Black Lightning’s Queer Characters Deserve Better

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The CW

Black Lightning is groundbreaking in terms of Blackness and ya love to see it! They manage to depict real life struggles of Black people in 2019 without it feeling like an afterschool special. They weave in aspects of Black culture in a way that feels natural, and not like they’re trying to educate non-POC about what “good hair” means (to use my favorite example). Despite all of that, I’m admittedly still struggling with the queer representation on the show, because when it comes to its canonically queer characters, Anissa and Grace, Black Lightning is letting both them and their viewers down. The show does so many things right, and because of that, I sometimes feel that I should sit down and shut up about this part. But with each passing week, it becomes more apparent that I can no longer stay quiet in regards to the queer representation we’re being given on Black Lightning.

When the show premiered, I wrote about how beautiful it was to see myself represented on television in a way I never had before. The show was (and still is) unapologetically Black, but it also spoke to my intersectionality as a queer woman of color.

After I felt so strongly about Black Lightning’s pilot, the show continued to do no wrong in my eyes when, in the very second episode, it gave us the Quality Queer Content of Anissa in bed with her established girlfriend, who was another queer woman of color (!!!). As someone who’s been watching television for practically my entire life, I never dared to dream of seeing myself represented this way. I didn’t think it was possible. Anissa was an out Black lesbian and it wasn’t a Thing™. Unfortunately, as my excitement started to skyrocket, the show inexplicably began to downplay its queer relationship.

One of the ways writers and showrunners show how much they value characters is in both the amount and quality of screen time they’re given. Unfortunately, the Black Lightning writers have fallen short with regards to Anissa’s relationship with Grace, aka ThunderGrace, in comparison to what’s shown of the relationship between Jennifer and Khalil. Numbers don’t lie. If we just look at the numbers, Khalil has been in 19 episodes, compared to Grace’s 11. Sure, you can argue that it’s because Khalil and Painkiller’s arc has been integral to the progression of the plot, but that’s a choice they made in the writers’ room. Those numbers don’t even tell the full story of the discrepancy, because what they don’t show us is the higher quality of storytelling and plot progression involving Khalil in his episodes. The writers could have made a very different choice without sacrificing any of the story around how metas affect everyday life in Freeland.

The CW
The CW

Both Khalil and Grace appear in the comics and both are meta-humans. Both characters were adapted for the show and both have been in relationships with the Pierce sisters. Their meta-human statuses have affected the way they approach those relationships, but only one of those was fully explored and given time to develop. And no, it wasn’t the queer relationship. This is frustrating for so many reasons, but the biggest one is that the way I see it, the writers decided to emphasize the relationship that’s more palatable for the majority of their viewing audience. I’m not a writer on a television show, and I do understand there are factors beyond their control (scheduling, actor availability, etc.), but from a pure storytelling perspective, Grace Choi could have been just as integral to the meta-human plot of the show as anyone else.

When Jennifer revealed her powers to Khalil, she told him that because of his meta-human status, he was the only one who could understand why she felt like a freak. Meanwhile, Grace literally ran away from Anissa because she didn’t know how to tell her about her powers. And then. AND THEN. When Grace finally got up the courage to talk to Anissa, the woman she loves, about the thing she is most afraid of about herself, Anissa had the chance to embrace her girlfriend and tell her that she understood how she felt because she too had powers that she didn’t ask for. But she didn’t. Instead, Anissa told Grace that she loved her no matter what, which left Grace feeling slightly better, but still alone because in her mind, Anissa would never truly understand her struggle.

In this week’s episode, “The Book of Occupation: Chapter Four,” there was so much Grace in the “previously on” that I assumed we would get way more of her than usual. I was right! Here’s the problem though — Grace meets Jefferson for the first time when he shows up to Anissa’s loft and Grace is there waiting. The two make small talk until Anissa comes down the stairs in full Blackbird gear. Jefferson is livid and is all, “she knows about Blackbird AND Thunder?!” And Anissa nonchalantly essentially says, “umm duh.”

The CW
The CW

*record scratch*

That’s right, reader. The scene that we’ve been yelling about and hoping for, happened offscreen. What’s frustrating is that on Twitter, one of the show’s writers insisted that Grace had known about Anissa’s powers for awhile. Now, unless I was sleeping on the job (and well, I love sleep so sure, I guess it’s possible), they haven’t aired a scene that even alluded to this. As part of the Twitter conversation with the writer, I saw a promo photo that was released for this episode and people are speculating that’s the scene he was referencing. If that’s the case, I can’t decide if it’s worse that they filmed it and cut it, or if they had never even written the scene. Regardless, Black Lightning made the active choice not to include a scene involving their queer characters in favor of what? Watching Painkiller kill umpteen Markovian soldiers?

The CW
The CW

This is where intersectionality really plays into the lens through which I view this show. Last month, I wrote a tweet thread about it that I think highlights my biggest struggle with Black Lightning. Re-posting it here and quoting my own damn self:

 

An additional layer that reared its ugly head this week is — what happens when parts of your identity are represented at the expense of others? In a world where people of color are starved for content, I should be thrilled that Black Lightning exists. I am. I should be happy that a Black lesbian bulletproof superhero is on TV. I am.

But I’m tired of settling for scraps. I exist. I’m a whole ass queer ass Black ass woman who walks through this world worrying which part of my identity is going to offend someone first. Will a man be threatened by my vagina? Will a white cop want to end me because I’m Black? Will a MAGA stan scream at me because I’m wearing rainbows (spoiler: this one actually happened to me)?

I don’t say any of this to be dramatic, but this is the body so many people walk around in and they deserve to have their stories told authentically, and not as an afterthought or a box that needs to be checked. I’m afraid that Black Lightning is putting its queer relationship in that latter category by giving us a half-assed version of a relationship and saying “but see! We love ThunderGrace! Look how cute they are in bed!” Yes, they’re adorable, but just placing two marginalized characters in a scene isn’t representation. We deserve the same care and thought as any other relationship on the show. We get to be cute but we also get to be messy. As queer women of color, we deserve to have every part of our identity explored on screen. I don’t want to choose which part of me is most important, and I shouldn’t have to.

 

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Black Lightning airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW and is available Wednesdays on Netflix in Canada.

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