Betty and Veronica. Blair and Serena. Rachel and Monica. Gigi and Bella (sub. Kendall). Self-Titled Britney and Blackout Britney.
The list goes on.
Whether fictional characters, real life collaborators, or a single person looking for strategies to cope in crisis, the duality of identity prescribed to the blonde/brunette duo is deeply ingrained in our cultural imagination. Where other paired dynamics, like identical twins or doppelgangers, often connote the uncanny, blonde/brunette besties project an image of completeness now portrayed as complementary, if often competitive, an echo of their earlier treatment as rivals for male attention (see Betty and Veronica in the original Archie Comics). Modern white feminism recognizes this inherent sexism, so in Riverdale, the two are teamed up as an unstoppable pair: a type of yin-yang symbology inscribed through hair color, then treated as a character trait.
Whether besties or adversaries, like most American cultural tropes, this imagery and its surrounding significations remain deeply entrenched in the 18th and 19th centuries. That is, prior to white girlhood (posing as universal girlhood) being narrated through dualistic images of blondes and brunettes, it was narrated between whiteness and Blackness, with the express purpose of socializing white children into the power dynamics of a slave-owning society.
Since the ‘90s, a smattering of white/Black Final Girl Duos have appeared, which reinscribe what scholar Brigitte Fielder calls “the racial-pairing paradigm,” established in the 19th century. Since the Final Girl is a trope which narrates survival, it’s ultimately also a trope which narrates power.
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, The Perfection, and Tragedy Girls all represent examples of what Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman would consider “Blacks in horror” films as opposed to “Black horror,” distinguished by their white writers and directors. These films’ uses of trope, their similarities, and departures, demonstrate the continued use of Black femininity to tell stories still centered around white femininity—narrative impulses which impact real life interracial interpersonal dynamics.
ii. Topsy, Little Eva, and the Racial-Pairing Paradigm
Despite its grounding as an abolitionist text, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—the best-selling novel of the 19th century—was also written by a white woman, and so only describes Black life through a white gaze. The book is riddled with harmful stereotypes and reductive tropes which continue to permeate and inform not just our media, but white ways of viewing and interacting with Black people in general.
As historian Stephanie Jones-Rogers describes in her book, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, slave-ownership was an instructed identity into which white girl-children were thoroughly socialized and thrilled to claim for the many benefits it provided, including wealth, independence, and, in a word, power. Indeed, she opens the chapter with an anecdote about how one day, 3-year-old Lizzie Anna Burwell of Lynesville, North Carolina grew “vexed” with Fanny, the enslaved woman charged with her care, and commanded her father “cut Fanny’s ears off.” She was, as Jones-Rogers puts it, simply “learning how to be a slaveowner.”
A significant feature of white revisionism is the idea that the relationships between slaveowners and their slaves were mostly benevolent family dynamics, and the extraordinary violence, exceptional. As Jones-Rogers reminds us with the above anecdote:
No matter how affectionate relations between white girls and enslaved people might have been, these young slave owners frequently articulated and exercised their power over their enslaved companions as mistresses in the making.
The particular narrative thread regarding the relationship between the angelic Eva St. Clare and “wicked” slave-girl, Topsy, is among the earliest examples of what Paula Connolly labels “racial-pairing texts,” part of “the racial-pairing paradigm” described by Brigitte Fielder in her essay “Black Girls, White Girls, American Girls: Slavery and Racialized Perspectives in Abolitionist and Neoabolitionist Children’s Literature.” Though the dynamic is actually featured as a triangulation between Eva, Topsy, and Eva’s relative, Ophelia, for whom Topsy is originally purchased, the culture latched onto the narration of Eva taming (read: saving) the unruly, misbehaved Topsy, who Fielder describes as:
A caricature of Black girlhood that is informed by racist depictions of Black women and contributes to racist assumptions about African American children…The pairing of Eva and Topsy is no coincidence but reveals the common trope of constructing childhood as white.
Their juxtaposition allows Stowe to employ what was, even then, an age-old method of rendering whiteness as not merely privileged, but adjacent to the divine. Little Eva (her name, Evangeline, a derivation of Eve which also manages to incorporate the root “angel”) appears as the childhood embodiment of all those “attributes of True Womanhood” described by Barbara Welter—piety, purity, submissiveness, domesticity—armed with which, white women were “promised happiness and power.” In order for such transcendence to shine, it had to exist against something oppositional. Enter Topsy, described as “wicked,” “goblin-like,” and “heathenish.”
However, as Fielder considers, one “wonders at the nature of the relationship between a slaveholder and her ‘slave-friend.’” She refers to this dynamic as “Interracial Non-Friendship” or “stewardship” since “slavery thwarts ‘mutual trust and intimacy’” by the very fact that “in this world…there are no reciprocal interracial exchanges.” That is, Eva is granted the unmitigated power to criticize, instruct, and, if she so chose, punish Topsy, but Topsy does not have the capacity to do the same. The text accepts Eva’s evaluations as implicitly correct, and Topsy’s as implicitly amoral, and therefore illustrates Fielder’s point that such “racial-pairing stories do not work primarily to generate white sympathy for Black characters,” but in fact reveal how “literary models of interracial sympathy tend to universalize and prioritize whiteness and white life experience as normative positions of readerly identification.” The purpose of these texts was never to model a vision of authentic interracial friendship or exchange, but a profoundly paternalistic one, designed to instill and propagate the values of a white supremacist society.
Fielder recognizes “the device of interracial friendship” in such storytelling, which explicitly does not honor their racial difference, but rather wields it as a tool to narrate an aspirational vision of white girlhood.
Topsy’s sole function is to act as Eva’s juxtaposition and monstrous Other; the thing she must either dominate, or tame in order for her superiority to be inscribed in action. It is then further inscribed through Topsy’s positive reaction. In having Eva’s condition deteriorate as Topsy supposedly improves, “Stowe directs pity away from Topsy…as Eva becomes the focus of both Topsy’s and reader’s sympathy…Topsy cares for Eva more than she worries for herself.” In other words, Eva becomes a martyr and Topsy is emptied of independent selfhood, swapped for a perverse devotion. As Fielder puts it, “Eva and Topsy illustrate the limitations of interracial friendships that prioritize white feelings over Black suffering.”
In the text, Topsy no longer appears following Eva’s death. You could say her storyline had run its course or: she no longer serves a purpose. Her function within the text reflects the function Black girls and women serve in the white imagination—one of implicit and unceasing utility.
Following the novel’s enormous success, the characters became the subjects of hundreds of thousands of minstrel shows performed all over the country. Topsy-turvy dolls went from handmade to manufactured. And though the novel’s popularity would wane in the 20th century, a silent film, Topsy and Eva, would hit the silver screen in 1927, co-directed by none other than D.W. Griffith, director and producer of 1915’s The Birth of a Nation.
The film was a failure for a number of reasons. For one, it was based on the vaudeville act performed by the Duncan Sisters, Rosetta and Vivian (Rosetta playing Topsy in blackface) which did not translate to cinema. Second, the sisters took liberties with Stowe’s material. In their version, much of the violence is scrubbed, and Eva does not die, but is instead saved by Topsy in a reversal of the novel’s plot. According to John Sullivan’s compiled history, he identifies how this evolution of the story was “designed for metropolitan audiences,” and became “the origin story for those who had neither read the novel nor were aware of its aims.”
Despite its box office failure, their performances continued to find an audience into the 1940s, and reflected an evolution of the racial-pairing paradigm for a different generation who didn’t want to see Topsy brutalized or Eva martyred but did long to nestle in the familiar comfort of a world where, side-by-side, they present a complete, aspirational image of femininity in a supremacist society. This revision demonstrates the elasticity of these racial-pairing texts, but also the many ways they remain bound up in dominant social paradigms. That is, even in this revised rendition, Topsy can still only be imagined in enthusiastic service of her white counterpart.
This same gesture is visible in most caricatures of Black femininity, notably Mammies and Magical Negroes. It is, in fact, out of a refusal to perform these roles that we’re transformed into their antagonistic counterparts (in media and in life), identified at different stages respectively in Topsy, Jezebel, and Sapphire, otherwise known as the Angry Black Woman. These are the dualities which narrate Black femininity as conceived by the white imagination—an entire world away from how Black women tell stories about ourselves.
Film undergoes a radical expansion in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and by century’s end language is developed for these stereotypes in their most overt forms—which is not to say they disappeared. These tropes are still relentlessly deployed, even after undergoing several renovations. The evolution of Topsy’s role is evidenced in the Black Best Friend or Sassy Black Sidekick, which contemporary horror has both built upon and queered in its depictions of white/Black Final Girl Duos. Nevertheless—not that much has changed.
iii. “Stewardship” and the Black Best Friend: I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is a solid sequel, all because of Karla—Julie James’ (Jennifer Love Hewitt) roommate and bestie—played by Brandy, Black Cinderella herself. Brandy imbues life into a character and role which could have easily fallen flat based solely on the writing, landing her in the class of Dionne (Stacey Dash, Clueless) and Rochelle (Rachel True, The Craft): the pinnacle of how good a Black Best Friend character can be, while still just being…the Black Best Friend.
Karla’s characterization is developed almost entirely around her support of Julie. She’s not a slave or a servant but she is preoccupied with Julie’s interests and overall well-being. There’s a layer of mischief in her attempts to persuade Julie to move on from her trauma by getting a new boyfriend (who, of course, winds up being in cahoots with the killer). Karla’s wit and adventurous spirit contrasts with Julie’s fragile timidness, which is stripped away as she faces off with and ultimately survives being hunted—again. Though covert, Karla’s role is situated around her utility to Julie, a spin on the dynamic of “stewardship” described by Fielder and demonstrated in the Duncan Sisters’ adaptation, where Topsy is redeemed by rescuing Eva.
One thing that sets ISKWYDLS apart from its contemporaries (like Scream 2) is that Karla lives to see morning. Though Black Horror had been established for decades, it was still rare to see Black survival within white productions, which typically approach their Black characters as disposable. While we expect Julie to survive because she’s the franchise’s established Final Girl, it’s a pleasant surprise when Karla—presumed dead—comes stumbling out of the hotel just as Julie and Ray (Freddie Prince Jr.) finish facing off with the killers. Whether or not the character constitutes a “true” Final Girl is contestable based on how one defines the trope. Regardless, she lives—even if her living is at Julie’s behest.
iv. “No Interracial Reciprocal Exchange:” The Perfection
The Perfection, a 2018 revenge thriller I wrote more about here, takes much of its influence from the work of director Park Chan-wook, but for its “color-blind” casting and treatment, it fails at every opportunity to subvert the roles established by racial-pairing paradigms.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to spoil and unravel some of the film’s twists in order to respond to its actual events, rather than its tricks of perception supported by a nonlinear narrative structure. Charlotte (Allison Williams) is a former cello prodigy of the prestigious Bachoff Institute, whose career comes to a halt when her mother becomes terminally ill. What the audience doesn’t yet know about is the punitive rape practiced by the heads of school, led by mentor Anton (Steven Weber). Immediately after she departs, another young student, Lizzie (Logan Browning), arrives, and Charlotte spends the following years haunted by what she knows Lizzie is enduring. Fueled by obsession and following her mother’s death, she carries out a plan to “save” Lizzie.
This plan begins with their being introduced; a dynamic charged from the start—competitive, admiring, sexual—tapping into an unexplored element of the racial-pairing paradigm. Following their less-than-forthright sex, Charlotte drugs Lizzie, inducing violent illness and hallucinatory psychosis. She intentionally gaslights her and encourages her to literally dismember herself so as to ensure she’d no longer be of value to the Institute (remember little Lizzie Anna?), and then leaves her bleeding on the side of the road in rural China. Her plan succeeds, and after being cruelly discarded, Lizzie returns to Charlotte so the two can devise a new plan to take vengeance on Bachoff, and Anton in particular.
It’s not the film’s violence that’s the issue so much as how the violence is simultaneously informed by, transformed by, and built upon this long-established paradigm. Though Lizzie is at the center of this film, her character is never given a chance to actually develop, or even really have a perspective of her own. Instead, she spends the entire film being pulled between Charlotte, Anton, and their individual agendas, each bound up in sex, power, and violence.
During the final showdown, Charlotte is severely wounded and incapacitated, forcing Lizzie to deal Anton the final blow. It’s clear this is meant to narrate her empowerment, but has the effect of creating a false equivalency between the violence each character commits. Charlotte is never really held to account for what she did to Lizzie, accepted in the film’s treatment as a wholly benevolent act of love. In this, she displays a paternalistic “stewardship,” as Fielder describes, while also demonstrating how within such “interracial non-friendship,” there is no possibility for “interracial reciprocal exchange.” What happens to this film when we consider a reversal of casting, with Browning playing Charlotte and Williams playing Lizzie?
For one, a certain amount of believability gets lost. Charlotte’s behavior is the result of an entitlement and confidence born of whiteness and its associated privileges. Such a pairing would likely see white audiences respond to her not as an avenging angel, but a villain equivalent to Anton—which is the truth about this character, lost in the conditioned propensity to view white women as inherently innocent.
Once more, Charlotte and Lizzie’s interraciality—no matter how queer—supports a racial-pairing paradigm of Black utility staged, ultimately, to uplift and support white Subjecthood.
v. Modern Monster: Tragedy Girls
Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp)—otherwise known as the Tragedy Girls—are absolutely savage. In a compelling subversion of the slasher subgenre, these two are both killers and Final Girls. The film opens with them trapping a different murderer for the express purpose of persuading him to be their mentor. Surprised and disappointed at his refusal, they keep him as a pet.
In many ways, this film is profoundly refreshing; it’s cathartic to watch two girls be so equally unflinching in both viciousness and devotion to one another. Let it be clear: there are no distressed damsels in Tragedy Girls—which is not to say a racial-pairing narrative isn’t being put forth. Even here, where it seems as though the pair regularly break down both human and animal bodies, audience sympathy is directed toward Sadie, whose moral quandary propels the film’s central conflict, and thus represents its emotional core. McKayla has no such qualms.
Class remains significant, even as reversed from earlier racial-pairing narratives. Here, Sadie lives in a trailer park with her dad, who she looks after, whereas McKayla resides in a large house with a pool and two present Black parents (its own subversion). The effect is to make McKayla seem more narcissistic and sociopathic, generating compassion for Sadie.
Each of them prove early in the film that boys are disposable to them, but it’s precisely their relationships with men that threaten their friendship: McKayla, with Lowell, the serial killer, and Sadie with Jordan (Jack Quaid), the son of the local sheriff and video editor for their Tragedy Girls website. Plus their pathological need for online and media attention.
When Lowell escapes and tries to kill both Sadie and Jordan, she manages to fight Lowell off and save Jordan’s life, which propels her to local stardom, independent of McKayla. The rift between them widens when Sadie and Jordan start dating, despite his suspicions that McKayla is the killer. McKayla becomes increasingly envious and unhinged. While Sadie and Jordan are voted Prom Queen and King, McKayla brings Lowell as her “date,” with a plan to corner Sadie, now faced with a choice between Jordan (“good”) and McKayla (“bad”).
It’s the treatment of Blackness as a corrupting amorality that echoes Topsy, even as Tragedy Girls is far from your average morality tale, which is not to say it’s without its own logic. Sadie doesn’t choose Jordan as her Prince Charming—she chooses McKayla.
Though I wouldn’t quite call it an “antiracist interracial alliance” (to use Fielder’s phrasing) for the story’s orientation around Sadie, in its own way, it approaches that point when Sadie opts to stay true to both her pal and herself. But even as the film ends with the two driving off into the sunset, having gotten away with…a lot of murder, it doesn’t change the fact that the narrative orientation continues to prescribe inherent goodness to white girlhood, none of which is ascribed to Black girlhood. Once more, the story is ultimately a narration of whiteness, and I’m left to wonder what this film would look like if their casting was reversed.
vi. Who is Topsy Now? (or Black Horror is a Narration of Survival)
Fielder posits the social significance of these stories lies in how they unveil the ways white and Black characters’ (and individuals’) “racialized responses to racism…[reveal] the limitations and potential of these texts as models for promoting not only interracial friendship but also antiracist interracial alliances.” That is, a white person cannot claim allyship, antiracism, or friendship and continuously center themselves in how they relate to Black folks, or anyone of any marginalized identity. Acknowledging these nuances functions in rebuttal of the “prominent and persistent strand of racism [which] denies slavery’s efficacy for generations who have not experienced enslavement themselves.”
The relationships demonstrated in these texts and the manner in which they’ve evolved over time make up a cycle that narrates, informs, and reflects interracial interpersonal dynamics as they occur in real life. The spaces between imagination, sight, and possibility are notoriously swampy, and Fielder examines the dynamic between Topsy and Eva for its ongoing cultural impact, but also in recognition that, like slave-ownership, racism and anti-Blackness require teaching; a learning which occurs, most essentially, through storytelling.
The radicalism of Black Horror is in its capacity to subvert these paradigms. In episode 8 of Lovecraft Country, “Jig-A-Bobo,” Topsy (accompanied by a twin, Bopsy) appears as a literal monster conjured from the racist white imagination. Dee (Jada Harris) spends the entire episode running from the pair, but actually, she’s running from the monster whiteness is hungry to see her become. Here, Topsy is evoked to narrate actual experiences of Black girlhood—with not a white girl anywhere in sight.