Saga: Racial Stereotypes and the Hypersexualization of Black Women Doesn’t have to be a Thing
I started reading the ongoing intergalactic comic book series, Saga—penned and drawn by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples, respectively—about a year ago and I immediately fell in love with it! It featured mostly non-white characters, and as I continued to read it, I felt that it was sending some very powerful messages. Saga paints a vivid image of the current racial tension between white and blacks as well as the hypersexualization of black women in America. It does this by initially placing its minority characters in common stereotypical roles and situations before yanking them out of those roles to send the message that: the world is filled with hatred because people have allowed it to be that way. To me, Saga’s goal is simple yet progressive—to show readers how creating characters that embody negative cultural tropes only perpetuates their perceived inferiority and if we want to help shift people’s perceptions we can simply present minorities in a better light by removing them from those roles.
Minorities in Comics
In the early ages of comics, especially in the Golden Age (1938-1950) minority characters were largely absent. If they were present, they often had minor roles—they were characterized as being subservient and inferior. Blacks, in particular, were seen as ugly, unintelligent and dependent. Due to their inferior characteristics, they were only regarded as valuable to a story if they were shown as sidekicks. It was not until the end of the Silver Age (1956-1970), that minorities were given larger roles. Marvel debuted Black Panther in 1966, and he is known as one of the first black superheroes. Throughout each of the comic book ages, people have seen the world through the lens of white Jewish men whose perceptions of minorities were grossly inaccurate. The mindset that minorities—especially blacks—are inferior to whites is still something we see today (not that it ever left) but it’s become more pronounced, outright and bold since Donald Trump was elected president.
Racism in Saga Highlights the Current Racial Tension in America
Vaughan uses Alana (a Landfallian) and Marko (a Wreather) as vessels to highlight the racial tension in America because their peoples have been at war for centuries. The ongoing war has been fought on other planets because if either Landfall or Wreath gets destroyed, it will be pushed out of orbit. In Volume II we learn that the Wreathers learn combat skills at an early age because many prepare to eventually become foot soldiers in the war. Marko possessed a deep hatred for Landfallians at a young age because many of his people were killed during the war, which he witnessed at the encouragement of his father. Along with other numerous atrocities that the Landfallians have committed against the people of Wreath one massacre, in particular, resulted in immense bloodshed (see Image 1). This event fueled Marko’s hatred for Landfallians even more. Afterwards, his parents taught him to “never forget the countless heroes who sacrificed so much.” Saga comments on how war affects the mentality of its victims. More importantly, it presents the idea that hatred can be perpetuated; Marko and his parents regarded Landfallians as “those evil fucks with the wings.” For me, it became clear that the Landfallians represented the white race and Wreathers represented the black race.
Marko was eventually captured and held as a prisoner on the planet of Cleave where his prison guard was Alana. As a prisoner, Marko was treated poorly and punished whenever he used his native tongue. Alana has no qualms about beating Marko because she sees him as her inferior. The dynamic between Landfallians and Wreathers is similar to that of the one between powerful white masters and powerless black slaves. Alana represents the white master and Marko represents a slave. Landfallians are more technologically advanced; they have more power, land, money, and resources. Wreathers have less fortune because of their planet’s smaller size (see Image 2) and since money is power, this fact is used by Landfallians to justify their harsh treatment of the “Moonies” (a derogatory term for Wreathers). White people have more power and money and therefore have the means to systematically oppress black people. Racism and inequality can always prevail if cruel actions are somehow justifiable. This kind of unfair treatment is seen against blacks today because we are still seen as inferior. Black people are killed at a higher rate, in fact, they are 2.5 times more likely to be gunned down by cops than whites are. This continues because blacks are labeled as scary, thuggish, and aggressive. With labels like these blacks are guilty until proven innocent and questions are only asked after they’ve already been killed. I remember when I first watched the footage of Philando Castile being slaughtered by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her daughter; I exited my job’s building, found a bench and cried to myself for a few minutes. I was horrified. I likened this feeling to how Marko felt when he learned of how the Landfallians committed numerous acts of violence against his people; it’s heartbreaking and it evokes anger and a desire for revenge. Marko’s experience with racism led him to view his universe in a new perspective and I think this is an understandable response. Some responses are more severe than others, but what I think experiences like these have in common is that they make you aware of what others believe is your place in society. The stereotypes of minorities and how they are portrayed in the media and in comics help to facilitate systematic racism. If a person is viewed as unintelligent, others feel that they have the right to treat them as a lesser being. If someone is viewed as scary, then people feel like they can ignore that person or ostracize them. If someone is viewed as thuggish, other people become frightened and avoidant because they assume that person is out for blood. If someone is viewed as aggressive, other people become defensive and turn violent towards that person.
Love & Understanding Wins!
The way in which Saga handled Marko and Alana’s initially violent dynamic was what was truly remarkable to me -they became a couple! They were able to break out of their negative stereotypes and grow as characters. On the first page in Volume I, Alana is shown giving birth to their daughter, Hazel. It was rather hard to believe that they had ever hated one another because their amount of love seemed immeasurable. They argue (a lot sometimes) but disagreements are normal and they’re needed before a compromise or common solution can be reached. I feel that Vaughan uses their relationship to show that people can find some way to understand and maybe even accept each other despite a having a mountain of differences between them (see Image 3). I don’t believe that people can’t have their own opinions of others and I think people have the right to dislike other people as long as it’s based on personal experiences and not rooted in their false perceptions of groups of people. Above all though, people deserve respect. In short, Saga tells me that the world does not have to be as crazy as it is because we can make it better. No, I don’t believe that Saga is telling us that everyone should go be in an interracial relationship (some people do not want that and I respect that decision) but I believe it is telling us that the understanding of each other’s struggles and anger can be a way to alleviate racial tension. Alana and Marko understand each other’s past struggles and if there is more understanding between whites and blacks, tensions could be less high. This does not erase what whites have done to blacks in the past (no we can’t just forget slavery and trust me, we won’t) but as a black woman, the one thing that I want most is for people to understand why we’re angry and tired. Many white people ignore our struggle because dismissing as us playing the victim and using the race card takes less effort than understanding us and admitting their faults. All oppression is not the same so it takes the sharing and understanding of all of our stories to help people learn how to be more sympathetic to the plights of others. I will never forget the struggles of black people and how we are treated, but I am open to trusting in people who take the time to understand me. Will the majority of people do this? No. Will some? Yes, some are already doing this. Will the world be better? With the way many people are, probably not…but it certainly could be.
The World says Black Women are Whores but Saga says that’s Just A Myth
The character of Sophie, seemingly insignificant to the storyline initially, represents the stereotypical hyper sexual black woman. Sophie is just six years old, and she is a sex slave on the planet Sextillion. (see Image 4). Sextillion is a planet that men travel to with the intent to obtain sexual favors from women who reside there, some are war captives, and others are prostitutes. Sophie (initially referred to as Slave Girl) is highly sought after by men. Even though she was sold into this life, her resistance to the men who seek her out is never shown. Since her resistance is absent, it points to the notion that young women of color are okay with and even welcome sex at a young age. The reality is that we never get to see the whole story and without the whole story people can jump to false conclusions. Then, when people use dehumanizing labels like slut and whore, it provides additional help in justifying their lack of respect towards women of color. As a result, men can say things like this: they’re all like that or that’s all they’re good for. Using a child, although hard to stomach forces readers to realize that the hypersexualization of females of color is highly problematic. Staples initially did not want to draw her character, but Vaughan mentions in an interview that, “there are slave girls in the world and they don’t look like Princess Leia in a bikini. [We] wanted to show the horrific side effects of war.” I am very glad Staples decided to create Sophie’s character because she represents issues much larger than herself; there are real young girls of color who live day-to-day being used for male pleasure. This helps readers recognize that there are more significant things going on in the world than Starbucks discontinuing people’s favorite Frappuccinos.
Eventually, The Will and Gwendolyn are able to rescue Sophie from Sextillion. This is integral to her character development because it shifts the perception of her value. If Sophie hadn’t been removed from her sexual slavery, Saga would essentially be perpetuating the sexual stereotypes of black women. Saga harshly presents us with a perverted storyline to show just how problematic these stereotypes are. After doing so, Saga discards these ideas to show how minority characters don’t have to continue being sexualized to remain valuable to the storyline. Saga shows that her negative perception can be altered once she’s removed from her stereotype. She’s allowed to grow as a character, and the readers become privy to her greatness. Now, I’ve been able to see her most redeeming qualities: intelligence, resilience, and strength. Overall, I think it will be difficult to change people’s perception of black women’s sexuality, but this is a step in the right direction.
Saga…I applaud you!
Saga, a Modern Age comic, pushes boundaries and uses colorful and usually uncomfortable diction and imagery to highlight how both racism and the hypersexuality of women of color is not only problematic in society but how it is justified as well. Minorities still deserve more recognition because they account for a large percentage of the world’s population. Placing minorities in more positive roles would help to give a more accurate depiction of the world and the issues that minorities face. This comic recognizes these issues and implements them into the main story arcs within the series. Marko states in Volume II that, “the war will never end, that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of pointless brutality that can only be stopped with more war.” By removing characters from their negative tropes, Saga has the potential to shift how people view minorities and show that racial tension can be alleviated through understanding. I hope more writers follow suit so that maybe Marko won’t be right.
Written by Ayana Underwood
Ayana Underwood has a Bachelors of Science degree from Duquesne University and is currently pursuing her Masters Certificate at Harvard Extension School. If she’s not writing, you can find her talking about the latest makeup trends for women of color, eating pizza, baking brownies or reading comics. You can find her work on her blog, A Geeky Beauty Party or follow her on Twitter @AyanaArnette.
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