The long awaited “Black Panther” film has finally hit theaters. There were many reasons why this movie has been eagerly anticipated by so many people. “Black Panther,” directed by the accomplished Ryan Coogler, is the first movie in the recent era with a black hero in the leading role. As an unapologetic celebration of blackness, this movie is rather unprecedented. A major motion picture with a majority black cast, black director, and with such powerful and positive representation has never been made, let alone had the commercial success “Black Panther” has enjoyed thus far. This is a big deal. Representation matters.
And the representation of the female body doesn’t have the best of track records when it comes to comic books, or their movie counterparts. I think the powerful women in this film, especially the incredible Dora Milaje, help to make it stand apart from its predecessors. Women are given power, influence, agency, and clothing — that oddly enough — provide coverage and movement.
The Dora Milaje, or the “adored ones,” are a squad of female warriors who act as the security force of the King of Wakanda. When first introduced in Christopher Priest’s comic run of the series, they are also introduced as potential wives for the king. While Priest cites supermodels as inspiration, Maiysha Kai editor of The Glow Up, has written about how the Dora Milaje happen to have a connection to incredible to real-life female warriors. This history is pretty incredible, and worth checking out.
The potential for the Dora Milaje is huge. And until now that potential has been squandered, or most likely ignored. Having read some of Priest’s run, I can’t say that I’m particularly a fan of the depiction and treatment of female bodies. Bodies whose sole purpose is for the viewing pleasure of the male gaze. This practice isn’t unique to this series of course, but just one example of many in the world of comics. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read all of the original cannon — but I have read enough to tell you that the representation does get a little better, if only a incrementally. I’ll get to that later.
The movie and new renditions of the women of Wakanda handle females bodies in a completely different way. In 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxanne Gay were engaged to work on new comic runs of Black Panther and the World of Wakanda. Coates takes on the titular series and Gay takes the lead on a spin-off series which focuses on former members of Dora Milaje.
While these runs may be over, the damage has been done. I was able to read about a version of Wakanda where the women are powerful, fiercely independent, and have their own stories to tell. I have seen an amazing representation of women in comics — women that are complex and fully developed human beings! And I refuse to accept anything less.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about the Feminists of Wakanda, where he discusses how the debate regarding female representation in comics, especially in the era of social media, is something that can’t be ignored. He says that any comic book reader would have to be “willfully blind” if they had not noticed the critique of how female bodies were presented in the medium. In speaking about his own initial interest in comics, he admits that it wasn’t really something he ever questioned before:
Through much of my time collecting comic books I never took much issue with how women were drawn. I had a vague sense that there was something about, say, the reworking of Psylocke that bugged me. But I simply didn’t give it much thought. It never occurred to me, for instance, to ask whether a superhero’s pose was anatomically possible. It never occurred to me to ask why a super-hero would have a DD cup-size. Was that for her benefit or for mine? I never asked.
He notes that while this criticism didn’t create his vision, it did inform it. I have read the first couple volumes and love that his female characters have agency, are way more than glorified sidekicks, and don’t happen to be kicking ass scantily clad.
As Coates admits that the drawing of females in comics was not something he initially questioned. It was, however, something I did, whether knowingly or not. I don’t take issue with a heroine who has a DD cup-size. I don’t think the size of your breasts is limiting to what one is able to accomplish. Women do not get to determine the size of their chest without surgical intervention, and women of all sizes can possess the potential to become heroine or villain supreme. I do, however, take issue with the clothes they are squeezed into and the way there bodies are drawn.
For example, explain to me how one can squeeze that size rack into plunging necklines or bustiers and kick ass without her boobs freeing themselves from their constraints. While this might be the stuff wet dreams are made of, it is just impractical. Has any woman who’s ever specialized in ass-kicking ever even considered such a garment? I sort of doubt it. But it is most often what our heroines are wearing.
The Dora Milaje were no exception when they were originally introduced. They wore tight red mini dresses whose neck line provided quite a preview and whose hemlines called it quits just past the curve of a hip. I rolled my eyes as soon as they appeared in the frame. These women were there for no other purpose than making T’Challa look good and giving the reader some bodies to ogle. From Priest’s own introduction to the trade paperback for The Client, “Joe and Jimmy just thought it’d be cool to have Panther travel with a pair of 6-foot tall gorgeous women, and I certainly agreed.”
As previously mentioned, these women are part of T’Challa’s private security force. Wholly devoted to the king, willing to put their bodies on the line to defend him, but also willing to give their bodies over to him. The order is a “nun/wife-in-training deal.” This underlines their complete devotion and strips them of their own desires. They become accessory pieces.
Channeling my patience, I proceeded with the series and let out a sigh of exasperation each time the Dora came into frame. To be fair, later in the series some of the commentary I have been dying to hear is delivered by the new recruit from Chicago, Chanté Giovanni Brown, aka Queen Divine Justice. Queen grew up in Chicago, so questions everything — from the impractical clothing she is expected to wear and fight in to the expectation of her, a child at 16, to be a “wife-in-training” and available for a grown man if he so may choose.
There are many comics that I refuse to read, or have begrudgingly trudged through. And I have realized that in each case, it is because of the way female bodies are represented. When I was younger, I was uncomfortable. Today, I get angry. The way bodies were drawn and some still are, is sometimes downright impossible. Twisted and contorted bodies, unrealistic proportions, all contribute to the sexualization of female bodies. And then, moving past the actual physical representation, if all we get story-wise is flat, two-dimensional characters, with little agency or personal drive… why even bother? Females reduced to props.
The re-imaging of the Dora Milaje by Coates, Gay, and Coogler open up these characters to a broader scope of influence. The women take over the movie and provide us a refreshing look into all that could be. They have depth and complexity. Most often, they get to fight in armour, not mini dresses. Okoye and Nakia, played by Danai Gurira and Lupita Nyong’o, shine in this film. I didn’t feel that these women were used once as a prop, but were integrated into the story line and are completely capable, never needing rescue. They are able to exist as fully developed characters that always have intent and purpose, shaking off the accessory status that is so often regulated to female characters.
“Black Panther” brings to the mainstream movie goer a picture they have not likely seen before. As unapologetic as it is in it’s celebration of black culture, so is it too in the celebration of women. Which is to say that these characters are allowed to exist in a space with a complex range of motivations, dreams, desires, fears. They are not one dimensional or stereotypical. These characters are given personality, potential, means, and ambitions.
When women in comics are fully developed and there is a focus on the character instead of cup-size, they appeal much more broadly to women and girls. No one wants to be singularly defined by the shape of their body. It is hardly coincidental that the number of women interested in comics is significantly less than men. When women are regulated to the role of sex object and only carry that characteristic, it sends the message to women and girls that they are not welcome here — that this is not a space for them. “Black Panther” has blown this space wide open. Like Wakanda, isolationist policies have to go, and opening the borders to allow for an inclusive welcoming environment will only lead to a thriving community.