Thinking about: The creative message behind Swarm’s portrayal of the Black female villain

By Amy Rose Everett

Updated Apr 28, 2023 at 02:02 PM

Reading time: 4 minutes

From deepfake porn to TikTok sleuthing, ‘Thinking about’ is a monthly column in which Amy Rose Everett deep dives into the biggest issues facing gen Z.

Mid-March 2023, Atlanta creators Janine Nabers and Donald Glover (aka ‘This Is America’ singer, Childish Gambino) dropped Swarm, a stylish, surreal and super violent TV series on Amazon Prime Video, bringing a whole new meaning to the word ‘slay’. If you haven’t had the chance to jump on the bandwagon and watch the viral show just yet, here’s everything you need to know.

When art imitates life

The show centres around a fictional music megastar, Ni’Jah (played by Nirine S. Brown), and ultimate stan Andrea “Dre” Greene, portrayed by the super talented Dominique Fishback.

“She knows what we’re thinking and she gives it a name. She’s a goddess,” says Dre of Ni’Jah, the singer she’s locked in a parasocial relationship with. That is, a one-sided relationship where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, while the other party, or persona, is completely unaware of the other’s existence.

Dre’s bedroom walls are covered in Ni’Jah posters. She lives on her phone, running a Swarm fan account (the reference to Beyoncé’s Bey Hive becomes clear). She blows most of her rent money on extortionate concert tickets—remember the scramble for seats at Bey’s Renaissance World Tour?

“It’s not real,” Dre’s former foster sister says of the fandom at some point in the show. But gen Z viewers know that’s not true. Raise your hand if you’ve been personally victimised by Ticketmaster. Exactly. So what makes this narrative special enough to base a whole series on? The stan is a serial killer, and she’s a Black woman.

The team behind Swarm includes Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. creator Adamma Ebo, and former US President Barack Obama’s daughter, Malia Obama, among others. They’ve constructed a dark-skinned Black character as terrifying and murderous as her archetypal white (and typically male) counterparts. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Dexter Morgan, Joe Goldberg—the list goes on.

Speaking to Vulture, Nabers explained the thought process behind such a depiction: “There’s a woman Donald [Glover] follows on Twitter; she’s a Black woman, a teacher. She tweeted, ‘I’m so tired of seeing Black women on TV play therapists and lawyers and doctors and people who just have their shit together. We can be serial killers too.’”

Swarm was somewhat of a slow burner, partly because people had trouble getting past the pilot (titled ‘Stung’), which ends in disturbing, protracted violence. That theme continues on to the bitter end of the season.

Many have simply asked, why? What’s it all for? Unsurprisingly, the show has faced criticism for “actually dangerous” choices that negatively portray Black women.

Is ‘Swarm’ based on a true story?

“This is not a work of fiction,” reads the TV series’ opener, implying that the themes explored in Swarm are indeed happening IRL. “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional,” it adds. If you made it to episode two (‘Honey’), you might have noticed parallels with real events that took place between 2016 and 2018.

Glover has more than once been accused of perpetuating ingrained prejudice against Black women (also known as ‘misogynoir’) through ill-thought out plot lines and remarks made during interviews.

Tasteless mistake, or a bold attempt to make Black female characters multifaceted? Glover’s colleague Nabers told Vulture it’s about exploring uncharted territory: “At the end of the day, I would hope that Black women watch this show and feel like they are seeing a part of Black femininity they haven’t seen before, and they’re drawn to it.”

I asked movie and TV content creator Tyrell Charles, known as @TheoriesByT on TikTok, for his thoughts. “I think what Janine [Nabers] said is super important and I’m glad it is something being discussed. There are so many roles and archetypes in Hollywood that Black women, and in particular darker-skinned Black women, get excluded from. The villain is one of them,” the creator first told me.

“It is a tricky needle to thread, because darker-skinned Black women also get labelled with harmful assumptions of their character—like being loud or aggressive. Traits that one might associate with masculinity. So when you make a dark-skinned woman the villain, you then lean into the idea of Black people only being seen as threats,” Charles added.

Charles was reminded of criticism received by Tim Burton’s smash hit series Wednesday: “Two dark-skinned characters were temporarily antagonists, and people wondered if it was a harmful stereotype. I think a show like Swarm handles it better, because for one thing Dre is the protagonist (despite her actions), but for another, there are several Black characters in the show being portrayed in a variety of ways, including Ni’Jah, Marissa and Khalid.”

“So, Black women can be villains, but they can also be gentle and elegant. This reflects the reality of people of colour; that we’re not monoliths,” the creator concluded.

With incredibly talented executives like Glover and Nabers, we know that each artistic choice, and scene, was intentional. The show takes deliberate aim at two themes: the toxicity and power of modern stan culture, and through this lens, the complexities of how Black women are portrayed onscreen.

Every episode is without a doubt an uncomfortable, gruelling watch—this wasn’t meant to be fun. The main character remains one-dimensional, cold and monstrous, and the murders only amp up, with Dre becoming no more relatable than she was at the start of the series.

We can’t see ourselves in her like we might Tony Soprano, sweating his way through therapy and trying to be a better person. Most of the pathos we do have died with Dre’s treasured best friend, way back in the pilot. Memories of the pair giggling in bed, or Dre kissing Marissa’s self-harm scars, fade very quickly.

So why fight to create a multi-faceted Black female lead, then restrict her to warped acts of murder? The show’s narrative deliberately made it hard to understand this dynamic main character, which muddles the story’s purpose for a lot of viewers. Perhaps the audience expects an emotional payoff, or to end up rooting for Dre, because she is a Black woman.

But why should Swarm’s protagonist carry the burden of being loveable? The series throws up more questions than answers, but it starts crucial discussions we might not have had otherwise. The message might feel somewhat empty, but maybe that’s intentional. Perhaps Nabers and Glover’s very point is that there shouldn’t have to be a point at all.

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