Zoe and the Strong Black Woman, Or Why the “Strong Female Character” Doesn’t Necessarily Transcend Race

You may or may not be familiar with the short-lived television show Firefly or its resident badass Zoe Washburne, but you don’t necessarily have to be in order to understand this post.

Zoe is one of my favorite characters on Firefly, and I’ll admit that a part of that has to do with the fact that she is a black woman. I tend to feel closer to the black female characters on my favorite shows, especially when they’re painted in a supposedly good light (and even if they aren’t tbh). Initially, the reason I loved Zoe so much was because of how tough she was. She is a reliable, intelligent, slightly intimidating character who gets things done and is super clutch when the crew gets in a pinch, which happens often.

I watched all of Firefly over winter break, and then again during my last semester of college because I was in a Science Fiction Literature class (which was awesome). Watching it the first time—as it usually goes with me—I was just into the story. The point was not to be critical or to find things that were wrong with the show. I was just excited that I was watching a space western because that is awesome. However, the second time around the point was to be a bit more critical. And that led me to a realization about Zoe.

The depiction of Zoe’s character is dangerously close to the Strong Black Woman or Sapphire stereotype.

The Sapphire, or the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype, is based on the idea that black women are stronger than black men and therefore suited to do the backbreaking work that slavery entailed. According to this idea, black women were thought to emasculate black men, and because of this they were not really considered women. This stereotype, which carries well into the present necessarily separates black women from having access to womanhood so that it can continue to boost up white women as the only and ideal woman to strive to.

Pointing out that there is a serious and harmful history behind the idea of the “Strong Black Woman” does not necessarily mean that I think it was intentional on the part of Joss Whedon (the creator and writer of Firefly). Part of the problem is the way in which people continue to essentialize women as having the same experiences without consideration of race, class, age, etc. I don’t think that Zoe was meant to fall into a harmful stereotype of black women, but to be empowering for all women through the recently popular “Strong Female Character” trope.

Though there have been plenty of characters who fall under the “Strong Female Character” trope, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games trilogy was the one who really kickstarted the recent trend and increase of strong female protagonists within YA novels and movies. From Tris in Divergent to Clary in City of Angels, the trend came with a fervor akin to the flood of vampire love stories we got after the first Twilight.

These characters placed these women into positions in which they were able to be strong, kick ass, and not become secondary to their male counterparts. The fact that they were becoming more and more popular was seen as something of a feminist triumph; the number of articles about them, and even listicles that talked about how great this new trend was and what other books to read with the same theme surged.

While this trend was great, and I would argue necessary, it does not necessarily translate to women of all races. The danger in applying this particular triumph to all women is that it ignores the nuances of black women and non-black women of color. While these stories may have helped young girls of color with their confidence and self-esteem in similar ways to the way they helped white girls pull out of stereotypes of their helplessness and fragile womanhood, women of color, and especially black women, have had a very different fight for womanhood. The idea that a trope will help all women in the same way is misguided, no matter how much the trope has done for a certain demographic of women.

As I strongly believe, you cannot separate the past from the present, as history largely informs the way we see and navigate through the world today. Therefore, the “strong female character,” while serving white women who have had to deal with centuries of being told that to be a woman is to be submissive and fragile, is important, it does not have the same implications for black women. Rather, it reinforces stereotypes that have been in play for centuries that defeminize black women in order to justify their oppression. Representation that is much more important for black girls and women is that of the complicated human black female character.

Although Zoe’s character is one that I like, she is dangerously close to the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype. Zoe is one of the flatter characters in the show; she is often very serious and is mostly only defined in relation to Mal (the captain) or Wash (her husband). She is always the one with the gun, does not find many things funny, and scares the men in particular on the ship, including her husband.

While I am willing to give Firefly the benefit of the doubt because the show was cut short before all of the characters got the benefit of being fully developed, I do think that it is important to realize that we cannot fit all women into a certain image of how women should be. Sure, not all women have been able to be independent of men, and are often written as subordinate to men, but at the same time some women have had the fact that they are not seen as subordinate to men in order to deny their womanhood. Because of this, it is really important to understand how dangerous Zoe’s character could possibly be, even as we enjoy watching Firefly