June 6, 2023

Donald Glover’s Swarm Is Another Piece of Fandom Media That Dehumanizes Black Women


Even though Swarm is an incredibly well shot, beautifully acted television show, its decision to center the narrative on a frenzied Black woman fan feels both unrealistic and unfair. It feels as though the character is being assigned this history and behavior set that doesn’t mesh with what Black women’s fandom, even stan fandom, looks like. It doesn’t help that despite the Black women working on the show at every angle, Donald Glover’s misogynoir shines through. 

In a recent Vulture interview, Glover said that he told Fishback not to find the humanity in her character and to, “Think of it more like an animal and less like a person.” If that’s how you’re thinking of your Black female character and how you urge her performer to act, that explains the shape of the series. In the same piece, co-creator Janine Nabers compares Dre to Scarlett Johansson’s alien character in Under the Skin. For both, Dre’s humanity isn’t the point, and they don’t see it as present. They want the watching audience to do the work of humanizing Dre, not the actors. The only problem? That’s not how fandom reacts to Black female characters. That’s not how a lot of people react to Black women period.

As I watch and rewatch the show, I keep thinking about the “whys” behind it. Why fandom? Why Black women? Why Dre? Why the endless Beyoncé references? I know that part of the goal is to show Black women as something they’ve never been shown as before in pop culture — as gratuitous, gory, violent killers. Some of Nabers’s commentary about the show makes it clear that she thinks that Dre is supposed to be empowering in some way, describing Dre (“the character I wanted to write for a long time”) to Vulture as “so profoundly settled in her ideology, gives zero f*cks, and is going to get the job done.” 

In this same Vulture interview, Nabers insists that despite Dre’s actions, “this is a love letter to Black women.” I don’t understand how. Swarm doesn’t validate Dre’s rage or effectively delve into her trauma to make her scary but sympathetic. It doesn’t give Black women an “unhinged” character that’s validated or justified by the narrative the way unhinged white characters often are. On top of that, it turns a tight, biased lens on a fictionalized version of Beyoncé’s fanbase, one that we know is heavily populated by Black women and other marginalized Black people.

A lot of the pushback against criticism of Swarm centers around the fact that the show has Black women behind and in front of the camera. Nabers even says it herself in the Vulture interview when journalist Sam Sanders brings up how an immediate response to Swarm will be “Donald Glover hates Black women.” In response, Nabers says “it’s silly to say that” because Glover hired her, he hired and cast other Black women, and this is a show about Black women. Except… that doesn’t mean the misogynoir has left the building. Misogynists work with women all the time. Donald Glover, who has a pretty public history of being very weird about Black women, works with Black women. That doesn’t mean that he likes, understands, or respects them, and hiring a few isn’t actually enough to undo or distract from the way Dre is portrayed in this show or how Glover has talked about her.

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