Inside Donald Glover’s Complicated History With Black Women

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Amazon Studios
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Amazon Studios

Donald Glover is inarguably one of the most prominent Black creators working in Hollywood today, from his Emmy-winning television work on the recently concluded Atlanta to his Grammy-winning rap persona Childish Gambino. Soon, he’ll star in a new film set in the Spider-Man universe and a highly anticipated Mr. and Mrs. Smith remake. But right now, all eyes are on the multihyphenate for his latest series Swarm, created with Janine Nabers, about a pop stan (Dominique Fishback) who goes on a murdering spree.

In the weeks since its premiere, Swarm has already become a critical darling, eliciting discourse online (both light-hearted and serious) about its guest stars, explicit sex scenes, and heightened depiction of stan culture. However, the chatter surrounding the show took a sharp turn this past week when a quote from Glover about Fishback’s character Dre went viral on Twitter. His remarks reignited a longstanding discussion about his problematic—or, in some internet users’ words—“hateful” relationship with Black women throughout his career.

In a recent profile of Fishback for Vulture, Glover, who directs Swarm’s pilot, spoke about the guidance he offered the actress, including that she should think of the protagonist as an “animal” and “less like a human.” He expanded on this direction in an even more startling way when he associated Dre’s demeanor with his personal fear of dogs.

“Actors in general, they want to get layered performances,” Glover told the magazine. “And I don’t think Dre is that layered. I wanted her performance to be brutal. It’s a raw thing. It reminds me of how I have a fear with dogs because I’m like, ‘You’re not looking at me in the eye. I don’t know what you’re capable of.’”

For obvious reasons—mainly, the systematic dehumanization of Black women—these words didn’t land well with viewers and critics (many of them prominent Black women) on Twitter.

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For one thing, these remarks run counter to what many fans of Swarm have appreciated about the psychological series so far—not just that it’s the rare psychological show to center a Black woman’s perspective but that it manages to find empathy for Dre amid her downright deplorable behavior. Interestingly enough, the penultimate episode directly challenges viewers to find humanity in troubled, disenfranchised women like her.

For many, Glover’s remarks were less surprising and more affirming of what many of his critics had already deduced based on his stand-up comedy, music and his most notable project, Atlanta—which has inspired a number of op-eds on its depictions of Black women. So how did Glover, lauded by white, mainstream Hollywood as a progressive and even radical voice in multiple industries, gain such a notable reputation for misogynoir?

The origin of these accusations might seem a bit fuzzy to those outside of the Black community. Examples are a bit scattered, but they mostly hint at an uneasy relationship with Black women rather than an overt opposition to them. However, for Black women familiar with these sort of dog whistles, Glover’s recurring remarks about non-Black women warranted a fair amount of suspicion.

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Many of these early claims of misogynoir spur from the 39-year-old’s love life, which naturally shows up in his work. Despite his well-documented interest in depicting Black subjects and collaborating with Black artists, Glover has repeatedly been accused of not being romantically interested in Black women. And some of his lyrics as Childish Gambino, particularly about Asian women, have highlighted a supposed fetishization of women who aren’t Black.

A primary example is a track from his 2011 album Camp called “You See Me,” in which he raps, “forget these white girls / I need some variation, especially if she very Asian.” The hook contains the lyrics, “ballin’ each and every day / Asian girls everywhere, UCLA” In another song, “Bonfire,” he exclaims, “this Asian dude, I stole his girl / and now he got some Kogi beef.” That same year, he also curiously started a Tumblr page posing as an Asian girl.

Glover’s seeming fetishization of non-Black women was also underscored in his 2012 comedy special “Weirdo,” which previously lived on Netflix but is curiously no longer available to stream. In addition to making jokes about dating Filipina and Armenian women, the comedian recalls being turned on by a white woman who called him the N-word in bed, according to several Twitter users.

Eventually, Glover’s supposed tensions with Black women became more spelled-out over the four seasons of Atlanta. While the critically acclaimed show succeeded in many ways, the predominantly Black, male writers room struggled to represent the series’ Black, female (mostly side) characters beyond two-dimensional sketches, occasionally invoking racist and sexist stereotypes.

Among some of Atlanta’s cringiest moments in this regard is a bottle episode from Season 2 titled “Champagne Papi.” In a scene that went viral on Twitter, a dark-skinned Black woman unleashes an oddly bitter tirade against a white woman at a party for dating a Black man. Another questionable, if not totally problematic, episode that season follows the series’ male characters on a trip to Statesboro, where they’re terrorized by a group of Black college women.

This discourse carried on into Atlanta’s third and fourth seasons, as Black women continued to appear in loud, cartoonish ways. The show’s continued shortcomings with women were felt most explicitly in the stagnant portrayal of Earn’s (Glover) love interest, Van (Zazie Beetz). For most of Season 3, which Van is hardly in, her character is largely aloof and inaccessible—until the season finale, written by one of the show’s few female writers Stefani Robinson, attempts to offer her some interiority. In Season 4, her sudden commitment to Earn, who’s previously been an unreliable and cruel partner, is completely unearned.

Before critics could even criticize Van’s disappointing trajectory, the casting of Beetz—a biracial, light-skinned woman amongst the darker-skinned, male cast—lent to a separate but somewhat related conversation about colorism.

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The internet can often be forgiving of talented but imperfect artists, who routinely churn out compelling work. However, Glover’s difficulty with Black women continues to cast a shadow over his career, largely because of his own evasiveness around the subject.

Glover infamously refused to address the backlash in a bizarre self-interview for Interview Magazine last year, telling himself, “I feel like you’re using Black women to question my Blackness.” The description for Episode 9 of Atlanta’s third season, titled “Rich Nigga, Poor Wigga” appeared to be another agitated refusal to earnestly discuss the topic: “Black and White episode? Yawn. Emmy Bait. Why do they hate black women so much??”

Counter to the scrutiny Glover’s attracted online, he’s received plenty of praise and appreciation from the Black women he’s collaborated with throughout the years, including Beetz, Fishback and Nabers.

Likewise, Twitter users have been grappling with how to talk about Glover’s blindspots without completely disregarding his female collaborators or ignoring Nabers’ authorial voice. The series’ showrunner has made it clear that, while the pitch for Swarm was originally Glover’s, he wanted to “[allow] a Black woman to write a series about a Black woman.”

Overall, Swarm seemed like a ripe opportunity for him to acknowledge Black women in his art beyond broadly written caricatures or plot devices. The consensus online seems to be that the series does, despite how Glover chooses to interpret the protagonist. But as much as we might need him to address or explain his latest remarks in a meaningful, remorseful way, history suggests he probably won’t.

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