The smartest person in the Marvel Universe, how ‘Black Panther’ – and its sequel – changed Hollywood, and why pop culture representation matters – Reuters

Who is the smartest person in the Marvel Universe? You can think of Iron Man Tony Stark or – with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” out this week – possibly Princess Shuri, Scientific Director of Wakanda. But Grace D. GipsonPh.D., a pop culture scholar and future black feminist who studies representation around race and gender in comics, music, film and television, knows the real answer: her name is Lunala Lafayetteaka Moon Girl, and she’s “a super awesome 9-year-old black girl.”

The release of blockbuster superhero films centered on black protagonists, including 2018’s “Black Panther” and its sequel which premieres Friday, has reignited conversations about the importance of representation in Hollywood and pop culture, which that Gipson is studying as an assistant professor at the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences. Pop culture, she says, has a hold on all of us, and representation in pop culture changes our perceptions and how we interact in society.

“Representation is essential and important because what we see in pop culture influences and provides insight into how we make decisions, how we see things, how things are represented, and people are represented,” says Gipson. “If there is a limited view of black girls and women (in pop culture), then there will be a limited view of how we exist (in society).”

“An opportunity to feel seen”

Gipson studies Afrofuturism, a framework for imagining black futures and redefining the experience of people in the African diaspora through science, technology and the arts, at its intersection with pop culture. She explores the inescapable influence of fantasy, fiction and pop culture on society and vice versa.

Gipson’s current book project, “Reclaiming Her Time: Exploring Black Female Experiences and Identities in Comics and Graphic Novels,” explores the layered identities and experiences of various fictional black female characters as personified in comic books. and fandom culture, as well as their relationship to real-life situations.

Take Moon Girl, for example. Her story gives millions of young black girls more opportunities to see someone like them inventing things and experimenting with science. It helps them see a future in a STEM field more clearly, says Gipson, a place where Black girls and women are generally underrepresented.

“Stories like Lunella’s in the comic book genre are not only remarkable, but crucial in helping to bridge the gap between fiction and real-world application,” Gipson wrote in an article. chronicle of 2017, “The Future is Black and Female: Afrofuturism and Comicsfor the African American Intellectual History Society. “In addition to raising awareness of the inadequacies of STEM, the character also presents a humanized experience of young black girls while celebrating their intelligence.”

Representation of race and gender in comics, music, movies, television – really any media people can consume – can have a real and positive impact on how people view themselves and people. others.

“Lunella really changed the game in terms of what a superhero can look like,” Gipson told VCU News. “What I love about her story is that it offers the opportunity to feel seen. I didn’t have Lunella when I started reading comics, and so knowing that she exists now, my nieces and nephews can tell there is someone who makes them feel seen.

“Reading her story, I go back to that little girl that I was when I first walked in, and that’s promising because before it was like, ‘I don’t see anyone like me. ‘”

Grace Gipson, Ph.D., assistant professor of African American studies in VCU’s College of Humanities, fell in love with comics as a youngster. Now she studies the representation of race and gender in comics and pop culture, as well as pop culture as an educational tool, and how representations in pop culture influence prejudice in society. (Tom Kojcsich, Marketing and Corporate Communications)

Gipson’s research into representation in pop culture grew out of his natural curiosity about the world — and an early love of comics, comics, and cartoons. She started reading ‘the funny ones’ in her grandmother’s diary at the age of 4 and, in elementary school, turned to comic books, ‘Archie’ and ‘X-Men’ among his first. She saw herself in Storm, a black superheroine, from “X-Men”.

But, there were many more places in pop culture that she didn’t see on her own. As a black girl growing up in Champaign, Illinois during the 1980s and 1990s, Gipson felt she had to hide her passion for comic books. Hollywood’s portrayal of “comic book nerds” at the time was unlike him.

“I didn’t want to be considered a nerd, I didn’t want to be considered a geek, and that was the association that came with the comics. It’s funny because people are going to tell me now, “I didn’t realize you were in comics back then”, but as a 5, 6, 10 year old black girl at the time , we were not represented in this way . I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, so I didn’t want to be part of it,” Gipson says. “I will be grateful and happy if someone calls me a ‘nerd black girl’ now; I hug him. But the 80s, 90s? No, it wasn’t the cool thing to be seen like that. And a lot of that is because pop culture has a particular stereotype about how nerds look.

Pop culture, ‘Black Panther’ and how we see ourselves and others

Pop culture plays a role in creating and reinforcing stereotypes, which can be harmful when it comes to prejudice in society. The recent backlash against the casting of Halle Bailey, a black actress and singer, in the upcoming live-action rendition of “The Little Mermaid” as Ariel (pictured in the 1989 cartoon in white) is just that. an example.

“You have a situation like ‘The Little Mermaid,’ where people have such vitriol about the casting that it makes you wonder, ‘So can’t black girls be mermaids? Can’t they exist in fantasy? Is our only position to be in this present state that is very limited or defined by past examples? “Says Gipson.

But pop culture can also be an educational tool to help people explore their biases. Gipson says the 2018 hit movie “Black Panther” did just that. It changed the perceptions of all viewers — whether they looked like the cast or not — on everything from body image and leadership to race and gender in general.

“Black Panther” changed the way black girls and women see themselves on screen, according to Gipson, highlighting the positive impacts of portrayal in fiction. The film, she says, “put #BlackGirlMagic on the map,” encouraging black women to celebrate themselves more as leaders on social media, and redefined how black women are personified in film, from hairstyles and costumes to leadership roles in politics and technology.

Gipson says she also saw changes in Hollywood as a result of the film, such as giving viewers greater permission to call out Hollywood when portrayals of black characters in new movies are problematic. This caused Hollywood to prioritize representation in writers’ rooms, which it noted when releasing another Marvel movie “Shang-Chi.” in a 2021 interview with CNN. And, she says, it’s changed studios’ perceptions of how movies that focus on black characters and narratives will be viewed by non-black audiences.

“‘Black Panther’ changed the game of saying what can and does sell,” says Gipson. “It wasn’t just black people who went to see ‘Black Panther; everyone — everyone — went to see him. If we think of the best box office movies, Black Panther is in that top 10, selling billions worldwide. That in itself is a reason to say that it changed the landscape, it changed the way we look at media.

“I’m a big movie buff and I can see new genres exploring black cultural experiences, from religion to fantasy like with ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and ‘Honk for Jesus’. Save Your Soul.’ – there are so many more genres now that are engaging with the black experience, in the black diaspora experience, I will always have hope that the representation will be there and that the film industry is in the process of to change.

She predicts that Hollywood – and the media – will see another change after “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is released. The film will focus on the stories of black female leaders – Wakandan Princess Shuri, Nakia, Okoye and Ramonda, to name a few – and indigenous people – Namor, the leader of an ancient civilization linked to the Maya.

“Now we’re going to get even more color, both literally and figuratively,” says Gipson. “We’re going to see the stories of many people on screen who have never been on the big screen before.”

Gipson says representation in pop culture, especially in fiction, is important when considering how cultural images can fuel bias. Better representation in Hollywood when making movies is a big part of that. But expanding perspectives around representation in pop culture and fiction will help society rewrite narratives about race and gender for current and future generations.

“I remember very early on, when Hollywood studios were talking about making the ‘Black Panther’ movie and how they were trying to figure out, ‘Well, how do we make Wakanda?’ And I remember saying to someone, ‘Well, how did you all make Asgard? If you can make Asgard, you can make Wakanda.'” Gipson said. “Seeing a movie come to fruition like ‘Black Panther’ is definitely one of the reasons I’m so happy to study and talk about representation.”

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