Certainly, the women of Black Panther shook some preconceived notions. Heroines in pop culture, when we have any, are mostly white; often, their roles are simply to be in service to their male counterparts. But now, here comes an absolute 360-degree turn: a black woman driving the technological advancements that enrich and drive her country forward; a black woman leading an all-female army, spear in hand, ready to kill and die for her country; a black woman rescuing kidnapped schoolgirls from the clutches of terrorists.
Surely critics are justified in their excitement over the film and what it suggests. But in Demosthene’s estimation, these conversations shouldn’t need to exist. She reckons a black heroine in the mold of those we find in Black Panther isn’t a radical idea at all. “Black Panther should have gone straight to DVD. It shouldn’t be making any of this money,” she says, without a trace of malice. “It should be like every other movie that comes out—because the story it tells would already be known.”
What Demosthene means is that African heroics are not novel. Marvel certainly did not invent or discover black heroines—who are powerful all on their own, without being pitted against white culture or presented in relation to the West.
The idea of African heroines with mythical powers is well-documented in folklore across the continent. (And, as Demosthene notes, these women weren’t skinny
, like the women of Black Panther
.) For instance, Dora Milaje, the army in Black Panther
, was inspired by the women warriors of Dahomey
—now the present-day Benin Republic—who thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries. They fought and died for their country and king.
In the culture of the Yoruba, the people of southwest Nigeria and Benin, there are shrines built to powerful goddesses: Oya, who commands wind, lightning, violent storms, and death if she so chooses, and Yemoja, a deity of the water who protects women and is associated with fertility. In popular culture, these characters are mostly forgotten or erased, though sometimes, they reappear in different forms. (Marvel Comics, for instance, indirectly appropriated Oya in the form of an X-Men mutant.)