Feminism, At What Expense?

On white feminism and racist tropes:

My family loves a good mystery show. All four of us are constantly on the lookout for a solid murder mystery to binge-watch on weekend evenings – so when we discovered Miss Scarlet and the Duke on Amazon Prime this evening, we were thrilled. The titular lady is the daughter of a private detective in Victorian London, with aspirations to become an investigator in her own right despite the raging misogyny surrounding her.

I loved the introduction. I enjoyed watching Eliza Scarlet display her deductive reasoning skills and knowledge of chemistry. Finally, I thought, the perfect show for me.

And then Moses appeared onscreen. Moses, a Black man, runs a seedy establishment which Miss Scarlet visits in order to track down a wealthy man’s missing niece.

Image Description: Moses confronting Miss Scarlet.

Moses’ introduction consists of him screaming profanities at a group of white female sex workers. When Miss Scarlet requests information on the missing woman from him, he curses at her, steals her purse, and makes lewd comments regarding her physique. In a moment which the show clearly frames as a demonstration of Miss Scarlet’s cleverness, she flirts with him, manages to chain him to the furniture, and threatens to burn him alive unless he gives her the information she desires.

When I saw that image onscreen – a well-heeled white woman handcuffing a Black man – my first thought was about the historical setting. This show takes place in the 1850s. Slavery – in its legal chattel form, at least – had perished within the British Empire. Racism ran rampant, but Black Britons still lived colourful, diverse lives. Take James Africanus Beale Horton, born in 1835. In 1858, around the time of Miss Scarlet, Mr Horton became Dr Horton, a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Image Description: Dr James Africanus Beale Horton. Source here.

Black Britons in the 19th century were cooks, boxers, authors, and more. The writers of Miss Scarlet and the Duke had a myriad of options available when it came to writing a historically accurate Black character in mid-19th-century London. And yet, they went with a stereotype: an abusive, frightening, easily-outwitted criminal to contrast with the glowing, brilliant, headstrong, feminist, white main character.

I have encountered this trope, of Black men being pitted as white women’s obstacles, many times during my historical readings. The racism of early suffragettes is well-known – but perhaps more obscure is the fact that the second Ku Klux Klan was actually spearheaded by a woman. In The Second Coming of the KKK, Linda Gordon writes of William Simmons’ ineptitude at recruiting and organising the hate group he created. The evil mastermind behind the Klan’s success was Mary Elizabeth Tyler, a publicist who fed on racism in order to make herself rich. Tyler expanded membership to an enormous extent, playing off the tropes which inspired Simmons to restart the KKK after watching The Birth of a Nation: scary Black men rampaging around and threatening the safety of “genteel” white women. In pursuing economic independence for herself, Tyler performed a sort of crude feminism, and yet, as shown by the genocidal anti-Black views she disseminated, it was a blindingly white feminism. A feminism built atop demeaning and harming Black people.

I haven’t seen the rest of the show. From what I know, Moses becomes a recurring character, perhaps even a friend of Miss Scarlet’s. I just hope his character develops past the Birth of a Nation level stereotype he embodies within the first thirty minutes. After all, it’s been a hundred years since the reign of Tyler – and I’d rather not see her onscreen as a heroine.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.