Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Walking Dead’s New Power Couple: ‘Richonne’ and Fandom Racism

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[spoilers for 6×9-12 of The Walking Dead, and obviously tw for discussions of racism]

Let me begin by saying yes, I definitely ship Richonne. I originally shipped Michonne with Andrea, but, well, we all know where that went. Since then it’s been Richonne, Richonne, Richonne. They’re honestly the only couple on The Walking Dead I really ship. It drove me nuts that they did the Rick/Jessie thing when Rick and Michonne have so much chemistry!

Caveat number 2: in case you haven’t seen my little author portrait down at the bottom, I’m white. Yup. So very very white. Because of that, maybe it isn’t my place to be writing about this topic at all. I obviously don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman, and I don’t face the same struggles Black women face every day. I’m not trying to usurp their experiences or speak for them. I just wanted to write about something I’ve been seeing the last few weeks that bugs the crap outta me.

Now, having said all that, let’s discuss the elephant in the room: fandom’s reaction to Richonne becoming canon. Tumblr user sleepynegress breaks down some of the most common “objections” to the relationship in her fantastic post, “Anti-Richonne Phrases Translated.”

One that I’ve seen most often is that Michonne is a Strong Woman who doesn’t Need a Man. It’s funny how that is so often applied to interracial couples: Richonne, Ichabbie (Sleepy Hollow), Finn/Rey (Star Wars, flipping the dynamic a bit). Tumblr user diversehighfantasy breaks down why this trope is so harmful to Black women in particular here.

That’s a fantastic post, and I suggest you read it, but in case you haven’t, let me quote a bit:

Take the Strong Woman who isn’t there to be loved. White women love this trope, because white women in media are so often primarily seen as love interests. […] But – and this is important – the Strong Woman trope, applied to a Black woman, reads entirely differently, and to ignore that ignores intersectionality altogether.

Do you see the point she’s making? Jessie existed essentially to be Rick’s love interest for the short time she was there. It was frustrating to see yet another female character boiled down to something so banal, but that’s what it was. Michonne, on the other hand, has never been “that” character. She was never put on the show (or in the comics) to be anyone’s love interest. Black women rarely, if ever, are, especially when talking about a potential interracial relationship.

Diversehighfantasy goes on to write:

Abbie Mills is a tough, independent badass – but Katrina embodied “womanhood,” precious and pure. Michonne is a tough, independent badass – but Jessie embodies “womanhood.” And on and on.

It has been said so many times, but it hardly ever seems to sink in: It is progressive and feminist for Black women to be the precious ones, the love interests, the damsels who need saving.

Michonne’s narrative thus far has shown her physically as the tough, independent badass, but emotionally as the “damsel who needs saving.” She starts off cold, suspicious, and angry. She doesn’t trust Rick or his group, and she refuses to get close to anyone after Andrea’s death.

Slowly over the seasons we’ve watched her warm up. We’ve learned about her backstory, losing her child and her family, and we’ve seen her become a sort of “Mama Michonne” to Carl and Judith. At first she refuses to even hold the baby, but after Beth forces her to (4×2), we see her moved to tears, most likely by memories of her own baby.

It’s a wonderful soft moment that shows there’s so much more to Michonne than “tough, independent badass,” and as she grows closer to Rick, Judith, and Carl, it’s obvious that the mutual admiration and respect between Rick and Michonne is growing into something more.

If you follow my TWD reviews on here, you’ll know in the one I wrote for 6×12 I criticized the “Team Mom” trope being applied to Carol. I stand by that, because when we see a white woman acting like the mom, it makes you roll your eyes. “AGAIN??” The white woman (especially the 40+-year-old) is once again reduced to the mom; all her power comes from her uterus. Great.

But to see a Black woman, especially a character like Michonne, to show her softer side is something special. To see a Black woman in a position of vulnerability, to see her as a caretaker who isn’t a Mammy type, to see the characters relate to her in a variety of ways, is important.

Look, okay, I’m fine if you don’t ship Richonne. It’s okay. But, if you don’t, examine your reasons why. There’s serious chemistry between the two actors and the two characters. Both of them have been through story arcs that sent them to hell and back. Carl, for one, considers Michonne part of their family.

If your argument is “they’re better as friends!” again I have to ask why? We’re all sick of seeing the token female character being used as a love interest, but as the post above points out, that’s not how Black female characters are ever used. Rick has plenty of female friends: Maggie, Carol, Dr. Denise, Tara. But since Lori died he hasn’t had a real romantic relationship. Jessie, I’m afraid, doesn’t count. There was nothing there. It was “port in the storm” stuff to get him from Lori to Michonne, that’s it.

The perception that a woman can’t hold a baby and cry and chop walkers in half with a katana is just plain wrong. It doesn’t weaken Michonne in any way to love Rick, or for Rick to love her. It doesn’t weaken her to take care of Judith or Carl or anyone else in Alexandria. It makes her a better character. It makes her the type of Black female character we aren’t used to seeing! She has a soft side and a tough, ass-kicking side, and isn’t that the type of well-rounded female character feminist fandom is always begging for?

It’s also interesting that fandom seems perfectly okay with “homemaker mom” Carol combined with “ass-kicking tough chick” Carol, and don’t say that making cookies and looking after the baby weakens her. Caryl (Daryl/Carol) is a popular ship in TWD fandom, and while I’m sure there are people who prefer to see them as friends, I’ve never really seen anyone say “She’s a strong independent woman who doesn’t need a man!” Or “Why can’t we just have a platonic relationship between a man and a woman on TV?” (To clarify: my problem isn’t with homemaker mom + ass-kicking tough chick; my problem is with that stupid all-powerful mom trope; she’s only an ass-kicker because she’s a mom.)

Let’s boil these double standards down to what they really are: fandom is okay with seeing two white people hook up, but when it’s an interracial couple suddenly it’s “forced” or “awkward” or “they’re better as friends.”

I love the Richonne friendship, but it hasn’t gone away just because they sleep together now. Michonne saved Rick’s ass in 6×11. She’s still swinging her katana, as badass as ever. She is a Strong Woman and also a vulnerable one. Because that’s what human beings are! Her vulnerabilities make her an amazing character, and the new relationship with Rick just adds to it.

Stop using feminism as a prop for racism. Stop using “female empowerment” as a smokescreen because 1, you aren’t taking the experience of Black women vs. white women into account and 2, you’d rather see two white dudes hook up than a Black woman and a white man. Take a moment to question all of your assumptions about Richonne, Ichabbie, and others.

Ship what you want to ship, but be sure to ask yourself why.

Further resources on this topic, if you’re interested:

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