The Strong Black Woman of the Post-Apocalypse: About War Chief Sona in Horizon Zero Dawn [Contains Spoilers]
I’m not personally playing Horizon Zero Dawn, the latest offering from Guerilla Games and Sony Interactive. I don’t own a PS4 and it’s an exclusive. I am however watching one of my favorite streamers, Adam Koebel, play it on Twitch. Since I don’t have a lot of disposable income, this has been my preferred way of at least seeing the latest games in action and judging if I might want to pick them up later. Besides, if nothing else, Adam’s chat is always a good place for discussion of a game.
I thought I was going to have some opinions on a lot of things that would come up: the consistent and appropriative use of “dreads” across people of all races in the game; the massive appropriation of Native American/First Nations aesthetics; the fact that yet another post-apocalypse had regressed to tribalism rather than any sort of parallel progression for most of the world. I do have opinions on those but, aside from the appropriation, I’ve seen why those choices might have been made by the creative team. But that isn’t what this is about. I only have a right to speak about one of those things (but others have covered it well) and there are more elegant voices than mine talking about Black hair in video games. This is about War Chief Sona and the Strong Black Woman narrative.
Spoilers are ahead so, if you haven’t finished the opening several hours of the game, you may want to go do that. … Got that taken care of? Good. Now let’s talk about Sona.
Sona is a stereotypical Strong Black Woman. Full stop, no questions. She’s capable of standing alone, evidenced by the fact that she’s never shown to have a spouse of any kind, has several children, and has risen to an honored title in the Nora tribe. She fights and hunts to protect her home. Her indeterminate age and scarring are proof that she survives. Her children, Vala and Varl, are both shown to be equally capable and would inevitably stand in a similar place once they reach her age. In fact, I should have no problems with her character at all given this evidence. And I didn’t. In part, that’s what I expected would be said of her. There are a lot of factors to it but the Strong Black Woman is a monolith for depictions of capable Black women in media. Sona’s off screen for much of the opening act of the game and she’s made to be an almost mythic figure by those you can talk with in the area of Mother’s Heart. She’s going to be different, I told myself, she’s going to be more. All that changes for me when we meet her.
On meeting Sona the first time, she’s leading what’s left of her group of fighters in a chase after the cultists who attacked Mother’s Heart. Why is she chasing them? Pride and vengeance, if we’re honest. Pride, because outsiders came to her territory, dared to threaten it, and were escaping with their lives. Vengeance, because her daughter Vala was killed in their attack during the Proving ceremony of the latest batch of Nora fighters. She orders her son Varl to guard the gates of Mother’s Heart with his life to leave on a wild goose chase that could end hers. No one had ordered her to and it isn’t even clear if she’d waited long enough to mourn her own child and deal with her grief. That sets off some flags but, I considered, maybe that was how Sona would deal with her grief. All of this that we as players don’t experience directly, we learn second hand from Varl, who asks us to find out what happened to his mother who still has yet to send any word. Remember, even with the tech this game’s setting shows, she can’t exactly just shoot a text. No one expects to see her in a few hours. She’s been gone long enough to worry several people and her bosses and have an acting war chief be named in her stead. The acting War Chief swaggers about like he’s just gotten a permanent promotion. We finally find and meet her and I’m immediately put off. So much of how she phrased her words rubbed me the wrong way. How dismissive she is of Varl and his worries for her. How she ignores her own wounds. How she rarely brings up Vala. It reminded me of all the worst parts of the Strong Black Woman.
Some of you are probably wondering what that phrase even means in reality. To you, it might just be a meme. The Strong Black Independent Woman Who Don’t Need No Man, so prevalent in so much media. For Black folks raised by Black families, it’s often a very ugly and damaging reality. The Strong Black Woman’s characterization is fairly simple to pick out: fierce, independent, stubborn to a fault, always rising from tragedy, hard-working, willful. The tireless lioness protecting her cubs. It’s revered and often put on a pedestal to aspire to for Black women. But the Strong Black Woman also ignores her own emotions and problems, rarely allowing herself to unpack them and certainly never in any sort of public way. She works twice as hard to get half as much, to the detriment of relationships she has. Those relationships and their actual health, not how they appear from outside, are secondary at best. She has to be the best and most perfect incarnation of whatever it is she’s doing, lest someone question her capabilities. Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder is a perfect example of this, though the audience does see her try to deal with the issues in her life because we see her in private. Rarely does the Strong Black Woman receive that luxury in her narratives. She is meant to be a pillar of outward-facing strength and often little else, someone who helps or guides the true main character of the story she’s found herself in. Games and media don’t exist in a bubble though. This ever-repeated narrative affects people.
In life, this often translates to Black women becoming workhorses for emotional and physical labor. We’re meant to be able to work a demanding job while sassily telling the someone else how to deal with their issues. Think Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset in Orange Is The New Black. We rarely if ever have to space to speak frankly to our issues and grievances, which also can lead to the denial of health issues. How can you seek any kind of help when you’re meant to be independent and never supposed to need help? If no one else is seeking help and you try to, isn’t that just weakness? If that’s all it takes to slow you down, maybe you’re not so strong after all. That goes for both mental and physical health issues, both of which go under-reported and undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. This message permeates through so much of life as a Black woman that it’s not just expected; it’s practically demanded of you. If you aren’t a Strong Black Woman, can you even be considered a Black woman at all?
Cut back to War Chief Sona, a little later in her narrative. The player has done a few quests for her and now we chase after the cultists who attacked Mother’s Heart. And who should show up to join, having followed us, but Varl? He’s worried and it shows on his face, rapidly followed by relief. His mother is thankfully alive and he hasn’t lost his entire family in one fell swoop. Our expectations of mothers in media says she should pull him close before chastising him for disobeying orders. This moment should be tear-filled and pull at our heartstrings. And maybe the moment might have been, were the player Varl. Who can really say? Sona doesn’t pull her son close. She doesn’t even touch him. She immediately and almost coldly chews him out for leaving his post then tells him he didn’t need to worry in the first place. In this public moment, he is little more than a soldier to her.
This isn’t the only moment like it. Varl calls her mother maybe a handful of times. Sona is far from stereotypical motherly in any way, a contrast to any of the other Nora parents we see. Sure, she has children and, ostensibly, she loves them. But the Strong Black Woman doesn’t show emotions publicly, even the positive ones. Sona is a Strong Black Woman first and a mother maybe third or fourth. Honestly, this is about when I mentally checked out of the stream for a while. I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to not be playing a game that isn’t in the horror genre myself. I had the freedom to excuse myself and come back. Sona as a character was just too close to home and too emotionally distant for me to deal with in that moment.
That isn’t to somehow say Sona being so emotionally distant is somehow bad characterization. Adam, and thus I, have yet to finish the game and see what other Black women exist in this world. Several have already been shown, though we didn’t stay with their stories for nearly as long as Sona’s. These women do fall along some stereotypes but that can wholly be blamed on simply not getting time with them to learn about who they are. The one we learn about in those opening hours is Sona, however, and she has a lot of glaring and damaging flaws that simply aren’t addressed by the game’s narrative. Maybe, given time and triggers from the main story’s progression, Sona will grow beyond the Strong Black Woman narrative and become a fully fleshed out character with growth. I frankly don’t have a lot of hope for it. Video games and media at large are too rarely kind to the stories of Black people for me to have much hope at all for Sona. I’ll wait and see however. The Strong Black Woman I’m demanded to be says I have to keep surviving and I supposed that extends to surviving through the characterizations of people who look like me too. Maybe next time.