by Damon Young
If “Don’t scare me like that, colonizer” wasn’t already enough to give Black Panther’s Shuri (depicted amazingly by Letitia Wright) the crown as the Greatest Disney Princess Ever — it was, but let’s just pretend that it wasn’t — there are dozens more reasons why she deserves it.
In the last half of the movie alone, she saved a man’s life — even if the man was “another broken white boy.” She guided said primitive white boy on how to use the advanced technology she created, which ultimately helped save the entire planet from mass war and anarchy. And then she went out and literally fought (and held her own for a while) against a supervillian. Cinderella aint’ got nothin’ on her.
But while all of that happened in fictional Wakanda, her greatest impact might be what happens off screen. The volume of evidence shows that when audiences see on-screen representations of themselves, particularly aspirational ones, that experience can fundamentally change how they perceive their own place in the world.
Black people have been historically underrepresented on screen, and black women in strong roles even more so. Shuri provides a science-y role model for black women, a group distinctly underrepresented in STEM fields.
This potential is essential to the character and factors into Wright’s performance; the actress told Vogue: “I hope it can spark someone to say, ‘I’m not a superhero, but I can be a scientist or build the next spaceship, like Shuri.’”
And, if you think that a movie character — even a popular one — isn’t enough to increase that type of interest and visibility, well … A good movie changes the audience, and we have tons of evidence to back that up: After the release of “The Hunger Games” and “Brave” in 2012 — both of which feature women protagonists who use a bow and arrow — girls’ participation in archery competitions doubled, according to a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, citing data from USA Archery.
The study also found that 7 in 10 girls reported that the protagonists in those films had influenced their decision to take up the sport. The first film in the Indiana Jones series caused the number of students studying archaeology to spike. Jurassic Park minted a bunch of paleontologists.
And if you want your kid to become an engineer or astrophysicist, show them some Star Trek. I’m friends with quite a few black women who happen to be in STEM fields. So many, in fact, that I wrote a profile on four of them for Ebony magazine five years ago. And they’ve all expressed a passion for getting more black girls into science and a lament that there aren’t more mechanisms, mentorship programs, and pipelines in place for that to happen. Well, I’m sure a Disney princess might help, too.