Relationships in Marvel’s Black Panther
At this point, I’ve enjoyed the dialogue sparked by Marvel’s Black Panther film more than the film itself. Each person’s observations are based on their unique worldview. It has sparked an interesting combination of community pride; curiosity about our origins (people of African descent throughout the diaspora); and a renewed interest in positive strategies for overcoming a variety of wounds.
For those who don’t know, my references to the diaspora are in regard to the slave trade routes that disseminated Africans throughout the world.
The focus of my second and final blog post about the film is on the representations of women and the relationships between women and men. An ongoing challenge in the African American community is the role of black women and our relationship to the following themes:
- Misogyny, Feminism & Racism
- Prescribed roles and values around romantic love between black men and black women
Misogyny, Feminism & Racism
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word “misogyny” refers specifically to the hatred of women. The combination of experiencing both racism and misogyny are particularly stressful realities for black women. Generally speaking, we have at least 2 cultures or sub-cultures that we are a part of and are not adequately valued by either.
The civil rights movement in America has had many black women engaged in leadership and within the grassroots; however there are only 1 or 2 women within that movement that many Americans can recall by name. In the women’s rights movements of the past and present, when people cluster “women” as a demographic, they by and large are referencing “white women” who, at the inception of women’s rights, had far more rights than black women. For example, in the modern women’s rights movement, white women speaking about wage disparities will compare their wage gap and opportunities with those of white and black men. There are far fewer mentions of the wage gap between white women and black women.
Generally speaking, many men and plenty of women in the African American community view feminism as having a net negative impact on the black community. Feminism can damage relationships by encouraging women to fulfill themselves and pursue education and careers…delaying marriage and in some cases motherhood. Feminism is blamed for making “black women think they are better than black men and for black women having it easier than black men.” These are not my personal beliefs. They are my observations of prevailing beliefs.
Feminism adopted by black women is blamed for prioritizing the needs of women (and thus white women) over the needs of black men and the black family. A black woman who identifies as feminist is often viewed as a traitor to her community. While the African American community is often considered liberal…this is not entirely true. The social values in the African community tend to lean toward conservative, while the fiscal values are more liberal.
Black Panther Celebrates African Women (specifically)
That being said, the film “Black Panther” celebrates African women (specifically). This is notable in that there is one black woman character in the film who is presumably American, or at a minimum not Wakandan, thus of the diaspora. The other potential black woman character, about whom little is spoken, is Killmonger’s African American mother. We never see her in the film and she is barely mentioned. This is significant in that it represents the decimation of black women throughout the diaspora. The health disparities, the decreased life span compared to other women, the disproportionate rates of violence from their black male counterparts, and now mass incarceration.
Additionally, it is notable that for Black audiences in America and likely in Africa and throughout the diaspora…the first value is placed on telling the stories of men, who are prioritized within the black community and in the diaspora. Whereas, in the in the fictitious and idealized world of Wakanda, the women are not burdened by those gripes or that comparison with men. They are merely existing within their own rights. As such, African women are heavily featured in the film and African women from elsewhere around the globe are absent.
Four Unapologetically Powerful Women
Despite the fact that the lead character, Black Panther, is a man, he has at least 4 empowered women in his circle.
- His mother,”Ramonda”, played by Angela Bassett, an American actress celebrated within the African American community and best known for her portrayals of physically powerful women who have survived hardship.
- His younger sister, “Shuri”, played by Letitia Wright, who is Guyanese British born and a relatively unknown actress in the U.S. until now.
- His love interest, “Nakia”, played by Lupita Nyong’o, an Oscar winner for her role in the film “12 Years a Slave”, who was born to Kenyan parents in Mexico (who studied in the United States).
- His protector, “Okoye”, played by Danai Gurira, an American actress born to parents who immigrated from Zimbabwe and raised her in Iowa. She is best known for her work in the t.v. series “The Walking Dead.”
While none of these women were the lead, they collectively shared a lot of screen time as vital components of the hero’s journey and his success. In fact, the lead character Black Panther/T’Challa was openly reliant on his sister, mother, lover, and general. These relationships were portrayed as his source of strength, not a source of resentment nor derision. They were not the love objects to be saved by the hero.
In fact, he needed to be saved by them several times. There were absolutely times when he was inspired to protect them, but it was not because they were helpless. It was because they were warriors themselves (sometimes bested in battle) or his source of strength (in the case of his mother). These women were not portrayed as feminists getting in the men’s way. They were portrayed as being in their rightful place as leaders and vital figures in the community.
Unhealthy Messages that Govern African American Women
While the African American community acknowledges the “strength” of black women as a value, that strength is also viewed as a barrier and as a deterrent to healthy committed relationships. It is also increasingly understood by black women as a barrier to receiving support. In other words: the black woman’s strength is also her curse.
The message to black women within a community is to:
- be strong – be able to take care of oneself and one’s children (on your own if you have to);
- be humble/be loyal – don’t contribute in any way to black men feeling inadequate or dis-empowered;
- be submissive – don’t interrupt him, make your man’s plate, be his “rib” (based on biblical principles);
- be grateful – your value and worth are in direct proportion to your role. Be grateful if you are chosen/picked for a relationship, You are fortunate…after all…there are not enough black men to go around.
Generally speaking, black women’s experiences of these messages vary by generation. Among millennial black women, there is far more comfort with dating, partnering and marrying men who are not black; as they also have more distance from the overt and direct experiences of racism during their formative years. In my experience, they are far more likely to feel safe with non-black men. While Boomer and Gen-X black women generally have more direct and vicarious/ancestral trauma related to the violence toward black women from all men…but from white men in particular. If you don’t know what I am referencing, consider the lynchings and other heinous acts committed during Jim Crow that Boomer and Greatest Generation black women experienced.
You are Not Alone
In Marvel’s Black Panther, the women were not expected to be strong on their own. They had the support of men and other women. Okeye’s male lover in the film is W’Kabi, a warrior who is not able to best Okeye in battle. She does not have to defer to him in the plot or let him win. When he speaks up during a meeting, she speaks up…it is not frowned upon. No one is looking to her as if to say…”Don’t cut down your man.”
Nakia is not engaged in T’Challa’s life as if she is fortunate that the Black Panther is interested in her and wants her to “come home” and be his Queen. While her character clearly loves T’Challa, she does not forsake her own identity. When they ultimately decide to move forward together at the end of the film, it is after he creates space in his “Kingdom” for her “Queendom.” That is her mission and values and purpose. She does not have to be less than herself to be with him.
Women Standing in Their Integrity
In Marvel’s Black Panther, women were loyal to their values for community and service, allowing them the integrity to disagree with their male counterparts and not be ostracized or scorned by the “tribe.” They have purpose, career, talents and agency that are recognized and honored. Okeye is the head of the Dora Milaje special forces (all women). Nakia is a spy for Wakanda in other countries. She is seen in the opening act rescuing women and a “lost boy” from being kidnapped by some type of occupational force. Shuri is the lead developer of technology in Wakanda. She vital to her brother’s missions and to the advanced nature of the Wakandan culture. Ramonda is an adviser and a holder of Wakandan wisdom.
Women Who Are Empowered by Their Spiritual Ancestry
In Marvel’s Black Panther, the women are leaders. Their relationships with men are not defined by biblical principles traditionally held in much of the black community that the husband is the “head” and the wife is the “neck.” The idea being that he is influenced by his wife and doesn’t make a move without her…but he is the head of household and the leader of the family.
Many people in multicultural studies discuss the matriarchal nature of African American culture, however much of that matriarchy is dependent upon beliefs in values that discourage personal empowerment and encourage the power of the church or Christ. So that ultimately, the predominately male-led churches are by default the leaders of the home. Even if the woman does not attend church, the cultural values have been adopted and prescribed by the ideology…that the woman comes third behind her husband and children…and that unmarried and childless women are not fulfilling their role in society.
In the fictitious nation of Wakanda, we get to see a version of Black/African women fully unchained…never personally knowing oppression, misogyny or devaluation.
Copyright © 2018 Ruby Blow. All rights reserved.