Words by: Tayla Benson
With Hollywood’s increasing recognition of the talents of black women – their growing visibility and dominance as leading women in both television and film – it is easy to believe that they have become accepted and respected. With Viola Davis shining so brightly both on the small screen, as Annaliese Keating in How to Get Away with Murder (HGAM), and the silver screen in Fences; alongside Empire’s and Hidden Figures Taraji P. Henson receiving awards and magazine covers once reserved for Hollywood’s starring white women, the industry has created a mask of inclusion and diversity. Yet these roles often extended to black actresses are limiting rather than they are liberating.
Although the visibility has increased for these women, their characters can be seen to simply perpetuate societal stereotypes surrounding black women. Those classic ones, that black women are: loud, petty, feisty, with a tendency to be spiteful leading to messy situations, and maybe most importantly incapable of being loved fully. Scandal’s Olivia Pope holds all of these characteristics shown to be so drunk with power that she cannot allow herself to be loved by anyone, not even her parents, because it is a weakness. She is seen to constantly throw her weight around, considering those negatively impacted by her actions as collateral damage, with some even dying. Similarly, with HGAM, Annalise Keating fights the male dominated world of law by being ruthless, protecting herself and those closest to her at any cost.
In 2018 however, this regular pattern has been put into question. Black Panther has challenged Hollywood to change the game and rewrite their age-old scripts full of stereotypes, by showing that black women can be both strong and loved without the need for personal struggle. Efficient without being overbearingly loud, visible whilst remaining a part of a team, a family.
Alongside T’Challa (the Black Panther himself) are the all-black, all-female warriors of the Dora Milaje who hold the role of protecting their king and their country. Without these women of colour, Wakanda would likely cease to exist. Unlike many women of colour that take on the roles of Hollywood, these warriors harbour no struggle with their identity or past that negatively impacts their present, through addiction or promiscuity and heartbreak. They are just strong: no reason provided other than it is who they are; and it is what they wish to do. It is not just these warriors however that symbolise the asset of black women: Shuri may hold the most promise. The teenage girl, on which the functioning of Wakanda and the continuance of the Black Panther relies on, is essentially a physical representation of the new direction of our black women. As a character she lifts the lid off sterotypes surrounding intelligent women and their ethnicity and ages; she shows that young black women can too be the technological leaders of our world and once again do not have to come from a background of struggle (like those of Hidden Figures).
Black Panther shows the world that there is no need for a back story of struggle and abuse so frequently applied to these characters – black women can be leaders and powerful solely through determination and desire. The only motivation they need is their wish to protect, succeed, and achieve. They are not just showing Hollywood that the roles of Black women need changing, but are showing women that look like them all over the globe that their time is here. They are no longer limited by stereotypes, gender or ethnicity, that young black girls everywhere can be the warriors and leaders in this world.