'Black Panther' Doesn't Need A White Female Character To Teach Us About Feminism

The latest Marvel movie shows that the face of feminism can be black.

Photo credit:Photo: Marvel Studios

| February 19 2018,

05:39 am

Black Panther is finally here and the world has been blessed with the magic of the film’s multifaceted black characters. Witnessing the Wakandan traditions is a lesson in feminism, taught entirely by a black cast. Yes, you read that right: Feminism personified by black characters.

Why does this feel new? Well, close your eyes for a moment ...

Actually, you’re reading so that won't work.

Instead, take a second to consider movies you remember with characters who embodied feminism. What names come to mind?

Diana Prince is a popular first thought. So are Hermione Granger, Beatrix Kiddo and Princess Leia. All of these are excellent answers — and all of them are white. When people talk about feminism, white women are the face of the movement. It’s as if we believe a white woman has to go first for anything to be labeled as feminist.

It’s an issue that isn’t restricted to movies. When the Women’s March in Washington D.C. was scheduled in 2017, women of color weren’t initially called on for leadership roles. It’s as if an invitation from white feminists was necessary just for people of color to play a part. This even after Beyoncé performed at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards with "FEMINIST" projected behind her.

This is what we’ve come to expect. Chalk it up to intersectional feminism. But while the image of feminism in our mind is white, the existence of feminism is woven into Wakanda. Black Panther shows this in beautiful fashion.

Okoye (Danai Gurira) leads the Dora Milaje, a highly-trained army of women with the purpose of protecting the throne and royal family. Make no mistake: T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) would be dead without them. Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a spy and a savior who never hesitates to fight for what she thinks is right for her people. She proves that a romantic lead can have dark brown skin, rock bantu knots and kick serious ass. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the future. Her genius is what moves Wakanda forward. And then there’s Ramonda (Angela Bassett), a beacon of dignity and grace for her people after the passing of her husband.

These characters are diverse examples of strong feminists. Do they tag along behind a group of white suffragettes? No. So how do we know these characters are feminists if they never say so?

Okoye is a general. Nakia is a spy. Shuri is a science whiz. And no one, Wakandan or otherwise, questions their aptitude or gives them permission to be great. So, in theory, every character in the film seems to believe in the basic feminist ideal: that both genders are equal, can have similar skills and are entitled to the same opportunities.

Compared to the customary definition of the ideology, feminism in the black community is a fierce but quieter force. When Black Panther director Ryan Coogler sought to bring the Dora Milaje to the screen, he was inspired by the various examples of strong black women in his life. “These incredible women who are so multifaceted, they kind of carry society on their backs,” he told USA Today. The strong black woman persona didn’t come out of nowhere. And, though expectations that description brings can be exhausting, it’s invigorating to see this play out in the film.

Standout performances from Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Letitia Wright have ushered in a new era of feminist female characters on screen. They are warriors and leaders. They are intelligent and strong. At no point does anyone second guess their abilities because of their gender. And they never need an invitation or test to prove their worth. These characters are fresh representations of feminism in action, and that representation is very black.