The Myth of the Protagonist & The Exclusion of the Black Woman

With women entering the world of anti-heroism, why are Black women still villainized?

L to R; Annaliese Keating (Viola Davis) from How to Get Away with Murder, Ginny Miller (Antonia Gentry) from Ginny & Georgia, and Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) from Scandal

With the ever-looming myth of “cancel culture” and the genuine desire for diversity in television, it seems that the moral ambiguity in characters is no longer allowed. At the very least, if something intends to give one message and present another perspective, it’s deemed reductive to the plot. This is precisely what has happened in the latest social media battle between Taylor Swift and her fans, The Swifties, against Netflix’s new show Ginny & Georgia. Ginny & Georgia centers itself around a mother and daughter who move to a small New England town in hopes of restarting their lives. Georgia was a young mother whose past continues to follow her, and Ginny is an outspoken 15-year-old girl who begins to assimilate to her surroundings for the first time. When the title character, Ginny, makes a quick joke at the expense of her mother and Taylor Swift’s extensive dating histories, Swifties launched into attack mode. The assumption that a show that centers around two women would utter a phrase as, “What do you care? You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.” seems anti-feminist or a step back for progressive television. Yet, it’s the assumption that Ginny must always be a morally correct, super-woke teenage girl that makes the backlash surrounding an innocent, realistic line blown entirely out of proportion. The anti-hero has been in the limelight for quite a while, so why is it now that society rejects innocent mistakes made by the characters we follow on television?

The backlash around Ginny’s comment stems from the Swifties’ mindset that demeaning a woman for her extensive dating history is misogynistic, and they would be correct. Yet, attacking a fictional character, who cannot respond, and her actress (Antonia Gentry) sits in the realm of both misogyny and racism, as Gentry is half-Black. Why should it matter if Ginny makes a childish comment? The character is 15 years-old, the line of moral right and wrong teeters on wrong more often than not; that’s reality. Ginny’s imperfections are laminated throughout the show; she’s impulsive, angry, and unsure of herself, representing not only 15-year-old girls but people in general. In the show, she contemplates sending her boyfriend a sext because that’s the assumption of what she should be doing in a relationship, rather than deciding if it’s something she wants to do. She is ever-so clearly a victim of the perils of growing up, where decisions and actions will waiver, and self-uncertainty is ripe. Harping in on this line and the actress who said it undoes the very criticism that is being made. Years ago, in the age of One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl, a line like this would be the least of Twitter’s worries. The room for characters to be wrong has disappeared, not on a large scale but rather a scale that the performative masses can control. It seems that characters must consistently be on the right side of history when that is not an accurate, nor interesting, way to create a narrative. Even the most progressive person is likely to say or do something others will disagree with, regardless if they are right or wrong. Ginny represents reality; even to call her an anti-hero feels coded; she’s precisely who she needs to be.

To even act as if Ginny is a villain in this scenario perpetuates the same misogynoir that has plagued Black women in fandoms for years. Take a look at Kat Graham’s Bonnie Bennett in The Vampire Diaries or Ashleigh Murray’s Josie McCoy in Riverdale and its spin-off, Katy Keene. Both of these Black women were victims of calculated attacks by fans for actions that didn’t warrant such vile responses. To add insult to injury, both of these women received little to no development by writers; why is vivid hatred carried over to Black actresses, especially when anti-heroism or villainy is regarded with such grace for their white counterparts?

Of course, there have been nuanced portrayals of Black women who do not always subscribe to moral correctness. Look at Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington, Scandal) and Annalise Keating (Viola Davis, How To Get Away With Murder), two Black women whose multi-faceted personalities and willingness to do what it takes have garnered fanbases and have been regarded as two of the best performances of the past decade. Yet, neither of these women have the same “girlboss,” feminist recognition that has been won over by characters such as Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer, Killing Eve). These white women have been pardoned for their crimes, including murder and extortion, under the guise of fighting back the patriarchy. If these legitimate crimes are held with compassion and understanding, why can’t teenage ignorance be pardoned rather than spewing misogynoir in response to it?

I’d be one thing to call out a show centered around two women for perpetuating misogyny, but the most baffling aspect is that the attacks that Antonia Gentry, a.k.a Ginny Miller, faced in light of them. Gentry stated in an Instagram post to fans, “As someone who grew up feeling voiceless and unimportant, and who did not see herself reflected on screen, Ginny Miller was finally a reprieve. Finally, a character who was just as I was gets a chance to exist. Ginny Miller, though fictional, is a character who reflects all of life’s contradictions and imperfections.” Gentry is correct; Ginny is flawed, frustrated, and, as stated before, unsure of herself. The line between good and evil has become blurred, and that’s ok; narratives are meant to divide audiences, allow them to think, or even find empathy in the oddest of places. It seems that in an attempt to be progressive, choosing good over the temptation of evil, the very progress Swifties are attempting to achieve falls right into the same systems they are fighting against. You cannot express feminism or any radical thought while excluding Black women, who are often forgotten and ignored.

As we imagine inclusion and diversity in television, we still see that certain characters must fit inboxes. Black women get pushed into the box of “Strong Black Woman”; they can’t be too flawed or darker than a paper-bag; otherwise, they don’t fit the narrative that has been set in place for them. While Gentry and Ginny don’t represent all Black women, as both she and her character are biracial, it is the relation to Blackness that excludes them from the same privileges that they would enjoy as a White woman.

In the realm of diversity, a character will be imperfect, they won’t always be correct, and that’s ok. The road to perfection is long and never quite achieved. That’s why television is so engaging; we can relate to our characters’ faults and idolize the pieces of them that are perfect. No one is always correct, and there’s a difference between outright bigotry and just regular human ignorance. Making a joke of women having multiple partners coming out of a teenage girl’s mouth is human ignorance and not the same as women being joyfully embarrassed and demeaned for having sex with multiple men under the guise of a story narrative. If the protagonist is intended to be right always, then television loses its edge. It’s up to television writers and audiences to understand which battles are meant to be fought and what is simply a product of life. Most importantly, it falls on the masses to understand what is right and what is wrong when it comes to the portrayal of characters in television. We uncover our personal biases to the figures in our real life through our responses to fictional characters’ actions. The assumption that someone who holds radical ideals cannot perpetuate anti-blackness and misogynoir is our first mistake. Hopefully, the reactions to Antonia Gentry and Ginny & Georgia can generate open and honest conversation about whom we allow to be villains and what narratives are acceptable for which type of people on television. As it stands currently, Black women simply aren’t allowed to be wrong.

Anthony Devone is a student at Morehouse College.

21. Student. Jotting down accumulating thoughts through writing.