“Sleepy Hollow” Post-Mortem: The Death of Abbie and the Painful Erasure of Black Women

• Abbie didn’t have to literally become the “mule of the world”: I know one of the things I wrote last year caused a dust-up, and I don’t know if any of my original point ever came across the way I wanted it to. There were two things involved in what I wrote: 1) that Abbie’s ways of dealing with emotions—bottling them up—is valid as a character trait and 2) that Abbie’s fate and worth should never be tied to a man and/or to white patriarchal acceptance standards. She can love Ichabod all she wants, but everything goes down the drain if her life and her worth as a character becomes completely dependent on Ichabod’s privilege as a white, straight, cis man. I was advocating that the show and some of the fans shouldn’t tie Abbie to such constraints. But things seemed to have gotten muddied in the shipping waters, and it became misconstrued as me saying that Abbie should never find love and that she shouldn’t be with Ichabod. That whole thing bothered me for a while, even more than when I got lambasted for supposedly being the Girl who Cried #Ichabbie in my interview with Sleepy Hollow writer Dana Jackson Leigh. 

It’s only now that I realize that I was basing my entire article on the premise that Abbie would be eventually fleshed out and studied as a character and validated for her imperfect humanity, not that she would just be saddled with the figurative and literal weight of the world and get killed off without any character exploration. I wrongly assumed that the writers had figured out large chunks, if not all, of Abbie’s characterization, that they had a plan, and that at some point—either this season or the next—they would get into why she always stuffs her feelings. I wrongly assumed that they were going to show her inner life, her mental workings. Color me surprised and betrayed when I watched Friday’s episode.

I wrote my original post imagining that the writing team was looking at the show the way was looking at it, which is that Abbie, in all of her flaws and shortcomings and her strength, was someone I could identify with. I truly identify with the trouble of processing emotions, of pushing stuff to the backburner. I identify with the fact that Abbie (in my mind) knows that she has a serious problem with emotions and that she should probably work on that. I understand how she is ready to keep people at arm’s length for fear of either losing them or somehow not meeting their expectations. I read all of that into the character, which is why I loved how she used workaholism as a crutch. But never did I imagine that they were going to leave Abbie as a shell of a great, complicated character.

I also never imagined that the writing team would literally make her a secondary character in her own story. The true lead of this story is Abbie, because without Abbie, the crimes wouldn’t get solved, the monsters wouldn’t have gotten killed, and Ichabod wouldn’t have a friend to navigate him through the future. Abbie gave him so much, and we were led to believe that it was because they were equal partners, not that she was being set up to become a sidekick to the sidekick. Yes, Ichabod is the sidekick in this show. He’s the one that’s been the tag-along as Abbie and Irving solved the cases. Ichabod isn’t even a U.S. citizen yet; he had to tag along with Abbie just to have a home! In the end, my fear of Abbie falling victim to the white patriarchy came true after all. In the end, Abbie was seen as less than, as replaceable. The fact that Ichabod has to go out searching for the next Witness drives home the idea that Abbie is just another cog in the wheel, while Ichabod’s still-preserved life (a life spanning 200 years), is much more important. Somehow, Ichabod is now the one that’s got the bigger, more important job, even though the story was never solely focused on him in the first place.

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Abbie’s death isn’t the first time a black woman has been killed in a roundabout, discriminatory fashion. Too many times, minorities of all stripes are used as ways to prop up the white male characters. The last time I personally remember outrage over a black woman’s death on a show was with Taraji P. Henson’s character Joss Carter on Person of Interest. Like Abbie, Carter was also getting fridged out of her own story and was later killed off (more than likely after behind-the-scenes drama of the treatment of Henson’s character). Fans on Twitter have also cited Rutina Wesley’s Tara from True Blood as another example of a black woman getting killed for no reason. What’s so amazing is that just two weeks ago, Sleepy Hollow saw its own future with the horror show that was The 100 disaster. Alycia Debnam-Carey’s Lexa, one half of the same sex relationship #Clexa, was killed right after consummating her relationship with Eliza Taylor’s Clarke. The “Bury Your Gays” hate was just the teaser for more outrage, when Ricky Whittle’s character Lincoln was also unceremoniously killed. Afterwards, Whittle confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that he had been bullied on set and actively fought for his character to have more meaning. He also spoke against Lexa’s death, citing it and Lincoln’s deaths as “really weak” and “sabotaging the story.” These words could be aptly applied to Sleepy Hollow‘s poor handling of its stars, story, and fans.

Abbie’s death is even worse because black people, black women in particular, are rarely seen in horror. The cliche line “the black guy dies first” isn’t some kind of post-post-modern, cynical thing to just spout off; it’s a fact. The black person generally dies in horror, sci-fi, and action films. Even Jurassic Park, one of the greatest films of all time, still has Samuel L. Jackson dying for no reason, even though his character Ray Arnold stays alive throughout the entire book. (Spoiler alert: It’s actually John Hammond who dies in the book, as nature’s way of getting back at him for his hubris.) Don’t even start on the countless black men that have died in both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead. The most legendary black person death in horror has to be Duane Jones’ character Ben in Night of the Living Dead, which is a masterful display of social commentary in pulp fiction and made history for having the black guy actually last all the way to the end, a victory in itself.

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I wrote in my piece that black women have been described by writer Zora Neale Hurston as “the mule of the world,” and that couldn’t have been any more apparent than it was Friday. Abbie had already sacrificed herself in the midseason finale, but to have her do it again, in much the same fashion, is ludicrous. To have her save the world by herself could be seen as empowering, but it’s also very much indicative of putting all of the onus on the black woman to know her place, do her part, and ultimately suffer for it, while the white character gets to grieve, but also gets to live. Compare this scene to a show like Underground, which does a fantastic job of showing how much black women have been mistreated throughout history, either by the white men and women who either owned them or had higher status than them just because of their race, or even by other black women who are also drowning in their own suffering and see destroying another black woman as one less person to compete with for relief (I’m looking at you, Ernestine). Even with Underground‘s issues with death and blackness in its past episode “The Macon 7,” the show still imbues hope, as frail as it is, into the struggle for survival. These characters still know that there’s a better way for them. Or, to paraphrase Abbie and Ichabod themselves, there’s always another way. However, when it really counted, Abbie wasn’t given that promised other way. By extension, Beharie and the fans weren’t given that other way out either. It’s to the detriment of the show, which started out with amazing social and racial commentary, that it didn’t recognize that it’s black woman lead was the hero, not the mule.

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