Would you want to have superpowers? It’s a deceptively simple question. Most people, especially comic book fans, would answer “yes.” Is it that easy, though? BLACK LIGHTNING hits the harder points of that question, grounding in more realistic issues with superpowers and superheroes. The show grapples a lot with the issue of wanting powers — and the responsibility of having powers — with Anissa and Jennifer Pierce.

Jennifer Pierce is the side of the story that people likely have a harder time understanding, and I think that BLACK LIGHTNING uses that to really make the argument shine. Jennifer Pierce doesn’t want powers, and she especially doesn’t want to be a superhero. Jennifer’s stance is vitally important to the major themes in BLACK LIGHTNING: responsibility, black people dealing with manipulation and experimentation, and choice.

Powers and Choice

One of the big factors when it comes to powers in BLACK LIGHTNING is that the government (specifically the ASA) forced them onto the people of Freeland. The narrative of BLACK LIGHTNING involves racially motivated experimentation on the entire town. As viewers, we have to keep in mind that the ASA views people with powers as a negative side-effect of their plot to subdue black people.

Jennifer Pierce
Image courtesy of DC Entertainment & The CW

This makes BLACK LIGHTNING’s stance on powers inherently different. Even when it comes to people who make the best of it, like Anissa and Jefferson. It’s not atypical for powers to be gained without choice in comics — people who are born with them, people who receive them in accidents, and so on — but the situation in BLACK LIGHTNING is deeper than that. It’s not a freak accident or just the work of genetics. Anti-blackness is the direct cause of powers in Freeland.

This factors into Jennifer’s life — her anger at being unable to choose to have a “normal” life clearly ties into BLACK LIGHTNING’s general commentary about race. Even without Jennifer knowing about the experiments on Freeland, she understands the idea of not having a choice, of not getting to decide her own future because of larger, more controlling factors. Jennifer’s status as a black girl from an influential black family influences a lot of who she is as a character. It’s certainly a factor in her stance on her powers.

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Jennifer VS. Anissa

The discussion of what having powers means for someone’s life occurs largely between Anissa and Jennifer. Anissa, as an activist, speaks about responsibility to other people. However, Anissa doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that some people can’t — and don’t need to — sacrifice their own happiness for others. Anissa has strong morals, and is an amazing activist, but doesn’t seem to understand that other people simply can’t live the life she’s living.

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Jennifer Pierce makes a great counterpoint to Anissa because her stance is clearly grounded in the contrasts she has with her sister. Anissa is a grown woman who has the freedom of being a college student and no longer living with her parents — she’s right in the thick of forming her adult identity as an activist. Jennifer, on the other hand, is a high schooler. She lives with her parents still, and still has the vulnerability and emotional turmoil that comes with being a teenager.

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A 16-year-old being unable to cope with the sudden huge responsibility of having superpowers makes sense. Jennifer desperately wants to be normal. She wants to have a boyfriend, go to prom, have friends, go clubbing, and smoke weed. Jennifer isn’t ready to accept the full responsibility that her family is unintentionally forcing on her even before she got her powers. It’s no stretch to understand why a teenager wouldn’t want to deal with a life-altering responsibility.

Normativity and Double-Binds

The fact that Jennifer desperately wants to be normal also ties back to the fact that she’s a black girl. On top of that, being the youngest of a noteworthy family puts even more pressure on her. It’s a common experience for people of color — wanting to be able to just live life without it being emblematic of their entire community. For Jennifer, this stress is especially strong. The idea of her family puts more stress on her to be an example of a “good” black person. Having people force you into a position of being a spokesman for your entire race is endlessly stressful.

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Sadly, even wanting to be “normal” for people of color is difficult. There are questions of who fits into normative labels, first of all. Second, there’s the question of who creates the standard for what society considers normal. Jennifer Pierce, when speaking about her powers, seems very fixated on relationships. Jennifer’s mind circles back to wanting a relationship and wanting children. People of color tend to fall back strongly on heteronormativity to enforce their status as fitting the norm. It’s possible that the whole reason Anissa hasn’t been striving for a “normal” life like Jennifer is because Anissa is gay.

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The issue is that it isn’t bad for Jennifer Pierce to want to be normal. It’s not her fault these norms have been placed on her. People of color (and especially black people) are placed in a double-bind. Being “normal” means buying into oppressive structures and adjusting yourself to what they want.

However, not being normal means being punished by those structures.

Jennifer Pierce, Powers, and Trauma

Outside of the racial friction about powers in BLACK LIGHTNING, Jennifer has plenty of personal reasons to dislike her powers. Starting from the very simplest thing—it’s destructive. The first time she experiences her powers, she fries her phone. The second time, she blows up a pillow… and the shot implies she comes very close to injuring her older sister just by proximity. The fact that they were initially triggered by negative emotions can’t cause the best association, either.

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Jennifer also has no reason to associate powers—or even heroes—with positive things. The world of BLACK LIGHTNING makes it clear that Freeland doesn’t see any assistance from other superheroes. Black Lightning was unable to stop Reverend Holt from being shot, and, by association, unable to stop Khalil from being paralyzed.

Jennifer clearly associates Khalil losing his ability to walk with activism as well. She outright tells Anissa that the last time she attended a march, her boyfriend was shot. Jennifer also quickly figures out friction over Jefferson’s powers caused her parents’ divorce.

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In her personal life, Jennifer Pierce has very few reasons to view her powers as a good thing. Jennifer didn’t only end up with powers she didn’t want. Powers are what are putting her older sister and father at risk, what caused her parents to split, and there are not enough “pros” in Jennifer’s eyes to make them worth it. Even the “upside” of powers—the idea of heroes—ties directly to the idea of her family being in danger.

Reality within Fiction

One of the things that BLACK LIGHTNING does well is ground its fictional aspect in real-life problems. This especially shines through with Jennifer’s storyline. BLACK LIGHTING isn’t necessarily gritty or pessimistic—instead, it’s realistic. It doesn’t present negativity for negativity’s sake, first off—it does it to further a message. Jennifer not wanting powers brings up interesting questions about consent, normativity, and responsibility.

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In fact, even when BLACK LIGHTNING is facing the horrible realities of oppression in its narrative, it stays optimistic. When it comes to Jennifer, she still has her family—especially her parents—to support her. Jefferson and Lynn both approach her understanding why she wouldn’t want to have powers. At the same time, they take the role of the adult in explaining why she still needs to learn to control them.

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Due to BLACK LIGHTNING’s realistic approach to its characters and universe, there’s not one “right” answer. Jennifer has her stance on powers, and the show makes great efforts to have the audience understand. Anissa has her opposing stance, which the show also covers extensively. BLACK LIGHTNING faces the reality that politics surrounding the lives of PoC don’t split into simple right or wrong answers most of the time. It smartly uses that approach to the fictional elements of its story as well.

Jennifer’s storyline shows how well BLACK LIGHTNING is at presenting difficult topics. There isn’t a solid answer to Jennifer’s dilemma. In many ways, Jennifer’s struggle with her powers represents all of Freeland… and the struggles of people of color in real life. In a lot of ways, Jefferson’s response to Jennifer saying she didn’t ask for her powers is the closest thing we have to a solution:

“Believe me, I know. But you do have to deal with it.”

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