Feminist superhero movies were, until very recently, like unicorns: they didn’t exist. The vast majority of women who have a significant amount of screen time in superhero movies are restricted to love interests whose lives revolve around the hero. What few female heroes do show up usually meet the same fate and/or die (see: Black Widow, Scarlet Witch).
So I, like most other girl geeks, was thrilled when Wonder Woman came out last year. And the film did not disappoint. I didn’t cry, but it was a close call. We’ve had plenty of kickass female action heroes in the spotlight—Ellen Ripley is the hallowed queen of the sci-fi alien genre—but until 2017 we had never had a blockbuster movie that centered on a female superhero. It was such a relief, even though I knew we probably wouldn’t see another feminist superhero movie for at least five years, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as WW.
And then Black Panther came and blew it out of the water.
I know, I know. How can Black Panther be a more feminist superhero movie than Wonder Woman? As the name would suggest, the whole story centers around a guy: T’Challa, the Black Panther. Not to mention the fact that Wonder Woman stars and is written and directed by other women, compared to Black Panther, which was created primarily by men.
Hear me out.
Putting on our feminist goggles (not that we ever really take them off), we see that both movies are on equal footing in many areas. Both have entire groups of women who are accomplished fighters rather than putting all military prowess into one person. Both refuse to sexualize those women in any way. Both feature reclusive societies who choose to ignore the suffering of the world around them and refuse to get involved. Both protagonists have dead fathers and secret evil relatives. Both protagonists also lose an aunt or uncle to a bloody death. Et cetera.
There are two major differences between the two movies that make Black Panther more feminist than Wonder Woman.
The first is the variety of women. Wonder Woman presents only one kind of powerful woman: the warrior. We see her in a lot of action movies. She’s the one who is on the front lines with the boys, who fights better than all of them, who knows her way around a gun, or sword, or laser, or even all three if they’re available.
This kind of woman is great. Diana wouldn’t be Diana if she wasn’t a warrior. That’s kind of her thing. But that’s also the only kind of “strong woman” that DC presents.
What about the girl who doesn’t like fighting, but likes creating? Or the girl who tries to use diplomacy first rather than her fists? Or the mother who can’t necessarily fight but will still protect her children by any means necessary? They’re not represented by Wonder Woman.
They are, however, represented by Black Panther. They’ve got the warrior(s): Okoye and the Dora Milaje. They also have more.
Shuri serves her country with her inventions, spending all of her time in the lab designing and creating world-changing technology that not only protects her brother, but also saves Agent Ross.
Nakia is a spy who wants to save the world, and she does it by talking first, fighting second. The meeting with M’Baku would have gone a very different direction if she hadn’t been there.
And Queen Ramonda is the one who heals her son’s grievous wounds.
Wonder Woman presents one way to be a powerful woman. Black Panther presents several.
The other reason Black Panther is more feminist than Wonder Woman is because it showcases the power of women of color.
One of the biggest complaints of Wonder Woman is that, while the focus should obviously be on Diana Prince, there are no women of color with any lines or impact on the story. We see them on the Amazons’ island, but they never say anything. They even had a perfectly good opportunity to cast a WOC in the form of Etta Candy (the assistant who helps Diana get modern clothes and makes the cute joke about the glasses). But they didn’t take it, instead choosing another white actress.
“But Chris!” you may cry, “Black Panther is just as bad! It has only black women in it! No white, Asian, or Latina girls at all. How is that more inclusive or feminist than Wonder Woman’s mostly-white cast?”
To which I would answer: open a history book. The American feminist movement, awesome as it is, is not perfect. Like most things in this country, it has a long history of racism. Women of color have been excluded from clubs, protests, events, history books, and, more recently, movies. Wonder Woman is guilty of that, too.
We say the movie helped all women by being as successful as it was, but it didn’t. It only helped white women. (Specifically, thin, white, straight, cis women, but that’s an article for another time. [Yes, I know Diana’s bi in the comics. But we didn’t see that in the film. Again: argument for another time.])
Black Panther is a sharp reminder to white feminists that if you want gender equity, you have to include the women out there who may not fit your initial description of powerful women. That means the woman who chooses to stay home while the men fight, the woman who prefers to create weapons rather than use them, and, of course, the women of color.