Madonna or Jezebel? 'Greenleaf' Traps Its Teen Girls In A Tired Trope

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October 10th 2018

On a recent episode of OWN’s soapy megachurch drama Greenleaf, viewers were shocked to see once-close teen cousins, Zora (Lovie Simone) and Sophia (Desiree Ross), come to actual blows with each other. The melee was precipitated by Sophia’s disapproval of Zora’s choices and Zora’s frustration with Sophia’s constant judgment of her.

Their physical fight shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, however, because their character archetypes are always metaphorically beefing.

Zora and Sophia are currently written as polar opposites, complete with the character judgments that come along with their stereotypical identities.

Sophia is almost unfailingly virtuous, composed, and gracious--to little kids, her peers, and adults alike. She's a Sunday school teacher who has never had sex and adores her mom. The only things that shake her are (someone else's) court appearances and serious illnesses (understandably). She's the good one!

Zora, on the other hand, is the "wild child" who has already had sex with her bad-boy boyfriend Isaiah (Roshon Fegan) after a few months of dating. Zora lies to her parents and steals from the church. She is insolent, petulant, and disrespectful. She's the bad one!

This tired Christian trope that only allows women and girls to exist in the virtuous Madonna or Jezebel whore dichotomy is as old as the Bible itself, and just will not die--even in 2018's progressive TV landscape.

Perhaps the twist on the stereotype is that, based on their backstories, Sophia would seem more likely to fall into, er... ill repute, according to church culture--not Zora.

Zora,Sophia

The whole premise of Greenleaf is that Sophia’s mother Grace (Merle Dandridge) is the prodigal daughter. When Grace escaped from her toxic family, she left with a list of issues longer than the Book of Job. When she returns home to investigate why her beloved sister Faith died by suicide, she brings Sophia into the lion's den by having them both live at the family home.

Grace's tumultuous relationship with her mother Lady Mae should be studied by psych majors. And though Grace’s relationship with her father Bishop James, isn’t as explosive, their relationship is also tainted. Bishop’s admiration for Grace appears more rooted in narcissism than appreciation for who she is as an individual. They fight less, but he does Grace emotional damage as well.

Not to mention Sophia's father--or lack thereof. Sophia’s dad Ray caused the end of his short relationship with Grace when he cheated on her with his ex. Not only is Sophia’s father a cheater, he also has had only sporadic contact with Sophia. In “Veni, Vidi, Vici,” Grace states that Ray has gone months at a time without seeing Sophia. It also appears that when Sophia did spend time with him, she was emotionally abandoned, spending her free time roaming the mall with supposed friends she felt no connection with. Though Grace obviously loves and supports her daughter, with this history, no one could blame Sophia if she developed low self-esteem and lacked coping skills due to her father’s absence.

Zora, on the other hand, grew up with the sense of stability that living in the same house all of her life with both parents provides--even as her father Jacob is a cheater too. Zora has also always been surrounded by extended family: her grandparents and her Aunt Charity. For all of its faults, Calvary Church has also been a community support for all of Zora's life as well. Though Jacob has issues with Bishop, too, they are nothing compared to Grace and Lady Mae. Bishop James doubts Jacob’s abilities as a pastor where Lady Mae expresses contempt for Grace at every turn. In fact, Jacob seems to be the favorite of Lady Mae and they enjoy a close relationship. Lady Mae also seems to have been a good and present grandmother to Zora.

Zora’s mother Kerissa explicitly stated she waited for marriage to have sex with Jacob, as their church purity culture expects of women and girls; and though her husband has cheated on her multiple times, Kerissa appears to have handled his hurtful dalliances with a fair amount of emotional intelligence and equanimity. She has always been there both physically and emotionally for Zora in a way that, just from a practical standpoint, Grace could not have done with a deadbeat for a co-parent.

Though Sophia and Zora seem to subvert stereotypes based on their backgrounds, the colorist trope is alive and well when the characters are examined through the Madonna-Whore lens. Having the fair-skinned Sophia be "pure" and ideal while the darker skinned Zora is sexually active and judged as "out of control," is problematic, however unintentional it may be.

In fact, Grace seems to be the one woman character who gets to exist outside of the Madonna-Whore complex without real judgment. Now a leader in her own church, she is in a sexual relationship with the agnostic man she's dating. Grace preaches the Gospel and is comfortable having sex with a man who isn't her husband and doesn't share her beliefs and suffers no real consequences in her church for straying outside of the norm for the rigid, socially conservative Christian culture.

Grace and Zora can’t fairly be compared like Zora and Sophia can--Grace is an adult and can’t be threatened with being shipped off to a scared straight-type bootcamp like Zora’s parents threatened her. Still, in a white supremacist society, colorism allows the lighter-skinned Grace the privilege of a proximity to whiteness, which comes with more of a presumption of inherent goodness and "purity,"--despite any evidence to the contrary--and less harsh judgment. Research showing that lighter-skinned Black women get lighter prison sentences than their darker skinned counterparts shows the real-life consequences of colorism, and suggests that even in adulthood, Zora wouldn’t be able to get away with Grace’s behavior with the same freedom from harsher judgment.

Grace inhabits her contradictory lifestyle with a confidence that bears no consequences to her relationship with her daughter, either. In fact, Sophia isn't dissuaded in her strong faith by her mother's inconsistencies at all.

Sophia and Zora Face Off

Sophia doubles down on conservative Christian culture in the most genuine way, not even as a rebellion against her mother's more progressive interpretation and lifestyle. Though church culture has clearly failed Grace on a number of occasions--as well as Grace's sister, whose #ChurchToo silencing of sexual assault surely contributed to Faith's suicide. Still, Sophia unquestioningly embraces church culture and its teachings. Even when she asks about things that don't add up, it is with a bias toward affirming the infallibility of the Bible.

What the show hasn't answered is why.

Perhaps the writers decided early on that Sophia would represent the sort of childlike faith that everyone else in the family pretends to have but obviously does not. But how did she get to be that way? Where is the nuance? Sophia never stumbles, much less falls, and teens around the country are gagging. For a dramatic television show, the audience shouldn’t simply be asked to believe that somehow she has been endowed with some sort of preternatural, inherently angelic resilience. I want to see the receipts!

Similarly, one can speculate that Zora might be more sensitive to trauma than Sophia is. Her recklessness and delinquency could be an expression of deep-seated anger at her family's private behaviors in contrast to their pious masks. Sophia too, blames character weakness for Zora’s reckless behavior rather than inner anguish. She hasn’t stopped finger wagging long enough to really ask Zora what is going on with her.

When asked about her relationship with Faith's sexual abuser, Zora flatly denies that her uncle ever harmed her. The #ChurchToo culture, however, often silences victims of abuse, and Zora wouldn't be the first abused child to fall into sexual activity and delinquency in response, only to be judged by the same church culture as "fast" and "bad."

Is Zora the new Faith or is she just a teen doing teen things? Either answer would still require some work to pull Zora out of the realm of flat, reductive characters. And well into the third season of the series, there’s just not enough depth to these characters and insight into their interiority to justify speculation.

Which means we can only judge the characters by the one-dimensional fruit they bear and the harmful stereotypes they perpetuate. But with a show this juicy, I’m holding out hope for more--and better--for these teen girls.

Greenleaf airs on Wednesdays at 10/9c on OWN.

by Nadine Matthews on October 10th 2018
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