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Thursday, March 22, 2018

March 22, 2018: Black Panther Studying: Gender and Violence

[Few pop culture texts have exploded into our collective consciousness more than Ryan Coogler’s film adaptation of Black Panther. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy this film phenomenon, starting with an older post on the comic and moving into a handful of other contexts and connections!]
On two distinct and opposed associations of gender with violence, and what links them.
A number of celebrations of Black Panther have noted that if features many more badass, butt-kicking, nuanced female heroes than did the year’s other most prominent superhero smash, Wonder Woman. I’m not a big fan of pitting films against each other in that way, as I’d always rather see texts and culture (like history) as additive, a chance to celebrate multiple worthy subjects rather than to see our commemoration as a zero-sum game. But leaving Wonder Woman aside, there’s no doubt that Black Panther features more prominent female heroes and leads than any other superhero film I’ve ever seen or heard of (and pretty much all other blockbuster films as well): not only the Dora Milaje, the army of legendary female warriors who protect T’Challa and Wakanda; but also T’Challa’s friend and love interest Nakia (a Wakandan spy and operative whom we meet rescuing a group of kidnapped African women and girls) and his sister Shuri (Wakanda’s director of technology and a worthy rival to James Bond’s Q as the film’s provider of amazing gadgets and great one-liners). In their own distinct but parallel ways, all of these women are at least as badass as T’Challa, and reflect a nation and universe where women can be butt-kicking superheroes with no asterisks or limitations.
Interestingly enough, the film’s villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, represents a very distinct side to gender and violence. While Killmonger’s perspective and plan are at least somewhat sympathetic (as I discussed in Tuesday’s post), one of the traits that most clearly denotes the character as a supervillain is his tendency to threaten, abuse, and kill women (an analysis I first heard articulated by my friend Kathleen Morrissey). [SPOILERS FOLLOW] From his shocking and brutal (and seemingly unaffected) killing of his own girlfriend when she stands in the way of his objectives, to his mistreatment and abuse of numerous Wakandan women (many of them elders), to his willingness (fortunately thwarted) to kill the teenage Shuri in the film’s climactic battle, Killmonger quite simply directs the majority of his on-screen rage and violence toward female characters. In an era when we’ve finally begun to have the necessary and long overdue conversation about the relationship between domestic violence and mass shootings, the association of Killmonger’s violence with his treatment of women seems far from coincidental or random.
These two sides to women and violence in Black Panther could be seen as contradictory—that is, if women are just as badass as men (and consistently they are in the film, if they’re not indeed more so), then how can we also see them as victims of a man like Killmonger? But I would argue instead that these two threads are interconnected, linked by a shared and seemingly common sense but in fact striking (especially in an action blockbuster) idea: that female characters can contribute just as much to a film, have just as much to offer its plot, themes, and world, as do male ones. In recent weeks a chart made the viral rounds detailing the percentages of dialogue of male and female characters (who speak more than 100 words in a film) in the last couple decades of Best Picture Oscar winners; suffice it to say that even in the best cases the balance was significantly tilted toward male characters. I haven’t seen a breakdown for Black Panther, although I’m pretty sure it’s far more evenly distributed; but in any case, this is a blockbuster action film with more significant female than male characters, and one in which those female characters contribute to the plot, themes, and world on multiple crucial levels. Ideally I wouldn’t have to point out such a fact as noteworthy, and perhaps films like Black Panther will help us get to that point.
Last Panther post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on the film or its contexts?

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