A few days ago, Black Panther became the fourth film ever to cross the $100 million mark in its second weekend. Enough ink has been spilled already over how this film is blowing audiences away for its representation of people of color on the big screen, as well as the unexpected bonus of an entire phalanx of strong women, fighters, and spies, none of whom need rescuing.
The latter is just as important as the former. These are not women in refrigerators. It is hard to imagine Shuri, Okoye, or Nakia becoming damsels in distress at any point, now or in the future. This is a film that brings us female representation, set in our own reality like it's simply a given. But we should not allow this to be an outlier. Going forward, we should expect and accept nothing less.
There has been an evolution in heroines over the past decade in science fiction and fantasy. We have seen depictions of women as the central hero on screen as far back as Sigourney Weaver in Alien, but too many times the roles of women in this genre have been the girlfriend, the damsel, or worse, the dead lover. The latest iteration of putting women front and center started with Katniss in The Hunger Games. In 2015, we took a step forward, solidified by the Star Wars trilogy putting Rey as their "chosen one" for the hero's journey. But recently the stakes have been raised. Last year, Wonder Woman gave us an entire island of Amazons, kicking butt like it was merely what you do before lunch. Now Black Panther takes it a step further.
When Wonder Woman arrived last year, there were rapturous reactions to the island of the Amazons. Women of all ages were hungry to see representations of ourselves on screen as warriors, fighting back against an invasion of men and wearing sensible armor. (It's notable that when the DC Extended Universe tried to cash in on their popularity, the first thing they didn't understand mattered was the sensible armor.) This depiction of the Amazons in Wonder Women felt especially poignant when the world around us has just delivered a nasty blow with the election of a man who has had nearly two dozen women allege assault and misconduct against him.
But the Amazons and their island of Themyscira were also not presented as reality. In fact, when reality invaded in the form of German soldiers, their swords and shields were no match for guns and bullets.Themyscira was the haven Diana had to leave behind to go out into the real world, where the sword and shield she had suddenly morphed into props played for laughs.
Black Panther gives us the fantasy of the same "Amazonian" type with the Dora Milaje. But whereas Wonder Woman ground its characters is the stuff of dreams, where our princesses grow up to be generals, Wakanda's warriors are grounded in the everyday.
The virtual matriarchy that surrounds T'Challa doesn't get turned into a joke by walking out of revolving doors with large round shields to the confusion of onlookers. Nakia, super spy, blends into her surroundings like the Jane Bond we've been waiting for, whether it's in hijabs, hiding automatic weapons to take down the bad guys, or in high heels and pricey gowns. Okoye and Ayo turn little black dresses and long red gowns into armor; their wigs, and their shoes — both of which are used as tools in the casino bar fight — are as much a part of their weaponry as their spears. They fight using the tools of their femininity and in a way that women in the audience can definitely relate to. Some want the dream of living on an island with no men, wearing armor and sandals, riding horses through misty woods. But in the 21st century, it's more likely we'd be power-driving a car through a foreign city, chasing down bad guys in an evening gown and bare feet.
Unlike the Amazons, who are placed front and center for us to marvel over before Diana leaves the island, the Dora Milaje are not from some idealized world for our hero to leave before entering "the real one." They are T'Challa's world, and they're not going anywhere. (Note that T'Challa's treatment of the women in his life this is in opposition to Killmonger, who treats the very few women he encounters as disposal snog objects.) The Amazons are a memory for Diana to carry with her, not warriors to fight alongside her in the final battles. The Dora Milaje, on the other hand, stand with T'Challa in Black Panther's final major battle. Come Avengers: Infinity War, they'll be part of the fight against Thanos, too.
That brings me to the future of women in science fiction and fantasy. We are in a moment where women are ascendant. Only seven days after Black Panther, Annihilation arrived in theaters to tell the story of an all-female team that starts out grounded in our real world only to be sent into the disaster zone known as "the Shimmer" to explore the terrifying mutations inside this ever-growing patch of earth. Only two men have any sort of substantial dialogue, and though the main character (Natalie Portman) is revealed as much through flashbacks to her marriage as much as her actions in the present moment, the rest of the team simply are women whose various life choices brought them here. They are in no way defined by male characters.
The question is, how do we get Hollywood to keep it up? Wonder Woman and Black Panther's box office returns have been stellar and the resulting push toward more female-lead superhero films — including Captain Marvel (already in production), Black Widow, and Kitty Pryde films — suggest at least some have seen the potential. Annihilation may have gone nowhere at the box office despite rapturous reviews, but A Wrinkle in Time is coming, and it has a similar social media buzz to Black Panther.
We need to keep voting with our dollars for films that put women front and center, that show us as equals in the world of science fiction and fantasy, as well as our own real world.