During a very brief period of my formative teen years I was a fan of World Wrestling Entertainment. At the time it was known as WWF, or World Wrestling Foundation. Full disclosure: I was thirteen and my interest stemmed from a desire to appear cool to boys (Oh, Teen Shannon, you foolish dove…). As I watched, it was hard to remain unengaged. The drama! The costumes! Fire and decade-long grudges! THE ROCK! What started as a poorly designed boy trap of sorts turned into a genuine obsession fraught with theories, preferred outcomes, and memorized catchphrases. (“I thoroughly smell what The Rock is cooking, my precious, confident angel!”) . I had become so taken with professional wrestling that I asked my mother to purchase the $30 Pay Per View pass for WrestleMania in order to watch The Rock fight Triple H in a steel cage match. “Two men enter! Only one exits the victor! I have to see it live!”
Her response, bless her, was “You’ve completely lost your damn mind. No, I will never do such a thing.” It was probably for the best.
Let’s fast forward to 2015. These days I leave the wrestling to my husband while my viewing schedule includes the likes of Scandal and Empire. They have the same pull that wrestling possessed for me all those years ago – no shortage of drama, gorgeous costuming, grudges galore, and each episode leaves me with more quote-worthy moments than a productive person needs.
That, however, is where the similarities – between wrestling and each other – end. Within minutes of watching either show you quickly gather that these are two entirely different productions, each with their own scene-stealing black female lead. When I watch one show I am in no way thinking of the other, mainly because each show requires a different frame of mind and little downtime for your thoughts to wander elsewhere. I sympathize with Cookie Lyon and Olivia Pope in very unique ways. From my experience, the same could be said about most who identify as both Gladiators and…I’m not sure if a name has been determined for Empire fans yet. Chart Toppers? Lyonhearts? I’d honestly like to know.
I digress. Despite Cookie and Olivia establishing themselves as two distinctive powerhouses, that still doesn’t stop articles like this one from imposing the title of “stronger female character.” Though these shows air on different networks (FOX brings us Empire while ABC has been the home of Scandal since 2012), they air on entirely different days, so they really aren’t in any foreseeable competition with each other.
And yet, I can’t help but read comparisons like these while picturing Cookie and Olivia, dressed to the nines and circling at each other in a steel cage high above the crowd. Two fabulous women enter. Only one can escape the victor. Who’s the strongest?
That’s the problem with these unsolicited comparisons: it creates a competition that is in no way necessary. It reduces an entire world of entertainment to this limited space where only one can represent comfortably – whether that “one” is a black female lead, or a gay protagonist, or a female showrunner. You see this often with the portrayal of marginalized groups – this need to determine which is a better representation or to find some understanding as to how two can simply exist at the same time. Some would argue that it’s innocent pondering, but you can’t ignore the deeper implications that exist underneath…and there are, whether the asker is cognizant of them or not.
This habit of wondering “who does it better” may not be harmful to group that already dominates the media, but to us individuals still struggling to be properly represented, it’s a very toxic notion. Why must one be “better” and who is actually qualified to make that sort of determination? Why should the arrival of one devalue the existence of the other? If we are finally given something as great as two prominent black women featured in prime time or multiple women manning the helm of their own shows or more examples of LGBTQ love in media, shouldn’t the question be “Why aren’t there more,” not “Who did it better?” They shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive entities.
Another thing that I find incredibly problematic with this line of thought, in regards to critiquing characters through comparison: in a time when many of us are seeking representation that is closer to our true narrative – characters who are layered, flawed, complex, have a multitude of interests and emotions – do we really want to be so dismissive of roles that are different, even if their traits may fall outside of what we consider desirable or virtuous? At the risk of coming across as repetitive, as I covered this sentiment in my last post: we are mistaken if we automatically equate “likable” with “good.” Sometimes it’s the ugly that links us. When we use those flaws against a character and compare it to another while saying “See? This is how it should be done!”…it’s almost like rejecting humanity. No group should be treated as a monolith with only one acceptable image. It’s okay to look at someone and recognize things that we’d like to see in ourselves, but that shouldn’t discredit what makes someone multi-dimensional. Olivia’s indecisiveness regarding her future doesn’t make her any less of a bad ass nor does Cookie’s take-the-reins persona distract from her weakness for Lucious. Both of these women are exposing their layers to us one at a time and that should be celebrated, not shallowly compared to make it somehow easier for the masses to digest.
Here’s the bottom line: when you’re in the minority, you’re already in a competition. You’re competing with the status quo. You’re fighting against preconceived expectations. You’re struggling against an environment with a default setting that truly does not work in your favor. That, in and of itself, is already more competition than should be fairly imposed upon a single person. When it comes to each other, let us just be great without succumbing to that need to see us duke it out.
We live in a world that will soon have four Expendables films. FOUR. If there’s room for all of them, then there’s certainly room for the rest of us.
Cage matches don’t carry the same luster when the two contenders have no interest in fighting each other. For once, let’s just leave that cage gloriously empty.