While the Dora Milaje are frequently referred to as the King’s bodyguards, they are much more than that.
By Faridah Gbadamosi
The reviews for the very highly anticipated film “Black Panther” are up and they are glowing. Currently sporting a 99% Rotten Tomatoes score despite attempts to disrupt that, the film is well on its way to possibly being Marvel’s best film yet.
The most gratifying thing in all these reviews filled with praises is that the Dora Milaje get to shine. Going into the film, the thing that gave me the most pause was how the Dora Milaje would be represented, how the women in general would be represented.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a mixed bag when it comes to female representation in their films, and even more frustrating is the lack of women characters of color up until recently (though Valkyrie was a truly fantastic character). With the Dora Milaje we get to see black women warriors — some of the best fighters in the comic book universe — brought to life. More than anything, I wanted them to be written and shown to be amazing.
While the Dora Milaje are frequently referred to as the King’s bodyguards, they are much more than that. They were introduced in “Black Panther” Vol. 3 #1 by Christopher Priest as an elite squad that exists to protect Wakanda, its King and also serve as his ceremonial wives in training (an aspect that has been thankfully dropped from the film).
Created in a bid to keep the peace, the Dora Milaje is composed of women chosen from the rival (and occasionally warring tribes) that surround Wakanda, each given an equal opportunity to be the King’s queen. The Dora Milaje are easily identified by their shaved heads and African tribal markings. They are highly trained in a specialized fighting style that makes them great at fighting in any environment and with just about any blade. Most of the Dora Milaje are not named but a few have been identified with storylines of their own. There is Ayo who is a part of the elite team within the elite Dora Milaje known as the Midnight Angels, there is Nakia, who eventually becomes the villain Malice, and of course there is Okoye, one of the most loyal of the Dora Milaje, a trusted confidant to the King. While the Dora Milaje have been prominent in the comic’s run since their introduction, they were finally given the space to exist on their own in Roxane Gay’s recent, and unfortunately short-lived, series, “World of Wakanda”.
The Dora Milaje are dope, but that is not the only reason that I wanted their big screen debut to do them justice. Media does not exist within a bubble and “Black Panther” is no exception. The media imagery for black women, in particular dark-skinned black women, is limited and frequently harmful. And then there is the sociopolitical reality that black women are constantly associated as shields/cocoons for black men. The film would have not only been doing a disservice to these amazing characters and their rich histories if they limited them to just bodies that existed to stand in front of Black Panther, but also be playing into a harmful societal expectation.
In terms of representation, prior to Black Panther’s introduction, there were only 5 major characters played by non-white actresses on the film side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Mantis and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy; Liz and MJ from “Spider-Man: Homecoming”; and the recently added Valkyrie from “Thor: Ragnarok”), two of which were playing aliens in full makeup covering up any racial identifiers. These numbers are reflective of the limited representation women of color, especially black women, receive in superhero content. Even as there is an increase in superhero films with women headlining the films, almost all these films, released and upcoming, are starring white women. In the top films of 2016 women made up 29% of the protagonists, of these women 76% were white. Just sifting through the recently popular hashtag #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe there are many women who discuss what it means to see themselves reflected on screen.
#WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe That I have lived long enough to see little black girls – dark skinned, natural hair, even bald– have these POWERFUL African women who are strong, beautiful & brilliant (in STEM at that) to look up to & buy toys & merch for. See themselves in 🙌🏾 pic.twitter.com/Am809VC79U
— Reina Valentine (@ReinaVCosplay) February 6, 2018
When I saw the cast of women, all my complexion or darker, none sexualized or demonized because of it, and it wasn't a film about slavery or drug addiction, I cried.
— MSOSullivan (@BlyssfulStorm) February 6, 2018
— B L A C A D E M I C (@profjalewis) February 6, 2018
With the Dora Milaje the goal could not be and, thankfully, was not just representation, but meaningful representation. Black women both on and off screen are frequently treated as either comic relief or merely vessels for another person’s growth or salvation. To have the Dora Milaje simply exist as just the King’s bodyguard and possible wife candidates would play into that concept, a byproduct of misogynoir that exists not only in society at large but also within the black community. One of the best parts about reading the reviews for “Black Panther” has been seeing that not only are the Dora Milaje given the space to shine but they do so in a way that serves Wakanda, not simply Black Panther. They are more than just bodyguards, they exist to defend their homeland.
And that is what draws me to “Black Panther” and what excites me as I anticipate watching it, being able to see these amazing black women be presented as the badasses that they are.
Author Bio: Faridah Gbadamosi is a Nigerian American writer from New York City who is a resident of the world (aka she travels a lot for work). She loves pop culture. In her writing she tries to understand the ways that media both informs and reflects culture, and use that as a tool for helping marginalized communities find a way for their voice to be heard in society.