Sexuality in Color: Wakandan Women and Sexism in Black Panther

It’s been just over a month and a half since the movie Black Panther premiered in theaters, and it continues to be the number one movie five weekends in a row, and seventh highest in domestic U.S. box office history. This landmark movie has had an incredibly positive effect on the mainstream public. It is challenging Hollywood’s diversity and inclusivity issues; providing a positive representation of a modern African landscape beyond the war-torn and poverty-ridden stereotype⁠ that is ubiquitous in Western culture; and tackling issues of personal and national identity⁠ through the lens of diaspora.

But I’m not here to talk about those things, which are thoughtfully discussed in the links above. Instead, I’d like to talk about how gender⁠ dynamics and sexism⁠ do and don’t play a part in Black Panther. Why? Because a blockbuster film’s impact doesn’t just come from its cultural diversity or overtly positive messaging; small choices in aesthetics, dialogue, and character development can create representation that is deeply (and often subconsciously significant) to how each viewer relates to their own sense of self and gendered experiences.

First, let’s talk about The Good, in the form of the Dora Milaje, or the female bodyguards assigned to protect the Black Panther (and/or whomever holds the throne of Wakanda). Let’s take a second to celebrate how wonderful it is that these Secret Service agents are a group of badass warrior women from various Wakandan tribes, rather than a bunch of men in boring black suits and earpieces, like I’m used to seeing in blockbuster movies. In fact, to touch on costuming for a little bit longer, I just have to appreciate how beautiful (and practical) the costumes were. In looking at Okoye’s outfit, we see that unlike many female superheroes/warriors onscreen, her outfit is designed to provide coverage and flexibility for combat.

There is much debate about how the outfits of women in comics range from the impractical to the impossible, reflecting just how much these aesthetics cater to the men who would look at and sexualize these women, rather than the women who would see themselves represented as heroes and fighters. Rather than putting the Dora Milaje into tiny unitards or skin-tight jumpsuits that tend to draw the viewer’s eyes primarily to the women’s body shape, the costume designers chose to put together outfits that were functional first. The fact that these women dress like warriors and act like warriors mean that they are seen as formidable forces and valued for more than their aesthetic addition to the scenes. However, it should be acknowledged that historically, Black women who play fighters or warriors in comics or onscreen adaptations have often been forced into a hypersexualized “Amazonian warrior” stereotype (think Grace Jones in A View To A Kill, X-Men’s Storm, Pam Grier in Foxy Brown). While the Dora Milaje don’t show as much skin or aren’t as inherently sexual⁠ as their predecessors, it’s worth thinking about the history of racialized sexism and asking ourselves if they overcome or simply contribute to harmful stereotypes about Black women’s bodies.

Another Good Thing about Black Panther is Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, the princess of Wakanda, and possibly my favorite young woman on this green Earth of ours. Damon Young over at The Root highlights some great things about Princess Shuri, in that she is a shining force of pure joy, intelligence, and passion that essentially holds Wakanda together. Even at her young age, she has taken over the role of chief scientist for Wakanda, inventing new technological uses for vibranium that eventually allow for T’Challa to claim ultimate victory over Killmonger. That super-cool and high-tech Black Panther suit that provides protection and stores up kinetic energy with every impact, collapsible down to a beautiful silver necklace? That exists thanks to the dedication and ingenuity of a 16-year-old Disney princess in a lab coat. All without ever wearing revealing outfits, performing sexual innuendos, or interacting with a love interest. Take that, sexism.

The actress, Letitia Wright, said that her hope was that young women of color who watch the movie might see her role and think, “I’m not a superhero, but I can be a scientist or build the next spaceship, like Shuri.” I can only imagine the number of young black and brown girls that got to look up at the screen in the movie theater and see a bright and beautiful potential version of their grown-up selves. I know it would have made a big difference to me as a kid, especially now that I know Letitia Wright shares my same heritage – she is Guyanese! For someone who’s only ever met one Guyanese person outside of Guyana in their entire life, it’s a pretty big deal to me.

But for all that Okoye, Princess Shuri, and the other women in Wakanda defy sexist and racist stereotypes about Black women and women in movies in general, they face some of the same oppressive treatment that accompanies those lived experiences off-screen. Here come the Not-So-Good Things. CIA Agent Everett Ross, one of the only two main roles in the film played by white actors, seems very surprised when he wakes up in the Wakandan tech lab to see Shuri working on her projects and supervising his healing process. While there’s no outright dialogue beyond the sarcastic exchange of “Is this Wakanda?” “No, it’s Kansas,” it seems at that very moment that not only is he reconciling the fact that Wakanda is actually technologically advanced far beyond any place that he’s ever known, but that this young woman is in charge of this technology.

If we could read his thoughts, they might be similar to: What is this young girl doing here? She can’t possibly be the head scientist overseeing everything. Who’s in charge here? Shuri ends up explaining everything to him, guiding him and teaching him about Wakanda every step of the way, even through the final battle scene. This flips the script on the traditional sexist narrative in which a heroic white man swoops in and saves the day while the women and children of color cower in the corner and wait to be saved. There are examples of Ross talking over others and being culturally insensitive all over the movie, but one of my other favorite moments includes when Okoye and T’Challa are speaking in Xhosa in front of Ross, and he asks T’Challa, “Does she speak English?,” referring to Okoye. In return, in true take-no-crap fashion, she responds directly to Ross, “When she wants to.” She shuts down an ignorant question and demonstrates herself as empowered and much, much more sharp and aware than Ross gives her credit for.

I really appreciated seeing the reversal of an all-too-common power dynamic of white men speaking over women of color while also preserving those moments of tension and awkwardness between Ross and the other characters. As far as I’m concerned, these were teaching moments, in which we the public can learn from examples of a well-intentioned white male “ ally⁠ ” who oversteps boundaries and treats others as inferior purely out⁠ of ignorance. These are tangible examples of women of color actively combatting sexism and sexual racism⁠ , rather than just passively being witness to them. And beyond that, there are many examples throughout the movie of Okoye, Shuri, Nakia, and other Wakandan women being respected and honored as members of the community. Even in the way that Angela Basset’s queen mother character, Ramonda, walks through the room shows the command and respect that she is given by the men and women of Wakanda alike. I personally saw my own family’s matriarchal tendencies reflected in that Wakandan throne room, and I appreciated that the power and wisdom of women of color was at the center of it all.

But then along comes the movie’s villain, Eric Killmonger. There is a lot of debate out there about Killmonger’s approach to racial justice and the Wakandan revolution, and what I think of his political strategy is neither here nor there. But several of the strongest examples of misogyny in this movie came from his character’s willingness to commit violence against the Black women around him. Not even halfway through the movie, he murders the nameless young woman that he is traveling with simply because she is another person who might complicate his plans for domination. There is no regret or remorse shown by Killmonger – perhaps he viewed her as “collateral damage.” He goes on to ignore the proper rituals of respect that appear to be customary for Wakandan culture and chokes one of his female elders who disagrees with his orders. He injures Nakia, and cruelly and intentionally murders one of the Dora Milaje in front of Okoye. And, as icing on the cake, he almost kills Shuri, backing her up against a ledge, calling her “princess” as he advances on her while she lies cornered on the ground.

For all that he preaches about unity and justice for his fellow Wakandans and Black folks worldwide, almost every interaction that we see Killmonger have with the women around him is drenched in toxic masculinity. In watching these scenes, I found myself wondering, why was this targeted violence against women included in this movie? What does this say about Killmonger’s views towards women and other marginalized folks within his community, and what does this mean for this amazing movie to include this violence? Perhaps it was intended to shed some light on the way that women of color are often spoken over or demonized even within their communities, which would represent an important step towards addressing the intersections of gender and violence in communities of color. But a more simple and disappointing reason may be more plausible; maybe these examples of violence were intended to serve as yet another facet of Killmonger’s evil-ness as a villain.

Personally, I believe that that would be the equivalent of a cop-out. Rather than taking the time to address how a person who is dedicated to combatting oppression and lifting up their community can also subconsciously enact the very violence they are trying to prevent, reducing that person to a static, all-around “bad guy,” who enacts “bad-guy” violence, denies the dynamic and conflicting characteristics that make up real people’s experiences outside of film scripts. What the intentions of the writers and directors are, I can’t say. I can only speak to what it feels like to look on the screen and see, like I constantly see around me, women of color being hurt and killed at the hands of the men around them.

At the risk of sounding like all the other thinkpieces that have come out (and continue to come out) after the movie’s release, I am grateful for both sides of the spectrum of gendered experiences displayed in Black Panther. I believe that representation (of both positive, stereotype-shattering dialogue/roles, and of the tricky-to-downright-deadly aspects of sexism and violence against women of color) generates conversation and imagines futures that are different than the everyday experiences of marginalized folks. Since the movie has come out, I’ve seen multiple pieces that reflect on toxic masculinity and gendered violence in Black Panther, and have had a few eye-opening conversations with other friends of color about how seeing these representations impacted their own sense of self and community. I would love to watch hours on hours of footage of life in Wakanda and the women of the Dora Milaje being badasses without seeing a single instance of sexism or gendered violence, but I am grateful for the representation of the bullshit that women and femmes of color have to put up with in real life every day. It’s a good reminder of all the work there is to be done, in Wakanda and everywhere else.

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