Not Just an OTP: A Place For Everything, And Everything In Its Place

 Iris West, the Strong Black Woman

The Strong Black Woman isn’t exactly like the Mammy, but they are very similar. The SBW evolved from the Mammy but not because of white people wanting to see Black women as subservient to white women; it was more because in the Black community women are expected to be mothers and workers and homemakers and anything that may be required of them and not complain about it or show weakness. They also have to be self-reliant, while everyone else is allowed to depend on them. Having had personal experience with this trope, I can tell you first hand that it’s straight bullshit. It’s dehumanising, demoralising, and extremely dangerous. It makes Black women believe that they cannot express emotion in the way that other women do without being seen as weak or not real Black women – and in a culture where racism is usually spoken about in terms of the violence visited upon men, making Black womanhood dependent on our labour is rather tiring. The “don’t need no man part” came from Black women telling men who wished to control them that they didn’t need their money, status or love in order to feel fulfilled. If you’re confused, listen to “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child.

I briefly touched on this in earlier posts, but when fandom tells women that they cannot express emotion without being labelled as bitchy and whiny, it fosters an environment in which women don’t feel safe to, say, come forward about the fact that their boss is sexually harassing them at work. But when Black men do that to Black women, and women of other races join in while uplifting their own voices, it sends the message that the pain of Black women isn’t valid when compared to the pain of women of other races.

One of the reasons that Iris West as a Black woman, and therefore the romantic heroine on a superhero show, matters is because she often flies in the face of that archetype. She is allowed to be vulnerable and is not ridiculed for it; characters make an effort to comfort her. She is allowed to be angry and is not less desirable for it; characters make the effort to understand where she’s coming from. She is put in danger and is not expected to get herself out of it (though she often does); characters make the effort to prioritise her safety – and a Black woman still living on network television, let alone The CW, is reason enough for praise.

One of the reasons fandom “loved” Iris so much was because she internalised all her emotions and never bothered anyone with her feelings – as women are supposed to do. Obviously.

White fandom co-opted the “don’t need no man” part of the adage, because they don’t want characters of colour in a romance with white ones. While they probably think it’s coming across as wanting this Black woman to be cool and independent and kick ass, unfortunately for them, they’ve failed to hide the fact that they’re just uncomfortable with a Black woman being shown love by a white man. Her vulnerability being noticed, her safety being prioritised, her person being held up as the standard is uncomfortable for them, so they scramble for any excuse to take her away from that love story, while decorating it with faux concern for authenticity.

Iris did nothing but support the other characters, and whenever she felt pain, she soldiered through it without asking for help until she literally had a breakdown – which is true of a lot of Black women in real life. Like the Mammy, she looked after everyone else without asking for any help for herself, but what separates the SBW from the Mammy is the fact that while the Mammy (or the BBF) doesn’t actually get the chance to feel pain, the SBW feels it but doesn’t express it – and that’s the point.

One of fans’ favourite periods is when Iris didn’t tell anyone how upset she felt about things.

We saw Iris feel pain during that part of season two, but she didn’t tell anyone about it, and that’s why they “loved” her so much. It’s telling that every time Iris went to Barry with a problem, she was whining, that when she confronted him for lying to her about being The Flash, she was a bitch, that when she called off the engagement because Barry was dishonest in his reasons for proposing, she should have gotten over it – but her actively hiding her pain made her a good character. Then in the fourth season premiere, Iris was a bitch for yelling at Cisco for trying to get Barry out of the Speed Force, and then in the very next episode she was selfish for expressing that his leaving pained her. It’s because even though she herself said that Barry told her to “be strong,” her pain was threaded through both episodes, and the writers made sure you knew it. (Please note, the SBW is not actually about strength. Perhaps if Iris had consulted Bonnie Bennett, the patron saint of Getting White People Out of Their Nonsense, she would have been able tell her that the acceptable way to be a SBW isn’t through strength – it’s through silence).

I don’t think any of these words mean what he thinks they mean. In any case, “strength and independence” have also been code words for “emotionless and alone” in fandom.

When fans say that they want Iris to be independent, they don’t mean they want her to get her own storyline, although they’ve done a wonderful job of convincing everyone that they do because it’ll get her out of S.T.A.R. Labs and away from the action. They mean they want her to be alone because they’re not comfortable with her position, especially when Caitlin doesn’t get to date Barry. Because, for some reason, Iris is ruined by romance, but Caitlin won’t be if she gets Barry. Because independence for Black women means being alone, rather than being able to do things for herself, which Iris did for years before she got with Barry (fans fondly remember Iris being a barista, but not that she was one to pay for school), but Snowbarry fans spent half a season demanding that Barry save Caitlin. When they say they want her to be badass, they mean off-screen, because all the action takes place inside S.T.A.R. Labs and the show refuses to leave it. I’m also extremely suspicious of fans who seem to think that Black women who are in relationships with men who love them find it physically impossible to be strong, badass or independent, which is why when they insist that they have Black friends, I always want to ask, “are you sure?”.

Anyway, the motivation for not liking Iris here isn’t that she’s Black – Snowbarry shippers love Black people when they’re playing by the rules. It’s that she expresses anger at the white characters, and isn’t punished for it. The characters and the show explicitly and consistently prioritise her safety. While the show briefly regressed to negative stereotypes in season 2, they haven’t treated her the same way since, and Snowbarry shippers are desperate for Iris to go back there. Because, yet again, the Black woman is being centred in the narrative and being treated as whole character, while the white woman isn’t centred. I mentioned that these fans have a specific hierarchy in mind when it comes to the relationships on The Flash, and while I haven’t spelled it out in its entirety, this last section will. And it’ll also highlight one of the biggest reasons why people – or at the very least why I – say Snowbarry shippers are racist.

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