Black Panther Dora Milaje, Lupita Nyong'o

Wakanda Wednesday: How gender shapes the world of Wakanda

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Feb 7, 2018

This is the latest in a series of articles called Wakanda Wednesdays that explore the world of Black Panther ahead of the movie's release.

Ideologies of gender within the fictional world of Wakanda shape and reflect the country’s social structure and civil mores over its conceptual history. What is considered ethically acceptable in Wakanda is predicated upon how the monarchy, with Black Panther at the helm, decides what is noble and normal. To interpret the contours of Wakandan society using a top-down approach — through the eyes of T’Challa — is inherently skewed toward a patriarchal, authoritarian vision of what a good Wakandan looks like.

As an ethnically separatist regime, a good Wakanda woman is first and foremost born in Wakanda. She participates in the activities of her tribe, in the farming of the land and in the mining of Vibranium in service to the King. She aspires to be one of the chosen within her tribe to join the Dora Milaje (DOR-UH MI-LAH-jay), or “The Adored Ones,” the warrior-sisters training to be Black Panther’s potential wife. She is subservient, only speaks when called upon, and there is very little room for her to participate in the trials to become a Black Panther.

Because the majority of the comic’s history situates T’Challa as not just the external embodiment of the country’s interest in the international relations but also the arbiter for what is considered normal behavior within it, parsing through its pages with his sole perspective provides an incomplete portrait of the ways aspects of gender, sexuality, and autonomy are perceived within the fictional world.

In determining how gender and/or sexuality is read, articulated, and, perhaps, normalized in Wakandan society, we take into account the different forms of labor women are forced to carry out as well as the ways queerness or abnormalcy are made politically abhorrent. Examining who Wakandans consider particularly “bad” women helps to paint a clearer picture of how gender is socialized and how certain creators acquiesce or push beyond the prescribed gender roles of those written before them.

The surest embodiment of a bad woman in Wakandan society is the American soul singer Monica Lynne (first introduced in 1970's Avengers #73), who, after falling in love with T’Challa, summarily moves to Wakanda and is met with disdain by those living there. Her status as, first, a non-Wakandan woman and, second, as T’Challa’s romantic partner — as opposed to a woman chosen from the Dora Milaje — mark her as a symbol for the limitations of an ethically separatist nation and the boundaries placed on women in the social order. But, even more, she becomes a site for Black Panther’s mostly male writers to manifest masculine fantasies of desire and worship.

Black Panther Monica Lynne

Credit: Marvel Comics

 

As we discussed in this space last week, Wakanda largely employs a theistic monarchical system of governance. Black Panthers are chosen hereditarily and not without trial, but indeed through the bloodshed of battle and the blood flowing through their veins. Once a Black Panther is chosen, the Spirit of the Panther inhabits their bodies, permitting the breadth of Wakandan political power and resource to be under his command. What the Black Panther does from that point on, whether he abides by or bucks tradition established over thousands of years, is pretty much up to him.

Monica Lynne first represents T’Challa’s distance from a Wakandan tradition, in that they fell in love on American soil. Fending off the racist group Sons of the Serpent, T’Challa saves Monica’s life, beginning a long relationship that would have her returning to Wakanda with him, where they would be engaged to marry. Although both Monica and Wakandan women can be read as phenotypically "black," their ethnic origins and social traditions suggest a wide gap between their experiences. Monica was not just seen as a stranger to the land, but she was also deemed a failure. Early in Christopher Priest’s Black Panther run, Agent Ross narrates her backstory as one that is defined by her inability to make it big in America.

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Her falling on hard times made Monica, at least in Ross’ estimation, “immune to life’s little tragedies.” In essence, this makes her an accessible subject to inflict violence against, based simply on the notion that she can take it. That violence manifests in village elders effectively slut-shaming her even in the earliest versions of the story. In Jungle Action #9 (1974) by Don McGregor and Rich Buckler (the imprint in which BP is first serialized) she is called an “out-worlder” by an elder tribeswoman after rescuing the woman’s infant child. By the end of the issue, she is framed for the murder of a Wakandan leader and sent to prison until T’Challa proves her innocence. And that’s before the true establishment of the Dora Milaje in the comics.

During Christopher Priest’s run on the title in which the Dora Milaje are conceived, T’Challa is placed under hypnosis by the demon Mephisto and, while under his influence, he kisses Nakia— a member of the Dora Milaje — in his limo. In Wakandan tradition, any romantic gesture from the Black Panther that turns physical is a proclamation of engagement. Nakia, believing that T’Challa has professed his intentions, goes mad because of Monica’s place in his heart.

In issue #11, T’Challa commands Nakia to escort Monica to safety in an aircraft during a large-scale battle. Instead, she instigates a fight with Monica that ends with Nakia ejecting her from the seat and leaving her for dead. Nakia then lies to T’Challa and is exiled from Wakanda altogether for treason. Nakia acted against the wishes of T’Challa out of a deep and jealous love and, therefore, acted against the traditions of the entire nation. For all the years she is taught to love T’Challa unconditionally, T’Challa and the larger nation itself have very little room for her.

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via Marvel

The Dora Milaje are conceived as, largely, a silent group of women warriors who not only protect the Black Panther but are trained in the ways to please him during their teenage years. Each member is chosen from the nine tribes surrounding the Golden City in Wakanda as an honor in service to the country. The constraints placed upon them assume that a) these women are attracted to men and b) they desire to be a queen with no actualized political power in Wakanda.

This has, indeed, largely been the case until Roxane Gay’s singular exploration of queerness as it could exist in the Dora Milaje, with the romance between Ayo and Anneka in the 2016 spin-off Black Panther: World of Wakanda. The two women are the driving force of a Dora Milaje-led resistance in Wakanda that spurred on a civil war. It can be read, then, that the women were warring against the notion of authoritarianism, not just in governing, but in a social order that insidiously weeds out queerness. Outside of this, the idea that Wakandan women have the capacity to love other women remains untouched.

Monica Lynne and the Dora Milaje stand as markers, not only for the narrowed vision for women within the Wakandan state, but also the violence enacted upon women for living outside the parameters. Though they are engaged for a very long time in the comics, Monica and T’Challa never marry. Instead, T’Challa ends up with Storm of the X-Men, solidifying a superpowered empire and leaving Monica depressed. The last image we see of her, she’s performing in front of a sold-out arena in Washington D.C., but so clearly disheveled by T’Challa’s new marriage. Tellingly, not only is queerness not broached by the black men writing Black Panther prior to World of Wakanda, but there is indeed a multileveled male fantasy playing out in its pages wherein women fight to the death over the ungraspable man.

And here, in a vision of a Black utopia, it is women and queer folks who receive the short end of life experience, their roles clearly and narrowly defined, the violence they are privy to made all the more real.

Because it is an entirely new world that evolves as its crew of writers rotate over time, Black Panther is obsessed with the creation and maintenance of the Wakandan nation-state. As it develops, however, authoritarian governing systems, heteronormative social orders, and biologically-based prejudice continue to be prevailing themes throughout its story. It will be a wonder to see how the new movie takes on gender and sexuality in the next few weeks, given the source material’s spotty (at best!) history. Wakanda is a beautiful, futuristic canvas for Black technological and bureaucratic advancement; let’s just hope the social relations as they are portrayed in the film and future issues can keep up the pace.