The Feminists Of Wakanda

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Brian Stelfreeze; Laura Martin

Here are a couple of interesting pieces written about the women characters in Black Panther #1. The role of women in this run is somewhat accidental. Many of the most important men T’Challa’s life are dead. His uncle S’Yan, who’d long advised him, was killed by Dr. Doom. Two of his other compatriots Zuri and W’Kabi were killed by the “totem-eater” Morlun. With such immediate death around T’Challa, as well as so many dead Wakandans at the hands of The Black Order and Namor, it seemed natural that his mother, Ramonda, would be especially close to him. The decision to examine the Dora Milajae, through the characters Ayo and Aneka, also came out of the past. The Doras are one of the most consistent elements in the Panther mythos over the past 15 years. I could not help but wonder how they might process all the turmoil in the country.

With that said, there’s been an ongoing conversation about how women appear in comic books (and women who create comic books) for some time. With the advent of social media it’s gotten harder to ignore that debate. You don’t really have to be a admitted feminist to know what it means to be “fridged.” And whether you agree with it or not, a comic book fan has to be willfully blind to not be aware of the critique of how women’s bodies have been presented in the form.

The feminist critique is in the air now. If my rendition of Black Panther wasn’t created by that critique, it breathed the same air. I can’t really kill off or depower women characters without grappling with Gail Simone. I can’t really think about how women characters are drawn anymore without thinking about the women in Bitch Planet, and how they seem drawn beyond the male gaze.

This is why criticism is important. The job of criticism isn’t to interrupt or encourage commercial prospects. (“Batman vs Superman smashes Box Office, despite critic complaints!”) Criticism should push our imagination and help us understand what is actually possible in art and, I’d argue, even what is moral. 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.

The feminist critique of comics has made “not asking” a lot harder. That, in itself, is a victory. The point is not to change the thinking of the active sexist. (Highly unlikely.) The point is  to force the passive sexist to take responsibility for his own thoughts.

More on this, and a lot more, in this episode of the Women of Marvel podcast.