In 2013, when I was a freshman at Howard University, one of my friends was borderline obsessed with Childish Gambino’s music. Before that, I hadn’t heard much about Gambino — or his alter ego, then-comedian Donald Glover — but I was surprised when, in the midst of a conversation praising his artistry, my friend, who is also a Black woman, flatly said that the rapper didn’t like Black women, something she said was evident not only in his dating choices (at the time, the rumor was that he only dated Asian or white women) but in his lyrics. “Everyone knows that,” she said dismissively, with no anger or jealousy in her voice.
Now, a decade later, I remembered my college friend’s words after I finished watching Swarm, the new Amazon Prime TV show about a Black woman serial killer superfan named Dre (Dominique Fishback) co-created by Glover — who has since established himself as a talented creator and director — and Janine Nabers. Nabers, a Black woman, previously worked with Glover writing for his FX show Atlanta, a series that has been praised for its tender and complex depictions of Black men and widely critiqued for its caricatures of Black women.
Swarm — with its two-dimensional main character, storyline cluttered with misogynistic and racist tropes, and dubious conclusions about Black women fandoms — is perhaps the show that, for me, solidified the opinion my college friend expressed a decade ago. Glover’s hostility toward Black women no longer feels like an allegation. Because his work is so obvious, it serves as the archive of this aggression. Glover all but confirmed these concerns when he told Vulture that he had given Fishback very little direction or insight into Dre (she confirmed this in the same article), telling her, “You don’t have to find the humanity in your character. That’s the audience’s job ... Think of it more like an animal and less like a person.”
Referring to a human being as an “it” or an animal is almost always a red flag that points to an individual’s deeper feelings, and it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Glover, who has continuously been criticized for dehumanizing portrayals of Black women, would quite literally hinder an actor’s ability to find the humanity in a Black woman character.
Not only did Glover relate Dre to an animal, but he specified which one, after dismissing the character of Dre as not “that layered.” He said, “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.’” With these damning quotes, Glover’s misogynoir is no longer subtext. It’s canon.
Even though Swarm was co-created by a Black woman, featured a stunning performance by a Black woman (Fishback), and had Black women like Malia Obama in the writers’ room, Swarm’s misogynoir felt like a deeper, more direct insult to Black women than Glover’s previous projects. Instead of merely popping up on the occasional lyric or episode, hostility and mockery toward us permeate the show.
Swarm is set in Houston, Texas, and follows Dre, a young superfan of pop star Ni’jah (Nirine S. Brown), who in the show serves as a cringey mirror of the real-life Beyoncé. Dre has two important women in her life: Ni’jah and Dre’s foster sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), and they’re fatally intertwined. After listening to Ni’jah’s surprise release visual album about her rapper husband Caché’s infidelity (sound familiar?), Marissa dies by suicide, seemingly so impacted by both the album and her own boyfriend of three months (played by Damson Idris) cheating on her that she cannot live any longer.
With Marissa, the object of her psychosexual obsession, gone, Dre starts to unravel. Grief-stricken and kicked out of the funeral by Marissa’s biological family, Dre sets out in pursuit of meeting Ni’jah. This transforms into a cross-country killing spree, with Dre murdering people who speak badly about Ni’jah. “Who’s your favorite artist?” becomes her villainous catchphrase. If the answer isn’t Ni’jah, you’re likely to get a lecture on why it should be, and then bludgeoned to death. Dre finds her victims anywhere: her dead sister’s cheating boyfriend, Black male influencers and mechanics in the Twitter comments, a coworker’s white abusive boyfriend, the co-worker herself. Her murders aren’t complex. Anyone who is against Ni’jah, annoys Dre, or stands in Dre’s way of seeing Ni’jah doesn’t tend to live long. This, Glover says, is his attempt at examining extreme fan culture, whose adherents are often referred to as stans, a term originating from a classic Eminem song (I’ll return to that later). The problem is that this depiction of stan culture isn’t just problematic, it’s inaccurate.
There are countless issues with Swarm, but perhaps its most glaring one is how it fails to understand or speak truthfully to its supposed subject, employing what feels like irresponsible misinformation. Each episode — save episode six, which is a mockumentary about Dre’s violence — features a facetious play on the classic Hollywood disclaimer, asserting the events in the show as true and claiming “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” This switcheroo immediately feels tired and unoriginal, like what a sophomore-year film student might find desperately inventive. It also confuses viewers in a most unproductive way. There were even a few people online who seem to be wondering whether Dre is a real killer still on the loose.
But none of the events portrayed in Swarm — save perhaps the incidents surrounding Ni’jah’s/Beyoncé’s husband being unfaithful — are true stories. That hasn’t stopped the creators from being coy about the falsity underlying their latest project. Glover has described the stories as “true-ish” and said Swarm is a “post-truth” TV series. Nabers told Vulture that, “The pilot story is a real event and the finale is a real event, and they exist in the world of internet rumors or a YouTube video or Twitter.”
If we leave aside for a minute that something existing as a rumor on the internet makes for a “real event” is a nearly Trumpian contradiction, as nonsensical as the phrase “alternative facts,” neither the pilot nor the finale are true stories either. As Nabers admitted to Shondaland, both Marissa’s suicide and existence were rumors that were never confirmed — although yes, the character does share the name of a woman who, urban legend holds, died following the release of Lemonade — and there certainly were no reports or rumors of a foster sister killing people in the aftermath. In the finale, Dre, now calling herself Tony and living as a masculine-presenting lesbian, runs onto the stage at a Ni’jah concert. In real life, there was a man named Anthony who ran onto the stage during a 2018 Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert, but there is nothing to suggest the real-life Anthony was a murderer or a violent person. The plotline most firmly rooted in reality is probably the one where Dre bites Beyoncé, but Beyoncé was allegedly bit by an actress, not a fan.
These are incredibly flimsy rumors to base an entire series off of, yet they alone are the creators’ justification to declare the series to be based on reality and a reflection of stan culture. It matters that these stories aren’t true, and that even gossip versions can’t be credited to violent stans. How can you claim to write a show that is exploring fandoms and mental health when you are stuffing it with an amalgamation of rumors and partially true stories, and calling it a meaningful statement?
Glover is an inventive and important artist (I’ve previously praised his exploration of Afrosurrealism in Atlanta), but sometimes he masks simple immaturity as a meta commentary. Consider his controversial 2022 Interview article where he interviewed himself. I’m sure he meant it to be daring. While it did cause a flurry of conversation, at its core it was tiring and confusing, and the ensuing social media noise spoke more to his troll-ish leanings than to his ability to give readers any real insight.
That interview was also one of the times that Glover addressed the criticisms of misogynoir he’s received for years. In the interview, Glover asked himself, “Are you afraid of Black women?” and replied to himself “Why are you asking me that?” Glover continued, still speaking to himself, “I feel like your relationship to them has played a big part in your narrative.” Replying again, he said, “I feel like you’re using Black women to question my Blackness.”
It was nonsensical, but also a way to make light of the very real concerns and questions the public has had for over a decade about his portrayal of Black women in songs and on TV. Even the phrasing of Black women playing “a big part in [his] narrative” is framed as though the interest in Glover’s relationship to and with Black women comes entirely from outside his work and isn’t a reaction to deliberate choices he’s made in his work. Glover is playing the role of precocious auteur here, stomping his feet, not wanting to respond meaningfully to any criticism but still desiring to be regarded as a great artist, courting controversy and resenting the inevitable visibility the controversy garners.
In this, Glover and even minor writers like Malia Obama are simultaneously too close and too removed from the subject matter — fame, and the people who worship the famous — to make an intelligent and compelling statement about it from a stan’s perspective. Glover admitted that they didn’t have an expert in fandom advise on the show and suggested to Vulture that the fame of some in the writers’ room qualified them to write about stans from this perspective. “We have people who are famous in the writers’ room and people you’d barely know. Everybody had a story about how they were roasted. Everyone had the same story of being like, ‘This person said something, and then some people jumped on the bandwagon, and it affected me,’” he said.
Glover has greatly benefited from hypervisibility, and yet perhaps understandably feels aggrieved by it. But through a lens where one sees themselves as a perpetual victim of visibility, whether that is a correct assessment or not, the behaviors of the public will perhaps always feel more aggressive or dangerous than they are.
Glover knows what his reputation is with regards to Black women, and yet with Swarm, he chose to take a Black, queer, mentally ill woman and make her the avatar of violent stans. All of those intersections of oppression — Black, LGBTQIA+, and people with a mental illness — are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators.
Glover isn’t the first person to use art to explore violent fandom, but there’s reason to believe that many artists who do so aren’t critiquing society, but rather battling with their own inner conflict and guilt. Like Swarm, “Stan,” which some call Eminem’s magnum opus, was also not based on a real story. The song features the ramblings of a mentally ill fictional Eminem fan, who sees the rapper as his role model. Stan grows increasingly frustrated by the lack of response to his letters, so much so that he one day decides to kill his pregnant girlfriend and himself, emulating the song “’97 Bonnie & Clyde,” where Eminem raps about murdering his wife Kim and driving their daughter to dispose of the body. None of this had happened. But the song was influenced by Eminem receiving disturbing fan mail that made him feel haunted by the idea that one of his fans would, one day, decide to copy the extreme violence depicted in his songs. “Stan” was an attempt to course-correct, an expression of guilt, rather than a true account.
Glover’s own work isn’t nearly as violent as Eminem’s. But there’s something to be said about how, for the celebrity, perhaps the fear of the stan’s potential for great violence is more about the artist’s resentment of their own visibility, apprehension, or guilt about past actions, and the paranoia that comes with such an inhuman level of surveillance. To the celebrity, fandom is violent because of its sheer scale of demand and visibility. They lack the ability to see each fan as an individual and instead see them as a hive, as a swarm moving as one ominous cloud of danger, and through that lens, everything is magnified.
Perhaps this is also how Glover has come to see Black women, as a dangerous horde of screeching banshees that he must endure, but never capitulate to. Through this lens, it’s also often easy for many to dismiss the concerns about his misogynoir as romantic jealousy. While I won’t deny that this can sometimes exist — a feeling of entitlement to someone sexually because of their race — it is not what is happening to Glover. Black women are not upset because he is an object of desire we want to possess; we are upset because in his work, he has made us objects of horror and ridicule, or as mere plot devices to move Black men’s stories forward.
A disclaimer of my own: I am not a member of the Hive. I tend to listen to Beyonce’s new albums about a week after everyone else. And yet, I struggled to articulate what felt so hostile about Glover (supposedly a friend of Beyoncé’s, according to Nabers) using the momentum of her upcoming tour that honors Black queer music to portray a Black queer fan of hers as a murderous “dog.” Even the image of Beyoncé that Ni’jah has been cast in feels more like a mockery and less like a respectful nod. No effort was made to distinguish Ni’jah from Beyoncé. The literalism is lazy writing, and ironically makes the portrayal ring false, since Ni’jah captures all the aesthetics and mere facts of Beyoncé’s public life but almost none of the elements of why Black women enjoy Beyoncé’s music.
The political and racial significance of Lemonade is stripped here, removing the Black Southern specificity of the album and how it explored generational trauma, slavery, and police brutality. By casting Ni’jah’s album Festival as just an album about infidelity, the work of real-life poet Warsan Shire, who penned the poems that accompanied Lemonade’s visual album, is also erased here. Provocative, haunting, and sometimes disturbing, the Somali-British poet’s work is arguably some of the best we’ve seen from a Black woman poet in decades, and bore no small weight on the intensity with which many Black women, including myself, identified with Beyoncé’s 2016 album.
Still, no one is required to pay homage to Beyoncé. She is not sacred. However, why would a friend and peer construct a poorly made parody of what was, according to every indication, an incredibly personal album exploring infidelity, generational trauma, miscarriage, and motherhood? I have no intelligent insight to offer but this — it felt low, and mean.
When I tweeted about the misogynoir in Swarm, countless internet strangers rushed in to accuse me of erasing the Black women who worked on the show, including co-creator Janine Nabers and writer Malia Obama. But Black women are also capable of rendering other Black women into caricatures for the screen. Furthermore, according to Nabers, “[Glover] pitched the idea, and he directed the pilot, but his DNA is all over the show. He and I sat down before we even had a writers’ room and broke down each story together; we knew what the ending of the show was right away too. And that was great because that allowed us to have a clear blueprint to relay when we assigned our writers, all of whom are Black.” So it’s safe to say that while Swarm has many Black women on the team, Glover’s vision and philosophy are integral parts of the show and should not be dismissed.
And yet, that is what Black women are being asked to do — dismiss the idea of Glover being misogynistic as “silly,” according to Nabers, and to also embrace this show as some symbol of female power. “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,” Nabers told Vulture. This is in contrast to Glover telling Vulture that he didn’t care about the audience or the internet or Beyoncé stans’ reaction to Swarm, saying, “I just refuse to take that into account because then we wouldn’t be able to make the things we want to make.”
Reading this, it feels like “the audience” or “the internet” or even the specific group of “Beyoncé stans” are almost coded ways to both portray Black women critics — who would obviously be the ones with the most to say about this show — as too large in numbers to have their own minds worth listening to, and also so insular and irrational as to render their opinions irrelevant.
In another comment, Nabers called the show “a love letter to Black women,” which is an actual silly thing to say. Nabers later compares the love Dre has for Marissa to the love she has for her mother and sister, seemingly forgetting that the show starts with Dre non-consensually watching Marissa copulate with her boyfriend. She says that it’s supposedly important for Black women to be seen as serial killers on screen because it’s never been done before, apparently oblivious to the fact that Swarm is merely the latest in a long line of media to depict Black people as violent animals. These are nonsensical contradictions coming from both creators, a mishmash of words about empowerment and mental health and craft, all to disguise that they were given a bunch of money to troll viewers. The only genuinely amazing thing to come out of this venture is the awareness of Fishback’s acting talent.
If Swarm is a love letter to Black women, it is the kind of love letter you report to the authorities to receive a restraining order against the sender, the kind of worrying letter sent by a fan who doesn’t really understand the artist. And if Glover doesn’t understand Black women or fan culture, perhaps it’s best he refrains from writing about either.
Nylah Burton is a Chicago-based writer who covers entertainment, travel, and lifestyle. She has bylines in Vulture, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue. You can find her on Instagram.