Wakanda Forever … Please?: Unpacking The Intersectional Feminism of Black Panther

I am a woman OBSESSED. I recently saw the hit Marvel Studios film Black Panther, and let me tell you…It was a tour de force of incredible talent all-around. The time, effort, and imagination that went into bringing this comic book character and his world to life was inspiring. The intense research and creativity that went into the costuming was immensely evident. The writing, the directing, the acting – all incredible. The complex nature of humanity and themes of oppression coupled with privilege that were explored were thought-provoking and at times hard – in a good way, a needed way. I could sit here for days and wax poetic on the force of nature that is all of Black Panther and how you should run, RUN, not walk to see it. But instead, I’m going to dig a little deeper and talk to you about something near and dear to my heart – the women of Wakanda.

The premise of the film – SPOILER ALERT – is that the fictional nation of Wakanda, in the middle of Africa, was never colonized. They have advanced technology and resources, due to the precious metal, Vibranium, and therefore don’t necessarily need to exchange with other countries. In doing so, they can keep their true nature a secret and further push off colonization and westernization of their country.

This is a lot to contend with and unpack. Without getting into the full complexities of the film (more than happy to, DM me @chelsdd, let’s talk!) this world positions race and gender, both together and separately, in a completely different way than what we currently know and experience.

First, let’s dive into the power these women are given, or rather allowed to possess. In Wakanda, gender equality is alive and well. The idea of privilege imposed by western colonizers is virtually non-existent. Now I’m sure if I spent some time in Wakanda there would be examples of varying degrees of privilege, but as far as I can tell there is no oppression in Wakanda. There are no norms to be had when it comes to gender, class, race or sexuality. Therefore, women are allowed to be full humans- fully complex, fully themselves without apology.

As I write this I am painfully reminded or aware of the fact that as women we don’t get to do this. We don’t get to be ourselves without question or apology. We don’t get to just make decisions and choices regarding our appearance, our behavior, our desires. Everything we do is questioned, criticized, and even politicized. That’s for women as a whole … and it’s even more of a reality for women of color, specifically Black women in America.

In Black Panther, the women are equal to men. They hold the same positions as men, receive the same titles as men, and accumulate just as many accolades as men – and sometimes more. All of this without a single batted eye. No question or thought of a question – it’s just the way it is, and it’s beautiful. The army is made up of only women. T’Challa – aka the Black Panther and King of Wakanda – always takes the General of the army, Okoye (played by Danai Gurira), on his missions, along with Nakia (Lupita Nyong’O) a Wakandan spy. T’Challa is constantly flanked by smart, strong, powerful, and emotional – yes that’s a good thing – women. Although one of the driving forces of the film is T’Challa’s relationship with his now deceased father, it’s the women in his life – and in Wakanda – that encourage, support, teach, and challenge him. His sister, Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) is the tech-wizard of Wakanda. The nation has the advantages of Vibranium, which allows for many powerful advancements; however, it is Shuri who truly takes Wakanda’s technology to the next level. She’s supported by her peers, her family, and Wakanda as a whole. Even T’Challa’s mother, played by the literal QUEEN that is Angela Bassett, is not a sit-and-do-nothing Queen. After her husband dies she remains poised and strong for her children and country.

The women are there, not as ancillary characters who serve as love interests or background characters. No. They are at the forefront of the film, with real, meaty roles that drive the narrative. At one point especially, the women are all we have. After T’Challa seemingly loses his defeat to Eric Killmonger (played by my #foreverBAE Michael B. Jordan) and is assumed dead, the women rise up. Nakia quickly races back to the lab with the Queen and Shuri in tow. She knows they have to leave, they have to proclaim a new King to fight Killmonger. She knows she must do what she feels right and serve her country by saving her country from this apparent threat. In the same breath, Okoye chooses to serve her country by acting as an aid to this new transition of power. At this moment, these two characters have a definite-Bechdel-test-passing conversation discussing these decisions and this core theme of the film.

These two women are feeling their emotions but realize that they need to take action, and they’re deciding different paths. In that, we see not only the complexity of this story but the complexity, the depth and the strength of women.

The women of Wakanda are allowed to be smart, strong, poised, goofy, severe, feminine (whatever that means), powerful, and also they are allowed to love. These women aren’t relegated to one emotion, one way of thinking, one way of life.. They’re allowed to be who they are, fully, and in-turn are everything.

And the men of Wakanda benefit as well. The men are not threatened by the Wakandan women or women in general. It does not sever their masculinity to see women succeed and claim her power. In turn, these men are free to support and grow with the women. These men are “allowed” to embrace their emotions and “femininity” because those things aren’t seen as inferior and “wrong.” It’s almost as if feminism isn’t just about women but full gender-equality…and benefits EVERYONE. Hmmm…

Circling back to the intersection of gender and race … Because Wakanda was never colonized and tepidly interacts in Western and world culture, the people – but more specifically the women – of Wakanda are not subject to the western ideal of beauty. Throughout the film, we see various depictions of traditional (or a modern take on traditional) tribal clothing, beauty, etc., across many different African tribes. It’s beautiful, it’s diverse, it’s Pan-African. And it’s also something we rarely see depicted in mainstream media.

Natural hair is abundant and worn in many different styles. Braids – and the plethora of variations on the “braid” – are abundant. But also hair coated in red clay similar to the Himba people is shown, dreads in their many forms are showcased, shaved heads – fully and with designs – are the signature style of the all-female army. No one’s face or skin is altered to fit into a western, Anglo-Saxon narrative of beauty. The actors and actresses aren’t just depicted as light skin either. There are extremely dark-skin actresses, medium-tone, light skin. It’s a range of skin tones and everyone is represented, and celebrated.

It’s amazing to see this world. To see what life for people who have been constantly and horribly oppressed for hundreds of years, would’ve been like if they’d never been colonized. If they’d never been ripped from their country and sold like cattle to the highest bidder. It’s amazing to see how women, again women of color, would thrive without the barriers of the patriarchy AND the beauty standards forced upon them.

It’s also amazing to see that this film tackles the fact that Wakanda is idyllic but the rest of the world is not. It’s incredible that this is not only included but a central theme of the film. And a theme that is discussed early on between Nakia and T’Challa. Nakia wants the country to do more for the world because they can. It’s a woman who firsts brings this to T’Challa’s attention and a woman who is spearheading the efforts to bring aid, education, and resources to the rest of the world.

This movie is so incredible. I could watch it a hundred times more and continue to learn and be entertained. I feel so empowered watching this film, for many reasons. I feel empowered watching this diversity on screen because in a small way I understand the magnitude of this film for the black community. For black women, black children, and especially little black girls who are seeing these gorgeous and diverse women own their bodies, their minds, their hearts, and their power. It’s amazing and awe-inspiring. I cried in the theater multiple times and to be honest, I’m crying right now. I hope it inspires people – all people – to feel empowered and to embrace one another. To embrace diversity and change. To want to make our world more idyllic like Wakanda for men, women, and children of all races, creeds, sexualities, and more.

Love In The Time of Dating Apps

Dating with the aid of technology. No longer a sign of desperation or shame, dating in the 21st Century almost would cease to exist if it weren’t for these tech companies devoted to romance…or at the very least, sex. While the phenomenon began with online sites like eHarmony, Match.com, and OkCupid the dating world would forever be changed with the invention of the dating app Tinder.

Even I, a vocal skeptic of tech-aided dating and an all-around romantic cynic, admit to using Tinder and apps of the like. And…finding some success. Now, don’t worry, I’m not picking out china patterns or anything. Let’s be real, those apps haven’t sent me any long-term gems. However, I know many a friend who has found their mates on dating apps, most recently the dating app with a feminist twist, Bumble.

When I was first introduced to Bumble I was blissfully, or rather ignorantly, unaware of the company’s backstory and the trials that went into its creation. I decided to try it because I was told that a friend met her current BF on that app. I was also told that the app was different because women made the first move. Without even knowing who created it or why it felt innately feminist. Hell to the yeah. I mean a dating situation where women have the power from the get-go … and in the tech world which has been historically dominated by men … Hell to the yeah. Sign me up.

You may be asking yourself, “Well, who created it and why did they do so?” You may also be asking me, “Well, are you going to f#cking tell us, Chelsea?!” Calm down. I am.

Bumble was created exactly for the very feminist purpose of giving women the power. It was also created by a woman, former Tinder VP of Marketing, Whitney Wolfe-Herd. Also, like any good app created by women for women, it does a really great job at coddling the male ego without letting on that it’s doing so. Women are so great and so smart. Right?

Where were we? Oh yes. Bumble is the brain-child and tech baby of Wolfe-Herd. After leaving Tinder under fraught circumstances and experiencing some intense online backlash/bullying, Wolfe-Herd wanted to create a space for women to connect, encourage, and empower one another. She has effectively done that with the dating world – professionally speaking – and wanted to infuse the world with some positivity. (I already like this chick.)

However, as fate would have it, she wasn’t going to get away from the dating world that easily. Upon joining forces with Andrey Andreev, founder of the world’s largest online dating network, Badoo, Wolfe-Herd was encouraged by Andreev to keep her focus on women, but also on dating. Keeping it women-centric and giving women the power, but in the realm of sex and romance – a realm that often does not put women at the helm.

With her vision and industry experience, plus the backing of Andreev, Wolfe-Herd launched Bumble in December of 2014. Within its first year, Bumble exploded. Since then the app often referred to as “feminist Tinder,” has amassed over 22 million users. And while Tinder still holds the lead with 46 million users, Bumble far exceeds the competition in year-over-year growth: 70-percent to Tinder’s 10-percent.

And guess what?! With all of Bumble’s success and culture permeation, Wolfe-Herd and the other PTB at Bumble have decided to cross industry lines and expand into friendship and career networking. Basically what Whitney wanted to do from the beginning, but this time with the clout to back it up.

BumbleBFF and BumbleBizz are extremely similar to good ol’ BumbleOriginal (not the real name, don’t sue me). You’re still uploading a series of photos and information that aim to represent who you are. The difference is these photos and words will be skewed to fit a different audience- friends and potential employers/mentors. No sexy, suggestive photos…unless that’s your line of work, I guess. BumbleBFF allows either party to “make the first move” but BumbleBizz still puts the power in the hands of the lady, in an attempt to, “help clear up the gray areas in networking that often make women feel uncomfortable,” Bumble told The Verge.

Now for a little of my own humble opinion. I know, you’ve been dying for some #ChelseaWisdom™. Like I said earlier in this article, I’m not a fan of dating apps/sites. I never really have been, for many reasons. I haven’t found many people I truly connect with on these 21st-century matchmaking-devices and I guess I’m still hoping for an IRL, rom-com-esque meet-cute. Media has spoiled me. Don’t get me wrong, the apps are fun, and I have had a lot of fun with them, and maybe that’s all they are for some people. That’s fine. Also, most dating apps aren’t very queer-friendly, and that needs to change. But alas, a conversation for another time and another article.

One thing I will say is: even as I sit and brood in my romantic cynicism, I do like Bumble a lot more than Tinder. I’ve had more luck with Bumble in meeting people I connect with.. a bit more than with Tinder and other such dating apps.

I can also fully support the mission with which Bumble was created, and now that I’m actually privy to that information it may sway me to use Bumble a bit more for dating. I’m definitely going to look into Bumble for career networking (tbh I need to be better about that) and for making wonderful, encouraging, adult women-friends. It can be so hard to find people to connect with in this day and age on any level, and for some reason feels even harder when you just want to be BFFs. I need all the help I can get.

So thank you, Whitney Wolfe Herd. Thank you for having the experiences you did. Thank you for enduring the unappealing and harmful experiences, so that you could create a truly magical and inspiring product. Thank you for keeping women and their needs at the forefront of your professional endeavors and desires. It means a lot.

Sincerely, the women of the world.

Filthy Gorgeous: In Defense of Kathryn Merteuil, Feminism, and Sexual Awakenings

Cruel Intentions came out in 1999 and was paraded as a dark and sexy drama about wealthy teens gallivanting about New York City. Inspired by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 work Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the movie was a huge box office success and positioned its stars as amazing talents and widely popular heartthrobs.

It also gave all-around-good-girl-Buffy-heroine, Sarah Michelle Gellar, an edge as Kathryn Merteuil, the movie’s “villain” and step-sister of the romantic lead played by Ryan Phillippe. I put villain in quotation marks because as I get older I begin to see Merteuil as less of an outright villain and more a confident, independent young woman, who was highly misunderstood, demeaned, and neglected. Now, I know she had her issues – many very real mental health issues that were clearly not being dealt with properly.

I can’t recall the exact moment I first saw Cruel Intentions, but it was early in my high school career, and I either watched it with my good friend Jess or she loaned it to me with a lofty recommendation. At the time, I was beginning to form my own opinions and ideas about sex and sexuality – hell, I still am. I was longing for more knowledge surrounding the topic and so this seemed like the perfect film. It was all about sex. That is the central premise of the movie: get self-proclaimed virgin, Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) to denounce her holy creed and sleep with Sebastian Valmont (Phillippe) at the behest of his step-sister Merteuil, as a bet, and some other sexy stuff was done to exact revenge on a whole mess of people. Perfect.

Admittedly, however, when I first saw the film I identified with and rooted for Hargrove and her eventual romance with bad-boy-turned-reformed-hunk Valmont. Why wouldn’t I? The film was set up for exactly that. Hargrove was the heroine and Valmont had a redemption arc. Good and effective storytelling. It effectively formed the Virgin-Whore dichotomy and positioned good vs. evil.

Again, it wasn’t until I got older and continued to form my opinions on sex and my newly-found feminism that I began to see the complexity of Merteuil as a character. What I had thought of as “right” and “wrong” were changing. I realized those concrete, black and white perceptions society places on us regarding love, sex, and gender were arbitrary and ever-changing.

Merteuil, while devious and narrowly focused on revenge, was only doing so because she’d been shamed for her proclivities – SEX. She was a woman in charge of herself and her sexuality, and she not only enjoyed sex but sought it out. Unlike her step-brother, Sebastian who kept no secrets of his sexual desires or conquests, and was still beloved by many, Merteuil had to keep her desires hidden and position herself as the authority on all things good at her elite Manhattan private school to maintain her status and reputation.

The shaming double-standards dug themselves deeper into Kathryn’s life when, before the start of the film, she was dumped by her rich, popular boyfriend, Court Reynolds. She and Reynolds had a fairly active sex life but she was dumped in favor of the younger, more “pure” character, Cecile Caldwell played by Selma Blair.

When I rewatched and began to realize this insane double-standard placed upon this character who was later revealed to be the “big bad” of the film, I became angry. A film I had loved for many years suddenly made me extremely angry. I’m a sex-positive feminist who would never shame another woman for enjoying one of life’s greatest little pleasures, sex.

What really hit me was a speech Merteuil gives in the middle of the film. The speech is directed at Sebastian and is an attempt to get him to agree to her devious plan. Villainous, yes, but with decidedly more complex and deeply rooted motives than straight malicious revenge.

“God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex. Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady? I’m the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side, and sometimes I want to kill myself.”

She begins her monologue by calling out the absurdity of this double-standard surrounding sex. She loves sex and demands pleasure, and yet is punished for doing so. She then goes into how it’s not only fine but even praised, if men like Sebastian or her ex (Court) can have sex with anyone and everyone. No one questions it or scrutinizes – at least not in the same way they would judge Kathryn. Sebastian may be seen as somewhat vile, but his action would not truly impede his trajectory in life. He would be seen as absurd, and detestable even, but powerful and confident nonetheless.

“Eat me, Sebastian! It’s okay for guys like you and Court to fuck everyone. But when I do it, I get dumped for innocent little twits like Cecile.”

This is my favorite line from Merteuil’s speech. It is so incredibly on-point and cutting. She’s mocking the standards put on her by society, the patriarchy and those contributing to that system. As a confident woman, she presents a threat to others, especially men. “Men don’t want a confident women” is a line fed to us, either directly or subconsciously from the time we’re young. And it’s bull. Complete and utter bull. Throw a love of sex and a demand for her own pleasure on top of that. Well, she might as well be Satan in Prada heels.

While many of her actions point to a seriously troubled girl in need of some help, I don’t believe that her relationship with sex alone played a large role in her damaged psyche. More so, I believe, it was the relationship the rest of society had, and still has, regarding sex and gender that greatly contributed to her problems. This double life she created for herself in order to hide her true desires and nature that led to her overall problems.

I guess I’m not incredibly surprised by this notion occurring in a film made in 1999. While some great strides in the world of gender equality had been made there was a long way to go. And there still is. I’m still learning about myself, the world around me, and how feminism intersects with so many identities in the world. I’m just now, as a woman in her late-20’s, becoming more confident and comfortable in myself and my sexuality. Confident in my ability to demand that my pleasure and desires be met.

I attribute some of this confidence to Ms. Merteuil. Kathryn is a villain, yes. But like all great villains, she has a rather complex and compelling backstory. Anyway, villains are much more interesting than the heroines, if only we bother to look past the surface. Merteuil’s confidence and thoughts sent me down a path of self-discovery and led me to, perhaps, more profound feminist heroes like bell hooks, Roxane Gay, Audre Lorde, Joan Didion, and many more. But I will never forget Merteuil, implanting feminist ideas into my head before I even knew what they were. Helping me with my “baby-feminism” and pushing me to be confident, smart, fierce, sexual, and to embrace all aspects about myself, even the ones that aren’t deemed “good” by society.

All in all, Kathryn Merteuil is a feminist. A feminist with some interesting and intelligent thoughts, and we’d know that if we just bothered to actually listen.

How My Un-feminist Mom Raised An Uber-Feminist

My mother is not a feminist, except she is one. She is a staunch feminist in the media she chooses to champion, in her beliefs of the power women possess, and in her approach to child-rearing, specifically me. However, she is not a feminist. She chooses to distance herself from that word, from that movement, and the culture surrounding it, including the stereotypes. But innately…she’s a feminist, in her soul.

My mother is a product of the post-radical feminist, relatively politically calm, all about money and success, 1980s. She graduated high school in the mid-80’s and it is the decade she most identifies as a seminal time in her life. During this time, middle-class, Midwestern families didn’t have much to be worried about. Maybe they weren’t living in a McMansion and didn’t own their own helicopter, but they were doing all right. And while women still weren’t being treated equally or equitably, things were better and improvements seemed to constantly be on the rise.

At this time women had, even more, high-powered media role models to look to. Gloria Vanderbilt and her iconic jeans, Madonna and her I’m-going-to-take-over-the-world attitude, Melanie Griffith kicking ass and taking names in Working Girl, Brooke Shields and her eyebrows, and much more. The 80’s were churning out badass women for the public to adore and for women and girls everywhere to take pride in.

Due to the seemingly rapid advances in gender equality from the 1970’s to the 1980’s, women, including my mother, were under the false impression that feminism wasn’t needed anymore. In her mind, things were great. Women were everywhere – in high-powered jobs, in government, etc. Women were making names for themselves and setting their own rules.

Whether my mother realized it or not, she brought this strength and pride that the 1980’s gave women into how she raised me, beginning in 1991. Although we’ve established that she didn’t consider herself a feminist, because in her mind we didn’t need it anymore and feminists were just women who hated men (eye roll), what she can’t shake is her innate sensibility to champion women and their efforts.

(Forewarning: I will be discussing media quite a bit because it was a formidable part of my childhood and of how my family interacts with one another. So buckle up.)

All throughout my childhood, my mother exposed me to different forms of media, most often with a strong female lead. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom and me watching movies together and then her and I discussing the film or a particular character, and the importance of said character/character’s actions.

As a grade schooler, my mom and I were huge fans of the movie Now and Then, a story about a group of 13-year-old girls and one life-changing summer. The movie is wonderful. It’s a mostly female cast. It deals with the struggles of being a young teen and carrying your childhood dreams and hopes with you as an adult. It deals with friendship, most importantly female friendship, which we all know to be an extremely fierce and soul-satisfying form of friendship. My mom and I were obsessed with this movie. Well, I was obsessed because my mom was, and she was obsessed because of what the movie taught and represented for her daughter. She was so into it that she “forced” us to watch it at every slumber party I ever had. Don’t worry, those girls are probably thanking her now.

This theme began long before this movie and it continued as I grew up. My mama, champion of female actresses and stories for generations. She not only was a fan of media that simply included or featured women, but also media and stories that put women in a position of power and autonomy over their lives, choices, and whole selves. These films range from Little Women (1994) to Superstar (1999) to Legally Blonde (2001), and much more.

The thing that is truly revolutionary about my mom, or at least felt so for the early 90’s, is that she raised me to believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be. I could do whatever I wanted to do. That my brain, my intellect, skills, and accomplishments are more important than what I looked like. That my personality and humor would get me far and win people over. She never shied away from telling me I was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the only thing about me she praised. She praised and lifted up and supported ALL OF ME. Both of my parents did, and that was and still is a pretty radical thing: to teach a girl that the world is their oyster, no matter what anyone says. Those are things generally reserved for white-heterosexual-Anglo-Saxon-males-of-affluence, not lil’ old, weird, chubby, Midwestern … ME.

It’s odd though. As I grow up and as my younger siblings grow up (I have two brothers, one is 8 years younger and the other is 17 years younger), I see that my parents parenting strategy didn’t change much between children. Which one might say is a good thing, right? No. Because while my parents were raising me in a way that supported my talent and career path over being a mom and wife someday is radical and feminist, my parents raising my brothers to believe they can do anything is simply…par for the course. It’s normal to tell boys the world is theirs if only they reach out and grab it. And we should tell boys that. We should tell boys AND girls and everyone in between. But in raising a son in a feminist way, one must talk about the imbalance of power and representation amongst genders in our world today. One must frankly discuss the idea of rape culture with children, so as to stop it in its tracks. One must allow boys to feel and emote openly without the veil of toxic masculinity dampening their heart.

I share all of this to demonstrate that my mom is not a feminist. I wish she was- we’d destroy the patriarchy together. She knowingly raised a (head)strong, determined, hopeful, compassionate, creative, do-no-harm-but-take-no-shits, the-world-is-my-mothereffing-oyster, fierce-ass woman. She unknowingly raised me, a feminist. Because if she truly were a feminist she would’ve done the above with my brothers. If she were truly a feminist she’d recognize that the patriarchy not only exists but is toxic and strong. If she truly were a feminist she would openly recognize that there is still a wage gap, a power imbalance, a culture of fear among women, and a lack of true and honest media representation. If she were truly a feminist she wouldn’t sneer her nose at the word and would delight in the fact that she raised one proud, radical, uber-feminist bitch. Which she did.

I will continue to take everything my mother instilled in me that made me the feminist I am, and I will go beyond. I will also take everything my mother didn’t teach me, everything she didn’t instill in my brothers, and I will instill it in others. If I ever have children, you best believe they – boy or girl – will be raised to be a feminist and strong supporter of equality and equity for all. Until then, I will carry all of my mother’s lessons and wear my feminist badge with immense pride. Thanks, Mama, for everything.