Kendall writes about that here. A video released just last year revealed a white teacher in a Baltimore school unleashing a torrent of racial slurs upon a classroom of middle school children. I repeat, middle school children. A director of a West Virginia nonprofit was fired (and then rehired) after posting a hideously racist image depicting First Lady Michelle Obama as an ape. What does it mean when we overlook the racism of white women and then turn them loose on children of color? What does it mean when our idea of a racist is an old white man, while generations of smiling Millies march right under the radar?
When I’ve had this conversation offline — about the harmless representation of white women in film and media — I’m often countered with a Mean Girls citation: “[White] women are portrayed as bitchy and nasty all the time!” But that’s not the point I’m making. It’s the context of the nastiness that is of interest to me: when in a racial context, how often is the racist harm that white women inflict — great or small — actually explicitly named? I’ve seen shows in which a white woman’s nastiness toward a woman of color is visualized — picture a group of three blonde bullies, blocking a brown girl’s path in the hallway. Bullies, clearly, but the dialogue leans away from racial. This could just be “girls being mean,” right? But in the Black-ish episode “Being Bow-racial,” Tracee Ellis Ross’s character Rainbow gets touchy when her son comes home with a white girlfriend. It’s not because she’s being “racist” (eye roll) but because as a brown woman in America, she is well acquainted with the harm that white women are capable of. She remembers when her white girlfriends in high school cast her to play a flying monkey in their production of The Wizard of Oz. This explicit naming of racist harm inflicted by white women — and white girls — is critical to an honest discussion of the function of white supremacy.
Now let’s talk about Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Not only is it the best scary movie I’ve seen in a long time, it unabashedly approaches the participation of white women in racist violence. It starts early in the film, when the main character, Chris, a black man dating a white woman, is preparing for a trip to meet her parents for the first time. He asks if she told her parents he’s black, and her feigned ignorance — “No, should I have?” — is a prime example of the ways in which white women do harm. Pretending to 1) not know why Chris’s Blackness might be worth mentioning and 2) not understand why Chris might ask such a question is the kind of willful cluelessness that often acts as a guise for racist behavior. Throughout the film, more than her father’s Obama references and her mother’s rudeness to the Black “help,” Rose’s behaviors are what made my teeth grit the most. Whenever Chris would get uncomfortable, Rose 1) never spoke out to correct her family members and 2) always found a way to twist the scenario in such a way to where it was Chris comforting her. Blameless. Innocent. It makes me think of Emmett Till, whose white female accuser admitted in January to lying about the 14-year-old’s advances in 1955, a lie which led to his torture, mutilation, and murder. Since that year, the excuse has been made over and over for this white woman: she didn’t know what was going to happen to him. Lies. This is the mask of cluelessness that white women are traditionally issued in the context of white supremacy: whiteness is goodness, white womanhood is goodness, and white womanhood must be protected. A woman like Carolyn Bryant Donham knew exactly what would happen to a Black boy if she said the correct combination of words, and she went on and spoke them. This is the power white women wield, and the harm we are capable of inflicting. At its root, Get Out addresses the simple fact that not only are white women participants in white supremacy, the system literally cannot function without us. Whether it’s in the form of white women’s cluelessness, imaginations, so-called frailty, willful ignorance, or physical violence…it all does harm. Get Out is a mirror that forces white women to look ourselves directly in the face, and we better not flinch.
Finally, an important thing to note in this discussion — perhaps one of the most important things — is the fact that these works were not created with the intention of being mirrors for us. Reflecting truths to white audiences is merely a byproduct of more important work: reflecting truths to Black audiences, which have been starved of representation of their lives, but have also had honest representations of racism withheld. Even Hidden Figures wasn’t free of white ego or the need to inject white redemption: stories have emerged post-release of the director saying, “There needs to be white people who do the right thing.”
There does. There does need to be white people who do the right thing, but the idea that the “right thing” needs to be present in a film about racism and Black triumph over white hate — that we need to see the white character redeemed and sparkling by the end — is a need motivated by the white ego and its desire to be seen as Good, even when we have done little, if anything, to deserve such redemption. The myth is not that we cannot be redeemed — the myth is that we (white women) have no sins for which we must atone, and as Black creators are finally allowed in from the margins to tell stories that tap into Black audiences’ trillion-dollar buying power (with greater freedom to tell the truth), white women need to do something that may be the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced. We must step out of the white tower and take what we’ve got coming. No white tears allowed.