In this episode, Yvonne McDowell, a screenwriter and professor of media law in Atlanta, and Lauren Wethers, freelance pop culture writer and the host of the podcast, Reclaiming Jane, and I discuss the excitement, triumph and ultimate disappointment of the 2013 TV series, “Sleepy Hollow”. We delve into questions around storytelling, authenticity and ways behind-the-scenes conflicts can show up in the media presented to a large audience.
You can follow Yvonne on Twitter at @movieym
You can follow Lauren on Twitter at @laurenwethers
You can also listen to Reclaiming Jane, the podcast co-hosted by Lauren at https://reclaimingjanepod.com/ and follow them on Twitter at @reclaimingjane
Latisha: Hello everyone, and welcome to Interspectional. I am your host Latisha. For our first conversation, we are talking about 2013’s television series Sleepy Hollow. Now, one of the reasons why I want to start with this, if you listen to my intro episode, I talked about how the results of this show really inspired this podcast and inspired some of my further work
Sleepy Hollow, as a series, I personally think it was kind of like this big watershed moment as far as representation of women, women of color in the sci-fi space. So I want to start off with this particular show and kind of talk about what it was, what it could have been, what it wasn’t, and its legacy going forward. So joining me are some amazing, amazing panelists, and I will let them introduce themselves, starting with you, Yvonne.
Yvonne: Hi, I’m Yvonne McDowell. I write about pop culture. I talk about pop culture. I’m a professor of media, law, and media studies in Atlanta. That’s me.
Latisha: And Lauren.
Lauren: Hi everyone, my name is Lauren Wethers. I am a writer and a podcaster based in New Orleans. I’m the co-creator and co-host of the podcast Reclaiming Jane, which is the Jane Austen podcast for fans on the margins. But I also spend time as a freelance writer writing about pop culture and politics.
And I am very excited to be able to talk about representations of black women, specifically in pop culture, because that is where I live.
Latisha: Yeah. So for those folks who are listening, which you hopefully are, this is an entire panel, all black women. And so we have a particular stake in a lot of these stories.
But I did want to kind of pull back a little bit and get a more general view of you both. So can you tell me a little bit about, like, your first memory of what got you interested in speculative fiction in the first place?
Lauren: Going back to the very, very beginning, like any good millennial born in the nineties, if we’re including fantasy and-or speculative fiction, Harry Potter was my first introduction, like, as a small child. But as an adult, what really got me into speculative fiction was Octavia Butler and Kindred specifically. That’s one of my favorite books. I have the graphic novel. I have the original version.
I really loved seeing what Black authors specifically could imagine. And it got me interested in reading Afrofuturism and seeing what universes could be created when Black women were in the author’s chair and when they could really put thought and intention into imagining what Black people could be, where we’ve been, and including us in those imaginings of what the world can look like through fiction.
So for really going back to the OG, it was the series that shall not be named, but as an adult what really got me into speculative fiction, it was Octavia Butler.
Latisha: Awesome, awesome. Thank you. Yvonne?
Yvonne: For me, I was a child of the eighties, not nineties, so my mother and grandmother and grandfather raised me on science fiction and not, like, science fiction children should be watching. My favorite movie from childhood was Robocop. So I grew up on Robocop and Predator and all of it. I grew up on sort of hard science fiction / action film. And so, as I got older, I got to say, “Why are there no Black women in these action films?” And so that sort of guided me to want to write myself or people who look like me as the hero.
So I eventually went to film school and studied screenwriting for that purpose. Like, I still love that type of genre and that type of film. Also my grandmother was obsessed with anything with vampires, so I started to watch vampires through watching with my grandmother. Actually, we used to watch reruns of old soap operas with vampires.
And so that’s how I felt I got into it from my parents and my grandparents. Sort of, “This is what we’re watching. Sit here and watch it.”
Latisha: So one of the first questions is what was your first impression of Sleepy Hollow? And one thing I wanted to do for our listeners is to remind you that this happened in 2013. So this is pre-“Me Too”, pre- a lot of the social reckonings that we’re dealing with right now. So you kind of have to put your mind back in that timeframe to situate this properly. But yeah, do you remember seeing Sleepy Hollow initially? The poster, the trailer? Like, do you remember your thoughts on that?
Yvonne: I remember being pretty excited about it. I was a fan of Nicole Beharie before Sleepy Hollow. I had seen her in a film called My Last Day Without You, which was sort of a small, independent, romantic comedy. I’d seen her in Shame. I’d seen her in some other stuff.
And so I was a fan before that, so I was excited to see her in a TV show and I was really intrigued by the sort of fish-out-of-water concept of bringing Ichabod Crane to the present. So initially before I started watching, I was excited about it. And so that was sort of the first leeway in me was like, okay, well, I like Nicole Beharie. I like a Black woman, the lead on the show. And so that guided me into sort of wanting to watch it.
Lauren: Yeah, I was similar. I think the first place I saw it was actually on Tumblr because it was 2013 when I was actually still on Tumblr with any sort of frequency, and kind of like Yvonne, I mentioned earlier, being a Black person who’s a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you often spend a lot of time looking for yourself and being disappointed. So when I saw the first poster for the show and I saw that there was not just a Black person, but a Black woman who was the co-star, it immediately got my attention. And seeing that she got equal billing was super exciting for me.
So that was what immediately caught my eye about Sleepy Hollow. I would have watched it for no reason other than the fact that it had a Black woman as a co-star.
Latisha: Yeah, I know I had a similar reaction ’cause you know, if you look at the posters, one thing is interesting. ‘Cause even in the poster and, of course, in real life, Nicole Beharie is shorter, physically, than Tom Mison. But still she, in a lot of the posters, it felt like she took up equal space. Which also at the time, Person Of Interest came out, which whether Taraji was in the poster or not, it was like a flip of the coin. Maybe if the sun’s shown in the right direction, you might see her. And when she would argue about that she was like, “I am the top billed woman. Why am I not on the posters?” And they were like, “Because we don’t care?”
But it was different with Nicole. ‘Cause you saw her front and center a majority of the time, which I thought was interesting, in their initial marketing push. So kind of given that was your first impression, you’re like, okay, “I’m excited about this new show. This woman’s, like, front and center. You know, she’s like Scully to his Mulder.”
What was the thing that surprised you most when the show premiered, if you remember? Like, either the first season or the pilot episode?
Yvonne: For me, I was most surprised — and this is sort of outside the show itself — I was surprised by how well it did in ratings. Like, I was genuinely surprised that it was, at one point, Fox’s number one show. And so to see that was exciting.
I was also surprised by, and I’m not talking only about the first season, she was, she was the lead, right? It was in many ways her show. And yeah, he was sort of a co-lead, but I thought she was sort of the guiding action and he was there as the sort of support for her during that first year. And so that also surprised me. So we had the number one show on Fox for the first year, and it is very much centered around in fantasy, around a Black woman, that in and of itself was very shocking to me.
Lauren: Yeah, I think I am similar again, speaking only to season one, because I’m sure we’ll get into later seasons. And there are drawbacks later, but as far as season one, I was also really pleasantly surprised by the fact that it’s centered around Nicole’s character of Abbie because I’m used to, if we get representation at all, it’s usually as the best friend character or somebody who’s in a supporting role to the white character who’s at the center of the show, who it’s built around. So it was a pleasant surprise to me to see that she had so much power within the plot and that so much of it centered around her, on her character, and that she was really integral to how that first season went.
Latisha: It was really her arc, ’cause you have that, that skepticism arc, and that going into the supernatural world and it being a part of the journey. And also, you know, when you have the supernatural stories of, like, the person who believes and the person who doe sn’t, or the person who kind of needs encouragement, like you said, typically the Black character is the encourager, not the person who is, like, this is my journey to move forward.
And I know for me, one of the first things I noticed that was interesting about Sleepy Hollow and, like, its very first episode that I’m like, “Wait.” In the first, we’ll say twenty minutes when Icabod is in jail and Abbie is the key to his release, I’m just like, “We’re going there? Okay.” You know, and that power dynamic seeming to be purposely flipped on its head, that I found impressive. And then Sleepy Hollow as a town was amazingly multicultural for a tiny town in the middle of New York. I was like, interesting. And Abbie was the clear main, like, love interest, desirous woman in the town. Which was also unusual, if you will, as far as, like, the way we’re normally presented. I mean, then you said you had John Cho —
Lauren: Orlando Jones.
Latisha: Right, Orlando Jones, you had Jenny, you know, this town was still, like, American small town, but clearly had a diverse population which I felt was an interesting choice for Fox to make. But it also made you feel like, “Oh, I could live here. And this is possible, you know, with all this, like, weird stuff happening.”
Yvonne: Well, something that I guess I found surprising in retrospect is the way Black women are positioned in speculative fiction as police officers. Looking at Abbie, looking at Person of Interest, looking at Watchmen, oftentimes, and I just thought about this: Black women are put in the role of the cop. So they sort of have to, I don’t know why necessarily that is, but looking back at Sleepy Hollow, I found it kind of interesting in how you talked about how she had to save him. She had to be the reason he was out of jail.
Lauren: Well, that’s a really good point because it goes back into the stereotype of “Black women are the strong character who fixes everything.” And I wonder if that has something to do with, when we are imagined into these worlds, we’re still imagined as somebody who’s there to fix everything, whether it’s in a role as a police officer or the emotional support or what have you. Why are we still in world where it’s our job to fix something?
Latisha: I think that’s interesting. And also in one of my favorite shows, Gargoyles, very similar. Yeah. At least the models I see as a cop. But there’s also the way we position the police in our society, because I also feel like there’s the, well, this is a position of power. And so this is what, you know, this, this Black female character has, which you might not necessarily have otherwise, or a level of respect that you might not have otherwise without the job.
You know, so, so it’s this really interesting double edged sword. And for, I think all of these reasons if, I didn’t know, when we initially talked, you said like, yes, how Sleepy Hollow burned bright initially, and then it just fell into tatters. But when you talk about it kind of burning bright for a moment, like what, what do you mean by that?
Yvonne: I mean that like you said, I think that the storytelling for that first season was outside of anything else. It was just really tight. Like they understood the mythology, they understood who these characters were. And for thirteen episodes, it was a really good show, like, right from the beginning to that last twist of the end, you wouldn’t fit them with Abbie was this and Ichabod was that, you understood how he had Abbie connected and why they had to connect.
And it was just sort of excellent really. The storytelling in and of itself was really well done. I don’t think that happened the last three years, necessarily, but I think for the first year it was really well done. And maybe that was because they had eighteen episodes and they didn’t know how to stretch it, and maybe they should have stuck to a tight thirteen. Maybe that was some stuff which we’ll probably talk about going on behind the scenes. But for the first year, I felt the show structure. It was just perfect. And that was a really well done thirteen episodes.
Latisha: What do you think, Lauren?
Lauren: I agree. So I didn’t necessarily watch, like, the initial run. It came out when I was doing too much work, to be honest, and not watching a lot of TV. So I ended up watching it after the season had come out and then watching it a little bit piecemeal because by the time I started watching, discontent had already started to brew amongst the Sleepy Hollow fandom. So then I went in a little bit more skeptical than I would have had I started watching on premiere day.
But I also, I mean, it was gripping, after the first episode I was ready to binge watch that entire season because the premiere was just so well-written and it set up everything perfectly. And I was, I was hooked. I was in but I wasn’t able to fully enjoy it, I think, because I knew what was coming.
Latisha: I think that’s really interesting, just like, the dynamic between being in the premiere and kind of — again, this is 2013, so binge-watching, while a thing, was not as much a thing as it is now — so the difference between watching something week to week on a schedule and how that affects your perception of something and how it develops over time, as opposed to, you know, where so many things are in the catalog now — Netflix, Disney Plus or whatever — and you binge, but you know, ooh, this is going to happen. So, you know, maybe I’m not as emotionally invested. It was just a totally different dynamic, which I think is interesting.
I somewhat got to the end, but not really. And a lot of people jumped off the train at some point in time, so I’m gonna ask: when did you jump off the train? , you jump off the train and why?
Lauren: I did. I really started watching, like, as season three was airing was when I started watching season one, which was probably a poor — not a poor choice because I didn’t know at that point, but it was unlucky. But by the time I got to season two, it felt like Abbie had been sidelined in her own show.
And I think the inclusion of Katrina made that a little bit more difficult because the writers wanted to focus on the dynamics between Ichabod and Katrina and less on what could have been with Ichabod and Abbie, and it felt like she was suddenly less important in a show that she had anchored in season one. And I could feel myself becoming less interested in the show. And then, of course, because I was watching as season three was airing, by the time season three was over and everybody was furious, I had no desire to continue watching the show. So I just quit and cut my losses. It’s like, I just, I’m not even going to bother.
Yvonne: Yeah, I stopped watching as soon as Abbie’s death happened. Her death hit me in a way — I don’t think I’ve ever been angered by any death on television ever, because she said, “I have done enough to service you. I’m happy with dying now,” like, those were her words and I’m like, wait, wait a minute! I was so angry — and I’m still angry when I think about it — that I just had to sort of cut my losses completely because at that point I had watched all — I had watched every week, all three seasons, even when I didn’t like it anymore, but that was the point where I was like, well, I’m done with this because you can’t even give her who was the lead character season one — at this point, she’s just becoming service this other character. And I just, I couldn’t do it anymore
Latisha: Same, same. I was committed season one, more committed, but started to lessen up during season two, and then season three hit and it was just like, so you are going to isolate her. She’s going to come back and then you’re going to kill her. WHAT?
Lauren: And not only did she die, she died saying, “I’ve serviced you.” Like, do you not have your own life to live? That’s just so insulting!
Latisha: It — it is. And then also thinking about, yes, Abbie was very much an anchor in season one and it wasn’t just her relationship with Ichabod, you also had her relationship with Jenny, you also had her relationship with her — but, like, all of these relationships helped us as an audience navigate what is this world of Sleepy Hollow? And then you have this switch where it’s just like, wait, she’s in the background? She shows up occasionally? And it caused us, like, this hurt.
Which I had interesting. I feel like it’s somewhat of a festering wound because there’s something about Nicole Baharie that was recent, and someone mentioned rage around Sleepy Hollow, or they’re saying like, “I don’t want to do this,” or “Someone’s going to Sleepy Hollow this thing.” And I’m, like — there’s a part of me that’s really happy that the rage around Sleepy Hollow, it just doesn’t seem to die. Just, we haven’t forgotten.
One thing that Nicole Beharie recently revealed about her time with Sleepy Hollow is that there were definitely times where she was not treated well on set in a variety of instances. Do you think that her treatment came across during the show’s airing? That, like, even if we were not aware of the specifics, that there was — did it come across like something was amiss?
Lauren: I think you could see it in how her character was sidelined and the plot. I don’t think necessarily you could tell there’s something going on in the writers room, but I don’t think we could tell specifically, like, Nicole Beharie the person is being mistreated on set. I think you could tell that there was something that was happening behind the scenes in the writer’s room to where they would decide to sideline this character, but not really what, specifically. That was just based on watching the show.
Afterward, I know when Nicole Beharie came out, when she was doing her interviews for Miss Juneteenth and said that she had been mistreated on the show, there were a couple of writers who then came forward and corroborated that account and said there were only so many of us on-site writers of color who had stepped forward to kind of stand behind her, and said there were only so many of us on set. We would try and put forward these ideas and they’d get shot down. We can vouch for her mistreatment. So I wonder now, knowing that retrospectively, that there were writers who were trying to put forward ideas and were also getting shot down and saying that that couldn’t happen, what that overall work environment was like during filming for any of the people of color who were on set and how that contributed to how the show was written, how Nicole Beharie was treated, her eventual exit from the show. How all of that combined.
Yvonne: Yeah , I think you definitely saw it in the storyline. Like, for the last couple of years, Sleepy Hollow filmed in Atlanta, and I used to work in film and television, so I knew a few people on the set. And so you didn’t necessarily know how she was being treated on the set itself, but you could definitely sort of see through the writing what was happening . Right? You could see that they viewed her as, “Alright, we’re going to sort of give you this storyline. It doesn’t really make any sense.” The third season storyline in and of itself was sort of like, “Alright, we’re going to put a spotlight on you in this way because we want to sort of push the character of Ichabod, and that, I guess, just sort of came down to what was in the writer’s room and who was running — the showrunner. He wanted to focus on that character and as a result, other characters got sidelines. And it’s a shame because, although we didn’t know the extent of the mistreatment, but we can sort of see tension in the storyline and how they were written.
Lauren: There were multiple showrunners, weren’t there?
Yvonne: Yeah, they went through a couple changes, yeah.
Latisha: So that’s actually something that Orlando Jones mentioned that, like, the season one showrunner who had a very specific vision for the show was different from season two. And so he talked about his exit from Sleepy Hollow, which was different from his exit from American Gods, where, like, in Sleepy Hollow, he had a say in how he left. He was like, “Okay, you’re coming in, you’ve got a new vision, but this show that you are creating is not the show I signed up for, so I’m going to orchestrate my exit.” Which is why he’s like, “Yeah, that did happen to Sleepy Hollow, but I don’t have as many issues, but” — that’s just, like, him as an actor — but there was definitely a change.
And Nicole Beharie also mentioned that both she and Tom Mison got sick at the same time, but the way that they were treated was completely different, with him being allowed to be offset and her kind of taking then more work. And then that actually resulted in her developing an autoimmune disease. And now that we know more — and again, this is the interview that she’s had where she’s like, “Now we have Me Too. Now we have more things with human resources, and we have more access,” you know, that could have changed her experience, but she’s like, you know how you go through something difficult but you’re like, “I am who I am because of what I went through. So I’m not saying I’d go back, but — “
There’s a question of how do you prevent or protect, you know, people of color, a woman of color, in these spaces where there’s so much power dynamics and so many things at stake. And then there’s this story that we get because of it. You know, do we, as the audience, get a positive story, or do we get something that feels a little wonky at some point because someone’s not being treated right? You know, not saying that there’s a question in that, but it’s just an interesting framing around what took place.
Lauren: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned what story we get as an audience, but then what story also is attached to the people who work on that show and who were forced to have that exit, like Nicole Beharie being labeled difficult or hard to work with, and just the racial dynamics of a Black woman being labeled difficult and hard to work with are — speak volumes. And was she hard to work with, or did she advocate for herself? And who gets that label?
Latisha: And that’s the question also. It also reminded me of Janet Hubert and her experience with The Fresh Prince and she’s like, “I’ve had a thirty-year sentence in, like, actor jail because you said I was hard to work with.” And Nicole Ari kind of had a similar experience, while a shorter sentence, if you will. And what does that do to your representation? To what people think they can achieve and what is possible?
Yvonne: I don’t want to sort of presume that this would automatically change stuff, but I think that one of the issues with Sleepy Hollow and in television in general is that the executives running the show by and large tend to be not people of color or not people who sort of represent the people on the show? I don’t want to veer off too far, but I read an interesting article — Candice Patton, right? And she was like, this is the first time she got to wear her hair natural when they got a Black showrunner, so having people behind the scenes who sort of understand the situation changes the dynamic in many ways. This changes how you interact with your — how your coworkers interact, what’s expected of them.
And if you don’t have that person running the ship who understand that — who has, in many ways, been there — you’re going to be in a bad situation anyway. So I think one way is to say, yeah, we want more representation on screen — I love seeing a Black woman in a fantasy show — but at the same time, it would be nice to have a black woman writing the show. You know, with a show, you end up with sort of representation without any meat to it.
Latisha: Yeah, representation without, like, authenticity.
Yvonne: Authenticity, exactly.
Latisha: Yeah, I know, like, Candice Patton — she mentioned something in The Flash where they were like, “Yeah, we’re celebrating Christmas, so we brought grandma’s famous noodle casserole.” And she was like, “A lot of people don’t have noodle casserole, no.” I mean, I think that’s what ended up on the show, but she’s like, ” I want it to go back and be like, Grandma’s famous sweet potato pie and Grandma’s famous collard greens, but like, if the writers in the room, one: don’t know; two: don’t research; and three: think that they can speak for someone without doing the work, then you end up with that.
So finally, my last question is: what do you think is the legacy of this particular show? Of Sleepy Hollow and its lasting effects, both positive and negative? Like, it’s 2020, the show premiered in 2013, and I still think it’s worth talking about, but what do you think? ‘Cause I feel like there are both positive and negative effects of the show kind of, you know, being in our lives and being presented.
Lauren: Oh, I think there are positives and negatives to the legacy. I mean, ultimately the legacy as a whole, I think it left a bad taste in audiences’ mouths just because of how it ended. And it was disappointing to watch it lose support because of the creative choices that the showrunners and the writers room made for their characters and just how the show was going to go.
But at the same time, I think it was also such a big moment for, like, speculative fiction on television and for representation records. So the fact that it was really only representation on the screen and up behind the camera, as Yvonne mentioned, because I just remember the level of excitement when the show was coming out and how much it meant to fan communities when it first aired. And that’s the piece of the legacy that I would want to hold on to: not so much what the show became, but the positive energy and the excitement and the great run that the initial run of episodes in season one had.
I think that’s the legacy that I would want to focus on in Sleepy Hollow — showing what can be done when you have a showrunner who has their head in the right spot, when you have a great writer’s room, when you have really good chemistry between two actors that can continue to carry the show. That’s what I would want to focus on and less so, like, the Game of Thrones-esque disappointing ending.
Yvonne: I agree. I was at Dragon Con, I think it might’ve been when they were filming the third season or whatever, and Nicole Beharie came and she got, like, the room — the standing ovation that Tom Mison and didn’t necessarily get, and she was shocked by it. So I hope that the legacy is that when people are allowed to be sort of seen in the space, there’s an audience for it, and that, even though it didn’t end the way we all would like, I still greatly appreciate the character of Abbie. Right? I greatly appreciate what she did for fantasy, and I think that that can sort of be a legacy to carry on, and hopefully it will continue in the future.
Latisha: Awesome. Well, thank you, ladies, so much for this conversation. It has been fantastic. I’m so excited to share the space with you all. Where can people find you? What are your next projects, and any last thoughts?
Yvonne: You can find me at @movieym on Twitter. My next project — right now, I’m writing a TV pilot, working on a script about love at comic book conventions. And then, so, you can find me @movieym. Hopefully it will be less angry, political talk in the future, which is what it is right now.
Lauren: People can find me on Twitter. I’m @laurenwethers, and there’s no A in my last name. It’s not a, like, weatherman, it’s not whether, like, whether or not either. So it’s very confusing. It’s just W-E-T-H-E-R-S. I’m usually doing most of my yelling on Twitter, so you can find me there or you can find me as half of the Reclaiming Jane podcast. And that one is @reclaimingjane. We have episodes released every other Wednesday.
And so you are welcome to follow my personal account if you’d like to hear me yell about pop culture all the time, or the Reclaiming Jane podcast account if you want to be updated on podcast episodes, or if you just really love Jane Austin memes. I’m having a lot of fun creating those.
Latisha: Awesome. Well, thank you Yvonne, thank you Lauren. This has been a great conversation, like I said before.
Please join us again on Interspectional, and everyone have a wonderful day.