'Black Panther' and the female/athlete paradox

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In early April, just two months after its premiere, Marvel’s Black Panther became the third-highest-grossing film of all time at the domestic box office. Although Black Panther has primarily been renowned for its celebration of black culture, the film has also been praised for its strong feminist characters, many of whom occupy influential roles in the film. An important but overlooked factor, integral to the empowered portrayal of these women was the costume design by Ruth E. Carter.  

In contrast to the hypersexualized attire donned by the majority of female characters in fantasy/action movies, Carter’s designs are "feminine, masculine, beautiful, and strong," and challenge the conception that femininity and strength are mutually exclusive. Carter has specifically expressed the deliberate choices she made to outfit the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female fighting force, in ways that imbued them with both power and womanliness. “We didn’t want these to be sexy girls,” Carter told Fast Company. “We wanted them to be serious fighters.”

Masculinity and femininity have traditionally been perceived as a binary, such that individuals are categorized as either entirely masculine or entirely feminine. Femininity is typically characterized by beauty, vulnerability, and subordination, while masculinity is typically characterized by strength, aggression, and domination. There have always been aberrations from this polarization, though, especially when it comes to women’s physical strength and athleticism. Female athletes occupy a unique position in this system of gender norms: As athletes, they are expected to physically succeed in their sport, while as women, they are expected to paradoxically maintain classical feminine tropes of uncompetitiveness and weakness while doing so. Several studies have examined this conflict, known as the “female/athlete paradox.” One study of intercollegiate athletes at D1 universities revealed that female athletes felt being feminine contrasted with being athletic, and that they were often labeled as gender deviants due to their sport participation and were consequently devalued, stigmatized, or falsely labeled as lesbians. Another similarly conducted study suggested that men respond more favorably to female athletes who conform to gender stereotypes, whereas women favor power in female athletes.

Decades before his time, French painter and sculptor Edgar Degas explored this very supposed paradox: the capacity of women to be as strong as they are beautiful. Degas’ dancers, his most famous subjects, certainly don’t fit the stereotype of the classical ballerina; they are athletes. They lack fragility and refinement, and instead exude strength and ferocity. Uninterested in the notions of classical femininity, Degas instead focused in on the rigors of the pre-show training and conditioning processes, highlighting the women’s musculature, athleticism, and physical exertion. Through his paintings, he effectively undermines gender stereotypes of women as weak and, like Carter, challenges the conception that femininity and strength are mutually exclusive.

The idea that masculinity and femininity can be understood as end points on a spectrum has grown more popularized in recent years. This approach, which maintains that individuals can exhibit varying degrees of both masculinity and femininity, regardless of gender, is somewhat forgiving in that it allows athletic women to preserve their femininity even if their participation in competitive sports “masculinizes” them. Despite this shift in general understanding, however, the perceived importance of adhering to traditional feminine norms remains alarmingly high. According to a 2017 report, being recognized as feminine is a paramount concern for one in five American women, about twice as important as appearing masculine is for men. In addition, 71 percent of this study’s participants said women face pressure to be physically attractive — a hallmark of traditional femininity — while just 27 percent said the same for men.

Confronting constructed gender norms that are so deeply ingrained in our society, and promoting a less rigid understanding of gender characteristics, is no easy task. But with its cast of empowered women, Black Panther has paved the way for an adjusted definition of femininity — one defined by courage, intellectual prowess, and physical strength, NOT sexuality or attractiveness. Carter’s costuming embodies this empowered definition by celebrating the power and strength of women without compromising their femininity. The Dora Milaje are strikingly beautiful, though their attractiveness is secondary to their ferocity and skill. The Dora contradict classical feminine tropes in terms of appearance — they are bald and their uniforms reveal almost no skin. In addition, they violate classical conceptions of  feminine physicality — the Dora are Wakanda’s fiercest fighters, trusted above all others to protect Black Panther. Even so, the Dora Milaje are an unquestionable representation of femininity. 

Set in the utopian nation of Wakanda, Black Panther imagines not only a future in which black culture flourishes, but also one in which women are allowed to explore their full potential, as trusted warriors, spies, and chief scientists. Wakanda is a powerful metaphor of possibilities and of triumph, dreamed by many. It is our generation’s duty to transform this metaphor into reality.

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Jessica Chambers
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