The “Black Panther” narrative allows Black women to be both angry and tender, both strong and vulnerable, both independent and interdependent on each other and those around them.
[This essay contains spoilers for Marvel's “Black Panther”]
“Black Panther” is not your typical superhero blockbuster. It's a political epic, it's Black as fuck, it's critical of white supremacy, colonialism, and imperialism, and it delivers a monumental story about the tension between Black Americans and continental Africans. Setting up a battle between young King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and N'Jadaka (Michael B. Jordan), nicknamed Killmonger for the many lives he seemed to enjoy taking during his time as a CIA operative, it tells this story in a way that subverts expectations about both Blackness and Africa on film.
What it also does is magnify the Black women within the story, and that is something that should not be considered secondary to its other achievements, because the Black women of “Black Panther” are central to its narrative and ultimately determine the direction that it takes. Not only are Shuri, Okoye, and Nakia each integral to the plot, driving the story with their actions, voices, and decisions, but their characters also provide positive, determined, and humanized images of Black women and girls. These are characters who are multifaceted, imperfect, capable, intelligent, and authentic. I see myself and the Black women and girls that I have the privilege of knowing reflected in the characters of “Black Panther,” and that, unfortunately, is something that I cannot say often enough about Black women in media.
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Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba) in Ryan Coogler's "Black Panther".[/caption]
After last year's “Wonder Woman”, I contemplated the trend of “feminist triumph” in mainstream U.S. action films as an achievement largely for and about white women. Essays, think pieces, and manifestos flooded the internet to celebrate its apparent feminism after its release — with one even marveling at the fact that Diana's thigh apparently jiggled — in the same way that countless articles were written to praise the feminism of Imperator Furiosa and the women of “Fury Road" and Rey of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and several other actions films of years past. In these roles, white actresses portray characters who are larger-than-life, innovative, and unapologetically badass.
Now, “Black Panther” finally makes a way for this triumph to be realized for Black women, and it does so in ways that extend beyond the strength granted to the individual women, because the ways in which the women of “Black Panther” are celebrated highlights the differences in social understandings of white womanhood and Black womanhood. Historically, being “strong” has never been a point of “feminist triumph” for Black women. We have and continue to face stereotypes of hyper-masculinity and animality, while white femininity has largely been viewed as delicate and docile.
For white women, strength is something that expectations of white femininity have never afforded them, and the strength given to heroines like Wonder Woman can be used as a means to subvert the infantilizing expectations of white womanhood. Conversely, the “Strong Black Woman” stereotype goes hand in hand with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype, and has been used as a convenient excuse to impose superhuman expectations on us, abuse us, gaslight us, and police our emotionality. The “Black Panther” narrative instead allows Black women to be both angry and tender, both strong and vulnerable, both independent and interdependent on each other and those around them.
Among this long and distinct history of harmful stereotypes about Black womanhood is the phenomena of colorism and anti-Blackness, both in the media and in our lives, that is especially apparent in the way that dark-skinned women are treated in Hollywood. Light-skinned Black women are granted more visibility and often better roles that do not utilize the kind of misogynoiristic stereotypes that dark-skinned Black women are frequently limited to. This is especially limiting for older and/or fat Black women, who are at once recruited to play “Mammy” characters and also routinely mocked by Black men in drag and fat suits for “comedy.” One of the most significant aspects of this film is the celebration and normalization of seeing dark-skinned Black women front and center, as the heroes, the masterminds, and the love interests.
Wakanda has been able to thrive untouched by white colonialism and its imperialist violences, its anti-Blackness, its body terrorism, and its gender violence through sexual and reproductive violations. White aesthetics and beauty standards are not dominant within its society, and therefore, it is Black aesthetic and beauty and African tradition which are respected. This is apparent in the presence of dark skin as well as in the abundance of natural Black hair and traditional African hairstyles. I cannot express how important it is for Black women and girls to see these things celebrated.