Black Lightning’s Depiction of Superhero Mental Illness is So Important

Mental health issues are just another one of the real-world issues Black Lightning is ambitiously taking into its narrative stride.

This article contains spoilers for Black Lightning…

Black Lightning is having another great season. Picking up where Season 1 left off, Season 2 continues to tell a compelling, nuanced story about the importance of family and community in the face of institutional injustices, while also subverting many of the most frustrating superhero tropes in organic ways.

One such subversion has come in the normalization of therapy and, more generally, the representation of mental illness as something that can affect anyone… even and perhaps especially superheroes. In “Master Lowry,” we saw main character Jennifer Pierce, a teen meta who is having trouble dealing with her burgeoning powers, begin to see a therapist.

As depicted in the storyline, Jennifer’s powers aren’t the issue (which is, frankly, a relief in a genre that tends to depict girls and women with superpowers as inherently problematic and/or uncontrollable). Sure, they magnify the consequences of her mental health problems, but her underlying issue is the emotions and trauma she is not dealing with. Jennifer is scared—of herself, of the world’s reaction to her, of the possibility that she will never have a “normal” life. And she is angry—at herself, at the world, at her parents.

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Further reading: The Refrigerator Monologues Review

Jennifer saw her uncle kill someone in front of them in the Season 1 finale, and could have very well killed someone herself with her powers. She had to bring her own father back from the dead after her ex-boyfriend killed him. And that’s without taking into account all of the additional anxiety, stress, and anger that tend to come with being a black person in a modern America.

Over on Syfy Wire, Stephanie Williams addressed the importance of de-stigmatizing therapy in TV, especially as an example for black women, when the news first broke that Jennifer would be getting a therapist in Season 2, writing:

“With this news about Season 2, Black Lightning continues to inject important issues into its storylines, including the treatment of mental health. This topic couldn’t be more timely, especially in a world that wants black women to be superhuman on a day-to-day basis but often leaves them to deal with the stress that comes with such a tall order by themselves. A young black woman with superpowers getting therapy to help cope feels cathartic.”

At this summer’s San Diego Comic Con, we had a chance to ask China Anne McClain, who plays Jennifer, about the continued focus on Jennifer’s mental health issues.

“I love that [the show is] tackling it from that perspective of getting her a therapist,” McClain told us, because, as you can see in season one, Jennifer had so many psychological issues with getting the powers. Like, she did not want them, she already felt like an outsider being a part of this amazing family and living in the house on top of the hill. And so adding superpowers on top of it just made things worse for her.”

Further reading: Black Lightning Season 2, Episode 2 Review

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McClain is hopeful about the possibilities Jennifer’s therapy represent for her character: “Bringing the therapist in really is gonna help her to zen out and also to help her control her powers because she’s so powerful,” continued McClain. “Her cells create pure energy, so if she gets really pissed off, like, that’s not gonna be a good situation.”

We get a glimpse at Jennifer’s true emotional state at the end of “Master Lowry.” On the outside, she performs the act of a disaffected, bored, exasperated teen. On the inside, she is in incredible pain. It’s a powerful, vital representation of mental health issues—not only within the superhero genre, but anywhere on TV.

Mental health check-ups are an important part of anyone’s life, but superheroes seem like a particularly vulnerable demographic when it comes to mental illness (A fact Tom King is currently exploring in DC Comcis’ Heroes in Crisis, which centers superhero PTSD and trauma). Not only do most superheroes have tragic backstories featuring varying degrees of trauma, but they are also trying to deal with being different and wielding supernatural powers in a world that doesn’t usually make space for that.

Further reading: Black Lightning Season 2 Premiere Review

Superheroes should be going to get regular mental health check-ups as often as they do physical health check-ups (though, to be fair, they don’t seem to do enough of the latter, either). Why don’t we say: Superheroes should be exercising their mental fitness as often as they exercise their physical fitness. Imagine if Oliver Queen went to his therapist as often as he did the salmon ladder (because, if there is anyone on superhero TV that needs a therapist, it is Arrow protagonist Oliver Queen). He’d be the mentally fittest superhero in the universe!

Superhero stories sometimes acknowledge on some level that mental instability is not conducive to effective superheroism. However, this acknowledgment only tends to happen sporadically, when the narrative calls for it. Other times, it is specifically a superhero’s mental illness that makes them a superhero—a harmful representation that doesn’t seem particularly grounded in reality. Mental illness tends to make one less productive, as it can lead to difficulty concentrating, learning, and making decisions.

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Oliver Queen needed a therapist before he was stranded on an island for years, saw both of his parents die in front of him, and became a vigilante. I’ve been hoping for Oliver to get a therapist for six seasons and counting now—not only because it would be an important representation, but because it makes a lot of sense for his character, would be a lot of fun to watch, and would directly tie in to the main thematic interest of the show: the process of seeing Oliver learn how to live a healthy life filled with functional relationships and a stable sense of self-worth. (Oh, you thought this show was about archery?)

Arrow very briefly teased us with the possibility of this plot development back in Season 3, when Oliver went to Cupid’s therapist for information. The therapist tells Oliver that he could use some mental health therapy. He brushes her off, later telling Diggle that he doesn’t do therapy. (I give Diggle an immense amount of credit for not actively rolling his eyes in this moment, given that he has basically been Oliver Queen’s unofficial therapist since the show’s pilot.)

As JBuffyAngel points out in an excellent Tumblr post about the depiction of mental illness and PTSD specifically in Arrow, therapy doesn’t traditionally have a place in the myth of the superhero because the superheroism is the therapy. I agree with her, but I also think it’s not enough anymore.

Using superheroism as a metaphor for therapy and working through trauma isn’t enough anymore. Not for a culture that still has such an unhealthy relationship with mental illness. Not for a genre that is our culture’s most influential at the moment. Not for a genre that is so tied to masculinity, power, and explorations of the best ways to wield and express both.

Earlier in Black Lightning Season 2, we see Jefferson Pierce have a very Oliver Queen-esque reaction to the idea of prioritizing his mental health, and it’s not a jump to say that this has something to do with masculinity (though our culture’s mental health stigma no doubt plays a large role, as well). The depiction of Jennifer’s mental health treatment is so important, but, as a teen girl, Jennifer is allowed a degree of emotional vulnerability that adult men are not.

Further reading: Arrow Season 7, Episode 1 Review

When Lynn mentions to Jefferson that she thinks it would be a good idea for Jefferson to see a therapist as part of their conversation about helping Jennifer, Jeff immediately dismisses the idea. It feels like the show is aware of the hypocrisy of the moment, but it is still a particularly disappointing reaction for an educator who works with youth who have endured their fair share of trauma (just like Jeff, who saw his father murdered in front of him as a child).

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Jeff’s knee-jerk refusal is not a particularly surprising one and it’s not necessarily out of character, given what we know about him. In so many ways, Jeff’s character avoids many of the pitfalls of toxic masculinity—he isn’t ashamed to demonstrate emotion to his family, students, and community—but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a product of his culture. He lives in the same world that asks Khalil to demonstrate his power by killing one of Tobias’ drug dealers, that has Tobias “training” Khalil through physical and emotional abuse.

Black Lightning isn’t ignorant to the many reasons for avoiding shows of emotional vulnerability, of the potential consequences of asking for help in a world that so often equates emotional vulnerability with weakness. It just also chooses to tell the other side of that story: the potential consequences of not acknowledging and actively working on your emotional and mental health issues.

As refreshingly depicted by Black Lightning, Jennifer isn’t in therapy so she can be an awesome superhero (though that could be an eventual consequence of fruitful therapy); she’s in therapy because her worth as a human is not tied to her worth as a superhero. Her trauma does not serve a purpose, nor is it an acceptable excuse for the kind of self-indulgent vigilante tours the Bruce Waynes and Oliver Queens of the superhero world have set off on.

Jennifer’s trauma just is, and she deserves to be mentally and emotionally healthy, even if she never chooses to use her superpowers to fight crime or injustice. 

Stay up to date with all things Black Lightning Season 2 here.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of GeekRead more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.

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