Kickass Women of Color on TV: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Edition

Sleepy Hollow title card.
Sleepy Hollow title card.

Written by Erin Tatum.

There are precious few characters of color and particularly women of color on screen. Characters of color usually serve the primary function of helping white characters through dilemmas. If they are given their own plots, expect their storylines to be zany comic relief while the white characters deal with the serious business. Orange Is the New Black is a big step in the right direction, but many have been quick to point out that although the women of color are delightfully nuanced and the white protagonist can be downright irritating, the show probably wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without an affluent white woman as the main character. It’s 2013, so I say it’s about time that we allow women of color to shine in their own right without tacking on white ladies as a wink to ratings or as an apology, wouldn’t you agree?

Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills.
Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills.

Fortunately, Sleepy Hollow is here to step up to the plate. Lt. Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) could easily go head-to-head with Olivia Pope as far as badass ladies of color. Mills finds herself teamed up with Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison), who is mysteriously resurrected nearly 250 years after his death in the Revolutionary War. Crane initially assumes that Abbie is a freed slave, but after a crash course in US history, comes to accept the cultural changes fairly well. Despite the potential for cross-generational discrimination across both racial and gendered lines, Crane values Abbie as a colleague from the very beginning. Of course, it’s questionable how realistic this adjustment is for someone of Crane’s era, pro-abolitionist or otherwise. Regardless, you can’t argue that the immediately established mutual respect isn’t refreshing. By sweeping the time skip under the rug in their relationship, both characters avoid being bogged down in politics. Crane and Abbie depend on each other to defend Sleepy Hollow from a host of ghoulish monsters in a series that merges elements of fantasy, drama, and buddy cop sitcom.

Jenny Mills.
Jenny Mills.

Abbie is allowed to be her own person with her own strengths and flaws. She cares about Crane, but she doesn’t exist to prop him up. They are each other’s intellectual equals who rise and fall together, but they can and do frequently separate on their own adventures. Abbie also has an interesting character foil in her estranged sister Jenny (Lyndie Greenwood). The two girls were orphans in the foster system. One day, they were attacked by a monster in the woods. Abbie encourages Jenny to lie about what they saw, claiming to police that she couldn’t remember anything. Jenny tries to tell the truth and is consequently declared clinically insane and thrown in a mental hospital, while Abbie walks away unscathed before being taken under the wing of a (white male) police officer determined to keep her on the right track. The concept of the white savior certainly comes into play here. Why do white people get to determine who is worthy of redemption and who isn’t when it comes to troubled youth of color? Abbie struggles with her conscience and her position of privileged authority due to the fact that she indirectly caused her sister to rot away in an institution for being honest, which is a rather blunt commentary on the apathy of the state to the plight of the individual. It turns out that the cop had been helping both sisters in secret. Jenny is also 110% BAMF. She, Crane, and Abbie are the Holy Trinity of this show.

Katrina Crane: "No, I really am just a plot device!"
Katrina Crane: “No, I really am just a plot device!”

Don’t forget, we have to find a way to shoehorn white femininity in there somehow! Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) is a witch condemned to purgatory as punishment for casting the resurrection spell over Crane. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be a commentary on her power or lack thereof, but it’s definitely an odd narrative choice. She’s allegedly one of the main characters, so it’s weird that the others can only interact with her via dreams or near-death experiences. Additionally, it disconcerts me that Crane’s romance feels like a forced, clunky afterthought to the main action. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of prioritizing pretty much anything else over a love interest, but if you’re going to keep throwing it at the audience, at least make it convincing or enjoyable. Katrina seems to only exist to shout ominous prophecies at Crane before he regains consciousness. Without spoiling too much, the writers have gussied her up with some plot anvils to force viewers to remain invested in her. I’m not feeling it. She sits in the woods with a smoke machine while Crane runs around yelling her name and sweating. I don’t care and no amount of sudden revelations will make me care. Katrina is embarrassingly extraneous to the action.

Katrina’s absence leaves Abbie to share most of Crane’s emotionally intense moments. Katrina may be influencing things from afar, but the show makes it clear that Abbie is Crane’s true support system and partner. That’s probably the biggest difference between the two women. Katrina sits on the sidelines and Abbie gets shit done. Stereotypical idealized white femininity is delicate and dependent, with some subtle manipulation sometimes thrown in to avoid total passive sexism. In Sleepy Hollow, these traits appear to hinder her appeal instead of amplifying it. Rather than enhancing her enigma or desirability, the essential “whiteness” of Katrina’s characterization renders her a one-dimensional paper doll in a cast of charismatic heavyweights. I can’t complain too much in the end though, because she makes it possible for Abbie and Crane’s relationship to grow outside of the obligatory sexual tension.

Ichabbie 4eva?
Ichabbie 4eva?

With that said, Ichabod and Abbie (dubbed “Ichabbie”) have a sizable fan base that wants them together romantically. I’m torn – on one hand, I think it’s good to have models of strong male/female friendships where their development isn’t measured by whether or not they became a couple. On the other, Katrina has the personality of a shoebox and it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to read subtext into Abbie and Crane’s phenomenal chemistry. At least at this point, they can grow together independently of the romantic question. If the writers do decide to pursue that route, I hope it’s just a spontaneous move and not drawn out for the angst milking. Regardless of who Crane ends up with, I want Katrina to die or preferably turn out evil. Nothing against the actress, but I need her to stop pointlessly wasting screentime.

Amandla Stenburg as Macey Irving.
Amandla Stenburg as Macey Irving.

But wait, it gets even better! Amandla Stenberg (aka Rue from The Hunger Games) plays the police captain’s recently disabled daughter, Macey. Triple representation, fuck yeah! (Apart from the actress not being disabled in reality, but I guess we have to pick our battles.) She’s cute, sarcastic, and sassy. The writers seem to be veering towards the “having a disabled child destroyed my family and could ruin my life” angle for the captain, so fingers crossed that they’ll avoid that stereotype clusterfuck, especially given that they’ve resisted most other cliches. I’m cautiously optimistic.

sleepy art

To sum up, you should all be watching Sleepy Hollow.