Fathom Mag
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Finding Womanhood in Wakanda

Black Panther gives us the model of womanhood we’ve been waiting to see.

Published on:
March 14, 2018
Read time:
5 min.
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I grew up in a world of fundamentalism where movies and television were considered dangerous poisons. Fairy tales, with their plot lines grounded in fantasy instead of truth, threaded through with magic and sorcery, were almost as bad.

Informal, independent testing of these ideas as a teenager taught me that the truth was far more complicated—stories are indeed powerful shapers of our minds, but the right kind of stories can do as much good as the wrong ones can do harm.

So, when God gave me three daughters in five years, I had strong ideas about what aspects of childhood I wanted them to experience differently than I had. One of those was how they would be shaped by stories.

Once Upon a Time in a Land Not So Far Away

The particular blessing of being an all-daughter family meant that, in the early years, our movie choices were inordinately dominated by the pantheon of the Disney princesses. The female characters were typically binary saints (Cinderella, Snow White) or sinners (the step-sisters, the Evil Queen). The male characters were mostly silent ciphers. The Disney worldview was narrow and full of gospel contradictions.

The right kind of stories can do as much good as the wrong ones can do harm.
Rachael Starke

As a mother, I longed for better stories. Eventually, so did my girls. Movies make girls think about what it means to be a woman, and what I wanted them to learn about strength and dignity didn’t often match what they saw on the silver screen.

When we left Disney for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), we found it was the women who faded into the background as little more than love interests. While Black Widow made it onto the movie posters, she was little more than your basic “bombshell with a brain and a gun.” But for a while, it still felt something like progress. These were power women—albeit regrettably hyper-sexualized ones.

A Heroine from Themyscira

Then along came Wonder Woman, the superheroine story we had been waiting for.

Hailing from an alternate DC universe, and from the mythical man-less land of Themyscira, the archly named Diana Prince was the first superheroine with a story deemed worthy of its own movie.

From the epic battles on the beach of Themyscira to the trenches of the First World War, Gal Gadot’s character was an eloquent apologia for how ferocity and femininity were not diametrically opposed. Women played both the lead heroine and villainess, while men assumed the roles of loyal sidekick and comic relief.

Wonder Woman, and as herself, Diana Prince, modeled Christ-like virtues of self-sacrificing salvation and redemption accomplished on behalf of undeserving mortals. This particular cinematic Christlikeness had hitherto only been granted to men. But now Wonder Woman fought for the vulnerable, even when the vulnerable were men, and ultimately saved the world.

The Peril of a Manless Place

But her story still fell short.

While many reviewers noted the supportive, affirming, and ultimately sacrificial nature of Steve’s relationship with Diana, they overlooked how rooted their relationship was in romantic desire. An early scene depicts Steve’s eye-roll inducing vacillation between gentlemanly respect and strange interest in the Amazons’ philosophy on sex. Diana waves away any interest in “the pleasures of the flesh.” Nevertheless, a few days later, she succumbs to his charms.

The cast of male supporting characters that surround Diana are incapable of conveying their respect and affirmation without regularly commenting on her beauty and strength. In fact, aside from her loyal partner Steve, they mostly act as passive responders of one kind or another. They don’t fight with her, so much as behind her.

Not so for the women and men of Wakanda.

Wakandan Womanhood We’ve Been Waiting On

The latest chapter in the MCU series centers on the rise of Prince T’Challa to the Wakandan throne after the sudden death of his father. In one poignant scene, T’Challa’s father counsels him that for a good man to be a good king, he must surround himself with people he can trust. Thanks to the numerous women on which he obviously leans, T’Challa has already done so.

He has his regally wise and ageless queen mother and his young sister Shuri—whose otherworldly sense of style is an afterthought compared to her technological genius and fearless, forward-thinking attitude. There is Nakiya, a government spy who has T’Challa’s heart but refused his offer of the throne because she feels called to serve her people a different way. And then there is General Okoye, the leader of Wakanda’s royal security detail, the Dora Milaje. The charter of this all-woman special forces team protects the Wakandan throne and the family who occupies it. Okoye and her women soldiers fulfill that call with a femininity and physical ferocity that overshadows that of the otherworldly Diana Prince and her Amazon sisters all by themselves.

Wakanda is a land where women and men work, and fight, side by side—unified around a common mission.
Rachael Starke

The various kinds of strength and beauty displayed by the women of Wakanda is empowering in a fuller sense than Wonder Woman could accomplish on her own. When an usurper attempts to take T’Challa’s throne, their myriad talents make their sudden fall into vulnerability all the more moving, as is their triumphant, collaborative battle to restore him to it.

But it’s the interactions between these women and the male characters surrounding them that is so unique. In a thousand other films, the relationship between T’Challa, Nakiya, and Okoye would be set up as a love triangle. We’d watch as T’Challa determines to seduce Nakiya into betraying her sense of calling to be with him, with Okoye waiting in the wings to offer his broken heart to comfort her as her own husband’s loyalties become divided.

Not so in Wakanda.

Here the focus of the interaction between the male and female characters is on their collective mission: their individual and collective callings to serve and protect their country. Their words are filled with respect and affirmation of one another, even in the midst of disagreements. Wakanda is not just a land free from the ravages of colonization; it is a land devoid of #MeToo predation. It is a land where women and men work, and fight, side by side—unified around a common mission.

Of all the biblical beauty in Black Panther, this resonated most powerfully for me and my girls. Wakanda embodies the creation mandate in Genesis 1 and 2, where the call to fill and subdue the earth is given to man and woman together, and where woman is given to man as an ally in that work—not merely ancillary, but genuinely necessary.

This commitment to bless the men they partner with also requires these women to rebuke or resist them at times for the sake of the collective good.
Rachael Starke

What’s notable about Black Panther, in comparison with Wonder Woman, is that the obvious goal of this allyship is to bless the men around them, not replace them. And this commitment to bless the men they partner with also requires these women to rebuke or resist them at times for the sake of the Wakandan collective good.

In the end, the Black Panther ultimately saves the day and wins back his throne—because a literal army of female allies have fought with him, and for him, to help him do it.

No fictional fairy tale or super hero adventure can ever replace or transcend the truest and most beautiful story of our origin as men and women made in the image of God. But I want to teach my girls to find the stories that reflect the beauty of the greatest story. I want them to test the relative truth and beauty of what they read and watched against the truest story of all—the Bible. They may have started with Disney, but now they have Black Panther, and it’s exactly the kind of story I want shaping their minds.

Rachael Starke
Rachael Starke has lived and worked in Silicon Valley for over eighteen years. She writes about the intersection of the gospel with technology, gender, food, and everything else. You can connect with her on TwitterLinkedIn, or her blog.

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