I was introduced to an excellent article from last year: Shoshana Kessock’s The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman examines the examples of feminism in both movies, and concludes that the world of masculine and feminine equality as depicted in the land of Wakanda was superior to the feminist message brought by Diana and spurned by the masculine-dominated outside world.
It’s a wonderful article, which I highly recommend for its examination of feminism in these two movies… just as it casually leap-frogs over the real irony of both movies’ connection to feminism itself: Namely, that there isn’t any.
Because what we’re talking about are superhero movies… and let’s face it, there’s nothing even remotely feminist about the superhero genre.
Superheroes, modern mythology’s answer to demigods and icons, are essentially all about the concept of Might Makes Right… a particularly testosterone-fueled point of view. And with virtually no exceptions, its characters demonstrate that the answer to all problems ultimately come from the physical defeat of the bad guy. In comics, men are depicted as strong, agile and skilled, the better to take down their nemeses. And women often dress in revealing outfits more suitable for male eye-candy, but their actions tend to denote a masculine answer to conflict… they also fight the bad guys and win.
Regarding the women in Black Panther and Wonder Woman, they are depicted almost exclusively as warriors, winning their place among men by proving their equals on a battlefield… in other words, proving their superior masculinity. (The exceptions in both movies are both Queens, who, in quite queenly fashion, mostly stand aside while others fight around them.)
A major tenet of feminism is supposed to be cooperation, communication… bringing people together, reasoning out agreements to solve problems. But these traits are little seen in either of these movies… or, when they are seen—such as when Diana tries to argue with the war leaders in London—and I’m not sure a comparative moment even comes up in Black Panther—it never works, and the women are forced to resort to battle.
Understand, I don’t mean this to sound like a criticism of Kessock’s article; if anything, it is a critique of the superhero genre itself, which is built on conflict so thoroughly that it even celebrates good guys fighting other good guys, and usually for pretty dim reasons like minor misunderstandings, mistaken identities or simple territoriality. Superhero women, no matter how feminine they are intended, inevitably end up enforcing the superhero mold by being as bad-ass a fighter as the men.
In fact, the Captain America movie Civil War—a great example of good-guy superheroes goaded into fighting each other—has a small scene that sums this up nicely. During the fight between pro-regulation and pro-independence heroes, old friends and SHIELD operatives Natasha Romanov and Clint Barton, aka Black Widow and Hawkeye, grapple with each other to a standstill. In a moment when Clint pins Natasha to the tarmac, she suddenly asks: “We’re still friends, right?” Even in battle, Natasha’s feminist side asserts itself, trying to patch up the situation and establish a bond with her opponent.
Clint’s response: “Depends on how hard you hit me.” The masculine qualifier thereby established, they continue their fight.
This is the superhero world, a playground that forces femininity to bow to masculinity’s will or else (or else what? Become a damsel in distress, or a victim, generally). Back to the two movies, Wonder Woman’s Diana has perhaps the best tools of the feminist: The bracelets that allow her to deflect an attack; and the lasso that compels truth out of the wearer (for honest communication). But Diana more often uses the lasso as a whip or device of capture… and she carries a sword to go on the offensive, a distinctly masculine weapon. The women of Black Panther use shields, spears and other high-tech tools, but all as offensive weapons. Apparently the incredibly high-tech arsenal of the Wakandans doesn’t include tools to diffuse weapons and attacks.
In Black Panther, Nakia and Shuri demonstrate their cleverness as spy and technologist, and the Queen mother Ramonda displays her calm… but no one is capable of talking down Killmonger as he criticizes Wakanda and plans to attack the rest of the world to satisfy his black takeover agenda. In fact, the challenging way all the Wakandan leaders, including Ramonda, treat Killmonger when he first arrives in Wakanda only serves to anger him and further guarantees he will not back down or try to reason with the Wakandans. Masculine bluster encourages masculine antagonism, when a touch of feminist reasoning from Ramonda or world-savvy Nakia, at just the time when the subject of re-entering the world stage was already on the Wakandans’ minds, just might have diffused the situation.
And so both movies default to the standard superhero template, reducing one side or the other to being the Bad Guy, with the express intent of physically taking them down. And in both movies, defeat of the Bag Guy is absolute; no capitulation, to rehabilitation, only death. Masculinity is served.
So, which movie was more feminist, Black Panther or Wonder Woman? Both movies are excellent… but the genre in which they exist explicitly prevents them from being able to satisfy a feminine agenda. The question is a lot like asking which is the taller building… the Washington Monument or the Pentagon? Because one may be taller than the other, but neither really does an adequate job of representing tall buildings.