First, I’ll start off this article by stating a simple fact: I saw Black Panther on opening night, and since then, I’ve wanted to write this post. I walked out of that film with so many ideas to talk about, I was nigh bursting. However, I waited this long to post anything about Black Panther for a simple reason – there are other voices than mine which should take precedent in a conversation about a film so strongly impacting people of color right now. There are so many writers of color putting out thoughtful, insightful articles about Black Panther that I felt it was important for me, as a white woman, to sit back and listen without stepping in and having my say.

Then, I saw this image pop up online asking why more white women weren’t speaking up about the feminism in Black Panther when so many are touting Wonder Woman as such a feminist film. So I figured it was time to write this then, to do my speaking up.

Because folks, I’m going to agree: Black Panther is a more feminist film than Wonder Woman. And I’m going to show you how.

[[Note: Major spoilers for Black Panther below.]]


DoraMilajeWonderWomanFeminism As An Integrated Force

Previously, I’ve written extensively about the incredible job the creators of the recent Wonder Woman film did translate Themyscira and the Amazons onto film. Sure there were some issues along the way, but overall I believe director Patty Jenkins did a phenomenal job telling Diana’s story on the big screen. However, there has always been a part of the Wonder Woman story that rubbed me the wrong way.

As a little girl, when I saw misogyny growing up in the world around me, I longed for a place where I could escape, a society of women who were not only strong but intelligent, thoughtful, creative, and loving. Themyscira truly was Paradise Island, where a woman could be everything she ever imagined, without the influence of patriarchy on her growth.

Yet now, as a grown woman, I can see a fundamental flaw in this idea. Though the thought of a world without men is seductive when faced with the dangers of toxic masculinity on all society, I’ve come to believe removing one’s self from “man’s world” to only focus on a woman-based culture devoid of men is to ignore a larger part of society. Toxic masculinity, in fact, effects men in a “man’s world” just as bad as it does women, if only in other ways. I believe that to ignore those effects and abandon the rest of the world to its own devices is to truly ignore the promise of feminism’s positive impact on the world. By separating themselves away from men, the Amazon’s evolved into a utopian society to the detriment of the rest of the world. Their influence could have changed the world if only they’d emerged from their hiding sooner.

pantherBy contrast, we have Wakanda. Though Wakanda is an isolationist society much like Themyscira in regards to the rest of the world (a subject for much debate elsewhere and addressed directly in the Black Panther film), it is also a well-balanced, nearly utopian society, growing technologically and societally with every passing generation while still holding onto its ancient traditions. Yet unlike other societies, Wakanda does not focus on patriarchal ideology, despite its male-dominated leadership (Wakanda has a history of only kings on the throne until, spoiler alert, Shuri becomes the first woman leader in the comics). Instead, Wakanda has fully integrated the idea of women as equals, creating a society where women are not only respected but accepted without surprise when in positions of power.

black-panther-marvelThere are powerful examples of this integration all across the film. Shuri is the princess of Wakanda and yet, as a super genius serves as the driving force behind Wakanda’s technological evolution. Okoye is the leader of the Dora Milaje, a fighting force of women drawn from every tribe of Wakanda to be its most dangerous protectors. As the bodyguards of the royal family, the Dora Milaje are never questioned as warriors but instead accepted not only as equals but as superiors in combat. Even King T’Challa knows he is meant to be deferential in many ways to Okoye, who has more experience as a warrior and general than he does. Let me say that a little louder: never once does the king of the sovereign, advanced nation of Wakanda speak down to or diminish the power of the women warriors and creators all around him. He humbly recognizes women as equals, worthy of respect as a matter of commonplace course.

[A brief note: The film makes an interesting adjustment to the story of the Dora Milaje that sets it apart from the comic book version. In the comics, the Dora Milaje are indeed chosen to become elite warriors to protect T’Challa and the royal family. However, they are also meant to be taken from every tribe so eventually T’Challa will choose a bride from one of their ranks. This idea was stripped from the film, a choice that mirrors a more progressive ideology being embraced by the film’s creators. The Dora Milaje were always badasses, but they’ve now become more than just badass prospective consorts as they were originally written.]

103334Never is T’Challa’s acceptance of the influence of women more apparent than in his relationship with his ultimate spy, Nakia. Nakia left Wakanda to embed herself in other societies for the purpose of saving people (especially women) endangered in the turbulent outside world, flying directly in the face of Wakandan tradition and T’Challa’s own interests. T’Challa sought out Nakia as a love interest and yet respected her choice to leave, even when he disagreed. When he finds her once again at the beginning of the film, he is struck nearly dumb at the sight of her, a king lost for a moment in the sight of the woman he obviously still cares about, much to Okoye’s snarky delight. Yet with every interaction between Nakia and T’Challa, we see a man not only besotted with the spymistress, but a man who does not treat her as a sexual or romantic object. Instead, he values her experience, her opinion, and her power, accepting her choices without real complaint and listening to her advice so much she influences his entire foreign policy.

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Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett)

From Queen Ramonda (played by the unbelievable Angela Bassett) to every one of the Dora Milaje, from Okoye and Nakia and Shuri and the councilwomen who serve as representatives of their tribes, the powerful leading women of the Black Panther film are not presented to the audience as exceptions to the rule in Wakanda. Instead, they stand as examples of how Wakanda has evolved as a society which allows women to flourish to their full potential equal to men in all ways, with no question or compromise. In Wakanda, women and men live lives of nearly unvarying potential with no need to withdraw or hide.But beyond their own integration and acceptance in society, the women of Wakanda seem to have brought a very important influence as well on the men around them.

The Divestiture of Toxic Masculinity In Black Panther

When watching Wonder Woman, the message of Diana’s journey into “man’s world” is hammered home over and over. As representative and in fact the idealization of all the Amazon’s believes, Diana is acting as an ambassador from her world of women’s idyllic perfection to the patriarchal outside world. She is, as she states, becoming “a bridge to the world of men” so as to bring the Amazon’s message of peace and understanding to a world ripped apart by strife. She wants to present the idea of feminine equality to the rest of the world, where it has been so long repressed, suppressed or destroyed in so many cultures. She is the exceptional woman, out to influence the men around her with her clarion call of justice, truth, and love. And while this is a beautiful idea, a truly feminist ideology in many ways, it rings a little hollow when you look at Diana as the exceptional outsider.

wonder-woman-gal-gadot-ultimate-edition-1024x681Diana enters the world outside an innocent, ready to bring her ideas to someone else’s culture without any idea of their real history, their issues, or the ingrained ideas she’ll be facing. She believes she can change men’s minds just by bringing them a better way from the outside of their society, from a clearly “superior” place. In a strange way, she is a cultural tourist, if a well-meaning one, presenting her feminism into a world which is in many ways unprepared for a radical cultural shift and unwilling to change so quickly just because they’re told about “superior” feminist ideology from an outsider. It’s for that reason Diana struggles so hard to influence “man’s world” – she is not a part of it, but an alien influence presenting a new form of thinking to a world with thousands of years of ingrained thinking to undo.

WONDER WOMANIt’s no wonder then that the men around Diana remain, in large part, still entrenched in their toxic masculine ideas. Though Wonder Woman earns the respect of many of her male colleagues both in the comics and in the recent film, her ideas are still considered foreign to most men around her. In fact, most do not divest themselves of their ideology to embrace a way of living outside the influence of toxic masculinity. They instead bend to Diana’s ideas only when they are the most needed, flexing back to their ingrained patriarchal thinking often right after she’s not around. Steve Trevor is an example, as in the film he spends the entire time attempting to influence Diana to his way of thinking instead of the other way around, using his patriarchal thinking to drag her halfway across Europe and blocking her action with what is clearly his male privilege. A male privilege which is obviously lacking in Wakanda.

From the very beginning of the Black Panther film, I felt something odd when watching Chadwick Boseman in his portrayal of King T’Challa. While T’Challa is the royal leader of his country and therefore, presumably, the representation of the pinnacle of its masculine representation in the narrative, he doesn’t exude many of the typical traits you’d see of a film’s leading male character. T’Challa is both powerful and sensitive, thoughtful and respectful. He is from the beginning willing to not only express his emotions in front of others but especially to and in front of women, who surround him as his closest family and advisors. T’Challa never disrespects or tries to strong-arm the women around him, even when he disagrees with their choices, but praises and welcomes their input, agreeing to disagree and offering support where he can.

TChallaMournsTChakaT’Challa also has powerful emotional connections to the men around him, including Zuri the priest and especially his father, the late King T’Chaka. When he is put into the trance during his test to assume the throne, he speaks to his father and falls crying against his side, showing a level of emotion often considered anathema to a male protagonist. He doesn’t brood but instead shows his inner conflicts over his right to be king with quiet consideration and a willingness to take criticism and advice without anger or retaliation. He, to be plain, showcases all the hallmarks of a male protagonist stripped of the signposts of toxic masculinity influence, as do the other male characters in Wakanda.

With T’Challa as the pinnacle example of Wakanda and the other male characters expressing similar emotional signs during the film, we can then surmise T’Challa is not the exception to the rule but instead a typical example of how Wakanda has evolved as a more emotionally open society, stripped of toxic masculine influences. And that, matched with the equal treatment of women, leads me to surmise the cultural acceptance of those women have helped Wakanda evolve as a place where patriarchal influences did not rise up to quash men’s emotional expression and their chances to grow outside of what we’d see as “normal” masculine archetypes.

Wakandan men are not bound by the western idea of what it is to be a “man” but have grown instead with the comfortable acceptance of what western culture might see as “feminine” behavior. It is the influence of Wakandan women as equals that have brought a truly feminist idea forward: the defeat of toxic masculinity not only for the damage it does to women but the damage it brings to men as well.

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Never is the Wakandan ideal of the sensitive, more “feminized” man so contrasted as when looking at the villain Killmonger. Left out in the outside world to grow up in a dangerous life, Killmonger does not have the influence of Wakanda’s more sensitive society to smooth down his rough edges. He does not live in a place where his rage over his father’s death might have been cooled or at least channeled in a different way. Instead, Killmonger represents the harsh, toxic masculinity of the outside world, where his somewhat thoughtful (and even partially correct) ideas about the unfairness of Wakanda’s isolationist policies are twisted into hateful, angry actions.

david-s-lee-limbani.w710.h473.2xKillmonger shows all the brash hallmarks of a man trapping his pain away in rage, using violence to solve his problems rather than embracing his emotions to give way to catharsis and resolution. His disconnection to women is also apparent in the film, as he is followed by a woman of color who barely has any speaking lines or so much as a name (I had to look it up, it’s Linda). In every scene, this woman is treated as the token girlfriend/henchwoman, and then killed by Killmonger when Ulysses Klaw uses her as a hostage. She is the ultimate expression of Killmonger’s embroilment in the toxic masculine culture. Even Killmonger’s influence on others brings patriarchal influence and damage to Wakandan culture, as he twists Okoye’s beloved W’Kabi away from his loyalty to T’Challa and turns his entire tribe against the throne with promises of revenge and violence.

Killmonger-and-TChalla-Black-Panther-e1519141115492Yet even in Killmonger’s scenes, we see a spark of that Wakandan emotional connection, when he goes into the trance and speaks once more to his father. Killmonger’s father clearly expresses the same emotional complexity and sensitivity showcased by other Wakandan men when he tries to connect to his son, but despairs at the rage and closed off pain he sees in the man his son has become. It’s only through T’Challa’s attempts to reconcile with Killmonger that we see a little of the emotional sensitivity of Wakanda rubbing off on the furious villain. But still, the outside world has trapped Killmonger so badly into the patriarchal cycle that, even in his end when T’Challa offers him peace and solace in his final moments, he is unable to be anything but angry in his own sorrow.

If we step away from speaking about men again for a minute, we can look at the women of Wakanda in the Black Panther film for what they are: exceptional without being exceptional at all.

The Non-Exceptional Exceptional Woman

593ff1b91d00002900cc2ac9As stated above, Wonder Woman is the exceptional woman in a world of men, the ambassador and outsider who shirks her own society’s xenophobic tendencies to save the outside world from itself. She is the one in a thousand, one in a million, the beautiful and infinitely powerful immortal goddess on earth who brings her special brand of love and ass-kicking to both the battlefield and her personal relationships. When you read her comics and watch the film, the narrative makes one thing clear: there is no one truly like Diana, and she is the ultimate of her kind. And when we look at her sister Amazons, they all are expressed with similar, if less powerful, expressions of the same archetype of idealized feminism and utopian female ideology. Together, they are an often uniform face of the Exceptional Feminist, set apart and ready to impress with their evolved ideas.

Black PantherBy contrast, the powerful women of Wakanda are not only exceptional in their power but nuanced in their presentation in the narrative. Their equality and power are not packed into a single package of ass-kicking and peace and love, but instead, each woman is her own nuanced expression of a fully realized woman.

Where Shuri is brash and feisty and in many ways a typical teenager, her mother is regal and loving, the complicated mother figure transitioning from a queen into the queen mother she has become. And though Okoye and Nakia are both ass-kicking women who take to the streets at T’Challa’s side, both are very different women with their own thoughts, ideals, skill sets, and struggles. Okoye spends the film trying to decide where her loyalties lie, to the throne or to what is right, while Nakia follows her heart no matter the danger to her position in Wakandan society. Each lives their own stories as complex as any male protagonist, weaving their narratives around that of T’Challa and his conflict with Killmonger.

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In Black Panther, the women of Wakanda are complicated and different from one another, telling the story of the different archetypes women can represent, while in fact evolving those archetypes beyond to represent the complexity of real women. They are not the tropes we so usually accept from the Girlfriend, the Woman Warrior, the Mother, or the Sister. They are women all their own, and they are brilliant.

In Conclusion

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I could continue to break down the narrative even further by speaking about the power of all these women and their representation as women of color, but as I said there are POC out there far better equipped to handling that conversation. In the matter of that topic, I step back and want to speak less and listen more. But in contrasting Wonder Woman and its feminist ideology alongside that of Black Panther, I can only conclude that while Wonder Woman brings us a kind of exceptionalist feminism, Black Panther brings us a vision of what a truly gender-equal society can accomplish, breaking down the barriers of gender stereotypes to present opportunity for anyone to be anything they wish in their full complexity and freedom of choice.

Thankfully, the world of comics and films has room for both kinds of feminist representation. In fact, it’d be amazing to see multiple complex versions of feminist representation flood media so we can have more women-empowering films and television and books so we can have countless conversations and essays to foster more discussion.

Yet in the meanwhile, when contrasting these two films as our present examples, I conclude Black Panther presents us with a more hopeful vision of feminism, a world where men and women can embrace what they wish without persecution or protestation. And maybe we could use a little more of that kind of feminist representation in our lives.

I unfriended someone on Facebook the other day. That might not sound like such a big deal to some, but to others you might be going “oooooooooh” right now, because it takes a lot to get defriended from my Facebook. Something fairly monumental. And this wasn’t a stealth defriending either, a “I knew you in grade school but now you’ve become a Trump supporter so bye Felicia” kind of defriending. This was a digital face-to-face over a thread, telling the other person “It’s been fun, but goodbye.”

And it was over, of all things, Twin Peaks.

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“I’ll see you again in 25 years.”

Folks might not know, but I’m a huge fan of Twin Peaks. Been watching for years. I must have seen the original show three or four times over, plus read the books, and absorbed so much of the lore around the show I’ve got theories that have already proven true. I’m such a big fan, I’m planning a tattoo for the next time I get the chance saying “Fire Walk With Me.” I’m THAT big a fan.

But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the criticisms I’ve got of the show, particularly about women characters on Twin Peaks. And while the show is meant in many ways as a parody of both itself and melodramatic television and 1950’s small town culture, therefore offering it a strange and unique space for characters to be archetypes rather than entirely characters all their own, there are issues with the treatment of women in my eyes and always have been. And I’m not the only one. Reviews and articles coming in about the new Twin Peaks have echoed a lot of my feelings, from The Wrap, Refinery29, Bustle and, of all places, Haaretz. They all say what I’ve been saying too: David Lynch has a woman problem in his work, and in Twin Peaks it is glaringly obvious and very, very sad.

So after one particularly egregious episode in Twin Peaks: The Return (Episode 10), I put up a single line text about how much I love the show, but how it had a serious sexism problem. And within a few minutes, I was under attack. Not a “I disagree with you” friendly debate. I love those. But a full knock-down gaslighting, insulting, mansplaining, nightmare, complete with “you just don’t understand the series” and “do you even watch the show?” nerd checking. The person in question was clearly agitated, posting rapidly and pointing out how Twin Peaks was full of archetypes (yes, it is), how it is part parody (yes, it is), and if you think that David Lynch is sexist, he can’t be, because he included one of the first trans characters (thank you, yes, not the point) and is asexual himself (um, okay, sure… what?).

It turned out over the course of this bizarre conversation that the truth came out: this show had deep sentimental value to this person, who felt because of that it needed defending. And when I pointed out that their attachment didn’t make it immune from criticism, the comments got nasty. So I said goodnight to a person I’d known for seven years, and unfriended them. Simply put, I don’t need that negativity in my life.

But it brought up an interesting series of thoughts from me, which culminated last night after seeing The Dark Tower. Because boy, do I have a lot of feelings about that movie.

(And here is where I post about a new film in a spoiler-free way. If you don’t want to read about The Dark Tower movie at all and want to see it cold, you might want to stop reading.)

There are few things I’m a bigger fan of than Twin Peaks. X-Men. American Gods. Buffy. The Dresden Files. And then, there’s The Dark Tower. I’ve read the entire book series three times, along with nearly every Stephen King book out there. I’ve seen almost every Stephen King TV show and movie, even the bad ones, multiple times. I’ve tracked the connections between King’s other works and The Dark Tower series and waxed on for HOURS about theories and possible other connections. I’m planning another tattoo, and yes, it’s of the Dark Tower and the words “There are Other Worlds Than These.” Every time someone would talk online about rumors that The Dark Tower was becoming a movie, I’d flip out and wait. And wait. It took years to get the series to film, so when they announced it, I bought tickets the day they went on sale. I was ready.

the-dark-tower_0I watched everyone flip about Idris Elba being cast as Roland because of the color of his skin and rolled my eyes. They made a great choice there, I thought, choosing a man of color for such a traditionally Clint Eastwood, square jaw white guy role. He would rip a hole in the scenery with Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black. He would be the iconic man on his way to the Tower. He had the perfect gravitas. I would recite the Gunslinger Creed over my popcorn bucket and watch him do the reloading trick and be so happy. I got my friends together, those who were big fans and who weren’t, and I made a day of it. As I said to my friends, to a fan like me, it was like going to church.

And then. I went to the movie. And I walked out so mad. So. So mad.

The Dark Tower movie is bad, y’all. It’s really, really is.

I won’t go into specifics, but other than a few pieces of nerd-dom tossed in that made me satisfied, the film was a run of the mill, fun urban scifi-fantasy film that could have been original if it was anything but named The Dark Tower. It harkened back to the comic book adaptations of the 80’s and 90’s in its surface-level-only understanding of the material, a slick transmogrification of a complicated, gritty, compelling series into a shiny action film full of hackneyed dialogue and atonal characters. Idris Elba, the man who brought you such nuanced, intense performances as Luther was wasted on this movie, and scenes where he and the powerful McConaughey, seemingly ready to flex his muscles but tragically held back by the weak writing, fall positively flat. The two, along with the rest of the cast, are given no room to move in the too-quick, badly edited rush to cram a huge amount of material into a tragically short hour and a half film. An hour and a half for a seven book series ‘sequel’ which reads like a comic book spin-off one shot gone horribly wrong.

I walked out of the film, furious. I sat down with friends afterwards and listed the myriad ways the movie had failed not only Dark Tower fans, but folks in general. My friends who didn’t know the books said it came in as a solid ‘okay’ action movie without the context of the original material, which I suppose gives it some salvation. But for a fan like me, it was like watching someone piss away the opportunity to make a new Lord of the Rings. Give me a Peter Jackson three movie trilogy, each three hours long, where you have to race to the bathroom in between scenes because you’re sitting so long watching it. Give me the depth of Mid-World, the Tet Corporation, the Gunslingers of Eld. Give me the epic battle between titanic forces I’d been waiting for. Instead, I got a cartoon.

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She looks awesome and people were complaining about her hair. That’s some coded racist BS there folks.

I went online to put up a single lined comment on my Facebook: “This movie has forgotten the face of its father.” A lament to what could have been. And I got the most curious response to a friend in private messenger. It said I shouldn’t complain, because at least the movie cast a man of color as the lead. That made it important. To which I agreed yes, it did make it important. Actually, in the age of white washing roles, just days after the internet flipped its collective trolling shit over the awesome Zazie Beetz, a woman of color, being cast as the traditionally comic book pasty Domino in the upcoming Deadpool 2, seeing a man of color playing this iconically white as heck role was powerful. I mean, Roland Dechain is meant effectively to be the descendent of Arthur Eld, the King Arthur of his land. He carries guns made of Excalibur. He is THE iconic hero. Choosing a man of color for the role was a great, progressive move.

It didn’t save the film, however, from a) just being bad and b) from sucking in other ways regarding progressive representation. For example, towards women. It’s not like the original material was super amazing towards women to begin with. I’ll tell you there’s some shit about fridging women in it that could make your hair stand on end, and some sexual violence that’s way, way unnecessary in my eyes. The film flinches away from a lot of the worse stuff because of its shiny, not-too-violent-but-cartoon-violence veneer, but it fails the Bechdel Test and the Fridging Tests like a kid who didn’t study for finals. It found its way to progressiveness in one way, and flunked it so epically in others.

And you know what? That’s okay. I mean, it’s not okay that it failed. It’s not okay that the movie overall was a colossal disappointment.

It’s okay to look at a film like The Dark Tower and point out that while it was progressive in one way, it failed epically in others in terms of representation.

Because just because a piece of media is progressive does not make it immune to criticism. Even, and especially, if it’s your favorite.

I had my own run-in with what I call Favorite Bias when reviews for Wonder Woman came in. On the list of things I’m more of a fan of than Twin Peaks is Wonder Woman. I’ve read almost every Wonder Woman comic up until the New 52 run (which I forgoed because I felt it betrayed the character on pretty much every level). I was planning, you guessed it, a Wonder Woman tattoo (you see a pattern here). I have Wonder Woman t-shirts. I have every graphic novel I could get my hands on. I think I remember more about Wonder Woman comics than pieces of my childhood because, hey, that’s how the human mind works. So when the movie was announced, I was ready to be disappointed. I was nervous, ya’ll, that we’d have another Catwoman on our hands, another Elektra, and that movie execs would use its flop as an excuse to say “Women led comic book movies will fail!” even when women-led movies with kickass protagonists were doing work at the box office (say hey, Furiosa and Katniss).

And then Wonder Woman came out. And it was a joy.

Sure, it had its problems. Heck, I went over its problems in a long, long article. I laid out all the issues it had and why, in many ways, it had come short of true greatness. But all in all, I sat in the dark opening night with tons of my friends and bounced with joy when I saw Themyscira. Once again, take me to church, silver screen. I was home.

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They couldn’t give Artemis any lines? Really?

And then I got home, and started talking to other folks, looking at Facebook, reading reviews. And the one thing I noticed over and over were comments about the representation of people of color in the film. Specifically, how nearly all of the non-white Amazons had non-speaking or servile roles. The film, it seemed, had managed to pass the Bechdel test with some flying-ass colors while leaving its representation of POC way, way in the dirt. (And for more on this, check out Harper’s Bazaar’s piece as an example of the conversation out there). A lot of people were lauding the film while commentators, especially POC, were citing the problems the film had. And they were getting a lot of responses saying what I said about The Dark Tower: while the film achieved progressive aims in some ways by being a hella strong representation of a powerful woman on the big screen (and at the box office), it was a massive problem for its intersectional representation.

When I first heard those criticisms, something kicked in my stomach. A nagging rationalization crawled up out of me, saying, “But look! It’s Wonder Woman! It’s a hell of a progressive film! Look at Themyscira! Look at it! That’s woman paradise! The warriors, the culture, just look!” And then I did look. Harder. And I saw the way women of color were being represented. I listened to what people were saying, what women of color were saying. It wasn’t a woman’s paradise. Not for all women. Pretty much just for the white ones.

I shut up. I listened. And (I think) I got it.

These experiences echoed an old fight I had with a friend over Star Wars years ago on my birthday. Star Wars, to him, is his Take Me To Church, a deep abiding nerdy kind of love that nigh transcends understanding. So when I made the mistake of pointing out the shortage of women in the original Star Wars universe during my birthday party one year, I nearly ended a friendship. Because that was his Sacred Bunny, just like Twin Peaks had been my ex-friend’s Sacred Bunny, and Wonder Woman was mine. And though each one of these pieces of media expounded on some serious progressive ideals, it didn’t make it less regressive in other ways.

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We forget this was mind-controlled, y’all.

Did the original Star Trek‘s progressive moments, such as the famous interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk, erase the fact that it happened on an episode where they were basically mind controlled into having the kiss, making it a product of unwanted sexual attention? Nope. Did the great trajectory of Mako Mori in the plot of Pacific Rim take away from the stereotyping she received as both a woman of Asian descent and as a woman in general? Nope. Did the great representation of queer characters on The 100 let us ignore the tragedy that was the destruction of its most stable queer relationship in the tradition of the Killing Queers trope, ala Buffy‘s Tara? Nope. Did the unbelievable awesomeness of the John Wick series ignore that the protagonist’s wife is (spoiler alert) Fridged for his story to have emotional trajectory (and y’all, it’s not all about the dog)? Nope. And don’t get me started on the Orthodox Jewish banker stereotype from John Wick 2, just don’t.

It is okay to like something and find it problematic. But moreover, it’s okay to recognize that a piece of media can be progressive in some ways and deeply problematic in others.

In fact, I’ll go one further. Progressive media should not and cannot be immune to criticism. By allowing ourselves to be caught up in a piece of media’s progressive moves in some areas, while blatantly ignoring or downplaying the places where it fails in intersectional representation, we let ourselves be lulled into the false ideology that progression can only occur slowly and that representation is a battle fought for in drips and drabs, as individual causes whose battlefronts often cannot intersect for fear of scaring the conservative whole.

We look at a film which supports a single minority group or underserved population and laud its achievements and sweep under the rug its failures, afraid to rip apart a one-step-forward kind of progression that has clawed our media representations to where they are now. “What, you want it to be everything?” we say, not realizing it echoes the snide comments by alt-right conservatives, who sneer about how the next big movie will replace their tried and true white male protagonist with a queer disabled woman of color just so it can be politically correct. (And yes, that’s some of the bullshit the conserva-trolls online say). We say things like, “We’ve got this far, what else do you want?”

I guess the answer is: more. I want more.

I don’t see why we can’t shoot for the moon, for a movie that not only excels in a single area but serves a better view of the world by being progressive in all intersectional ways. I want movies that have people of color in positions of power, forget just speaking rolls. I want queer representation presented as normalized, for trans characters to have visibility and recognition as part of the world as it is without qualifiers. I want women to have power and agency and representation and for disabled characters to comfortably exist. I want religious diversity and body diversity. Yeah, I want it all. Maybe that makes me a greedy liberal media nerd, but that’s what I want.

But when a piece of media fails us in those ways, when it only comes in second or third in its representation, when it soars to the moon and only lands among the stars, giving us one or two of those representations and lacks the others, I want us to be able to look at it and recognize that fact. I want us to say, “yes, but” rather than “yes, and let’s take what we can get.” It might be infuriating, and to conservatives outside it might look like liberals being divisive within their own camp. But if progressive action in media is not intersectional, just like in other forms of progressive action, then it has not truly achieved its aims. And we can only learn how to improve by recognizing those places where pieces of media, and indeed those places where we creators have failed in our own media, have fallen short of a better, more ideal form of representation.

Despite all this, I’m still going to be a giant nerd for Wonder Woman. I’ve come to embrace Star Wars as a huge part of my geek life thanks to better representation in the new era of films, books, and toys. I watch John Wick with my friends, and love the shit out of The Dark Tower books. I’ve lauded the movements of comic books and comic book films and television to be forward thinking on its representation, loving on my Kamala Khan and Captain Marvel and new, better Wonder Woman storylines while still criticizing the places where things fall through the cracks. I put forward my own work to others and take criticism too, because if I don’t practice what I preach as a creator of media, I’m just a hypocrite. I like my problematic favorites, like Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. I still turn on Twin Peaks every Sunday night, even though I groan into a pillow over some of the choices David Lynch makes.

I’m still a fan. But these days, I expect more. And I’ll keep saying so, until it’s not necessary anymore.

I’m about to make a claim here that I will attempt to support with a look at the woman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This post may have spoilers to any number of the Marvel movies that have come out so far, especially Guardians of the Galaxy. You have been warned.

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I have a theory, ladies and gentlemen: Gamora may be the best independent woman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m laying it out there on the line and saying it. And now, I’m going to try to explain why.

There’s no doubt that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereafter referred to as the MCU) has represented some kickass women characters, with large roles or small ones. Yet when looking at each of the women in the context of their own films, we might see some seriously problematic relationships that these women have with their own power and agency within the narrative. No matter how each character strives to escape from the stereotypical tropes that have plagued women characters in cinema, in one way or another they fall into those very pitfalls. These top pitfalls are:

  1. Are introduced as love interests or sex objects,
  2. Kept passive for most of their role or only given agency to act when commanded by a man to do so,
  3. Are given such a minute role as to be two-dimensional or incidental.

Let me say one thing before we continue too: Just because a woman character has problematic issues in regards to their agency in the narrative or their being created as relationship fodder does not make them inherently uninteresting or valueless. Narratives have problematic characters that we can still like, and women characters that we can look at critically within the narrative structure. This is not an aim to knock ‘weaker’ women or ‘traditionally feminine’ characters. This is talking how these women stand up to the rubric of being women characters that operate with their own agency and have their own character arch outside of being a love interest.

With that said, the women that we’ll look at in this article that will stand up beside Gamora are everyone from Nova Prime to Jane Foster, Black Widow to Peggy Carter. And each time, the characters come away with something problematic. Let’s start from the top.

Women Introduced As Love Interests / Sex Objects

“It would have all been FINE, except for Iron Man 2. Sigh. Some more Whedon should fix this.”

In most male-driven films, women have been alternately introduced as associates or most often both a love interest and a sexual object to be stared at (the object of the sexualized gaze). When a woman character is introduced into the narrative this way, it is often with the intent of making them reactive to the needs of the man in the plot, or to provide emotional sway over the male characters by the woman being put in danger. This is the case for such potentially interesting characters as Jane Foster, Pepper Pots, and (unfortunately) even Peggy Carter. All of these women have varying degrees of their own character arcs, but are inevitably turned into the emotional crux upon which the man’s narrative turns. Jane Foster, the brilliant physicist, is turned into an appendage to Thor or a damsel in distress. This is true of Pepper Pots, who despite developing her own narrative for three films remains under the power of Tony Stark. Peggy Carter and Black Widow stand out as two women who nearly escape this problem, but Peggy is the developed love interest and emotional crux of Steve Rogers’ entire storyline, and Black Widow was first introduced as a sex object for Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. Though she has developed out of that original interpretation, the focus on Widow’s sexuality in the first film mars her more nuanced representation in Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Women Without Agency

“I’ll have a TV show soon and all will be well.”

One of the points cried by many about the women of the MCU is that they represent a step forward in being ‘strong female characters.’ However much I happen to love this term, I only love it when it means what it actually says it means. This wonderful article talks more about what’s called ‘Trinity Syndrome’, or the way in which a female character will initially come across as a badass, independent, thoughtfully designed woman character with agency, when in fact they are just the same passive characters rewritten with a shiny ‘tough girl’ wrapper. I unfortunately must place one of my personal favorites, Lady Sif, into this category. She is coded to be the tough woman, a woman warrior among men, when in fact she is a completely reactive character who makes no impact on the story that isn’t in support of her unrequited love interest, Thor. The villainess Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy is in the same situation, as she acts only upon the orders of her father or, later, the deadly Ronan the Accuser. Peggy Carter in the Captain America: The First Avenger film is very much coded this way. Though she is presented as an intelligent, brave, outspoken woman, she remains passive throughout most of the film and reactive only when spurred by the needs of the men around her. (Her television series will hopefully break her of this issue).  Black Widow’s character arch is all about her attempt to find independence from the machinations around her in many ways, and the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier has her finally acting instead of reacting to everything. Yet we have yet to see Natasha really reach that point.

Women As Background

“It’s friggin’ sad when I’ve got more agency than the lead woman in the movie.”

Then we have the background characters that are simply too underdeveloped to give us a clear picture of what they are. Maria Hill in the AvengersNova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Frig from Thor 2 are like this. (Frig has the double issue of not only being a background character, she is also killed to induce emotional impact on her son’s Thor and Loki, invoking the often-used Women in Refrigerators trope).

There is one background/sidekick character given agency and movement, and that is Darcy, Jane Foster’s assistant. However she is such a background character that her impact on the story is nominal. Yet she perhaps is one of the closest to defying these pitfalls, and would be a great representation if not for the fact that she was a background character.

So who does break these patterns?

Enter Gamora

Gamora as written in Guardians of the Galaxy operates within the confines of what is expected of an action movie heroine and then defies those expectations. She has a character evolution over the story, acts as the catalyst for the action by acting with her own agency, emotes without being forced into the role of the emotional crux of a love interest storyline, and is not overly sexualized in the film. Instead, she exists in a place in the narrative as a woman who is respected (even feared), is competent at what she does and is never belittled for it, and who shows emotional depth and vulnerability as well as unbelievable strength and will.

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“I’ve got a universe to save. Try to keep up.”

Gamora is the adopted ‘daughter’ of Thanos, who kidnapped her as a child and turned her into a killer for him. Seems he does this a lot, because he has other children who do his bidding. Yet Gamora, despite her position as a killer for her ‘father’, retains some ethical lines that she will not cross. When she discovers that Thanos has promised he will destroy a planet for Ronan the Accuser, she turns against her father to save millions of lives. She operates with her own set of moral and ethical boundaries and intercepts Peter Quill with the orb and ends up tossed in prison when she, Peter, Rocket, and Groot are caught fighting by the Nova Corp. Despite the fact that she is in prison with people who want to murder her for her former allegiance to Thanos, she remains composed and focused on her mission. She never backs down from her ethical choice: to help stop Ronan from destroying that planet. Unlike Drax, whose mission to stop Ronan comes from his own personal vendetta, and unlike Quill and Rocket (and Groot?), she isn’t in it for a payday. She genuinely is fighting to stop a genocide from happening, one woman condemned by those she is trying to protect. Each time she is put in a position to make a choice regarding continuing with this deadly course of actions, she remains steadfast in trying to stop Ronan’s plan, and in fact sways Star Lord towards a more altruistic choice by her own continuous conviction.

“Ahem. You know you’re not getting any of this, right?”

Gamora also stands as a woman who defies the stereotype of a female love interest in an MCU film. There is no doubt that GotG codes the ongoing relationship between Star Lord and Gamora as a flirtatious one. Yet from the minute she meets Peter, Gamora is inured to his charms. Every time he flirts with her, including the scene where he introduces her to music through his headphones and tries to get her to dance, Gamora revolts against Star Lord’s moves. She calls him out for basically thinking that space girls are easy, a fact that Star Lord has proven early in the film with his randy escapades. And she does it with flare too. I mean, come on, pulling a knife and saying she won’t fall for his ‘pelvic sorcery’?  Throughout the movie, Gamora might start finding Star Lord a little more attractive, yet never does she become ancillary to the plot in order to simply be his love interest. Far from it: Star Lord is the reactive one, who cedes the power in decision making to Gamora’s drive to save the universe. Gamora explores her feelings as an equal, capable of remaining active and in charge of her emotions and even physical wants (if those exist) without losing her agency, identity, and integrity.

tumblr_n7skaalQRV1qd4w1no3_250Gamora also defies the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized comic book heroine. Sure, she’s dressed in tight leather in the film, but so is the frickin’ raccoon. The camera does not linger any longer on her body than it does on the equally attractive Star Lord. While there may be one shot that could be considered questionable (it lingers on her ass for a moment), its intent seems more to focus on the weapons on her hip than on her rear. Gamora is not created in this space as a piece of flesh to be stared at, but a woman who carries her beauty as just another part of her, and certainly not as a part of that is coded specifically to be stared at as a sexual object.

(And yes, at the very end she wears a little dress. Women wear those without being sexual objects on screen, and the manner by which she is cinematically presented in that scene indicates that the dress is not meant to showcase her sexually but present her as simply… wearing a dress. Which is something women do. To indicate that she can’t like a dress or wear as skirt is prescribing what a strong, independent woman should and should not wear outside of concerns of how they are being presented for viewing. And that, friends, is sexist in its own way).

“We were all just looking for each other.”

There are some that say that Gamora’s plotline is contrived, that she turns too quickly towards the heroic path. And indeed, another article about Gamora points out that so does the entire cast for the sake of the speed of the film. I will push it one point further. I will say that Gamora, like all the other Guardians, is at a crossroads in their lives. They are each searching for some place to belong, or something to believe in, and are at a turning point where the events of the movie produce a profound change in them and bonds them to one another. I believe Gamora, of all the characters, transforms the most gracefully. She had already made the choice to betray Thanos and Ronan before meeting the other soon-to-be-Guardians. She had made her own choice to go it alone against some of the most powerful men in the galaxy because of her ethics. Yet when offered aid, she respects the growing trust between herself and the other characters and has the emotional acuity to transform from loner to reluctant ally and eventually friend through the course of the film.

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The Most Dangerous Woman In The Galaxy.

Its that emotionality that also sets Gamora apart, as she is given the room as a character to show a full range of emotion. She can show vulnerability, rage, indignance, confusion, and even heartbreak. Her relationship with her sister Nebula is a tumultuous one that, if it can receive any criticism, perhaps could have used more screen time. Yet Gamora shows how much she cares for her sister, even when she has to fight her to protect the universe. This is not a woman pigeon-holed into one emotional mode, but given range to be complicated. You know, just like any great male character.

In the crucible by fire that is the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora emerges a graceful, nuanced, fleshed out character that drives the plot and exists outside the stereotype of sex object in leather. Gamora escapes being pigeon-holed as a fake ‘strong female character’ by actually BEING a strong female character. And in that way, Gamora sets herself apart from the lip service paid to strength in other MCU characters who all fail to escape being pigeon-holed into traditional women-in-film tropes in various ways. The success of Guardians, driven by Gamora, will hopefully signal to not only Marvel but to other filmmakers that a woman with such a well-developed role outside of stereotype can and should drive films in equal measure to male counterparts. Meanwhile, Gamora stands not only as the most dangerous woman in the universe, as she’s known in the comics, but as the most dangerous woman to sexist portrayals in film in quite some time.