Aisha’s Broken #BlackGirlMagic in Fate: The Winx Saga

Aisha with water in Winx
Aisha (Precious Mustapha) working with water. Screenshot from Fate: The Winx Saga (Netflix, 2021)

The British fantasy series Fate: A Winx Saga was an overnight sensation when it hit Netflix in January 2021. The fairy fantasy offered a welcome escape from American realities at the time. The COVID-19 death toll had just passed half a million as the imminent trial of George Floyd’s murderer offered minimal hope amidst the epidemic of death for Black America from police brutality. For six episodes, fans disappeared into a sanguine story about beautiful people using beautiful magic to solve problems.

Well, beautiful white people, anyway. The show came under fire for whitewashing the characters, which creator Brian Young adapted from Nickelodeon’s Winx Club (2004). In the Nickelodeon series, the main fairies ranged from white and Asian to Black and Latinx, but only the Black fairy made it to Netflix. Her name is Aisha, and she is portrayed by British-Nigerian actress Precious Mustapha. 

Mustapha has commended the show for making important strides to put “people who look like me on-screen” while urging “there could be more.” Her comment hits on the double-edged sword of increased representation for marginalized people in “mainstream” (read: white) culture. While more on-screen representation does matter in a more inclusive society, it also can cause systemic anti-Blackness to take new, covert forms. 

In Fate, racist ideologies enter the storyworld through plot holes, or moments in a story that are confusing, serve no purpose, or where something just doesn’t track. Sometimes, plot holes just reflect bad writing or rushed production. But as Toni Morrison argues in Playing in the Dark, they can also reveal how storyworlds designed by white producers often don’t consider how that world would treat Black women. 

The fairy world of Fate is such a world. Unlike its contemporary Bridgerton, which explicitly, if shoddily, accounts for an entire class of Black landed gentry in Regency London, Fate gives no indication, even implicitly, that the creators considered Blackness, let alone Black womanness, at all. That consideration would have to include their daily experiences of racism and sexism, what Moya Bailey has termed misogynoir.

Because of this failure, racist tropes find their way onto the scene in thoughtless characterization as well as the plot holes surrounding Aisha’s inexplicable mid-season magical breakdown. While the show constructs Aisha’s “broken magic” as a personal failure, it is arguably symptomatic of the systemic anti-Blackness that Aisha experiences, but is never acknowledged as such. Despite the inclusion of a Black female character, the series whitewashes Aisha’s character and reproduces the dangerous idea that race and racism can easily be written out of our shared stories. I’m here to show that, in fact, they can’t.

Dangerous Naming

When we meet Aisha, she is a focused pupil in search of a swimming pool. She is also the roommate of the central character, Bloom, who regularly assaults Aisha with her self-centered plans to find her birth parents and discover her true identity. 

Like Bloom, the other members of the Fate girl squad are named for their unique fairy powers. Bloom is named for her powers as a fire fairy. Stella has light magic. Terra has earth magic. Musa has emotion magic.

The name Aisha, however, has no clear symbolic value in the show. It is simply a generic name for Black women. Unlike the intimately named white fairies, her name has no connection to her magic, no metaphoric power in the fairy world. Her fairy element, by the way, is water, which could have given the show’s creators dozens of ways to name her. However, they failed at this and many other opportunities to make her more than the Token Black Fairy.

The deviation in naming Aisha marks her as Other. That Othering has a crucial function in the history and present of white patriarchal colonizing violence. White slavers have used denaming since the first men, women, and children were stolen from their homes and trafficked along the Middle Passage. “They were no longer Mbundu or Akan or Fulani,” writes Hannah Nikole Jones of the 1619 Project. “These men and women from many different nations, all shackled together in the suffocating hull of the ship, they were one people now.” 

Unfortunately, a similar kind of violent homogenization takes place in the naming of the “enemy race” in Fate. The Burned Ones, as these enemies are called, are monstrous humanoids with smoldering black char for skin. As Jasmine Gallup explains for ScreenRant, they are regarded as “mindless monsters, wreaking nothing but destruction,” without exploration of their origins as humans wronged by war crimes seeking peace. Although ostensibly on opposite sides, Aisha and the Burned Ones both occupy what Ebony Elizabeth Thomas describes as The Dark Other, or “the obstacle to be overcome.” Both stand in the way of Bloom’s self-actualization, occupying a marginalized position with their shared names that signify Otherness through darkness.

An Empty Surface

Aisha will remain undifferentiated for the entire series, disclosing almost nothing of herself while the white fairies struggle with dilemmas rooted in their magical powers. She is never much more than a studious blank page. No wonder viewers felt so little connection to her, even going so far as to describe her as “boring” and “unfunny.” But they miss the point. Aisha is just an empty surface onto which the entitlement of her white friends is projected.

Bloom is most of the source of that entitlement. In Episode 1, as Aisha swims her laps, she notices Bloom heading into the woods. Concerned, she follows to find Bloom’s untrained fire magic spinning out of control.

“Bloom!” Aisha calls. “It’s okay…you’re losing control. Just try to calm down.” 

“Just go away!” Bloom screams, as the fire starts to rage.

Bloom warns Aisha to run. But Aisha instead plants her hand powerfully into the earth, extinguishing the flames with her water magic. They argue on their way back to the dormitory.

Bloom shouts at her, “You shouldn’t have been out there!” 

“You were a runaway train with no idea what you were doing,” Aisha counters.

Bloom continues to defend her actions, transitioning into a traumatic origin story about burning down her family home because she could not control her emotions, and therefore her magic. As Aisha moves to comfort Bloom, she suddenly connects the dots of Bloom’s origin story, realizing what Bloom did not: she is a changeling adopted by human parents. Aisha’s revelation will catalyze Bloom’s self-centered quest at the cost of Aisha’s physical and emotional well-being.

Ultimately, this scene signals a fundamental problem in the fledgling friendship between the roommates: Bloom barely acknowledged that Aisha saved her ass. Further, facing fair and wise criticism from her peer, Bloom deployd that pernicious strategy of oppression indicted by Ruby Hamad in White Tears/Brown Scars: white women’s tears. In their interaction, there is a dangerous lesson to young women about the way that “the sisterhood” works: white women are to be protected from criticism and non-white women are central to that protection, acting only in an emotional support role or as a tool for white women’s self-actualization. 

The Power of Water

In Episode 3, Aisha’s magic suddenly falters, with no clear explanation. When Aisha’s white professor asks her during class to control her water magic, she cannot seem to get it right.

“Yes, control. I think I get the idea,” Aisha announces as she attempts to pull a mass of water in a single bubble out of a shallow dish. “I can do this.” She smoothly levitates the mass in a tinkling crystal sphere.

But things go awry when the teacher challenges her further, pulling droplets away from her sphere, challenging Aisha to control her magic when chaos is introduced. 

The teacher provokes her. “A single body of water is persistent, reliable. Consider the individual elements that combine to form the whole. A drop of water is unpredictable, vague, amorphous. Can you isolate it? Can you maintain that which fights form?”

In Aisha’s fairy world, fairies are valued for their ability to properly control the forms that their magic takes. The “unpredictable, vague, amorphous” deviations are meant to be brought under control, lest they threaten the hegemonic whole required for order. When Aisha cannot properly bring deviant droplets into their proper form, she is a fairy who cannot control her substance. 

In a world where whiteness dictates the rules of proper form, Blackness is deviance. When Aisha’s teacher asks her to fight form, she asks Aisha to conform, to fall into line with the expectations of white hegemony. Aisha’s struggle to control her own Blackness, “substance without form,” is publicly criticized as a personal failure of knowledge and skill, an assumption that erases the role of an educational system that denies her identity. The white fairies also do not recognize that Aisha’s deviant form is, as Denise Ferreira da Silva argues, also why her water power is so valuable. A real education would encourage Aisha to “activate blackness’s disruptive force…to disclose what lies at the limits of justice.” Unfortunately, this is not how Aisha’s white teacher — who is also headmistress of the school and Bloom’s self-appointed mentor — thinks.

With Aisha comes the strength and resilience of Black women, the oppression enforced by white women, the binds of colorblind sisterhood, and the list goes on. In the moment when Aisha struggles between fighting form and conforming, she returns centuries of struggle to Fate without explicit authorization from the show’s creators who, dollars to donuts, simply didn’t consider her character as a Black woman at all. If they had, the remaining plot might have gestured toward Aisha’s value as a droplet: unpredictable, amorphous. Instead, she is punished for her nonconformity, beginning with a disappointed head shake from the antagonizing instructor as Aisha falters, drenching the room. Dejectedly, she announces she’s off to the pool.

White Entitlement

Aisha’s struggle with her powers sparks discussion between Musa and Bloom as they eat together in the cafeteria. Their confusing exchange shapes the next plot hole of interest.

Bloom: “It’s just strange not seeing Aisha get something right.” 

Musa: “Agree. Not sure why that makes you feel so obnoxiously guilty.” 

Bloom: “Aisha’s tired. Yeah. My parents think that [our school is] in Switzerland, so…they Skype me at 9:00 a.m. Switzerland time every morning…It’s 2:00 a.m. our time.” [Lying to her parents about the school’s location is part of Bloom’s plan to uncover the conspiracy of her birth.]

Musa: “Yes, we can all hear you.”

The most telling moment in this conversation is the missing “because” in Bloom’s response. If she actually did feel guilty it would read: “Aisha’s tired because my parents think…” Instead, there is a “yeah” that ostensibly erases Bloom’s accountability for Aisha’s suffering. Bloom is further absolved when Musa (who is supposed to be the empath) tells her that the other white fairies are “doing fine,” implying that Aisha’s exhaustion is her problem.

While this conversation could set the stage for Bloom to finally come to an epiphany about her selfishness, something else happens. The cafeteria scene cuts to Aisha and Bloom in their dormitory. Here, Bloom lets the entire thing drop. She tells Aisha, “You’d be proud of me” because she exercised control over her magic that day. Not only does she not apologize, she also fishes for a compliment on succeeding at the very thing with which Aisha is currently struggling.

When Aisha asks for quiet, Bloom instead disseminates more of her conspiracy theories about her birth until Aisha dares to suggest there may be no conspiracy. “Some people would kill to be a natural with magic like you, even if they were just a regular fairy,” Aisha tells Bloom softly. Blowing past the obvious cry for support, Bloom launches into yet another sappy monologue about the horrors of being ordinary.

Except this time, Aisha does not move to soothe Bloom’s hurt feelings — and unfortunately for Aisha, the retribution is swift. Bloom turns the girl squad against Aisha during a pivotal scene where Aisha tries to stop her friends from getting themselves killed in service of Bloom’s egomania. 

The Magical Return

Eventually, the crew reconciles and bands together to fight the rising evil. At the final fight, the same professor who chastised Aisha’s renegade droplet tells her to aid Bloom in battle because “she’s going to need your control.” Suddenly, Aisha’s magic works like gangbusters. There is no explanation, no reconciliation, no exciting training montage. Her magic just simply works as if the mysterious breakdown had never been.

But there is an implicit cause, one rooted in the story’s failure to position Aisha as a full subject. When Aisha fought against Bloom’s privilege, asserting her equal say in the affairs of the world, her magic suffered as a penalty. Her so-called strength was in the wrong place, trying to resist white supremacy instead of quietly supporting its exercise. Once Aisha falls in line with Bloom’s mission, however privileged and threatening it had been for five and a half episodes, Aisha’s magic can once again function. Instead of fighting Bloom, the element of privileged chaos, Aisha is now her greatest defender.

In celebrating Aisha’s control and conformity, the season’s conclusion reinforces the harmful “expectation of strength” that saturates the lives of Black women and girls. “Black women struggle with expectations and responsibilities that lead them to neglect their own health and wellbeing,” explains race and health scholar Dr. Seanna Leith. “It should not be a surprise, then, that Black women are more likely to die at a younger age than women from other racial groups.” The notion that Aisha should support Bloom’s agenda at the expense of her own growth and autonomy reflects this underlying logic:  Black women are supposed to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of a white power structure.

A Different Choice

Unlike many Netflix series, Fate is being renewed for at least one more season, giving it a chance to redeem itself. The show has to make a choice, a choice that also should resonate off-screen. That choice is not just to write a Black character into the story, or even hire Black women as writers and producers. Additionally, it means recognizing what the story looks like from Aisha’s perspective, and keeping that story at the center. It means putting Aisha on par with the white fairies, each of whom have significant and private encounters with their own magic and what it tells them about their needs and emotions. It also means creating characters who are, as Shayla Lawson writes in This is Major, “sticky.”

Aisha could be sticky. First, she’d need a new name. I would call her Exousia, a Greek word meaning “power” or “authority.” In Sensuous Knowledge, Minna Salama reimagines this figure as a dynamic power specific to Black Feminism. This power is manifested in the force of rivers: persistent, stable, unpredictable, amorphous —  substance without form. After all, slipping in through the cracked logic of writers who didn’t think of her at all, she is already Exousia.

Exousia would also deviate from the naming scheme, but now it would be more like a swerve, and the swerve would serve a purpose of highlighting her distinct power as a Black woman.

Finally, one of the greatest absences of Season 1 is in depicting Aisha’s relationship to water. What does she do when she’s at the pool? I’d like to imagine the following: 

She swims her orderly laps, comforted by the familiar tempo and the embryonic water. It is self-care but she doesn’t feel lighter. Her responsibilities are too heavy and her support too little, but she doesn’t know that consciously just yet. Her attention is occupied with trying to beat her time. She becomes preoccupied with her imperfect form and loses the tempo. Her breathing and strokes are momentarily off their beat and she feels disoriented. It’s a touch of the vertigo that Zakiyyah Imam Jackson uses in Becoming Human to describe the experience of Black women: “inhabiting a reality discredited that is at once the experience of the carceral and the apprehension of a radically redistributed sensorium.” 

Then, she stops at the edge of the pool to reorient herself and thinks of her teacher’s microaggression one more time. She looks down at her hands, decorated with beads of water that trickle off her fingertips back into the pool. The droplets begin to change their course as her magic syncs with her sensorium. Meandering lines begin to disobey the laws of gravity, rearranging themselves into coils that move around her fingers and wrists like a nest of agitated snakes. Pushing her hands powerfully into the water, the droplets take their serpentine lines of flight through the pool. They pull at the rectangular mass from all angles, dividing it into lumps and peaks, the one single mass of water now resembling a holographic valley. Watching the droplets quietly slither around their hunks of watery land, she feels her body tense with effort and she drops her shoulders, letting the magic go. 

“Hmm” she thinks, as the droplets melt back into the pool. “I wonder if I could just try maintaining the droplets instead.” She shakes her head as she hoists herself up to the edge of the pool. “I should have thought of that,” she chastises herself. “After all, my name is Exousia.”

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Lee M. Pierce, they/them, PhD is a rhetorician and whose research examines race, rhetorical style, and U.S. popular-political culture. Lee also hosts the RhetoricLee Speaking podcast, available at rhetoriclee.com and wherever you listen. Connect on social @rhetoriclee and learn more at leempierce.com