Black Panther’s Women Heroes Are More Than Strong Female Characters

They are multi-dimensional and have agency, which is more groundbreaking than it should be in 2018.

|
Feb 22 2018, 6:01pm

Image source courtesy of Disney. | Art by Noel Ransome.

Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye in Black Panther, is a “strong” black woman. To most, this can sound like progress, but when repeated enough times, “a strong black woman” starts to ring hollow.

Sure, she could be brilliant, whimsical, vulnerable, and introspective, but “strong” just feels easier—like that re-gifted thing you give to the new girl at a house-party. It’s cheap, faux-empowering, and really just points to the lack of agency that follows most black women.

We know from endless studies that women in film, particularly women of colour, get less dialogue and character development than their white and male counterparts. If you’ve ever watched the 46-second supercut of every line delivered by a person of colour in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or looked up how many superhero movies fail the Bechdel test, you probably have an idea of how one-dimensional black women characters can be. And these stereotypes have consequences in the real world.

On a good day, black women can be framed as happy, nurturing or strong. On a bad day, they’ll be “angry” or an object of sexual conquest. The women in Black Panther are so refreshing compared to these clichés. As a man watching this flick, one of the greatest insights I took away was the normalization of black agency and black women. And it’s strange to say, because up until now, I can’t recall any other film managing to do the same.

When I spoke to Danai Guirira about this, she pretty much supported up my feelings on the matter, but also made me reflect on my own blind spots. “The idea with Black Panther was to have femininity and ferocity as this thing that was so completely covered and so totally normal,” said Danai during our in-person interview in Toronto. “It wasn’t something you had to choose, one or the other, it was the embodiment that all women can be, which was really on the page from the get-go.”

Now I felt what she was saying completely, but even when the Zimbabwean-raised, Iowa-born actress sat in front of me—hands clasped, posture straight, face measured, being her regular damn self—the word “strong” still held my attention. I don’t “know” Danai Gurira, but in that press space of white folks with cameras, lights, and a director standing to our side, this word just stood there. Critics and social media commentators default to these terms like clockwork (strong, powerful, blah blah), like none of it is assumed for the woman as it often is for us men.

Danai Gurira being her regular damn self. | Image courtesy of author.

The mother who raised me stands as the perfect example of a black women that I “know.” She’s “strong” by default because she was my strength and nurturer. I don’t narrow in on this this side of her as if strength was this shocking thing. She’s also a person of quirkiness, silliness, curiosity and kindness. Unfortunately though, for the longest time, the black woman that we “don’t know” in television and film have been the persons portrayed on a more superficial shtick. The fewer their numbers, the more they’ve had to live up to an ideal or token “something.” In the case of Hidden Figures, The Help, The Colour Purple among others, there was a responsibility to showcase “strength” that rose out of struggle. Our memories of characters like Celie Johnson, Katherine G. Johnson, and Aibileen Clark revolved around the same word because of what they damn well had to be (strong) and what they couldn’t fully be (everything else). Sexual assault, racism, and dehumanization by white/black men asked for a fortitude that in some ways made them less dynamic. All of it felt extraordinary but linear, in the same way some white chick can look at an NBA player who can dribble, and assume he couldn't be anything beyond that.

Black Panther’s progressive use of black women extends to virtually every frame; from its powerful Dora Milaje warriors, to its enduring queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and the brilliant Shuri (Letitia Wright), makes the whole idea of the “strong black women” less of a surprise and more of a normalcy that goes without saying.

“The beauty of Black Panther was that our sense of agency was also happening on set as we got to be contributors and collaborators while developing these characters. We were listened to right from the top in terms of our thoughts and that allowed us to feel valued and feel an ownership that shaped them entirely,” Guirira told me.

Blackness and women were every bit a part of this which made this film so special. The intelligence, humour, rigidness, tenderness, so easily afforded to white actresses, served as the whole damn foundation here. No one character felt responsible for maintaining a “specific” presence in a man-made puzzle. There was breathing room for each one with a name to develop into a three-dimensional person like the regular (superhero) folks that they were. So often the opposite is true. The lack of representation instead relegates the represented to quota-filling roles, as if to speak to a version of what a black woman should be.

When someone can only be strong, can only be solid… can only be this one thing—the tough black woman, baby momma, black barbie, gold-digger, take your pick—they lack the agency that makes so many of us diversely human. It’s the kind of thinking that’ll transform the “strong” into the “angry” on a whim; à la the angry black woman; I mean why give a fuck when strength apparently makes one impenetrable.

Instead, black women, despite their willingness to be the bedrock of movements, of people, of men and boys, are also type-casted in this thing we call life. Often fetishised and categorized in a way that diverges into lives beyond film and television scripts. They gotta deal with the same biases that come with their skin, and the shields that are put up around it.

But here in enters this film that so consistently rests on the backs of women with dark skin, natural hair, to an extent that their variety is obvious to the point of being a moot point. If nothing else, I hope for more images like this. I want more black and rich TV stories like Girlfriends and Insecure. I want more films like Girls Trip and Black Panther. And I want content that treats black women as the multi-dimensional persons that they are without tailored responsibilities. Women like Danai Guirira are more than just strong. More than the perceived parts that folks like myself serve up as a compliment. We...I, need to be reminded of that.

Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels