This summer I came up with an interesting idea, or at least I thought it would be interesting, to write about how the women of Walking Dead subverted the strong, black woman trope. I started my research, took notes, and gathered my images. Then I stopped. What happened? Well, a series of unfortunate real life events that left me struggling to find a new place to live and eventually crying on the floor of said new place, $1800 poorer, feeling utterly alone and overwhelmed.
Let’s rewind back to the original idea: Strong Black Woman. It’s a trope. It’s a stereotype. It’s this box society has thrown us into. It’s a trap. We have all been affected in one way or another by the burden of that myth. What comes to mind when we see that phrase? A single mother struggling to raise her children? Our ancestors who fought and bled to survive? Or maybe you think of a friend on Twitter who deals with misogynistic and racist tweets on a daily basis. On the surface it’s a compliment–an acknowledgment of the what it takes to survive in a society that constantly tries to push us down, tries to tell us that we’re worthless. Below that it’s a trap that keeps us from being able to express how these negative situations truly affect us. It keeps our messy emotions from affecting other people.
A strong, black woman is almost superhuman. She bears crippling burdens without a complaint. She nurtures everyone around her and fights for them. She weathers both physical and mental pain and comes through, intact on the other side. There is a sense of self-empowerment in that. However, this trope holds the potential to cause terrible damage. Perhaps, instead of superhuman, a better way to describe her is that she is barely human. This is the problem with this descriptor — it strips away our humanity. It makes it so that we’re not allowed to break down. We swallow our pain and try to ignore how we’re choking on it.
On the surface Michonne and Sasha seem like stereotypical strong, black women. Both are certainly powerful — Michonne with her katana and Sasha with her sniper rifle. They both take charge of situations to get the job done. They protect the group. Michonne’s backstory is revealed in bits and pieces. She suffered a tragedy that consumed her. In her grief she let her boyfriend and his friend turn into walkers, mutilated their corpses, and then used them as camouflage to walk safely amongst the walkers. Michonne became a shadow of her former self. She traveled alone, killing walkers until she found Andrea and learned how to be human again. “Andrea brought me back. Your father brought me back” she tells Carl. We watch her hallucinate conversations with her dead lover. She avoids babies like you would avoid a trigger. As viewers, we got to know Michonne after her initial breakdown and we got to see her begin to heal. This is why Sasha’s arc meant so much to me in season five. Rarely do we get to see a black woman break down like this on TV, especially genre TV where we’re lucky to even be fully realized characters.
Sasha suffers major losses this season. First her lover Bob, who was attacked and released only to succumb to a walker bite. Whereas Sasha is pragmatic and focused on surviving the present, Bob was quick with a joke to make her smile and hopeful for the future. She lost that hope with him. Then she loses her brother. We see her stand over his grave in her dead lover’s jacket, too upset even to take the shovel and help bury him. Sasha wanted to be strong, strong enough to survive in their harsh world. She watched her brother struggle with too many deaths and losing hope. “We’re not the same. We never were,” she tells Tyreese. She believed that Tyreese was weak for breaking down as did many viewers who criticized him for becoming too soft. Sasha later tells Deanna that she’s afraid of becoming soft in Alexandria. Maybe it’s better to say that Sasha wanted to believe that she was different from her brother, that he was weak where she wasn’t. Tyreese wasn’t quiet about his struggles-they were shown through his through his actions or lack thereof. As black women, we’re taught to internalize so much. Actually seeing Tyreese’s breakdown play out must have seemed like a weakness to her.
While I felt like my own life was falling apart, I watched Sasha fight through a maelstrom of mixed emotions on screen. She was grieving and angry and lost. For pragmatic, logical Sasha this must be a lot to bear. I’m imagining her growing up being told to be strong in so many covert and overt ways. This is the message black women receive. Strong, black woman do not break down. Breaking down isn’t part of being strong in this sense. It’s the opposite and unhelpful to yourself and everyone around you. I kept quiet about how much I was suffering out of shame. I thought I should have been handling my situation better. Every time I broke down crying, I felt weak. I felt like a failure.
Sasha’s actions show how hard she was trying to assure herself and the group that she’s fine while her actions show the opposite. Sasha is a danger to herself and others. On two occasions throwing herself into fighting walkers without any concern for her safety or those that are trying to help her. I guess she wasn’t so dissimilar to Tyreese afterall. She deliberately attempts to draw out walkers to take out her anger on. She withdraws from the group, spending most of time outside of Alexandria or in the lookout post. Her one interaction with the Alexandria residents results in hallucinations of Bob, Tyreese, and Beth at a party. She ends up leaving the party after berating the Alexandrians for their insignificant problems. Depression is deeper than sadness. It can be a feeling of emptiness or lifelessness. Think of Sasha lying on a pile of walker bodies with a peaceful expression. Depression can also be overwhelming feelings of anger followed by aggression. It feels like your brain and your body are against you. It feels like you’re lost in a dark place, desperately trying to find your way out. To me, this feels like Sasha in the second half of season 5.
Too many saw Sasha’s breakdown as a weakness. I can only ask — why? Why is Sasha weak and not Rick for breaking down after the loss of his wife? Or Tyreese breaking down after the death of his lover? I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a role the strong, black woman narrative played in people seeing Sasha’s breakdown as a character weakness rather than a logical result of the difficult events she went through. Why does it matter what people thought about Sasha or that the writers of Walking Dead went in this direction with her character? “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I heard that line while listening to the Another Round podcast. It’s been rattling around my head for days . We talk about overcoming the stigma surrounding mental illness in the Black Community. We talk about how much representation matters. When I tried to recall an example of a black woman with a mental illness, I could only think of one. So let me alter that phrase to: you can’t be comfortable with what you can’t see. How can we overcome the stigma when we are silent about our own mental illnesses? How can we overcome the stigma if we criticize our few examples of representation on TV for being weak or soft? I don’t know if the writers of Walking Dead meant for Sasha to be suffering from depression. Nonetheless, I saw something of my situation, my feelings in her and seeing that made me feel less alone.
Republished with permission from Women Write About Comics