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"My Own Nubian Princess." Blackness, Exotification, and Dehumanization in the House of Night

by Rachael Arsenault 2 months ago in book review

Diversity isn't always a good thing.

Photo by Vinicius de Paula on Unsplash

The House of Night series follows Zoey Redbird and her friends through their time at the titular school as they go through the process of Changing from fledglings to vampyres (the chosen spelling of the series) and confront dark forces within their own school. The series features a diverse cast of characters, particularly among the protagonist and her closest friends. Zoey is Cherokee, Damien and Jack are gay, Shaunee and Kramisha are black, etc. However, “diversity” is not synonymous with “quality”, nor is it automatically positive.

We’ve already seen this in some areas of the text. In a previous essay, “I don’t really think he counts as a guy.” Queerness in the House of Night Series, I examine how the series’ portrays its queer characters and all the harmful stereotypes and problematic content that entails. Even the way women are portrayed is rife with issues, especially with regards to sex shaming and internalized misogyny. This is something I explain in another, two-part essay: Part honey, part whore: Sex Shaming and Internalized Misogyny in the House of Night, and She chose vengeance and anger: Sex Shaming and Internalized Misogyny in the House of Night [Part 2].

Unfortunately, the way the series handles race isn’t any better.

Knowing that “race” is a broad and unhelpful term, however, I’m going to do my best to be more specific through the rest of this essay. First, I should specify that, within the scope of this series, the two “races” I will be focusing on are indigenous people (specifically Native Americans, more specifically Cherokee) and black or African-American people. Because there is a lot to talk about in both these categories, I will be doing two separate essays. This one will focus on portrayals of blackness.

Before we can truly dig into this subject, however, we must acknowledge the women who wrote the series. The House of Night series is credited as a co-authorship between P.C. Cast and her daughter, Kristin Cast. While P.C. Cast is a white woman, her daughter is of mixed background and self-described black woman, using #blackgirlswithgardens, #blackownedclothing, and #supportblackownedbusinesses to promote herself on Instagram. (Cast 2021a; Cast 2021b; Cast 2021c) However, as they have stated in several interviews and Q&As, they did not actually co-author the series. Instead, P.C. Cast wrote the books and Kristin Cast helped her first as a teen voice editor, and then later as a frontline editor. (Cast and Cast 2017 277; Cast and Cast 2018 332; Cast and Cast 2020 358, 363; Rought 2020; Fricot 2019)

If Kristin did not have any actual authorship of this series, then these books are the words of a white woman with some input from a black woman. Exactly how much input is hard to know. Moreover, it’s worth noting that, as the daughter of the white woman who wrote the series, the language and portrayals of black characters in the series, especially black women, might look like support and empowerment to Kristin Cast, given that it may be reminiscent of how her mother speaks to and about her. This is supposition, of course, but I feel it bears mentioning.

(Also, for ease and abiding official citations for the series, I will still be referring to the authorship of this series as though it were a joint effort.)

For additional simplicity in citations, anytime I cite one of the books in the series from this point forward, I will be omitting the “Cast and Cast” portion of the in-text citation and simply including the year of publication and any relevant page numbers. This will keep in-text citations from becoming too unwieldy.

And now that all of that has been established, we can move onto the essay proper.

Cast and Cast 2007b 151

Setting the Precedent

Exotification is the process of taking difference among people (racial or otherwise) and sexualizing or aestheticizing it. This has the effect of homogenizing a diverse group of people and ignoring the differences among that group’s members. (Jóns 2013) Often, exotification targets women of colour (Jóns 2013) and works to establish a new standard of beauty, separate from the mainstream ideal of the beautiful white woman. (Kuo 2016; Najumi 2013; Melgarejo; Keziyah-Lewis 2015) This is not just uncomfortable, but outright dehumanizing for women of colour. (Kuo 2016; Najumi 2013; Writing With Color 2014; Melgarejo)

It is worth noting that literature, media, the arts, and society as a whole is heavily dominated and controlled by white, heterosexual, cisgender men and that this group is the least likely to be exotified, and instead experiences more diverse and nuanced representations in literature, media, et cetera. Most other groups, however, lack the power to represent themselves in media and are thus more vulnerable to exotification.

In literature, exotification often occurs through lengthy descriptions of people of colour (POC), particularly through the use of language comparing them to food. This also happens in real life (we’ll get to that). (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2015). Though these are generally intended to be positive descriptors, it is an uncomfortable experience for the person being “complimented”, particularly since comparing someone to food is essentially depicting them as something to be consumed. (Writing With Color 2014) It fetishizes and objectifies. Moreover, many of the items used to describe black people’s skin colour are items that drove and continue to drive the slave trade – specifically, coffee and chocolate. (Writing With Color 2014)

Calling a woman of colour “exotic” is typically intended as a compliment, but it instead has the effect of saying that they are “less normal, less human, and less real than white folks.” (Kuo 2016) As Mikki Kendall (sarcastically) puts it in her book Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot, writers often “describe Black women in ways that play up their sexuality and remove their humanity. After all they are other, so their skin is foodstuff, the space between their thighs is mysterious, and they have never, ever been innocent.” (Kendall 2020 133)

In an article discussing her experiences with online dating, Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, a self-identified mixed-race woman, explains her frustration and discomfort with men always opening a conversation by commenting on or asking about her race. These men offered compliments such as “black beauty” and “caramel cutie” to the near total exclusion of talking about hobbies, work, or education (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2015). Being approached as an opportunity for a so-called “new experience” is a common problem for women of colour in the dating scene (Keziyah-Lewis 2015). Brinkhurst-Cuff says that she “[doesn’t] want to be reduced to a coarse stereotype of [her] race or made to feel like the only reason why [she is] being considered as a potential partner is because they […] would love to get a taste of the unusual ‘other’.” (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2015)

This calls on the concept of Othering (or, as Edward Said called it, “orientalism” (1994)), which is related to an us versus them mentality. In this view, “them” or “the Other” is defined as everything that “we” are not, which has the effect of reducing “them” to very distilled, narrow stereotypes. This, in turn, makes them seem less human. (Said 1994) Therefore, compliments of this nature make women feel like a spectacle or an experience rather than a whole person, and thus are not really compliments at all.

And Othering black women is often specifically fetishizing. The hypersexualization of women of colour is ongoing, and involves viewing these women as always sexually available and willing. This tendency to “equate ‘exotic’ with ‘promiscuous’ [has] led to violent impacts where experiences of sexual assault by women of color are minimized, and worst of all, normalized and legitimized.” (Kuo 2016) The statistics for sexual abuse experienced by black women is staggering, with between 40 and 60 percent experiencing such abuse by the time they turn 18. (Keziyah-Lewis 2015) The legacy of colonialism plays an important role in this, as colonists “[justified] the exploitation of women of color who inhabited colonized lands” by “[framing] them as hypersexualized, immoral, uncivilized, and savage”. (Melgarejo) The bodies of women of colour are turned into commodities to be conquered and consumed. (Melgarejo; Writing With Color 2014).

Generally, when looking at rape and rape culture, “it’s easy to blame the patriarchy,” but, as Kendall points out, it’s harder to acknowledge how women can “passively direct rapists toward their victims by contributing to the hypersexualization of women of color under the guise of empowerment.” (Kendall 2020 94) It isn’t empowerment – at least not for those women of colour. While white women may find it sexually empowering to put on costumes or promote images in the vein of “sexy Pocahontas”, it comes at a cost to the people and cultures they are impersonating. “Exotification isn’t freedom; any feminism that hinges on the fetishization of the beauty of women of color is toxic.” (Kendall 2020 162)

As we’ll see going forward, much of the feminism in this series is deeply toxic.

Cast and Cast 2007a 74

Exotification and Black Beauty

Often, descriptions of characters of colour make a spectacle of their non-whiteness. These descriptions focus on those traits marking them as Other, rather than their outfits or demeanor. This plays into the exotifying tendency to fixate on skin colour, hair type, and eye shape of POC. (Kuo 2016) In House of Night, Shaunee is a good example of this. When Shaunee first appears in Marked, Zoey describes her thusly:

“She was the color of cappuccino […] and all curvy with pouty lips and high cheekbones that made her look like an African princess. She also had some seriously good hair. It was thick and fell in dark, glossy waves around her shoulders. Her eyes were so black they looked like they didn’t have any pupils.” (2007a 72)

Several things are happening in this paragraph that work to exotify and objectify Shaunee. First, she is being compared to a coffee-based drink. Second, large lips and voluptuous figures have become a staple image of black bodies – especially black female bodies. These traits have been hypersexualized and treated as objects for the convenience, commodification and consumption of others. The more black women’s bodies are regarded in this manner, “the more we become trained to only see them through a hypersexualized lens.” (Hazel 2016) Thus, characteristics such as curviness and pouty (i.e. plump) lips not only fit into a stereotype of black bodies, but work to immediately sexualize Shaunee. Emphasizing these traits in tandem with comparing her skin to cappuccino and referring to her as an African princess creates the impression that she is some foreign, exotic being.

Even saying she has “good hair” is a seemingly-innocuous comment that, perhaps unwittingly, calls back to slavery in the United States. Specifically, white male slave owners who raped black women sired many biracial children. Those who had hair that was not kinky or otherwise lacked traits typically associated with black people were considered to have “good hair” and thus were treated better by slave owners. (Flourishing Tresses 2013) This is a mentality that black women continue struggling with to this day. In Hood Feminism, Kendall describes the experience of having a lye relaxer put in her hair when she was just three, and getting very badly burned for the trouble, all because she didn’t have “good hair”. Her family’s concerns and internalized racism were so pervasive that she “didn’t see [herself] with natural hair until [she] was seventeen.” (Kendall 2020 151)

Shaunee is described with similarly elaborate or exotifying details throughout the series. Her skin is described in a range of colours, including: mocha (2007a 74, 80; 2007b 174), brown sugar (2007b 155; 2017 68), chocolate (2007b; 2009a 22), café latte (2007b 8), caramel (2008a 16; 2008b 12; 2009a 15), and cappuccino (2009b 29). By contrast, food-related descriptions of fair skin is few and far between. Those rare descriptors are cream (2007a 43), milk (2007b 18; 2019 120, 257), and vanilla (2009a 22, 186). This disparity in how often skin is compared to food in white versus non-white characters is especially notable because at least 70% of the characters are white. Moreover, none of the aforementioned food comparisons relating to white skin are attached to a history of oppressing or enslaving white people, and thus do not carry the same weighty history as comparing black skin to coffee and chocolate.

But Shaunee isn’t the only black character in the series, nor is she the only one described with such language.

Deino is first described as “black” (2007a 76) and later as “obviously mixed”. (2007a 129) Her skin is compared to “coffee-with-lots-of-cream” (2007a 129) and “vanilla latte”. (2007b 151) Other one-off mentions of characters described in this way include an old lover of Professor Lenobia, who recalls her lost love as “a tall, cappuccino skinned human”. (2012 10) Shekinah, the then-High Priestess of all vampyres, has “skin […] the color of rich, well-polished dark wood” and is compared specifically to “mahogany”. (2008b 68) A former lover of Neferet’s who appears briefly in a flashback has “skin […] black as a raven’s wing” (2013 147) and an “ebony body.” (2013 151) Kacie, a character introduced halfway through the four-book Other World spinoff series, has skin that “[looks] like the sun hadn’t just kissed it but made out with it.” (2020 173)

Blackness is stereotyped and exotified in other ways throughout the series, too. From a throwaway comment in Zoey’s narration about how a black girl’s “impossible long hair […] must be a really good weave” (2007a 76), to calling Shaunee a “Nubian princess” (2017 75), to referring to white men dating black women as “expanding” or “broaden[ing] their horizons”. (2007b 151; 2017 68) The term “black girl magic” is also misused, reduced to an indication of a black woman’s sex appeal and ability to get and keep a boyfriend. (2017 75; 2018 295) This is to the point that Zoey wishes she had so-called black girl magic, and becomes sad when she remembers that being a vampyre means she can no longer tan due to sun sensitivity, despite being of Cherokee background and describing herself as having “brownish skin.” (2017 195) Thus, the sex appeal of black women is centered specifically on their skin.

This puts forward the notion that Shaunee and other black women aren’t desirable for their personality, interests, or other non-racialized characteristics, but purely for the colour of their skin. It perpetuates the idea that it is not only okay to flirt with and compliment a woman of colour based solely on her race, but also to treat her as an exciting and inherently different experience than dating a white woman. As Brinkhurst-Cuff explained, women of colour “don’t want to fulfill anyone’s fantasy of getting with a big-assed black girl”, nor do they want to “feel like [they] should thank [men] because […] they actually find black women attractive.” (Brinkhurst-Cuff 2015, original emphasis)

There is also a notable fixation on describing black people’s hair. I’ve already touched on Shaunee’s “seriously good hair” that “[falls] in dark, glossy waves”. (2007a 72) Deino has “excellent thick, curly hair”, and Zoey muses that it “probably had never had the nerve to nap up on her for an instant”. (2007a 129) Kramisha, a black character introduced about halfway through the series, has a lot of descriptions fixating on her hair and wigs, which vary from being “cut into a short geometric poof on her head” with “half of it […] dyed bright orange”, (2009a 38) “a bright yellow bob wig”, (2010a 88) a “scarlet bobbed wig”, (2012 205) and “gold, waist-length Beyoncé braids”. (2017 22) And finally, Kacie has “lots of thick hair expertly dyed Beychella blond”. (2019 162) This point is reiterated in conversation, where Stevie Rae say Kacie looks like “if Beyoncé and JLo had a baby”, to which Zoey agrees that “her hair is Beyoncé blond.” (2019 165) And then in Found, her hair is again described as “Beyoncé-blond”. (2020 174)

White characters, by contrast, are described with a much different tone. Neferet, the High Priestess of the House of Night in Tulsa, where the series is set, offers a good example with her introductory description:

“She was movie-star beautiful, Barbie beautiful. I’d never seen anyone up close who was so perfect. She had huge, almond-shaped eyes that were a deep, mossy green. Her face was an almost perfect heart and her skin was that kind of flawless creaminess that you see on TV. Her hair was deep red […] a dark, glossy auburn that fell in heavy waves well past her shoulders. Her body was, well, perfect. […] This woman’s body was perfect because she was strong, but curvy.” (2007a 43)

One notable difference here is the tendency to use non-specific descriptors. Note the prevalence of words like “perfect”, “beautiful”, and “flawless”, versus being excessively specific with black characters while comparing them to food and drinks. This vaguer language is used around white characters consistently throughout the series: beautiful or beauty is used over 170 times, perfect is used over 60 times, pretty is used over 50 times, gorgeous is used over 60 times, and handsome is used 50 times. This doesn’t include Darius calling Aphrodite “my beauty” or Aphrodite calling Darius “handsome” as terms of endearment. Note, also, that these tallies do not account for descriptions of the goddess Nyx, who changes forms, or Kalona and Erebus, who are also god-like figures.

Characters who are black, mixed, “of color”, or otherwise ambiguously brown account for between one-tenth and one-seventh of all characters, depending on how many minor characters you include and how you define a major character. (Note also that I did not count Other versions of characters, i.e. Aphrodite and Other Aphrodite, as separate characters, since they are described in much the same way.) That works out to between 10% and 14%, roughly speaking.

However, such characters are called beautiful only 9 times (roughly 4% of total counted), perfect twice (3%), pretty 6 times (9%), gorgeous 8 times (11%), and handsome 3 times (6%). Notably, one black male character is described specifically as “not handsome”, but rather “glorious”. (2013 147) So even on the low estimate of 10% of characters falling under this category, half these terms see disproportionately low use in reference to black characters. And with the higher estimate, all of them fall short. Even if we remove the over half-dozen instances of Kevin referring to Other Anastasia as “the beauty”, black characters still account for less than 5% of uses of the terms “beauty” and “beautiful”. Once again, like with food-related skin descriptions, there is a dramatic disparity in the language used to describe white characters and black characters.

Readers are assumed to have an immediate picture of what a perfect, beautiful woman looks like and, since mainstream beauty ideals dictate that image is likely white (Kuo 2016; Najumi 2013; Melgarejo), there is little need to go into further detail. A larger palette of traits has been established in the collective consciousness and mainstream narrative about white people due to the fact that white people receive a far wider variety of representation. For example, of the top 100 Hollywood films in 2014, 73.1% of all characters were white (Crigger and Santhanam 2015). Throughout the 20th century, 95% of Oscar nominations went to white actors, and there have been long periods when no ethnic minorities at all received nominations (J.T. 2016). Even in literature, white writers and white characters tend to earn more popularity and acclaim, with white people accounting for 79% of the entire publishing industry (Turner-Francis 2016).

Thus, when white characters are described in more simple, familiar language while black characters are consistently exotified, it’s bound to influence readers’ perceptions. Given the previously discussed impacts of exotification and fetishization on rates of sexual assault among women of colour, this undoubtedly has a negative impact in the long term – regardless of how much this series and its authors boast about being empowering.

Cast and Cast 2009a54

Disparaging Dialects

In addition to House of Night’s feminism being toxic due to exotification and fetishization, the series has also presented blackness downright negatively. If black people aren’t being exulted for their Otherness and beauty, then they’re being called thuggish, or having their speech patterns mocked. While this type of presentation is notably less common than the previously discussed exotification, the fact that it is included at all is a problem.

First, a disclaimer: As a white woman, I do not know African American Verncular English (AAVE). I will not pretend to know AAVE, or the regional variations within the dialect. All I know is that languages and their dialects generally have internal rules and patterns. Kramisha’s dialogue sounds like a white woman doing her best impersonation of AAVE. Some choice quotes include:

“Let’s get it straight right now that I’m not sharin’ my bed with no one,” Kramisha said, weaving her head around and looking bored and pissed off at the same time. (2009a pg38)

“Boyyyy, you is workin’ it here in the tunnel? Damn! You got some game.” (2009a 65)

“Speak for yourself. I’m still me. Meaning they’s nothin’ wrong with me. You, on the other hand, look like one hot messatude.” (2010a 88)

“Okay, how ‘bout this: I get one of the nuns to take me back to the House of Night, and when everbody [sic] stresses ‘bout you bein’ out here all alone, I just tell them you needed to visit a human, so you ain’t technically alone – and I ain’t lying, either.” (2010a 150)

“I got to gets to class, so I don’t have time to take you out back and smack that smug champagne smile off your thin lips.” (2017 28)

“Z! There you is! […] Move over, Stevie Rae. I got lots more junk in my trunk than you skinny white girls.” (2018 79)

And on and on. Throughout both the original and Other World series, Kramisha’s dialogue often comes across as either a joke or a spectacle. And, more importantly, it’s frequently subject to derision. More than once, Aphrodite has insulted Kramisha for not using proper grammar, (2009a 52; 2018 82) told her that “’ain’t’ isn’t a word” (2017 22), and that “[her] English isn’t even that great.” (2011 149)

What’s notable in these instances is that no one ever tries to defend AAVE except Kramisha, and even then, she isn’t really defending it as a whole and complete dialect with its own rules about what is “correct”. Rather, Kramisha tells Aphrodite off for being rude and threatens her with bodily harm.

Now, one might argue that it’s only ever Aphrodite who really insults Kramisha’s way of speaking, and Aphrodite is always insulting everyone. So why is this a big deal?

The fact that Aphrodite insults Kramisha is fine – it’s part of her character. What she chooses to focus on with these insults – and, by extension, what traits the authors chose to focus on in their writing – matters because it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s a reflection of real problems black people (especially black women) deal with everyday. In the words of Kendall:

We love a Black accent on everyone but Black women. Mind you, there is absolutely nothing wrong with sounding Black except that in a culture where respectability politics mean that whiteness is rendered as normative, a Black girl who speaks with a ‘blaccent’ is judged as less valuable and less intelligent. (Kendall 2020 140)

The authors could have chosen anything for Aphrodite to insult about Kramisha – her favourite TV shows, the fact that she likes poetry, the fact that she can be a bit neurotic. But what they chose was her AAVE, a distinct and meaningful aspect of African American culture, making it so the insults cannot be seen as anything but insults against her blackness.

Cast and Cast 2008b 35

The Threat of Blackness

Worse than associating AAVE with lack of education/unintelligence, however, is presenting black characters as more dangerous or violent.

First, there are descriptions associating characters with gangs or thugs. In Marked, Zoey remarks on a random student crossing the parking lot, pointing out their “seriously unattractive gang wanna-be baggy pants”. (2007a 16) While this bystander is never explicitly identified as black, the description does harken to stereotypical depictions of blackness. Moreover, its not the only time this sort of language and imagery is used in the series. While lamenting what a terrible day she is having in Chosen, Zoey tells Stevie Rae about some “gang wannabes who [she thinks she] might have kinda sorta accidentally killed”. (2008a 150) Earlier, when she actually encountered these so-called gang wannabes, she described them as “two black guys [who] were wearing the stereotypical ridiculous sagging pants and stupid, oversized down coats”. (2008a 145) Note that she again references sagging/baggy pants, and that she emphasizes how stereotypical they are.

But in this instance, the harmful depiction goes further. Beyond just attaching them to a stereotypical image and immediately assuming they are involved in or aspire to be involved in a gang, the narrative makes it clear that they are villains.

To set the scene, Zoey is in a public park with her human boyfriend, Heath, feeding on his blood. Because blood drinking is an erotic experience for both parties, they are also grinding and dry humping. The pair is interrupted by the aforementioned black men, who have some… choice dialogue.

“Yeah, bitch! Ride him! Make him hurt so gooood!”

“That little white boy don’t have nothin’ for you. I’ll give ya somethin’ you can really feel!”

[…]

“But if she wants somethin’ to suck, I’ll give it to her.”

“Yeah, first you and then me. Her little punk boyfriend can watch and see how it’s done.” With a mean little laugh, they started walking towards us again. (2008a 145)

The way these men are described and the way they speak paints a clear picture. As discussed in the previous section, this (likely butchered) AAVE is meant to indicate that they are uneducated or “stupid”. They are crass and aggressive, as evidenced by their loud assertions about sex and their own sexual prowess, as well as their excessive profanity. In a total 65 words spoken between the two of them, they say “bitch” three times and “fucking” once. And, last but not least, they are threatening, based on their sexually aggressive comments and what amount to threats of group rape, being labelled as gang wannabes, Zoey narrating their laughter as “mean”, and their blackness.

Can I assert that these men being black is part of what makes them threatening when that isn’t explicitly stated in the scene? Yes, I can. Because there’s a strong precedent for it. Kendall put it best:

Rape has been used to repress, to undermine, and to control because power functions in the same awful ways in every generation. The fear of mythical Black rapists that was used after the Civil War to justify the white mobs that terrorized the Black communities has been subsumed into a broader anti-immigration narrative under the [Trump] administration. […] Portraying men of color as sexually voracious and preying on innocent white women reinforces a cultural obsession with Black-on-white stranger rape, at the expense of the vastly more common intra-racial acquaintance rape. (Kendall 2020 99)

The authors could have chosen any demographic to insert into this scene. It could have been two rowdy, cocky, white frat boys. It could have been sleazy older white men. It could have been two Asian men. Or two men of different ethnicities. They could have been plainly dressed, or wearing clothes that show off wealth, or wearing anything other than a black stereotype.

That it was two black men in stereotypical attire and labelled with a gangster stereotype was a choice. Whether that choice was made consciously or not, it has implications, and those implications matter – especially within the broader scope of black representation throughout this series and throughout popular media as a whole.

Zoey’s response in this scene is also notable. First, let’s plainly establish the facts: Two human black men approached Zoey and her human boyfriend while they were dry humping in a public park, yelling crass things and threatening sexual assault against Zoey. The two groups are of equal number. There is no indication that either black man is armed. Heath is a star quarterback with size and strength on his side, and in this scene he is carrying a razorblade that he used to cut himself so Zoey would feed on his blood. Zoey is a fledgling with heightened strength and speed, as well as incredibly powerful magical affinities. When Zoey reveals she is a fledgling, the men stop approaching.

What this means is that Zoey and Heath have an obvious advantage, Zoey especially. The fact that the men had stopped as soon as they learned of her vampirism indicates that she could likely have just scared them off with a harmless show of power – which would not be difficult for her to do. Throughout the series, Zoey’s affinities for all five elements (air, water, fire, earth, and spirit) have consistently been extremely easy to use and manifested in a wide variety of ways, including strong but harmless gusts of wind, making entire trees sway or bow, shaking the earth, summoning water or creating localized rain, and strengthening others’ magic or calming their emotions with the power of spirit. If Zoey wanted to deescalate the situation, she easily could have.

Even knowing that the point of this scene was to show the power and danger of Zoey’s protectiveness toward a human she had Imprinted with after feeding, the authors could have displayed this a whole host of ways – tangling the men in vines, shooting icicles from her fingers at them, throwing fistfuls of fire, etc. Any one of these options would have hurt or incapacitated the men without doing irreparable damage.

Instead, Zoey summons wind and commands it to blow the men away, causing a gust to “[crash] into them with such force that they were swept […] off their feet,” “[dropping] the two men down in the middle of Twenty-first Street.” Zoey concludes with these cold words: “I didn’t even flinch when the truck hit them.” (2008a 145) She then very nonchalantly dismisses Heath’s fear that she killed them, assuring him that the hospital is close by and an ambulance is already on its way.

Their potential deaths are almost never mentioned again (indeed, we never actually learn if they lived or died), except for these two quotes:

Plus, I may have caused two men to be killed. I shivered, feeling more than a little sick. What in the hell had happened to me? I’d been drinking Heath’s blood and having a horny old good time […] and then those men had started messing with us and it was like something inside of me freaked and changed from Regular Zoey to Psycho Killer Vampyre Zoey.” (2008a 148)

“I just sucked Heath’s blood and got interrupted by some gang wannabes who I think I might have kinda sorta accidentally killed, and Loren Blake and I have been making out. So, how was your day?”

[…] “Ohmygoodness,” [Stevie Rae] said.

“Yeah.”

“You’ve been making out with Loren Blake?” As usual, Stevie Rae got to the heart of the juiciest gossip. (2008a 150)

The last time their deaths are mentioned is sandwiched between Zoey lamenting her various boy problems, and these black men are summarily dismissed in favour of gossiping about kissing. That is the value the narrative puts on the deaths of two unarmed black men.

But these men aren’t the only black characters strongly associated with threats and violence. Shaunee and Kramisha often want to attack other people, sometimes for entirely mundane things like “trying out some kind of bumpkin perfume”, for which Shaunee threatens to “smack” Stevie Rae (2007b 160), or for “disparaging poetry”, for which Kramisha threatens to “kick [Aphrodite’s] tight white ass”. (2017 22)

Doing a rough tally of how often characters verbally threaten violence (smacking, slapping, punching, kicking, hitting, beating, or knocking) against others for mundane reasons – meaning no serious danger is present or might soon be present – I found a definite disparity in how prominently characters are featured versus how often they’re the ones making such threats.

Zoey, the central character and sole narrator for the first five books, does so 8 times. Stevie Rae and Aphrodite are two other extremely prominent characters, with 3 and 6 instances respectively (Aphrodite’s low number is particularly notable because she is cast as the abrasive character who constantly and knowingly butts heads with others to stir up drama). Two of Zoey’s boyfriends, Heath and Stark, are at 3 and 1. Other characters with only one instance of this sort of dialogue are Kevin, Zoey’s brother and a central character in the Other World series, and Dallas, Stevie Rae’s ex turned minor villain.

The last characters in this tally are Shaunee, Erin, and Kramisha. Shaunee and Kramisha are both black; Shaunee starts out quite prominent in the first few books, barely appears in books six and seven, and is otherwise a fairly minor character throughout both series. Erin is in a similar position and, notably, is Shaunee’s “Twin”, meaning she often repeats or mirrors Shaunee’s dialogue and behaviours, right up until she turns evil in the ninth book of the original series. Finally, Kramisha is introduced in Hunted, the fifth book, and plays an important role because of her prophetic poetry but is typically talked about (or at least her prophecies are) moreso than she is seen. She appears minimally in the Other World series, shipping off to a different city as of the second book.

Despite all this, Shaunee expresses violent threats 5 times – plus 2 more if you count moments of her Twinning Erin for her threats. Similarly, Erin has such dialogue 3 times, plus 3 more instances of supporting Shaunee. Kramisha has 4 examples, as well as a scene in which she is the only fledgling on the verge of biting Heath because of the smell of his human blood.

Shaunee’s threats (not counting her supporting Erin) plus Kramisha’s add up to more instances than Zoey, or equal to Stevie Rae and Aphrodite combined. Zoey, the most central character across the entire series, and Aphrodite, the most aggressive character among Zoey’s inner circle. Shaunee’s threats plus her Twinning off Erin account for more threats than Stevie Rae, Heath, and Stark combined. While Stevie Rae is generally a docile character, Heath and Stark are not – but their only instances of threatening other characters is in relation to each other. They both have far more time on page than Kramisha or Shaunee, but both girls on their own offer more threats of violence than the two boys combined.

This is because most other characters use aggressive language metaphorically, such as telling someone they kick ass at something, or in situations that actually calls for it, like talking about fighting Darkness and major villains.

This can be regarded as part of the Angry Black Women trope, and that’s problematic enough on its own. But writing black girls as constantly ready to fight is a more nuanced problem than a simple trope. The view that “young women of color […] are violent for the sake of violence […] ignores the fact that they are often the only people with an investment in their safety outside their nearest and dearest.” (Kendall 2020 195)

It’s arguably worse than that with Shaunee and Kramisha: Shaunee’s dad is only ever mentioned as distant and negligent, cutting all contact with her after she is Marked as a fledgling, and Kramisha’s family is never mentioned except in the most passing of comments (usually of a “my momma always says” variety). We never learn about any of their friends prior to being Marked, either. So even “nearest and dearest” is largely out of the equation. Even accounting for the friends they have within the timeline of the series doesn’t mean much – after all, as already mentioned, the only person who defends Kramisha from Aphrodite’s insults against AAVE is Kramisha herself.

Conclusion

While reading this series, it is clear that readers are supposed to admire the black characters featured throughout. Good intentions, however, do not excuse damaging execution.

In their efforts to write diverse characters, the Cast women instead reproduced stereotypes that rely heavily on dehumanization and hypersexualization that turn black women into consumable objects for the audience’s pleasure and fascination, that reduce them to something different and exciting for men to play with. If they weren’t being fetishized, characters like Kramisha were insulted for their dialect, and black people in general were shown as dangerous or quick to respond with violence. These aren’t isolated incidents, either: P.C. Cast’s Moon Chosen features problematic depictions of non-white characters, as does a book she actually cowrote with her daughter, The Dysasters.

What these problems reflect is a critical lack of awareness and thought, both from the writers and among readers. The books have been well-received and earned several awards, including Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Marked (Pruszkowski 2007) and Tempted (Smith). The majority of negative reviews or those that call out the books on their problematic content come from small online book review blogs rather than from major critics (Blogging House of Night 2014; Cyna 2012; Sparky 2016). Where there should have been outcry, or at the very least discussion, regarding the treatment of certain topics such as minority representation, instead it is difficult to find any comment on such problems beyond the occasional aforementioned book review blog. This indicates that the majority of readers and critics either didn’t notice or didn’t care about topics such as the representation of black characters within the series, which itself belies an ignorance toward the magnitude of such problems.

It is not just within a wide range of media that these problems of representation (or, rather, misrepresentation) exist, but rather there is a ripple through society as a whole. As previously discussed, women of colour make up a sizeable portion of sexual abuse and human trafficking victims (Kuo 2016; Melgarejo; Keziyah-Lewis 2015), which can be traced back through the history of exotification and dehumanization. While the sexualizing and dehumanizing treatment of women of colour within the House of Night series might appear trivial on the surface, it’s connection to larger systems of oppression make it much more sinister. Literature, media, and art reflect and affect the societies that produce them. This series is no exception – and that means its toxic white feminism is a poison to us all.

References

Blogging House of Night. 2014. “Betryaed Chapter 19: The Last Straw.” Blogging House of Night. Retrieved October 3, 2017 (https://blogginghouseofnight.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/betryaed-chapter-19-the-last-straw/).

Brinkhurst-Cuff, Charlie. 2015. “Women of Color Get No Love on Tinder.” Vice. Retrieved September 6, 2017 (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/qbx8qp/this-is-what-its-like-to-be-a-woman-of-color-on-tinder-514).

Cast, Kristin. 2021a. “I dedicated this spring to myself.” Instagram. Retrieved July 29, 2021 (https://www.instagram.com/p/CRXSySLL9Cv/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link)

Cast, Kristin. 2021b. “UPDATE – SOLD OUT.” Instagram. Retrieved July 29, 2021 (https://www.instagram.com/p/CRZcRUZLi_i/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link)

Cast, Kristin. 2021c. “The decision to start a new merch line was a difficult one.” Instagram. Retrieved July 29, 2021 (https://www.instagram.com/p/CNsaHgSh-n9/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link)

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2007a. Marked. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2007b. Betrayed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2008a. Chosen. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2008b. Untamed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2009a. Hunted. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2009b. Tempted. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2010a. Burned. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2010b. Awakened. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2011. Destined. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2012. Hidden. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2013. Revealed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2014. Redeemed. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2017. Loved. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Publishing.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2018. Lost. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Publishing.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2019. Forgotten. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Publishing.

Cast, P.C., and Kristin Cast. 2020. Found. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Publishing.

Crigger, Megan and Laura Santhanam. 2015. “Out of 30,000 Hollywood Film Characters, Here’s How Many Weren’t White.” PBS. Retrieved September 22, 2017 (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/30000-hollywood-film-characters-heres-many-werent-white/).

Cyna. 2012. “House of Night Series Review: Marked, Part Two – ALL THE -ISMS!” You’re Killing Us. Retrieved October 3, 2017 (http://yourekilling.us/?p=31).

Flourishing Tresses. 2013. “The Myths of Coarse, Curly, and Kinky Texture Hair and How Wrong They Truly Are.” Flourishing Tresses. Retrieved September 7, 2017 (https://flourishingtresses.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-myths-of-coarse-curly-and-kinky-textured-hair-and-how-wrong-they-truly-are/).

Fricot, Olivia. 2019. “Q&A with Kristin and P.C. Cast, Authors of The Dysasters.” Booktopia. Retrieved November 19, 2020 (https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2019/05/24/qa-kristen-pc-cast-the-dysasters/).

Hazel, Mycah. 2016. “#TeacherBae and the Sexualization and Fear of Black Curves.” The Establishment. Retrieved September 22, 2017 (https://theestablishment.co/teacherbae-and-the-sexualization-and-fear-of-black-curves-f0768a6639a).

J.T. 2016. “How Racially Skewed are the Oscars?” The Economist. Retrieved September 22, 2017 (https://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2016/01/film-and-race).

Jóns, Ragna Rök. 2013. “Exotification: Tracing the Geographies of Difference and Desire.” Bluestockings Magazine. Retrieved September 6, 2017 (http://bluestockingsmag.com/2013/08/31/edit-exotification-beyond-race/).

Kendall, Mikki. 2020. Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women That a Movement Forgot. New York, NY: Viking.

Keziyah-Lewis. 2015. “It’s About More Than Cornrows: Amandla Stenberg’s Statement on Kylie Jenner and Cultural Appropriation, Explained.” xojane. Retrieved September 22, 2017 (http://www.xojane.com/issues/amandla-stenberg-kylie-jenner).

Kuo, Rachel. 2016. “4 Reasons Why Calling a Woman of Color ‘Exotic’ is Racist.” Everyday Feminism Magazine. Retrieved September 6, 2017 (https://everydayfeminism.com/2016/01/calling-woc-exotic-is-racist/).

Melgarejo, Joshel. “’Exotic’ is Not a Compliment: How the Term Stems from Colonialism.” Empress. Retrieved September 6, 2017 (http://empress.world/exotic-women-colonialism/).

Najumi, Mohadesa. 2013. “Stop Fetishizing Us: Women of Color.” Resistance Always. Retrieved September 7, 2017 (https://resistancealways.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/stop-fetishizing-us-women-of-color/).

Pruszkowski, Gail. 2007. “Marked.” RTBookReviews. Retrieved October 3, 2017 (https://www.rtbookreviews.com/book-review/marked).

Rought, Karen. 2020. “P.C. and Kristin Cast Announce New Series, Sisters of Salem (Exclusive).” Hypable. Retrieved November 19, 2020 (https://www.hypable.com/pc-kristin-cast-sisters-of-salem/)

Said, Edward W. 1994 [1978]. Orientalism. Toronto: Random House of Canada Limited.

Smith, Jill M. “Tempted.” RTBookReviews. Retrieved October 3, 2017 (https://www.rtbookreviews.com/book-review/tempted-5).

Sparky. 2016. “The Awful Racism of the House of Night Series.” Fangs for the Fantasy. Retrieved October 3, 2017 (http://www.fangsforthefantasy.com/2016/07/the-awful-racism-of-house-of-night.html).

Turner-Francis, Mahogany. 2016. “The Most Popular Characters in Literature are Never People of Color.” Bookstr. Retrieved September 22, 2017 (https://www.bookstr.com/the-most-popular-characters-in-literature-are-never-people-of-color).

Writing With Color. 2014. “Writing With Color Description Guide: Skin, Part I: POC & Food Comparisons.” Writing With Color. Retrieved September 6, 2017 (http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/95955707903/skin-writing-with-color-has-received-several).

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Rachael Arsenault

Rachael Arsenault is a Canadian author with a BA in Sociology and Native Studies. She's a hippie at heart, a D&D nerd, and a pun enthusiast.

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B01GK8F672

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