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Sleepy Hollow sparks fan discussions on diversity in the media

September 25, 2014

Television series Sleepy Hollow was Fall 2013’s breakout hit for Fox Television. The second season of the quirky, time-traveling, fantasy-horror series premieres on Monday, September 22nd 2014. Racebending.com interviewed the producers and cast of Sleepy Hollow as part of a promotional press line at San Diego ComicCon.

    The plot in a nutshell: Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie) is a small town cop. She’s ready to leave Sleepy Hollow for the FBI when her mentor is killed by an axe-wielding horseman. Cue the following day when a very confused Ichabod Crane (Tom Mison) wakes up in a crypt full of mashed potatoes and staggers into the 21st century. Abbie ends up monitoring/babysitting Crane, who claims to be from the 18th century. Buddy cop hi-jinks ensure as Abbie must teach Ichabod about cell phones and Starbucks…but beware, for a very scary man with no head, an evil horse, and a machine gun has also followed Crane to the future. Various supporting characters include Abbie’s sister (Lyndie Greenwood), her police colleagues (played by John Cho and Nicholas Gonzalez), Ichabod’s possibly-dead wife (Katia Winter), and Abbie’s boss, police captain Frank Irving (Orlando Jones).

Sleepy Hollow features an exceptionally diverse cast for a network television series. When the show exceeded expectations, Fox Broadcasting execs touted the diversity in the series as part of their overall business strategy. The series even cast lead actress Nicole Beharie first, basing the subsequent casting of the Ichabod Crane character on chemistry reads with her. The show also boasts a diverse writing staff, including three women who all have sisters and bring their experiences to the story arc between Abbie and her sister.

In an interview with Buzzfeed last fall, executive producer Heather Kadin addressed the diversity seen in the cast and how the show has inverted the trope where characters of color are killed off first in horror. “It was a conscious effort to have a diverse cast just to represent our world,” Kadin said. “I don’t think it’s realistic for the whole cast to be white. I also think when you are developing a show and casting it mostly Caucasian and you get down to the bad guy and the network is like, ‘You have to have some diversity,’ then all of the sudden…that’s why the person of color is always killed [first in horror shows]. And because we have so much diversity in our cast and we’ve had the freedom to cast our villains and victims however we want, so we can kill as many white people as we want.”

Actors in the series have also shut down audience members complaining about the “politically correct” diversity in the series (even though the show has always had an established white male presence with the co-lead, Ichabod Crane, and additional white supporting characters and antagonists.) Orlando Jones took to twitter when some viewers complained that it was “unrealistic” for there to be a black woman police officer as the lead since the show is set in a suburban New England town. [The show is also about a time traveling dead guy and a demon dude with no head.] Jones pointed out that real-life Sleepy Hollow, New York boasts one Officer Wendy Yancey, a black woman and police officer. Jones has also been outspoken when media critics downplay the diversity on the series, such as when a feature story in the Los Angeles Times omitted lead actress Nicole Beharie outright.

“The show is clearly multicultural, and that is groundbreaking,” Jones said at the press line at ComicCon. “So, it’s not lost on me that that’s happening, I’m sort of very proud of it. But I’m mostly proud because it’s not about that. It’s just a fun ride with really cool characters and those other things are cool extra things but not what it’s about. For me, that’s really special.”

The show does not always handle diversity gracefully. Episodes with Romani and Native American characters fell back on cliched stereotypes. The Founding Fathers are lionized and their faults downplayed. A joke about Sally Hemmings falls flat when you remember that Hemmings was a child. Ichabod Crane is the convenient kind of time traveler–a cheerful abolitionist and a feminist. Still, Sleepy Hollow boasts more representation than other horror genre shows of it’s kind, in the show’s present and flashback settings. “We’re far from perfect (as many [fans] have pointed out) but I’m glad we’re doing our part to elevate the game,” Jones wrote in a letter to fans on social media.

The show is uniquely positioned to address diversity and representation issues and that isn’t lost on Marguerite Bennett, the author of the show’s tie-in comic book series for Boom Studios. “You can laugh if you want, when talking about a show that features demons, golems, conspiracies, George Washington, and the apocalypse, but Sleepy Hollow’s address of our own ugly history and hypocrisy is so important to me,” Bennett said in an interview with The Mary Sue. “From Ichabod’s era, when our nation was created under ideals of freedom and equality while simultaneously treating human beings as absolute chattel, to our present era, where we live in the safety of certain rights and liberties, yet still grapple with virulent racism, sexism, homophobia, the mistreatment of the mentally ill, and the erasure of indigenous peoples—Sleepy Hollow doesn;t shy away from our misdeeds, but encourages bravery and compassion the likes of which Abbie and Ichabod display.”

Fans have also stood up for the show, sparking conversations about the portrayal of Abigail Mills and other characters of color on the series. Bloggers of color have encouraged other fans to drop the word “sassy” from their lexicon when describing the show’s black women characters and noted how the character confounds tropes and stereotypes.

“Both Abbie and Jenny are normal, intelligent, flawed human beings, not cardboard stock characters,” writes Daniel Jose at The Nerds of Color. “It seems so simple yet we’ve seen it so rarely in television’s long, racist history.”

When a highly criticized, racist, New York Times feature article about television showrunner Shonda Rhimes mentioned Nicole Beharie’s character in passing and marked her a mere “sidekick,” Sleepy Hollow black twitter and fans pressured the paper into issuing a correction.


In an roundtable interview with Essence magazine, actresses Laverne Cox and Nicole Beharie discussed the reception Beharie has received for Sleepy Hollow and how it has challenged assumptions about women of color and their ability to draw an audience. Sleepy Hollow was initially advertised in the United Kingdom with advertisements solely featuring white English lead Tom Mison. “I was invited without the white male counterpart in my cast and it was packed, ” Beharie said. “They knew it was just going to be me. So that shook me.

“I ‘ve always been told and I believed that this doesn’t work without him,” Beharie said. “And there was also this notion that we [black women] don’t ‘work’ overseas. But [the event] was advertised just to be me. And they showed up…. I think what happens is it turns into less a conversation about my blackness and more about relating to humanity; because that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re just realizing that people are capable of doing it. We’re underestimating people because people said [black women] weren’t viable.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Sleepy Hollow is one of the most diverse shows on television. Do you think that has contributed to the success of the show, and if so, how?

MARK GOFFMAN: I think it has, definitely. We’re super proud of that, you know, and I think what it reflects is a real change in how it works. Movie studios are really looking at who is going to see movies and hopefully it reflects a more accurate portrayal of who we all are.

ALEXANDER KURTZMAN: It becomes organic to the storytelling. We’re able to tell a lot of different stories about different cultures and different mythologies. And it all just works really well and blends into what we are trying to do with the show.

RACEBENDING.COM: Jenny [Mills] is a unique representation of people on television who are identified as having mental illness, and so, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that portrayal and how that plays into your read of the character.

LYNDIE GREENWOOD: That’s a very good question. It’s interesting because Jenny has–well, she’s misrepresented. There was a seen that was cut, unfortunately, from [Season One, episode six] where Jenny has a really good friend in the asylum. And I really wish we had shown a bit more of that world, because I think that it is important– I volunteered at mental health facilities in Toronto–to realize that these are problems that anyone can face and they’re not so–there shouldn’t be things that we don’t talk about. There should be things that are accessible. And I think the more that we have a dialogue, the better we’ll be able to understand these issues. So yeah, I mean–it doesn’t really play that much into the character, but I like the conversation in general. Get rid of the stigma, definitely, and talk about it.

RACEBENDING.COM: What’s it like to be on a show with such a big fandom? What’s your reaction to the fan fiction, the fan art, all those things.

TOM MISON: I mean, it can’t be anything other than a massive compliment. It shows that people are engaged in the show and we’ve said lots of times before, when you see people writing fan fiction and they’re drawing and they’re painting….To know that we’re doing work that inspires people to create their own stuff–there is not really much you could ask for.

NICOLE BEHARIE: Yeah, and Tom was born for this. Look at him. He was like, ready for it.

TOM MISON: I’m in heaven here.

SLEEPY HOLLOW airs on Fox on Mondays at 9PM ET.
For more coverage on Sleepy Hollow, check out the tag on the Racebending tumblr page!

Categories: blog, Featured, Interviews

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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