A Renegotiation Of Hollywood’s Black Girl “Villain” Trope
Hollywood wanted us to believe these Black girl characters were villains. In reality, they were just right.
R29Unbothered continues its look at Black culture’s tangled history of Black identity, style, and contributions to the culture with ROOTS. In 2022, we’re redefining Black excellence while celebrating where our past, present, and future meet.
One of the most frequently occurring, long-standing cinematic archetypes is that of the Black Diva, a Black woman who is no-nonsense to a fault. Hollywood would have us believe that this character is unnecessarily difficult and demanding, creating issues for no reason other than to inflate her own ego. However, armed with fresh eyes and a deeper understanding of how misogynoir works to discredit Black women, we know better now. On second glance, characters like Wilhelmina Slater, Mary-Jane Paul, and Molly Carter weren’t really villains — they simply dared to put themselves first.
Archetypes are inevitable. They are an instrumental device in storytelling across any medium. Unfortunately, the line between a good trope and a stereotype is very thin, and Hollywood typically trends towards more negative clichés rather than thoughtful characterisations — especially when it comes to Black women. What makes these portrayals so dangerous is the fact that, over time, they become unconsciously accepted as truths used to justify why our world is the way that it is, for better or for worse. Societies turn to the media to define our norms and affirm our morals, often not realising how our perspectives of life are being (sub)consciously moulded by the images that we consume on a daily basis.
The Black community, specifically Black women, is at a disadvantage as the media works consistently to circulate anti-Black, misogynistic messages through its representations. Generally, Black women are rendered invisible and unimportant, in narratives rooted in whiteness. In cases where Black women do appear on screen, the portrayals turn to negative stereotypes and tropes in order to project perceived Black femininity. These depictions send the message that Black women are undeserving of multi-dimensional portrayal. We become unworthy others, either completely erased from cultural accounts or bound within the confines of hyperbolic representations of our culture.
Renegotiation of those images entails looking inward at ourselves and at the internalised biases that may have influenced our understanding of what we’ve seen. We can’t rewrite the impact of these stories — no matter how many times they’re being rebooted — but we can read them through a different lens. Maybe it wasn’t just the scripts that villainised Black women in these cult films and TV shows…what if we’ve been just as implicit all this time by interpreting them incorrectly?
Black women characters in these stories who actively pursue their own interests without opting for the cordiality that is expected from them are seen as obstacles to be overcome. Stubborn and self-absorbed, the way they are written implies that they stand in the way of the protagonist and the storyline’s progress.
Black excellence demands that we show up as our best, impeccably-dressed, well-spoken selves at every turn. Kindness, rather friendliness, is also part of the directive; whether genuine or a front, coming off as "nice" is considered imperative for any Black person looking to navigate the world. (As if a smile could dismantle systemic racism.) In TV and film, Black characters who choose not to follow those rules of engagement are depicted as problematic and troublesome. Black women characters in these stories who actively pursue their own interests without opting for the cordiality that is expected from them are seen as obstacles to be overcome. They're stubborn and self-absorbed, and the way they're written implies that they stand in the way of the protagonist and the storyline’s progress.
Take Ugly Betty’s Wilhelmina Slater, for instance, played with effortless finesse and style by Vanessa Williams. Wilhelmina is generally considered the villain of the beloved ABC series. As cunning as she was fabulous, the character’s entire story arc over the course of Ugly Betty’s four seasons was dedicated to one thing: becoming the editor-in-chief of MODE Magazine at all costs. The heat of Wilhelmina’s ambition couldn’t be quelled by anything — including love, friendship, and even her own family — and it put her in frequent and direct opposition to the people around her. Though she was ultimately redeemed in the series finale, landing her dream job after a long, bitter war, the character’s scheming and conniving ways earned her a top spot on the competitive list of TV’s Top Bitches.
Gabrielle Union is also well-known for playing the role of the Difficult Black Woman; her whole filmography is made up of characters that didn’t necessarily play well with others. Union called out cultural appropriation as Isis, the captain of the opposing cheerleading team, in the 2000 teen classic Bring It On. In the 2001 rom-com Two Can Play That Game, she played the flawless but unwelcome third wheel in Shante Smith’s (Vivica A. Fox) tumultuous relationship. Deliver Us From Eva saw her as the overprotective older sister with no time or patience for romance. In 2013, she starred as the eponymous ambitious journalist in BET original Being Mary-Jane. Each of these stories positioned Union as the unapologetically hard-to-please Black girl.
When we first encountered these characters and others like them, the general consensus was that they weren’t the heroes of the plot even if they were meant to be the protagonists (like Mary Jane in Being Mary Jane). In most cases, their tendency to put themselves first at all costs gave them a more nefarious edge, positioning them as foils to the “good” characters, as problems needing to be solved (The entire plot of Bring It On hinges on rooting against the Black girls.) But I’m now seeing these “villains” differently. Maybe they were actually onto something by prioritising their own needs.
Historically, Black women have been dealt a bad hand on a systemic and interpersonal level because of the intersection of our race and gender. Factors like class, skin colour, weight, and more only intensify the consequences of misogynoir — the more othered categories we fall into, the more we are marginalised. Media works to compound this marginalisation two-fold. When these images are so pervasive, it seems reasonable for people to then pigeonhole Black women into one loud, sassy, hard to deal with, oversexualised monolith. In turn, we feel the need to combat that false sentiment by overperforming excellence and perpetuating respectability politics.
So how do we resist this cycle of misrepresentation? If you were to ask the late Black feminist activist bell hooks, her answer would be simple: by decolonizing our gaze.
"[Black women] have resisted continued devaluation by countering the dominant stereotypes about us that prevail in white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy by decolonizing our minds,” wrote hooks in her 1993 book Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. “Here, decolonisation refers to the breaking with the ways our reality is defined and shaped by the dominant culture and asserting our understanding of that reality, of our own experience."
How different would our lives be if we stopped performing likability and just showed up as ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to be Difficult Black Girls and Women without feeling guilt?
For hooks, it was imperative that one’s relationship between people and the media was one of constant introspection and investigation, and we can borrow from that politic when looking at many of Hollywood’s Black girl “villains.” What would happen if we approached the trope of the Black Diva through a more nuanced, decolonized lens? Hopefully, we’d see more characters like Insecure’s Molly Carter.
“I’m fine being the scapegoat,” Orji told R29Unbothered on Insecure fans’ love-hate relationship with the character. “People have such a big issue with Molly because either they’ve been Molly or are Molly right now.”
Molly (Yvonne Orji) is among the most recent and most controversial of the Difficult Black Women of the modern TV/film canon, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to guess that the writer’s room of the HBO original knew that the character would bring chaos to the timeline from her very inception. As the friend and foil to good-natured but chaotic Issa Dee (Issa Rae), Molly’s type-A, rigid, “I gotta put me first” approach to life often landed her in direct conflict with others. Between watching her constantly judge Issa, willfully engage in toxic romantic relationships with men, and generally sabotage her own life, it felt impossible to root for Molly throughout most of Insecure’s five seasons. Though the Molly Carter Hate Train was so powerful that some of that bad juju even spilled over into Orji’s real life — you know you’re acting when people can’t separate you from your character — the Nigerian American actress knows it’s only because Molly speaks to the part of us that recoils at the very thought of being so unlikable.
Even though Molly was revving up to be the most hated character in TV history after her devastating season four blowout with Issa, she did have some points. We understood why she was so particular in her pursuit of love, why she was insistent on being the star of the show at work. Even when Molly was at her worst, sabotaging one of the most important relationships in her life, we were furious with her, but we still saw where she was coming from. That nuance made her character development all the more rewarding. It took five stressful seasons, but eventually, Molly did get the happy ending she was striving so hard for. She won.
Revisiting the stories of some of Hollywood’s other Difficult Black Women from a more-evolved vantage point might lead to a similar change of heart. Though we didn’t get a chance to see what exactly had shaped these characters’ personalities, it’s not hard to imagine the circumstances. As a Black woman working in media, I get why Wilhelmina was so ruthless in her mission to become editor-in-chief at MODE. Being the only Black woman in a majority white space and not getting the recognition you deserve? Who among us hasn’t been there? Sure, normal people don’t go as far as Wilhelmina did to accomplish her goals, but she wasn’t wrong to be that driven after all of the work she’d done to climb her way to the top. The same can be said for many of Union’s tough cookie characters. Isis and the Clovers had every right to call out the Toros for stealing their entire cheer routine in Bring It On. Eva was only trying to protect her sisters from heartbreak in Deliver Us From Eva. Connie’s only crime in Two Can Play That Game? Being fine enough to steal Chante’s spotlight.
Nuance can redeem even more of the Black girl baddies in the canon. Nikki (Save the Last Dance) was absolutely justified in her wariness of the white woman sniffing around her ex-boyfriend. Yes, Annalise Keating committed a few (okay, several) crimes throughout the six seasons of How to Get Away with Murder, but her very questionable interpretation of the law was only a means of protecting herself and her loved ones. We may have hated her at first, but You‘s Sherry Conrad was far from the villain; even with all of her eccentricities and her puffed-up ego, she was actually the only normal character in the story. Grey’s Anatomy Chief of Surgery Miranda Bailey’s reputation as Resident Hardass resulted from her always holding her mentees accountable in hopes that they would go on to change the face of medicine. And though HBO Max’s Gossip Girl has yet to reveal her full backstory, I suspect that the real reason for young Monet De Haan’s perpetual cattiness and elitism is her complicated family dynamic and the burden of perfection that comes with it.
That decolonized gaze should also be turned inward, allowing us to practice empathy and care for ourselves in every stage of our lives. As a community, we were taught from birth to be “on” — well-dressed, well-spoken, and well-mannered — to convince society that we deserve a seat at the table, Black women always operate at maximum capacity, putting on our friendliest, most articulate, most capable personas even when we’re running on fumes. How different would our lives be if we stopped performing likability and just showed up as ourselves? What if we allowed ourselves to be Difficult Black Girls and Women without feeling guilt or projecting our guilt on the Black women already treading that path? Could engaging authentically with our feelings and desires, no matter how people would perceive them, be the key to our personal liberation?
I’d argue that leaning into our inner “villain” is actually the most heroic thing we could do for ourselves.