We all have those characters. Maybe she was the first black girl you ever witnessed having actual lines on a sci-fi show. Maybe it was her presence that let you know that girls like you could exist in those worlds.
Often their roles are small but in the color-starved oasis of genre television, the appearance of such characters can feel life-affirming for marginalized viewers. These are the characters whose stories have meant the most to me and who I clung to during a rocky adolescence. Their images would be preserved in the stained glass windows of my black girl nerd temple if I had one. They’re kinda like my patron saints, I guess; like, to the point where I’ve mentally planned the black and white half-sleeve I’d get of them if I wasn’t afraid of needles, but that’s another story.
Selena: The Patron Saint of Surviving By Any Means Necessary
I was in high school when 28 Days Later first came out. Every black girl nerd I knew in high school (all three of them) had this movie on DVD and not just because it’s a really good, and totally underrated, zombie film. Selena was the strongest member of her survival crew and she got with the hot guy at the end. You couldn’t tell me she wasn’t living the dream.
I can honestly say that before this movie, I’d never seen a black girl in a leading role in the kind of stories I liked, and to make it even better, she had hair like mine. It felt like even when black girls were represented, they were women with light skin and eyes and whose hair was super straight and long. Selena had brown skin and thick hair. I’m not one to quantify blackness, saying ‘you must be this black for your presence to be inspiring,’ but colorism is a very real issue. It’s important to be, well, diverse in one’s pursuit of diversity, rather than only accepting and showcasing one very specific, limiting image of black womanhood. It meant a lot to me and my friends to see a girl in a leading role whose hairstyle we could actually try to emulate. For once, we didn’t feel like the outsiders watching stories intended for someone else. For this reason (and because Christopher Eccleston is so hot in a military uniform, even while being a class-A creep), 28 Days Later will always hold a special place in my heart.
Michonne: The Patron Saint of Badass Black Mothers
What would Michonne do? If I ever really find myself in a zombie apocalypse, I already have my mantra ready.
I didn’t read The Walking Dead until college, but Michonne was and still is a very important character for me, especially once I became a mother. No other zombie apocalypse narrative has resonated with me the way hers has, probably because I can’t think of a single other black mother in a zombie apocalypse story. (My knowledge is by no means expansive, so if I’ve missed something, let me know!).
Here’s why I couldn’t get over Michonne: when she first appears in the story, she’s set up as this mysterious, silent, zombie-killing machine. Then you find out who she is, what she’s lost, and it’s heartbreaking to me in the way nothing else in the story was. I’d always wondered what I’d do, as a mother, during a zombie outbreak. I’ve even written stories to try and answer that question for myself. There aren’t a lot of motherhood perspectives in this genre, which is a shame because it’s such a unique viewpoint with ample potential for drama. How great would a mini-series about Michonne’s life during the beginning of the outbreak be? (Fanfiction idea!) Even though I don’t know if I’d be emotionally ready to read about a woman fighting the unthinkable and still losing her family in the end, it’d be such an amazing story.
Storm: The Patron Saint of Outsiders
Some incarnation of Storm seemed to always be my laptop wallpaper throughout college (my favorites are punk!Storm and Afro/Black Panther!Storm, in case you’re wondering). Storm is the one who started it all for me, and I think for many other nerdy black girls too. Before you even really got into X-Men, you probably knew she existed. That kind of mainstream presence and visibility made a huge impression on me from a young age, even if her portrayal in the movies made me want to have a talk with Bryan Singer in a dark alley.
The X-Men have long been my favorite superheroes (expect a detailed post on why in the very near future). I’ve been waiting for my mutants abilities to manifest since like the fifth grade. I was an outsider going through a rocky adolescence, so where were my powers? When was Professor X going to roll up to my door to talk to my parents about a very special opportunity for their very special child? I would have even been fine with a non-glamorous ability, like having scaly green skin or being able to shoot wooden spikes out of my body, because then I would have just looked even more like the freak I felt like inside (yeah, I was a pretty angsty kid).
Despite my disappointment both at movie!Storm and at not getting to attend mutant boarding school, I still love the X-Men, and Storm especially. Hopefully if we continue to wish hard enough, she’ll get her own movie one day. Maybe we can even sacrifice that unneeded Spiderman reboot to the comic book movie gods in exchange for a trilogy starring someone who can actually do a decent accent. We’re getting Black Panther, so anything is possible, right?
Martha Jones: The Patron Saint of Being Slept On
This whole section could turn into a rant about season 3 of the Doctor Who reboot, but I’m not even gonna go there right now. Martha Jones is iconic. Martha Jones didn’t get the credit she deserved at first from a lot of people – from the writers to the fandom to the Doctor himself – but that’s ok because Martha Jones stayed saving everybody’s behind and the entire freaking world.
You know what? I changed my mind about ranting about season 3 – I will go there. The writers had a really interesting opportunity to openly ponder the reality of time travel for black women. Let’s be real – if ya black ass goes back past like the ’70s you’re probably gonna be in for something unpleasant (really, as a black woman, I’d not even be willing to revisit yesterday). Yes, they had their moments where they touched on it, like in the Shakespeare episode and ‘Family of Blood,’ but I really think they could have done more. Martha was such a strong character and there were so many interesting stories you could tell with her. Exploring the reality of race and gender-based discrimination across time periods and continents wouldn’t have meant they’d have to turn the entire show into an after school special; they’d have the chance to write about characters whose experiences and perspectives would be different from the same old thing you always see on TV.
Still, seeing a black girl traveling with the Doctor through time and space was beyond awesome. I watched the reboot from the beginning just trying to get to season 3. Martha Jones went through a lot of unfair crap but you can’t tell me she didn’t come out on top. You go, Martha Jones.