Who are your favorite fictional, iconic female characters of color?

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Hey Racialicious readers, I recently got the email below from an artist named Maureen. I suggested to her that I could post her email on the blog to tap into your collective wisdom, so that’s exactly what I’m doing here.

What suggestions do you have for Maureen?

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Hi Carmen,

I am a visual arts/women’s studies student in Toronto, Canada. I am emailing you in the hopes of generating some advice or reference material about how to address some issues I am coming across with an art project I am working on.

My project is about the lack of visibility of aging women and also how in Western iconography of women, vitality and strength are directly linked to their attractiveness and youth. So my idea was to take fictional, iconic female characters, i.e. Wonder Woman, Buffy, Xena, Catwoman and so on, and age them with their costumes intact, and hopefully also, their dignity and the wisdom I like to think that comes with age. I have these subcategories: Film/T.V, Fairytales (which is really Disney depictions–which for some reason kind of irks me that as visual, recognizable icons they all come from there), Superheroines.

My issue is that many of the icons I am referencing are white (as am I), and while I am addressing the invisibility of aging women, I don’t want to in turn make invisible women of colour in my project. In my women’s studies degree, which informs most of my art, we talk often of how race/ism is made invisible or ignored or not properly considered in both canonical academic discourse and pop culture: I don’t want to contribute to that. I can actually come up with a number of Black-American icons to depict: Catwoman (who I am actually on the fence about after researching since there have been so many incarnations of her, far more of them white than Black), Storm from the X-Men, Foxy Brown (Pam Grier) and so on. But again, I don’t want to address racial inclusivity as either token or as simply about black and white.

I have thought about including some more Disney characters as I am already including Cinderella and Snow White (particularly because of the idea of aging them potentially puts them on the same side as their stepmothers they so revile): Mulan, Jasmine from Aladden, Pocahontas–but this does not seem satisfactory to me. Particularly Pocahontas, as she is based on a real figure straight out of colonial history–there are many issues of racism that come attached with her that could not go without addressing. I thought too about the character of Miss Saigon but again I think there are political issues there too that I’m not sure how to deal with. I am adding text to these images that will describe these women’s lives as I have aged them–I could address racial issues there. But how? Who else can I use? How do I address why I am having trouble coming up with iconic characters of colour or the overwhelming whiteness of my project? How can I make the issues of gender, age and race/ism intersect in this project? Can you recommend to me some resources I can look into? Recommend some iconic characters even that I am just being blind to?

I’m sorry if I am coming across as ignorant but I really feel like I need to address this in my project, especially since it is about the visibility and iconography of (Western) women. I’m just not quite sure how to go about it.

Thank you for your time;

Maureen.