“Sleepy Hollow”: Concerning Abbie’s Validity

In my last Sleepy Hollow recap, I wrote this small passage:

[W]hat I do know is that the whole situation and my look at the Twitterings online about Betsy Ross (whom I’m getting to) made me think about why we want Abbie to get with Ichabod in the first place. I mean, I get the argument that black women need to be at the center of main-tier relationships in TV shows. That’s a completely valid thing and I get behind that so don’t misunderstand me. BUT, is there a dangerous element of wanting a black woman to be “validated” as it were, by the white male gaze, after centuries of being denied and/or wrongfully exoticized by it? I’ll write more on this in the coming days, but I just want to throw that out there, because sometimes, certain discussions about Ichabbie makes me slightly uncomfortable, to be frank, and because Danabbie is still a very real possibility as well. If Ichabod can have his woman for the moment, then Abbie can certainly have Danny for a moment as well.

I wrote I’d have an article about it, and here it is.

Something that prompted me to write that paragraph above is the question of validity. In more succinct terms, it’s the question of what makes Abbie’s validity such a hot button issue. If I’m speaking from just my point of view, Abbie and Jenny have always been valid in my eyes; I haven’t had a single thought that no other character invalidated them (well, maybe with the exception of Katrina) and that most of the people writing the show considered them characters who were not only integral to the story, but also integral to the fabric of the blerd community, a community that is strong despite the limited exposure and representation they get in the media. Abbie and Jenny have always been complete to me, because in a way, they remind me of myself and my sister. Both my sister and I and Abbie and Jenny are just a few years apart (for me and my sister, it’s 2 years, I think for Jenny and Abbie, it’s three), and we have battled a lot of things together (perhaps nothing as pressing as Armageddon, but we’ve had our share of issues to face). I think a lot of viewers of all races and backgrounds identify with the sisterly bond Abbie and Jenny have on a very personal level, and that sisterly bond is very much a defining point of Abbie and Jenny’s characterizations.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that sisters are all Abbie and Jenny are. They’re also daughters as well as their own people—Jenny lived a life holding a grudge against Abbie until a few years go, and in that time, she was by herself or with Corbin, fighting supernatural evil and getting locked in the psychiatric ward. Abbie, being a lot more practical, filled with doubt and, admittedly, cunning about her method of survival, chose a life that had her placed in foster care, but still went down a path of crime and drugs until she found her way again with Corbin as a police officer and, later, with Ichabod fighting the Apocalypse. They’re also women—they’re looking for love. Perhaps not on the same timetable, since Abbie is either very private about her love life or has problems accessing her heart when it comes to those matters, or both. But their journeys in crime-fighting and love-finding are important and valid, since they represent two different kinds of people and their differences can resonate with audience members. (For instance, I am also dry in the relationship department, and I’m also very private about discussing such things, so that’s all the personal admission you’ll get.)

So why am I writing all of this? It’s just to get to the point that there seems to be a couple of ways people view Abbie’s validity. I’d go so far as to say there’s a policing of her validity in the opinions of some viewers and fans. Perhaps this post can be included in that policing, but what I’m trying to do is examine how curated and monitored everyone’s personal view of Abbie is and how they want that personal view shown in the canonical Abbie. With so much expectation and frankly, societal pressure on her, Abbie has a lot to live up to and routinely, it seems like she’s being asked to do too much and too little at the same time.

With so much expectation and frankly, societal pressure on her, Abbie has a lot to live up to. Click To Tweet

Abbie as the Strong Black Woman

SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Lyndie Greenwood and Nicole Beharie in the "The Sister Mills" episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 22 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX
SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Lyndie Greenwood and Nicole Beharie in the “The Sister Mills” episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 22 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX

This “Strong Black Woman” idea is something that served a purpose once upon a time. The “Strong Black Woman” trope originated as a way to uplift the black woman, who had been coined “the mule of the world” by Zora Neale Hurston for a reason. Hurston writes in Their Eyes Were Watching God that the black woman has had to deal with the discrimination from and burden of both the hierarchy of the white man and the black man, being victimized twice over for being a woman and black. The black man may have been black, but at least he was still a man, right? To a certain extent, the idea of being a strong black woman has always been in play in America since slavery, since the black woman had to endure the horrors of slavery and sexual assault from the master, somehow raise children in spite of her own tribulations, be a wife to her husband, and deal with the jealousy and discrimination of the master’s wife. The black woman has always had to handle it all and still keep it together when she just wanted to fall apart and be helped.

(Of course, that’s not to say that every black guy was a bad dude and participated in the mule-ing of the black woman. This could be its own post, but I hate that narrative that’s out there about all black men being cheaters and f*ckboys or whatever, since you can’t judge all black guys on one bad or misinformed one. That don’t make no sense. Just wanted to throw that out there.)

But the Strong Black Woman trope that became associated with positivity happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a prime example being Caroline Bird’s 1969 New York Magazine essay on black womanhood. Alternet rightly calls the article “flawed” since, as the site states:

[The essay] deems black women capable and independent (read: strong) by necessity. Black women fight, Bird says, because they have no one to fight for them, unlike white women with proximity to white, patriarchal power. “Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Negro women in America have escaped some of the psyche-crippling education of white girls. They haven’t been carefully taught how not to fight. On the contrary, some of them fight hard and develop a personal style of fighting that suggests that ‘grace under pressure’ which is supposed to be the essence of courage.”

Bird’s piece spins allegedly distinctive black female strength as a powerful weapon, giving African American women an edge over white women and black men–a dubious message. It also paints black women as possessing a durability that is nearly inhuman. For instance, Bird asserts that “The absence of Negro fathers hurts growing boys more than girls, and saved Negro girls from some of the dissatisfactions with their sex that brought many white women to psychoanalysis.” Abandoning black girls does not hurt them, this suggests; instead, it makes them stronger.

This article by Bird means well, but it basically does a good job of reinforcing the original Strong Black Woman stereotype from slavery times; that black women don’t have feelings and are immune to the societal and familial pressures others are. Somehow, they are more powerful than everyone, yet they are still the mule of the world because going by this analysis, the black woman still takes in society’s ills and is still burdened by them. However, the burden, according to Bird’s essay, is the pressure that makes the diamond form. In Bird’s words, the burden is necessary, not something that should be alleviated by society coming to grips with itself and uplifting black women as women and human beings.

This Strong Black Woman idea got passed down into blaxploitation movies, shows like Julia and Good Times that showed black women balancing it all—motherhood and family, work, and societal issues—and not needing any help, especially that of a man. Julia Baker is a nurse that has a young son and lives in a predominately white apartment complex and manages to do it all with a smile, but mysteriously, there’s no man and, from what I’ve seen of the show, no real friends outside of her neighbors, who are friendly enough (and their little boy is friends with Julia’s son), but they’re not tight like Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda or anything. Good Times had James, but after the behind-the-scenes conflict between John Amos and the writers concerning the increasing coonification of J.J., Florida Evans became another Strong Black Woman trope, dealing with her kids and their problems, Wilona and her problems, Penny and her problems, work and it’s problems, and all the problems associated with living in a Chicago ghetto, including the no-good superintendent. Florida never got married again, and we never saw Florida outside of her role as a matriarch. Eventually, we never saw Florida at all, once she finally had gotten enough of the J.J. Show Good Times had turned into and left. Interestingly enough, Florida would have been a Strong Black Woman without a husband from the beginning, since the show wasn’t originally going to have a James Evans until she lobbied hard for there to be a two-parent household. She also was Amos’ ally in the fight against giving J.J. increased focus.

I think Bird’s article was meant to portray black women as existing outside of the patriarchy in a good way; that we didn’t need to rely on men to get where we wanted to go. The system itself was built on racism, and we’d figured out a way to live beyond it, I believe is her idea. But this idea is backwards. Any woman can exist outside of the patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that a cisgender, straight, sexual woman who doesn’t define herself by a man’s standards doesn’t eventually want male company. In fact, it’s well within this woman’s rights to want to be seen as desirable by the opposite sex. But the Strong Woman Tropes of the 1800s and the 1970s deny the black woman this right. Instead, it makes her a person who is invulnerable to emotion, and someone who is considered invulnerable to mortal emotion is then seen as someone who people can’t identify with. This is the very reason why there’s always so little coverage of missing black girls and women and crimes against them—people think we don’t need any help, that we’ll figure it out on our own.

The Strong Black Woman trope is why there's little coverage of crimes against black women. Click To Tweet

To a certain extent Jenny and Abbie do figure a lot of stuff out on their own. They aren’t Strong Black Women tropes by any means (maybe except for some of the problematic writing of Season Two), but they are black women who know how to protect themselves while looking out for others. Both show vulnerabilities; Jenny is often angry with Abbie for a variety of legitimate reasons, both were horrified and saddened by the life, death, and reappearance of their mother, both are concerned and/or curious about their estranged father and the life he now leads and why he abandoned them (because black girls do suffer from absent parents, Bird). But Abbie, moreso than Jenny, is consistently leading herself with her head and not her heart. She’s always bottling emotions to save for later, but later never comes. To some fans, this could be seen as her being a stereotype. To others, it could just be Abbie’s nature to bottle emotions. There are many black women who do bottle their emotions (including me, at times).

Abbie’s ability and insistence to solve the case before dealing with her issues is something that’s both loved and derided by fans, sometimes in the same breath. Either Abbie is a loving individual or Abbie is a Strong Black Woman Trope. Hardly ever can she just exist as Abbie, a woman who is black and who has loved before, loves currently, and makes crime-fighting her number one passion. Abbie is well-rounded, but she never seems to be able to satisfy her fans enough.

The writers are usually blamed for Abbie’s supposed downgrade into trope, which is sometimes unfair, but to me, it seems like Nicole Beharie herself informs just how open Abbie is around certain people. Beharie sees Abbie as a woman who is multi-faceted, yet lives by a rather simplistic (i.e. safe) code of ethics. Beharie’s Abbie is a woman who doesn’t want to screw up her life again, and just when it’s going right, she’s got to battle the Apocalypse. Beharie’s Abbie is dancing precariously between the worlds of the supernatural and reality, and in order to keep her sanity, the easiest thing to do is to conquer what’s tactile and present to her, the monsters and crimes as they happen. She has no room for relationships because she doesn’t want more uncertainty added to her plate. This is, at least, how I see Beharie playing Abbie. No trope, just a woman who is scared of her future and simultaneously hides and projects that fear through her bravado. Phillip Iscove seems to be of the same mindset in some of his tweets to fans, in which he referenced Abbie as being a “guarded” woman who doesn’t naturally gravitate towards romance. It’s not Abbie being a trope; it’s her nature, as it is the nature of a lot of women.

Abbie as a desirable woman

SLEEPY HOLLOW: Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) in the ÒWhispers In The DarkÓ episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 8 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX
SLEEPY HOLLOW: Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie (Nicole Beharie) in the ÒWhispers In The DarkÓ episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 8 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX

Abbie has always been desired by men. She’s had Luke, Andy, Calvin, and Daniel’s number. She’s also got the intense protectiveness and jealousy of Ichabod to deal with whenever any man comes by to ask her the time. So she’s got suitors. Tons of them.

But Abbie has been the one to keep these men at arm’s length. But it’s Abbie’s decisions when it comes to not engaging with men or, after engaging with them, keeping them from her personal space, that seems to rile some fans up the most. The act of her not being in a relationship at the present moment—any moment—suddenly gets conflated to Abbie being thrown into trope, being seen as a Strong Black Woman who doesn’t need a man. I don’t think it’s that she doesn’t need a man. I think it’s that she doesn’t want a man right now. If she needed a man, she could certainly just pick up Daniel again, who is clearly still open to the idea of doing the do with her. She could be like Ichabod is right now, who is a person who seems to need to be in a relationship at all times, texting instead of doing work. But she’s got priorities, and right now, a man is not her priority, and that’s a perfectly fine and valid way to live.

I do know that some of the worry for Abbie is that she show some type of vulnerability in the love department to show that she’s not a trope. But I think she’s done plenty of that. She dealt with Luke’s advances and irritations all through the first season (while handling Andy’s weirdness on top of it). She openly flirted with Calvin. She feels weird around Daniel, who is now her boss. I think all of that shows vulnerability.

But the true rite of passage seems to be the day when Abbie gets with Ichabod. Of course, Ichabod and Abbie have amazing chemistry and, of course, Abbie and Ichabod are going to get together if Iscove’s tweets are worth their salt:

Mulder and Scully they have been since the first episode, so why not just wait until the inevitable conclusion, which will take seasons to get to? We already know the score. Part of the insistence seems like just fandom stuff. People want instant gratification with their ship. But the other part, and the part that troubles me a bit, is that it seems like some folks want Ichabod and Abbie to get together because of that white gaze aspect brought up in Bird’s essay. Bird is right when she asserts that white patriarchy has extended a level of precious female fragility, it’s own type of privilege, to white women at large, while denying it to black women. The fact that black women were sexually assaulted as slaves and disassociated from their womanhood because of such violent acts, while white women were the ideals for which men would fight for and protect them from the stereotypical “savage” black man who would destroy their virtue, proves that in my book. Season Two of Sleepy Hollow also did a good job of showcasing the white woman as a prize to be cherished and protected (Katrina) and the black woman as the protector, adjacent to a male role, and as the stabilizer of everyday life (Ichabod asking Abbie to protect Katrina on a mission, Abbie trying to maintain balance and order while Ichabod and Katrina attempt to reconnect to each other). But there’s always been something that troubled me about why some fans wanted to see Abbie and Ichabod together.  

It’s only just occurred to me while writing this article that it seems like the argument of “we want Abbie to be seen as vulnerable and desirable through the means of a relationship with Ichabod” is actually saying “we want the white patriarchal standards of womanhood to be applied to Abbie so she can be seen as desirable in Ichabod’s eyes.” That sounds dangerous to me, because the system that people might want Abbie to be a part of is defective from the beginning. This extends to other black woman/white male pairings, like The Walking Dead‘s Rick and Michonne and Scandal’s Olivia and Fitz, etc. Do some fans want these pairings to happen so they can be seen as valid in a faulty system? Do some people get in relationships so they can be seen as valid? Keziyah Lewis’ XOJane article, “Is My Attraction to White Men Problematic?” states her realization of her level of self-hate and how it related to who she found attractive.

When I was in high school, I read The Color Complex, learned about the Clark doll tests, and it hit me. Huh. I was literally taught by society to hate myself. This realization didn’t instantly dismantle the structures of white supremacy in my colonized mind. To this day I’m still working on freeing myself from the years of damage that the media and my history books and the boys who made fun of me at school have done. …In my case, both personal experiences and white supremacy are to blame. Personal experiences include the black boys who made fun of me and made me feel ugly when I was a kid and the black men who have harassed me in public.

 

Undoubtedly, mass media and Eurocentric beauty standards have also had an effect on my repeated crushes on white guys. White men in mass media are portrayed as handsome, romantic, kind, caring, and ideal partners. Black men in the media are portrayed as lying, cheating, abusive, and delinquent. And throughout my childhood, everyone…would remind me, with or without words, that being a black girl, especially one with darker skin, means being undesirable.

Similar to white women, white men have routinely been put on a pedestal of beauty and sexual desire. To be the object of desire for a white woman or man means, to some people, acceptance and validity in the world. Am I saying that dating white guys or gals is bad? NO. Let me repeat myself—I’m not saying it’s bad to date a white man or woman. Whoever you fall in love with is what it is, and I have no problem with interracial relationships. In fact, I think interracial relationships are part of what is making America and the world more accepting of different races and cultures. Heck, I’ve been involved in what could have become interracial relationships had I wanted to be saddled down with a relationship at the time. So believe me when I say that I have nothing against interracial relationships (which means I also have no problem with Ichabbie). Also, I’m not saying that all Ichabbie fans, particularly the black women, think this way. Repeat again: Not all Ichabbie fans think that Ichabod is the gateway to Abbie’s validity and acceptance.  

What I am saying, though, is that if you’re dating someone or want a character to date someone so you can fulfill your own fantasies of being accepted and loved by who you think to be a desirable class of people, then there are some bigger issues going on that need to be addressed. There needs to be a time out and a discussion about why someone might feel that they will be complete if they have validity from a system that is built on oppression. You don’t need to be “accepted,” as it were, in order to feel worthy and validated in your own right. The only person who can give you the worth and validity you’re looking for is you. The only person who can give you the worth and validity you're looking for is you. Click To Tweet

Abbie and Ichabod as a representation of an interracial relationship

SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie in the "The Sister Mills" episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 22 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX
SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie in the “The Sister Mills” episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 22 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX

There’s another side to the coin on this relationship stuff, and that is that Abbie and Ichabod (and Rick and Michonne and The Flash‘s Wally and Iris and whoever else) represent interracial relationships on television. These characters, along with Jane the Virgin’s Jane and Michael, How to Get Away with Murder‘s Annalise and Eve, Rosewood‘s Beaumont and (another) Annalise, and The Walking Dead‘s Maggie and Glenn (whom I’m pouring libations on the ground for right now) all represent how racially and culturally intertwined we’re all becoming. As I wrote in my article, “Why You Are Seeing Lots of WOC/White Men Pairings on TV,” America will look like this girl by 2050.

It makes common sense that TV reflect this change. In fact, it probably should have been reflecting it many years ago.

There’s too few representations of interracial relationships out there. I remember back when I was writing my old site, Moniqueblog, I’d written an article that was critical of Disney’s treatment  of the Prince Naveen character (whom I love, despite my criticism). In short, I thought Disney was avoiding making a black prince and instead half-assed it by “going down the middle,” as it were, creating a brown prince that was from a fictional place. I received a comment that made me realize just how Naveen can positively impact thousands of kids. The commenter said how she, a biracial person, loved Naveen because his relationship with Tiana mirrored her own life and her parents. She said that she saw a lot of herself in that movie. I think there are tons of people who can see a lot of themselves in the interracial relationships that are shown on TV, and if Ichabod and Abbie finally got together, they would only be adding more positivity to the screen.

Ichabod and Abbie’s relationship would also directly fly in the face of the “validity”-type relationship exhibited by Fitz and Olivia (in my opinion, and from what he’s said directly to Olivia about her choice in men, Papa Pope’s opinion as well). Ichabod never loved Abbie because she was “exotic” to him, and Abbie has never loved Ichabod because he was a “white savior.” Both love each other because of who they are. They didn’t have to like each other just because they’re Witnesses, but they do love each other because they both compliment one another. They love each other for their human qualities, not for anything superficial. It just so happens that they’re not of the same race (as far as one can throw the societal construct of race, anyway). They connect at the soul level, the most important level for any relationship. The best types of relationships are those when the partners are equally invested in each other.

The best types of relationships are those when the partners are equally invested in each other. Click To Tweet

In conclusion:

Let Abbie relax. After reading some of Iscove’s tweets, it seems like he’s of the same mindset. Abbie is a nuanced character, but she, as he tweeted, isn’t binary and shouldn’t be projected onto like that. Abbie is a lot of things. She’s a person who is not all about romance, but does have her fair share. She’s a person who does save lives, but isn’t a Strong Black Woman trope. She’s a sister, an abandoned daughter, a young woman who had to right herself, and a broken person just beginning to learn how to actually heal her emotional wounds instead of bandaging them up. She’s a person who is afraid of getting to close to people because she fears losing them, and that fear also jeopardizes her potential relationships. She’s like all of us—a mess. But she’s a good person who is learning how to clean up her mess one day at a time. Placing every expectation on her is unfair to the character. She’s not a trope, and she’s not an undesirable. She’s a normal black woman, like the rest of us black women. She just has an Apocalypse on her shoulders.

If you loved this (or you know someone who will), share it! If you really loved it, subscribe in the sidebar to be alerted to more posts like this.

SLEEPY HOLLOW: L-R: Nicole Beharie in the “The Sister Mills” episode of SLEEPY HOLLOW airing Thursday, Oct. 22 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Tina Rowden/FOX
  • Taylor Roberts

    I can’t really relate to a lot of the racial diatribe. I’m in an interracial relationships because I connected with my husband (who is white) on a soul level. It wasn’t about race, but he treated me and how he loves me unconditionally. As far as Abbie/Ichabod is concerned, I was more attuned to your paragraphs about them being emotionally invested in each other equally. In seasons one, the vulnerability and connection they had, along with the writing, is what made me root for them. I can’t stand Scandal or Olivia/Fitz. It’s hard to root for that craziness. Ichabbie is just so organic and authentic when they are allowed to just be. This season, I feel like Abbie is so disconnected most of the time, that their chem just isn’t the same. That’s mostly because of writing and direction probably. It’s hard for me to watch because I want so much more than I think the writers are willing to give. If I could get the Ichabbie back from season 1, then I’d be good. I know a lot of crap has happened in between to especially sway Abbie’s behavior, but I hate seeing her so hardened. I miss her vulnerability which we’ve only gotten short glimpses of.

    • Thanks for the comment. I specifically included the “racial diatribe” part because I’d seen smatterings of this kind of sentiment on the web and I wanted to address that specifically. If that part didn’t apply to you, then that’s great. It only applies to who it applies to. I am glad that the other part of the article resonated with you; I really wanted to show how Ichabbie can be a positive thing.

      As far as Abbie being hardened goes, I always took it as that kind of mental space being her comfort zone. I don’t think she likes being vulnerable because her whole childhood was full of intense vulnerability. But that’s just my opinion.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Taylor Roberts

        Thanks for writing! By the way, I like your writing style. I agree re: the vulnerability, it was just shown a lot more in season one. Just felt like they were more connected and expressed themselves more deeply (for example, the scene a few episodes ago where she was holding Ichabod would have been a lot different expressively in season 1 where you saw her run into his arms or get really upset about him being hurt). She’s just way more guarded now and that saddens me that they chose to go in that direction.

        • I’ll have to rewatch S1. As for S3, I just took it as Abbie firmly trying to get her life back in order and she’s trying to relearn Ichabod since they spent a lot of time apart. They’re both trying to figure each other out again, which is how I took everything. But to each their own opinions! Thanks for reading and I’m glad you like my writing style (also glad you read the whole thing! The article was over 4330 words, I think!)