The wondrous, entertaining mind known as Darryl Akins decorates the Anchorage cultural scene through an improv group, aptly named Mostly Melanin Arts (MMA). When asked to educate the public on the two current offerings for Millennials to investigate feminist ideas, these are the thoughts which bubbled to the surface of his mind.
Words by Darryl Akins
I fell in love with comic books at the age of 9, but comic books didn’t fall in love with me until I gave them my first paycheck. Years later, the love affair remains, and so does the investment into the characters and storylines. I have daughters, so I have a vested interest in how women are portrayed in popular culture. It’s no surprise that Hollywood is not very big on mixing feminism in anything in huge doses unless its vapid and emaciated. Think back to 2005 movie adaption of the Marvel Comics character Elektra for instance. Great premise, but not well executed in terms of showing a strong, well-rounded character. So, when I saw the movies Wonder Woman [DC Comics] and Black Panther [Marvel Universe] it was a refreshing surprise to see so many strong female characters.
I think Disney and Warner Brothers (who produced the movies) were too. But, historically, comics and graphic novels are filled with strong female characterization. We just aren’t exposed to it that often. Immediately, headstrong characters like Martha Washington, Supergirl and Lady Death immediately come to mind. Check out the links below;
For simplicity’s sake, I will try to keep my contrast and comparison focused on The Amazons of Themyscira [Greek] and the Dora Milaje of Wakanda [African]; to illustrate a collective, as opposed to just one specific woman. But, I have been known to deviate and digress from time to time, so hold me accountable in the comments section below.
Now unless you’ve been under a rock for the past year or two you know there was a movie released in 2017 called Wonder Woman. It is the story of Amazon princess Diana born on Paradise Island, or Themyscira, for those in the know. Diana goes on a mission of self-discovery, which eventually ends in the naive princess becoming a fierce warrior, god slayer and all-around symbol of peace and justice.
What was unique about this was the fact that these type of movies usually have a MALE lead in the role. Gal Gadot, the actress who portrays Wonder Woman, embodies the very qualities she displays in the movie. Beauty, Brains and Brawn – having served in the Israeli military. The character has been around since the 1940s and enjoyed brief television fame in the 1970s when the iconic Lynda Carter portrayed her. Wonder Woman is also part of the so-called “trinity” of DC Comics. The other two characters being Superman and Batman. That should give you some idea of the significance of Wonder Woman as a character.
Black Panther’s origin and story are just a bit different. T’challa, is the hereditary Chieftain and King of Wakanda, a secretive, technologically advanced African nation. T’challa inherits the mantle of king AND Black Panther, defender of Wakanda from his father. He gains superhuman speed, strength and reflexes from a heart shaped herb that grows in Wakanda. He utilizes the gifts at first to avenge his father’s death. Then after being temporarily dethroned and almost killed he gains it back. The Black Panther also gains perspective from this experience and decides that Wakanda must open its borders and show other nations what it has to offer.
He later teams up with the Avengers to help defend the Earth from an alien invasion. The movie prominently features the Dora Milaje, a group of well trained, highly disciplined female warriors who serve as bodyguards to the king. The movie broke all kinds of cinematic records due to its original concept, amazing actors and directors and was basically a celebration of people of color. In the comics, The Black Panther has been around since 1966 and has been a member of the Avengers AND The Fantastic Four.
A Land Where Women Balance Out Men
It’s obvious from the movie posters and the after release hype, the Dora Milaje are the strong female leads stand outs, in Black Panther, but there are plenty of strong women in that movie. The Dora are a hybrid of bodyguard, security force, soldier – and in the comic iteration – wives in waiting for the Black Panther. While that does not lend itself to the mantle of strength per mainstream feminist ideals, the reason they ARE wives in waiting does: The Dora Milaje serve as potential wives to keep the peace between different factions of Wakanda. The Dora Milaje are chosen individually from neighboring villages within Wakanda and trained at a very young age. They usually are picked as children and are also potential wives for the king as well (Yeah, Wakanda still does that).
The Dora Milaje ironically yield their personal power to gain physical prowess (why this aspect of their origin was left out of the movie I’ll never know). They are trained in secrecy from childhood to fight hand to hand and with weapons and to be perfect little ladies for the king ala Coming to America style. Sort of.
A World Without Men
The Amazons in the movie, Wonder Woman, on the other hand want nothing to do with men – all save Diana. They’ve sequestered themselves on a little island and live there happily. With. NO. men. Because of their physicality, Amazons need no men to protect them. Like the women of Black Panther, Diana’s sisters are also trained at a tender age to fight and wield weapons; primarily the sword and shield of ancient Greece.
They are also blessed with serial immortality by the Greek gods, enjoying the wisdom and confidence gained from living several centuries. There is one major difference between them and the Dora. The Amazons aren’t a scholarly bunch of ladies; forgoing quill, scroll and philosophy, opting instead to spend most of their time guarding ancient artifacts, or being on high alert for potential threats to their idyllic enclave. Diana is unique among the Amazons because she was formed from clay by her mother and given life by Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Ironically, the Amazons beef with men in the past is what jaded them on co-existence with males. Hercules, Zeus, Hades. All these Gods at one time or another shafted or disrespected the Amazons. Hence, their choice to be hermits.
Between Two Worlds
Wakandans on the other hand, are all about knowledge and technology. From their weapons to their clothing, and practically everything else in Wakanda – including the Wakandans themselves! – are integrated with vibranium, the miraculous, unyielding metal that is their staple.
Both groups appear to worship capricious gods and are content with either following the will of Bast, the “Panther” god who deals in confusing edicts and absolutes, or any number of lying, philandering, punishment-prone Greek gods.
Their feminism is expressed through their ferocity. Savage, relentless warriors who give as good as they get. It is expressed through their compassion. Killing only in self-defense or protection of that which they cherish.
Both groups have a queen. But Hippolyta of the Amazons is an active queen. She is a diplomat, teacher, mother and a pretty ferocious warrior in her own right (Wonder Woman had to get it from somewhere, right?). Queen mother Ramonda is more of an advisor and diplomat, who advocates on behalf of her son and all Wakandans.
One society is Matriarchal. The other, Patriarchal. However, despite their varying styles of rulership, both groups preach a message of peace and unity to the outside world.
Both groups stand in opposition to domineering, misguided men and are happy to show them the error of their ways. If, either group frequented any civilization other than their own. One group opposes tyranny because they were the victims of it at one period in their history and the observes it to ensure it does not affect their nation/people. However, Wakanda does choose to imbed spies in various countries, to monitor them within, while pretending to ignore the world in general. Themyscirans on the other hand, DO ignore the world.
So, it could be argued that one ignores then retorts while the other observes and reports! That was a joke. No? Okay, moving on….
More Please, MCU and DC
Their feminism shows in being two elite, powerful groups that have power to crush their enemies at their leisure, yet choose to wield power with temperance and compassion. Would an elite, similarly trained group of men be so egalitarian?
Feminism is an ideology that has historically been a societal force for change behind the advancement of women’s rights. It has forced the unnoticed and ignored to be acknowledged and celebrated. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins for her work on such movies as Monster and The Killing which depicted women with strong beliefs and were vigorous advocates and protectors as well as fighters. Patty’s vision of a woman onscreen appears to be strong, opinionated and motivated to effect change.
Black Panther director Ryan Coogler believes in taking chances on screen. With such hits under his belt as Fruitvale Station and Creed he preaches a message of self-achievement and discovering one’s potential. The women in this movie succeed in delivering this message powerfully. The dedication of Okoye to the throne of Wakanda “No matter who sits on it” is devotion to the extreme, but devotion nonetheless. The vigor, genius and millennial representation of Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister is bother refreshing AND inspiring. Their characters say, “THIS is what a woman can be!” He shows the multi-faceted personas and potential of feminism. Strong, but submissive. Advocate AND Avenger. Protective but inviting.
It’s refreshing in this day and age that art such as theirs is not only well received, but looked at as status symbols; a movement, a belief. We can only hope that in the scheme of things we can learn to respect our differences as well as our similarities. Not because these cinematic juggernauts told our hearts to do so, but because they inspired them to.