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Intersectional Feminism, Wonder Woman, and Black Panther: Different Facets of the Diamond

Updated on March 6, 2018
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of Marvel Studios and DC Films
Courtesy of Marvel Studios and DC Films

A few weeks ago, I went to a meeting in the city for something called intersectional feminism. One of only five males in the room, they discussed how feminism was different for different races, and cultures and how to address that. A cry of liberation to many and slur of distain to others, feminism regardless in the public forum is often portrayed through the White, straight female experience. However it is not intentionally segregating but rather is a product of society: it was the norm for the people leading the charge for feminism.

However in today’s diverse culture it becomes increasingly apparent that this experience is not shared by all. And that this can lead to miscommunication and even turn potential allies of feminism into enemies because of its over-bearing, White savior complex. Then last week I went to see Black Panther in theaters and I saw the debate of intersectional feminism in a whole different light.

"one version of feminism was coming from the experience of never having been acknowledged by society and having to fight for its place in the sun. In contrast, the other came from an experience where its place in the sun was always there and was just normal"

Parallel Roads, Similar Origins

Black Panther is a loud and proud, Afro-centric addition to the Marvel cinematic universe. It largely takes place in Africa in the fictional country of Wakanda and imagines a society not interrupted by colonialism. Part of this portrayal is the strength of Black women in this African society alongside the men. They are not only strong and confidant-common tropes in movies portraying positive females-but equals and respected by their male counterparts. There is a shared sense of responsibility and this equality is presented as the norm rather than the new kid on the block trying to get noticed.

When I saw this, my mind automatically went to 2017 historical movie, Wonder Woman. Like Black Panther, that movie about the demi goddess, Diana, becoming a superhero was hailed as the first, empowering female movie in the genre. It challenged and shattered expectations of a female-lead and directed movie failing and is considered a watershed moment in cinematic history. Yet these two powerful movies, despite showing successful groups and classes, seemed different somehow when it came to their portrayal of women.

In WonderWoman, the Amazons live in an isolated, female-only community, Themiscara. Like Wakanda, they have little to no reaction with the outside world and its citizens are smart and strong. Yet the differences lie in the make up of those societies. Black Panther’s women were smart, strong and leaders like its DC peer, but they also interacted with men. The gender differences was not as glaring.

To my mind, one version of feminism was coming from the experience of never having been acknowledged by society and having to fight for its place in the sun. In contrast, the other came from an experience where its place in the sun was always there and was just normal, with other issues they were trying to address.

Another difference was the subtitle use of sexuality. Black Panther had none of for it its female characters, with even one of them at one point scowling having to wear a wig while on mission, even if it was temporary. Wonder Woman had several uses of sexuality, though with the women fully in control of it rather than the men. Yet it was there and did result in sexual intercourse between the two main characters, though again, on equal terms.

Manal-al-Sharif is a women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia.  She posted a video in 2011 of her driving: a taboo in the culture.  Though they still want respect, many Saudi women are still proud of their cultural values. by Feministcampus.org
Manal-al-Sharif is a women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia. She posted a video in 2011 of her driving: a taboo in the culture. Though they still want respect, many Saudi women are still proud of their cultural values. by Feministcampus.org | Source

From a Certain Point of View

No, I am not undermining Wonder Woman. Let’s be clear on that.

These differences are important however because they speak to a contrasting, real world perception of feminism from different cultures and women across the world over. Westerners look at the use of sexuality and say, “it’s about damn time!” because the experience of oppression has largely been sexually based for western women. A part of feminism is not just equality and fairness, but control of one’s sexuality.

In contrast, to women in other parts of the world that believes just as strongly in fairness and respect, the idea of having to be open about their sexuality in order to be considered ‘liberated’ and ‘free’ smacks of the same, old, western, imperialistic values but with a different face. While abuse of their sexuality has been part of their history as well, their oppression had also come from race, religion, and other factors. Plus many of them do hold considerable power in their own cultures.

In China, the woman is the head of the household and everyone kowtows to her every word. And in Africa there re tribes that are noted for their women being warriors. In Mongolia, Genghis Khan, one of the world’s greatest conquers, was forced into political decisions by both his mother and his wife when they disagreed with what he was doing: even challenging him to his face, not the most advisable thing to do to the ruler of an empire.

However these differences in perceptions of empowerment are often lost in translation by each culture’s norms. And lead to the difference in feminism’s portrayal between Wonder Woman and Black Panther.

Feminism as a Multi-Dimensional Goal

This is not to say that only one version of feminism should rule the day, which is what intersectional feminism is about. The meaning of diversity is the free sharing of differing stories and experiences in respect to each other. There can be much learned from the different portrayals of feminism and it can increase knowledge and understanding.

So neither Wonder Woman nor Black Panther are necessarily wrong in their portrayals, as long as neither claims that their own perspectives should become the universal norm.

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