Wakanda’s feminist scorecard
How the celebrated film Black Panther stacks up in its depiction of decolonized African feminism.
Black Panther is a pretty standard superhero origin story centered around T’Challa, the new King and protagonist, who faces the the obligatory plot twists: a test of strength, a test of character, and a challenge to the throne. However, it is the cast of powerful, useful women, who have roles in his Kingdom beyond massaging his masculinity that make the film surprising, and, frankly, make the film. As depicted, these characters, and the women who play them, have been lauded as the stars of the first real feminist superhero film in the Marvel Universe. General Okoye and the Dora Milaje are a literal representation of the “strong woman” archetype. Wakandan international spy (and T’Challa love interest) Nakia, who literally stopped T’Challa in his tracks, is the “Independent Woman Who Doesn’t Need A Man” trope, personified: her “I’m not a Dora,” comment (when asked to wear the Dora Milaje uniform) suggests she’s reluctant to define herself as a woman who serves a man (even if he is her King), and is more concerned with her career (“I’m a spy”). And Shuri, the brilliant geek chic technical genius (and sister of T’Challa) is quite simply perfection, and I will not slander her.
Other writers have explored the female characters in Black Panther with much more depth, but a superficial reading would make it easy for one to dismiss these depictions as rote feminism − a tokenistic feminism-by-numbers, if you will, and to some extent, one would be right. Black Panther is no deeply thought-out feminist treatise, at least not on the surface.
It is when we dig beyond the obvious that we see hints of a more nuanced analysis of de-colonialized feminist representation. This is especially true of the film’s depiction of technology, and I don’t mean Shuri’s vibranium-based inventions. Almost every colonized country had its own technologies prior to being invaded, and those technologies were dismissed as primitive, or co-opted, depending on their usefulness to the colonizers. Subsequently, we usually don’t think of textiles as technology, or traditional housing (huts) as local, sustainable architecture, or indigenous alchemy as legitimate, science-based medicine. But they are. And what is shown in Black Panther clearly, and is backed up by feminist herstory, is that these technologies are the purview and legacy of female knowledge.
Traditionally, indigenous women across the continent have been experts in the field of textile technology, their products being multifunctional: denoting tribal affiliation, being weather appropriate, and durable, among other uses. In Black Panther, this heritage is championed and elevated, most notably in the signature attire of the Border Tribe: an inspired traditional shawl-cum-shield interwoven with vibranium. In the climactic battle, there is something powerful in the imagery of women’s knowledge being used as a literal protective shield.
But that isn’t the only place we see women’s knowledge prominently featured in Wakandan daily life. In the markets, baskets continue to be a prominent technology used in their culture, and basket weaving is a known female enterprise, taught through apprenticeship from one woman to another across generations. Similarly, traditional culinary technologies like the industrial-sized mortar and pestle used in flour production are depicted as standard in Wakandan life. And perhaps, more notably, it is the alchemy and traditional medicine, generally the purview of indigenous women, (although in Wakanda a man−Zuri−is in charge of a female workforce) that maintains the social order and, presumably, the health of the ordinary citizens (in my mind, universal health care is a thing in Wakanda). In fact, when it matters the most, it is Ramonda, the Queen Mother (“hi, Auntie”), whose knowledge of Wakandan medicine saves T’Challa’s life, and with it, the Kingdom.
This is important. In a work that attempts to imagine an un-colonized African country, championing traditional African technologies, most of which have a legacy of female scholarship, is subversive and revolutionary. In the same way that unpaid feminine labor is the foundation of most societies, feminine knowledge of pre-colonial technologies is the hidden engine behind the social order in Wakanda. This is only hinted at in Black Panther, the film opting to highlight the low hanging fruit of mainstream feminism, but it is much more important.
If we want to imagine a decolonized African feminism − and we need to − a good place to start would be with the legacy of our foremothers’ knowledge and its systemic devaluing and delegitimization, and work upward. Intentionally or not, Black Panther flirted with this thesis and I, for one, am interested in seeing where this thing goes.