ByWith this new iconic character being created, how will this change the way screenwriters write action heroines?
Danai Gurira on how 'Black Panther' challenges the conventions of femininity
By Jess Joho
Having risen to fame through her iconic performance as The Walking Dead's Michonne, Danai Gurira is no stranger to female power ripped from the pages of comics.
But in Black Panther, Gurira plays another kind of female warrior — one who wields her womanhood as a strength, and casts femininity in a whole new light in the process.
"Okoye flies in the face of our conventional ideas of femininity, while still functioning within her own definition of femininity," Gurira told Mashable at the Los Angeles Black Pantherpress junket.
Though her bald, tattooed head is rooted in her Wakandan traditionalism, Okoye still shatters our real-world standards of traditional beauty through a fierce kind of fabulousness. "She doesn't take to the conventions of how the rest of world says a woman should wear her hair, for instance," Gurira said. "But she also always has a big red lip on, a lot of lash — without ever compromising her philosophy. She lives contentedly within both."
In one of the film's standout moments, Okoye bemoans the need to wear a wig for an undercover mission in South Korea — before quickly discarding it at the first sign of action. "Because she doesn’t want it, and she doesn’t need it," said Gurira. "She has a tat on her head that means she’s a General, so why would she ever cover that up for anything or anyone?"
But Okoye doesn't just lose her wig during this scene. "She throws it!" Gurira exclaims with joy. She turns the very trappings of traditional, white-centric beauty into a literal weapon, using her wig to defeat a small army of men. "It’s just so beautifully feminine in its resourcefulness."
As the fearless leader of the Dora Milaje, the elite all-female fighting force that protects the leaders of Wakanda, Okoye could've easily fallen into the cliches of the now standard-issue Strong Female Character.
Instead, she subverts them with a multi-dimensional complexity that shows audiences a much wider spectrum of empowerment.
During the LA press conference, Gurira described how, one by one, the initial shock that every actress felt after going bald to play a Dora Milaje soldier soon transformed into something else entirely.
Because, "then the pride started to grow, the embracing of this symbol of power for these women."
Throughout their various iterations in the comics, the Dora Milaje's origin story hasn't always been what you might call empowering. Often written by men, these soldiers were frequently framed as male fantasies – for instance, serving as T’Challa’s potential wives as well as his guards.
The film, however, presents them as an encapsulation of the Wakandan ideal that, "the matriarchal and patriarchal must stand side by side," said Gurira. "Wakanda understands that we need every ounce of power and every ounce of potential. It doesn’t deny either its power. And it’s the most advanced nation on the planet — so go figure.
Too often, even the most progressive depictions of female superheroes empower them through the lens of masculine ideals. Jessica Jones is gifted with brute force – a traditionally male form of power. Wonder Woman is still the picture of traditional feminine beauty.
The Dora Milaje, on the other hand, derive their power and beauty from a femininity that exists outside patriarchal concepts of empowerment.
"I love the idea that Wakanda had the realization — probably thousands of years ago — that there is a ferocity, a power, an ability, a focus, and a single-mindedness in women that needed to anchor their nation," said Gurira.
Those uniquely feminine attributes shine through in their fighting style. The Dora Milaje always take down targets as one, working together with gorgeously synchronized attacks. "Their ways of moving are very specifically designed by women — fierce, powerful, military-minded women who figured out stratagems that made them most effective and deadly in battle," said Gurira.
In action, the grace of this unified army looks like the lethal dance of militarized ballerinas, while also mimicking the hunting tactics of lionesses — one of the only big cats known for carrying out strikes in packs, with almost Seal Team Six-like strategies and precision.
Gurira's performance as Okoye solidifies her status as the leader of a revolution in female representation. She refuses to be reduced to simplified characterizations. She carries out her responsibilities as a general with as much gravity as levity, and her effectiveness derives from a balance of raw power and careful tact.
Like all the female characters in Black Panther, she is treated with a distinct humanity that many women — especially women of color — do not have the privilege of enjoying in our world.
Which is why, above all else, Okoye is not married to any man or king, but rather, "married to her nation," Gurira said. To her, it is an honor to devote her life to the preservation of Wakanda, because she understands that "this nation must thrive so that the girls coming up after me have a place to thrive like I have."
Wakanda is a refuge and fantasy for everyone who has had their humanity stripped away by the systems of oppression embedded in an imperializing, patriarchal society. It's an ideal worth living and dying for, in the real world as much as in the Marvel cinematic universe.
And luckily, we've got one of the most badass warriors ensuring its protection.