In a keynote address given at Stanford University in 1991, Jamaican American poet and essayist, June Jordan, proclaimed that “if you are free, you are not predictable, and you are not controllable.” She expanded upon this idea of freedom, adding “to my mind, [this] is the keenly positive politicizing significance of bisexual affirmation.” Jordan, a Black woman who openly and deliberately identified as bisexual, used her writing to voice her experiences with racism, misogyny, and biphobia at the hands of those who feared her freedom. In her 1995 book Civil Wars, she explained that America has a distaste for freedom because the country “has every reason to dread the violated and the deprived,” including those who are Black, female, and queer. Jordan was forced to contend with the nation’s fearful history, which has informed the way that queer Black women have been treated for centuries.
Nearly 30 years after Jordan’s speech, there’s still few depictions of Black female queerness and sexual fluidity on American television. Even onscreen, our cultural understanding of Black women and (bi)sexuality is still fueled by the supposed threat that unregulated Black female sexuality poses to a capitalistic, patriarchal, and white supremacist society. For centuries, depictions of Black women and girls have revealed an underlying fear of unfettered childbirth, female insatiability, and the infamous dangers posed by Black women’s sexual freedom.
Through the invention of myths and caricatures, images depicting Black women as sexually available, overly aggressive, unfit for motherhood, and simultaneously primed for servitude, were used to further the disempowerment of Black women and girls. In this way, media became one of the primary battlegrounds through which Black women have fought for the freedom to be seen as we are. Since 2012, there’s been an increase in TV shows that feature or are led by Black people, including Scandal, Black-ish, Atlanta, and Insecure, and Black characters have emerged in new and entertaining ways.
Rutina Wesley as Nova and Reagan Gomez as Chantal on Queen Sugar (Photo credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc/Courtesy of OWN)
This influx has resulted in the visibility of sexually fluid characters like Queen Sugar’s Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley), She’s Gotta Have It’s Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise), and How to Get Away with Murder’s Annalise Keating (Viola Davis). With these characters, the ineffable and uncontrollable sexual freedom that Jordan heralded years before is used to corroborate deep-seated fears about Black women’s sexual agency. These shows turn Black women characters into cautionary tales, making their queerness synonymous with the confusion, infidelity, and social dysfunction that plagues their lives.
These characters exist in very different worlds, and yet, their sexualities are used to reinforce a particular brand of lawlessness. In fact, their brief relationships with women effectively brand them as romantically indecisive, self-destructive, and insatiable. In each of these shows, queer relationships are portrayed as short-lived indulgences that reveals the character’s manipulation and carelessness. On Queen Sugar, Nova’s a free-spirited activist who engages in a four-episode fling with fellow activist Chantal (Reagan Gomez). Their relationship ends abruptly when Chantal discovers Nova’s relationship with a married white cop and decides their approaches to activism are too different to be reconciled. Throughout the show, Nova’s sexual partners continuously complicate or challenge her activism in this way, revealing how her sex life is rarely compatible with the values that inform her life’s work.
On the Netflix reboot of She’s Gotta Have It, Opal (Ilfenesh Hadera) personifies everything Nola desires in a partner, but she’s treated as a pitstop on Nola’s road back to her trio of male lovers. Subsequently, Nola uses Opal for emotional support while failing to return the favor. On How to Get Away with Murder, Annalise’s romantic reconciliation with her ex-girlfriend, Eve (Famke Janssen), is marked by nostalgia. For Eve, Annalise is the “one who got away,” the woman who chose the social security of a heterosexual marriage over a life with the woman she loved. Annalise, a rule-bending lawyer, uses this shared history to manipulate her lover, and eventually, Eve is forced to find the emotional reciprocity she craves elsewhere.
For each of these women, queerness and sexual fluidity is only an extension of their selfishness, relationship troubles, fear of commitment, and general recklessness. In a media landscape where queer Black female representation is scarce, this framing is particularly troublesome because it offers tragically flawed women without the nuance needed to differentiate them from caricatures. Within the fictional worlds of Nova, Nola, and Annalise, categorizing their sexualities becomes a source of conflict and confusion. Nova never explicitly identifies as queer, but is shown in relationships with men and a woman. When faced with the trivialization of her romantic interest in women, Nova rejects her aunt’s implication that her attraction to women was a “phase.” Fluidity is integral to Nova’s sexuality, but it’s poorly integrated into her life, and her approach to queerness contradicts her otherwise principled approach to community outreach and social justice. Annalise uses no sexual labels and is unconcerned with those who are confounded by her sexual history. When Annalise rekindles her relationship with Eve after her husband dies, she is hesitant to embrace the “lesbian” label. She sees her relationship with a female lover as an exception to an unspoken rule.
In a therapy session, Nola identifies herself as “sex-positive, polyamorous, [and] pansexual,” which separates her from Nova and Annalise. Nola intensely embraces labels, but it is her treatment of her female partner that calls her understanding of polyamory, sex-positivity, and pansexuality into question. Nola doesn’t communicate with her partners well or consider their comfort with her arrangement, and fails to show up to dinner with Opal and her daughter after promising to be there. She only briefly dates women while taking a “radical self-care break” from her deteriorating relationships with her three male partners. Once more, language is a chasm that fails to account for these women’s sexual lives, and further mishandles their sexualities.
Margaret Avery as Shug and Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple (Photo credit: Warner Bros.)
This onscreen pattern of framing Black women’s sexual openness as a catalyst for dysfunction unearths centuries-old paranoias about our sexuality. Continually depicting queer Black women as a kind of sexual peril is dangerous, unoriginal, and hearkens back to the Jezebel, a slavery-era caricature that imagined Black female sexuality as immoral, promiscuous, and untamed.
Films like 1985’s The Color Purple set the stage for characters like Nola, Nova, and Annalise to come to life decades later. In The Color Purple, Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) is struggling with domestic violence, but gains a new lease on life after falling in love with her husband’s mistress, Shug (Margaret Avery), a bisexual blues singer. Shug epitomizes what many fear about Black female sexuality: She is sexually fluid, free-thinking, and ultimately, uncontrollable, even for Celie. Shug represents the beauty June Jordan describes and the perils that have consumed historical renderings of Black womanhood.
As these old ghosts take on new hosts, the vision through which modern representations of Black women are conceived remains corrupt. In the end, we’re offered a biphobic spin on the Jezebel, worlds in which characters like Nola, Nova, and Annalise are the queer-coded villains of their own stories. They’re sexually fluid, but also self-destructive, and therefore, a threat to themselves and others. For Nola, Nova, and Annalise, the arc of representation continues to bend backward, taking cues from the revenants of racial and gendered fictions, and leaving little room for imagination.