The masculinisation and inferiorization of women of colour in relationships

Sophia Barretto unveils the complex dynamics of gender roles and racial identity in diverse relationships

Is there something in the chemical structure of “Your Best American Girl” that makes women of colour genetically predisposed to projectile sobbing following a post-night out listen? What is it that is so viscerally powerful about the song? 

It’s the idea of the “Best American Girl”, and the fact that we can never be her. 

When describing the white beauty standard, Frantz Fanon writes: “I am white: that is to say that I possess beauty and virtue, which have never been black. I am the colour of the daylight.” Mitski once said “I’m not the moon, I’m not even a star” and the collective hearts of women of colour broke into a billion fragments, now just motes of dust blowing in the wind. Quite literally, women who are not white are “not the moon”, “not even a star”, and something that is othered from the conventional idea of what is beautiful. In the case that we are considered alluring, it is still distinct from the way in which a white woman is observed as beautiful. We are exotic, something exciting and novel, enough to be desired and coveted – but never loved. 

It is difficult not to succumb to melancholy when your supposed subservience and inferiority are all that is fed to you. There is the subconscious knowledge that of course Jim Halpert won’t pick Karen Filippeli, when pretty, sweet Pam Beesley is right there. Wolverine only looked in Storm’s direction because Jean Grey wasn’t available to him. Knives Chau is going to have to be okay loving from afar when Ramona Flowers is “The Girl” for Scott Pilgrim. Poor, sweet Knives Chau, with so much love to give and nowhere to place it; how selfless, how sweet that she steps aside so Scott Pilgrim can get “The Girl”. Knives Chau is not “The Girl” – she’s an angel, but she’s no God. The story is not about her. This does not make these women “the other woman” – at least not in the sense that we expect. Despite the villainisation of these women in their respective narratives and the public culture, they are only “the other woman’’ in the sense that they are othered. Circling back to Fanon, he suggests: “A woman of colour is never altogether respectable in a white man’s eyes. Even when he loves her.” 

We can trace these ideas back to Edward Saïd, whose notions of Orientalism described the racialised “Other” as an imagined allegorical body. Thus the woman of colour does not possess their own autonomous body, but rather possesses a collective body that possesses the sole purpose of existing for somebody else. Under a white supremacist system, the woman of colour (WOC) is reduced to lesser than human. The idea that the WOC lover is simply a stepping-stone, plot development, or an exotic “Bond Girl” implies that the role of the WOC is merely an asset, or a supporting character to a white narrative. 

There is an inherent, almost physical aversion to seeing women of colour in feminine roles; when the original Hunger Games movie casting was announced, white fans cried out upon the news of Amandla Stenberg’s casting as “Rue”. A Twitter user wrote: “awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little innocent blonde girl you picture…”, because, apparently, women of colour cannot be innocent or sweet. The idea of a black girl is one that is animalistic and aggressive, in the same way that the idea of the Asian girl is one of seduction, or that the Latina girl is dominating and wild. These girls are seemingly not actual people – they do not possess the capacity for genuine love and connection – so the obvious conclusion is that these girls are merely placeholders until “the (white!) one” comes along. 

It is some feat to even begin to unravel the chicanery that is the comments section on TikTok that excludes black girls from traditionally feminine aesthetics like “cottagecore”or “coquette”, because “they don’t fit in within the narrative”. Let black girls wear pretty dresses and engage with “softness” and “feminine” activities without being politicised or accused of failing to become the model “strong black woman”! I am sick of patronising videos on the “dos and don’ts of elegance and class”, where the “do” examples show pretty, white women dressed in lace and tweed, and all of the “don’t” examples show women of colour dressed in the same outfit, implying that the body of an “other” inherently soils the integrity of elegance. How many girlhood or feminine rage edits have you seen that fail to include a woman of colour? If you’re incredibly lucky, there might be a clip of Jenna Ortega or Zendaya thrown in for good measure.

Questions of femininity and gender roles still also persist for queer women of colour, where girls of colour can’t just be girls. I have seen so many femme women of colour (and have also myself been) squeezed into the masculine role like a pair of suffocating skinny jeans. Of course, there are women of colour who don’t conform to, or identify with femininity – but butches deserve princess treatment too. What does it say about the role of WOC having to carry most of the weight of romantic and sexual labour? It is disparaging that escaping from the shackles of repressive frameworks is still not guaranteed in queer relationships (that are inherently outside the binary). Queer WOC will buy you flowers, open the door for you, and lend you their jackets: we are good girlfriends, and we like being good girlfriends – but we like flowers too. 

Women of colour are strong. We are tough, and we get things done because we have to. In a just world, we wouldn’t have to be any of these things – but where we can, we must try to embrace what we are, as we are. bell hooks has said that “the one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself. Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.” So while we must continue to “grab the world by the lapels” as Maya Angelou championed, we must also love as our authentic selves, and then be loved in return. I am proud of us for what we are, and what we have made of ourselves – but I propose that we can be just as we are, in all our femininity, our masculinity, our beauty, our ugliness, our strength, and especially, in all our messiness. 

It all circles back to Mitski: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, but I do, I finally do.” That is all we can “finally do’’, see ourselves for what we are: beautiful despite, and beautiful because.