The Superwoman Narrative is Socially Acceptable Oppression
Serena Williams is a superwoman. Simone Biles is a superwoman. We laud their abilities, their ability to play despite injuries. Their willingness to sacrifice and suffer through pain and illness and pregnancy. We look up to them and encourage Black women to be like them. Fight. Never give up. Pain is temporary; glory is forever.
We don’t talk about the sacrifice. We don’t talk about the fact that these super athletes are indoctrinated into an abusive culture before they are able to understand what that means. They spend their childhoods fighting to be perfect in the eyes of everyone, to be everyone’s hero.
We don’t talk about how their pain is minimized – how the pain of Black people is dismissed. We don’t talk about how often we are required to work while sick or injured because we cannot afford not to work. We don’t talk about how our need for rest and time are under attack because we’re worried about appearing lazy. We don’t talk about how we’re punished for acknowledging and caring for our bodies and attending to our human needs. We don’t talk about the ways we are denied our humanity.
The superwoman narrative is bullshit and harmful for Black women, non-men, and LGBTQIA+ people. Yet this narrative maintains a lauded place in our culture and informs many of the racist tropes and attitudes we find ourselves combating to assert our humanity and live our lives.
It’s a very layered conversation, one that reveals the rampant misogynoir in amerikkkan culture. I grew up listening to my father glorify his ability to work despite chronic pain from an untreated childhood injury that was only untreated due to racism-engineered poverty. I lived in a home where my mother’s chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia were characterized as laziness and self-indulgence. Any time any of us were sick, we were questioned and often still had to attend school – anything less than a life-threatening illness was acceptable. I was taught not to complain or reveal to anyone when I was in pain, and on the rare occasions I did, I wasn’t believed. I didn’t know that fillings weren’t painful until my late 20s because my childhood dentist consistently under-medicated me and conditioned me to believe it was “normal.” I have a complicated relationship with pain, one where I can never let them see me hurt but where I have to express enough pain to receive treatment. I was almost sent home in a splint with a broken leg because the doctor didn’t think I was in enough pain to warrant tests or additional care. My mother is the reason I received the care I needed and was informed that if I had been sent home that night, the injury would have been permanent.
Teaching ourselves to endure pain is a symptom of the inhumane ways Black people, Black women, and Black non-men are treated. We are taught from birth that our pain is no reason not to perform and we push ourselves past reasonable limits because otherwise we are not useful in amerikkkan culture. We are conditioned to shrink our pain to minimize the space we occupy, to reduce the inconvenience of our existence. We make ourselves small and jeopardize not just our quality of life but our actual lives. And we do it because we’re punished when we fight back and die anyway.
Women’s pain is consistently minimized, undermined, and dismissed. There are multiple accounts of the ways women’s pain was reduced to laziness and hysteria. Because patriarchy deems men superior in all ways, women’s human “frailties” are treated as an innate weakness. We can’t be tired. We can’t be in pain. Shit still gotta get done and if we don’t do it, we’re weak. Then again, if we show we’re stronger than any man, we’re too masculine, so to compensate our accomplishments are trivialized to save men’s egos. Unless you’re a Black woman. According to white patriarchy, Black women are extremely strong and sturdy, making us ideal for physical labor and deserving of the same if not more abuse than Black men. Because somebody gotta be abused, right? At least, that’s what imperialism and colonials tells us.
We see the superwoman narrative in all the roles women are expected to conform to in society – mother, wife, caretaker, matriarch and Black suffering is a characteristic constantly promoted and exploited to deny our needs. Our roles as helpmates and ride or die partners are iconic. Our creativity and originality stolen. Our strength, determination, and ambition for a better life are characterized as products for mass consumption. Our joy and pain used as marketing and humor. Our labor used as tools for every group with more power and voice than we have. Our contributions hidden, our images shelved behind photos of those deemed more acceptable and relatable. We routinely have our work and agency rewritten and re-characterized for whatever oppressed group that lays claim to us and our accounts of these thefts are ignored or unbelieved.
And let a Black woman respond to this constant marginalization with any emotion and suddenly we are monstrous, combative, uncooperative, divisive, angry, confrontational, bullies…all because we said “that’s my work.” And regardless of what we say and how we say it, we are pushed aside until we can be blamed for some movement being unsuccessful.
Black women and non-men are consistently denied space yet expected to support those who give zero fucks about our well-being and our voices. And it’s killing us. Always. And the moment we aren’t willing to die for someone else’s cause, we’re the enemy, despite the lack of support we receive from the individual level to the structural level. We are the force of change that is rendered invisible as soon as the tiniest movement forward is made…until a group less marginalized that we are attains some nugget of power. Because once they have the slightest bit more power than another group, they hold that shit and hoard it and destroy any threats to it with great violence.
As stated by the creators of the podcast Tea with Queen and J., everybody just wanna get enough power to act like white men. I’ve seen it happen too often and the results are always the same: those with power oppressing those with less power until those with no power are rendered perpetual victims.
We are a fucked up culture and I am no better. I have recounted the times I’ve endured pain unnecessarily with pride. To this day, I often refuse pain medication and endure whatever pain I’m experiencing because I think it’s a superior way to live. I function while exhausted, push myself to perform when I’m sick. I struggle to take time for myself, to make time for my self-care. Instead, I power through everything until I am on the verge of collapse. I ignore symptoms of stress and overwork because I am 95% sure that if I stop, I’ll lose everything. It’s a struggle. It’s one of my many struggles.
And that struggle is why I push back on these superwoman narratives.
Every time we applaud someone for competing while ill, for ignoring symptoms and getting shit done anyway, we normalize the abuse of overwork and lack of care. We advocate for equating our self-worth with our labor and accomplishments and we devalue the humanity of those we’re congratulating. We send a shitty message that encourages us to be the fuel for others and to place our self-worth a distant second or third to our results.
When the struggle is survival, that’s a different conversation- a bigger conversation because we shouldn’t have to make life or death decisions constantly, yet that is the norm. Is it worth the lost pay to get this pain checked out? Is my illness potentially fatal? Am I sick enough to warrant a doctor’s bill?
And even when it’s not life or death, is it worth the risk of further injuring yourself by competing with an injury or should you give your body the rest it needs to heal? And for many Black people, specifically women and LGBTQIA+, the answer is yes because we don’t get many chances, so we do everything not to jeopardize the few we may receive. And that is one of the many shitty legacies of white patriarchal capitalism.
We are not superwomen. We are human beings who need care, support, love, community, the space to be vulnerable, room to fail, and the freedom to care for our minds and bodies as much as anyone else. The superwoman narrative only serves to deny us our humanity and to paint us as selfish and inconvenient when we prioritize our own needs and our own care. It’s an oppressive depiction of Blackness and it needs to be challenged consistently because our humanity is not up for consumption or debate.
And yet people disagree with me about this, namely people who benefit from it. Go figure…