Black Panther, black women, and the politics of black hair

Black Panther is not only a good movie but a celebration of black women, and black hair.

by
    Actor Lupita Nyong'o arrives at the premiere of Black Panther in London, February 8, 2018 [Peter Nicholl/Reuters]
    Actor Lupita Nyong'o arrives at the premiere of Black Panther in London, February 8, 2018 [Peter Nicholl/Reuters]

    Bold (and bald) women, royal matriarchs, independent, astute ladies, stern, witty and humorous women - this is Black Panther. Female representation in all of its nuance is refreshingly depicted in this box office record-making film. There are female military generals, engineers, and advisers, as well as strong queens and princesses. 

    Since the film made its debut in the cinemas, news media, social media, private conversations, fashion magazines and even classrooms have been agog with references to the film and hashtags like #WakandaForever, #WakandaCameToSlay, #WhatWakandaMeansToMe, and more.

    Different people see different things in this film: some draw parallels between the vibranium-wealthy nation of Wakanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo with its cobalt  - as the demand for electric cars, that require cobalt, is set to increase over the upcoming years. While others, when watching King T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), reflect on identity politics and perhaps the complex relationship between Africans and African Americans. The all-female Wakandan army reminds history lovers of the women soldiers of Dahomey of the 18th and 19th centuries.

    While one could reflect deeply on many of the overt or more subtle aspects of the Marvel film, for me, one thing particularly stood out throughout the movie: the depth and nuance with which the female characters were explored. 

    Representing women of colour

    Intersectionality, a term coined by feminist professor Kimberle Crenshaw, looks into the various ways in which women, and particularly women of colour, and more specifically women of colour who are poor, face layered forms of discrimination. 

    For example, some black women are deemed to be more employable than others because of their hairstyle choices. Mainstream beauty trends pressure black women to conform to certain external presentation styles simply to look "presentable" or even "acceptable" in the media, workplace and even schools. Not too long ago, Pretoria Girls' High School was the subject of much scrutiny when it was revealed that the school administration was telling black pupils to straighten their hair and not wear afros that were deemed "untidy".

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    Black women's hair is apparently political. Meaning two black women, one with relaxed straight hair and another with no hair or a big afro, may face different levels of discrimination - which brings us back to Crenshaw's intersectionality debate.

    This is where Black Panther differs from other mainstream movies. What Black Panther does is explore the varying ways in which black women may choose to portray themselves. 

    In the film, there are bald black women who occupy spaces of power and career success - bald and strong women standing at the King's side to protect him. There is  Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) who wears beautiful Bantu knots, Shuri (Letitia Wright) who rocks striking braids, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) who mesmerises in her regal headpieces and of course, there is bald, strong and impressive Okoye (Danai Gurira).

    This kind of varied physical representation of women normalises the different ways in which women, black women, can choose to present themselves. It sends out the message that black women do not need to conform to any beauty standard to be respectable, presentable and beautiful.

    The future is female; the future is African  

    The black women in Black Panther are strong and resilient, and their strength is revered (and not feared) by the men in their lives.

    We are first introduced to the strong and poised queen Ramonda - who had just lost her husband, former King T'Chaka - standing tall and graceful and in support of her son, the new king. Then there is Princess Shuri, a smart, tech-savvy, witty, young woman (Wakanda's chief engineer) who holds her own throughout the film. Despite Shuri's young age, she is given the significant responsibilities of maintaining and advancing the technological advancements of the Kingdom of Wakanda - responsibilities she effectively lives up to.

    Nakia is a spy who has dedicated her life to protecting women held in captivity outside the borders of Wakanda - she has a sense of agency, focus. Nakia is wise and offers counsel to King T'Challa, who greatly admires her. Then there is the tough Okoye, a stern warrior with a wry sense of humour, the commander of the all-female military that protects the King and leads Wakanda to victory.

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    All these female characters are multidimensional. The women represented in this predominantly black film are not depicted in a single continuum; instead, they speak to pluralistic sets of experiences women face. They represent women of colour who are young or old, stern or witty, career-focused or family-oriented.

    This film reassures young girls, but especially black girls, that going into STEM-related subjects is cool and possible and that they too (young as they maybe) can thrive at the helm of an entire country's technological progress. Black Panther affirms career women that their absolute focus and sense of agency is admirable. 

    All in all, Black Panther put female empowerment on full display on the big screen and reminded us all that the future is female; the future is African. Wakanda Forever! 

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 


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