A woman sitting in a throne with two guards standing next to her and two more women sitting near her
"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," in theaters this week, centers the stories of Black women as leaders, something pop culture scholar Grace D. Gipson, Ph.D., says has the power to make a difference in how Black girls and women see themselves - and how others see them. “Representation is essential and important because what we see in pop culture influences and offers us a viewpoint into how we make decisions, how we view things, the way in which things are portrayed and people are portrayed,” says Gipson, an assistant professor of African American Studies at VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences. (Courtesy Walt Disney Studios)

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

“‘Black Panther’ has changed the game of saying what can and does sell. It wasn’t just Black people who went to go see ‘Black Panther;’ everybody — the world — went to see it,” says Grace D. Gipson, Ph.D.

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Who is the smartest person in the Marvel universe? You may think of Iron Man Tony Stark or — with “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” releasing this week — perhaps Princess Shuri, chief science officer of Wakanda. But Grace D. Gipson, Ph.D., a pop culture scholar and Black future feminist who studies representation around race and gender in comic books, music, film and television, knows the true answer: Her name is Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl, and she’s “a 9-year-old Black girl super genius.”

The release of blockbuster superhero films centered around Black protagonists, including “Black Panther” in 2018 and its sequel coming out Friday, has reignited conversations about the importance of representation in Hollywood and pop culture, something Gipson studies as an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s 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 offers us a viewpoint into how we make decisions, how we view things, the way in which things are portrayed and people are portrayed,” Gipson says. “If there’s a limited view of Black girls and women (in pop culture), then there’s going to be a limited viewpoint as far as 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 fantasy, fiction and pop culture’s inescapable influence 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 who looks like them inventing things and experimenting with science. It helps them more clearly envision a future in a STEM field, Gipson says, a place where Black girls and women are generally underrepresented.

“Narratives like Lunella’s within the comic book genre are not only notable, but crucial because they aid in creating a bridge between the gap of fiction and real-world application,” Gipson wrote in a 2017 column, “The Future Is Black and Female: Afrofuturism and Comic Books,” for the African American Intellectual History Society. “In addition to bringing awareness to the insufficiencies in STEM, the character also exhibits a humanized experience of young Black girls while also celebrating their intelligence.”

Race and gender representation in comic books, music, film, television — really any media that people can consume — can have a real, and positive, impact on how people see themselves and others.

“Lunella has really changed the game as it relates to what a superhero can look like,” Gipson told VCU News. “What I love about her story is that she offers an opportunity to feel seen. I didn’t have a Lunella when I was first starting out reading comics, and so, knowing that she exists now, my nieces and nephews can say that there is someone that makes them feel seen.

“Reading her story, I become transported back to that little girl that I was when I first got into it, and that’s promising because before it was like, ‘I don't see anybody that looks like me.’”

A woman sitting at a desk with comic books on it. She is holding a book with both of her hands.
Grace Gipson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of African American Studies at VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences, fell in love with comic books as a young girl. Now, she studies race and gender representation in comic books and pop culture, as well as pop culture as a teaching tool, and how representations in pop culture influence bias in society. (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

Gipson’s research on representation in pop culture sprang from her natural curiosity about the world — and from an early love of comics, comic books and cartoons. She began reading “the funnies” in her grandmother’s newspaper at age 4 and, in elementary school, turned to comic books, “Archie” and “X-Men” among her first. She saw herself in Storm, a Black woman superhero, from “X-Men.”

But, there were many more places in pop culture she didn’t see herself. As a Black girl growing up in Champaign, Illinois, in the 1980s and ’90s, Gipson felt she had to hide her passion for comic books. Hollywood’s depiction of “comic book nerds” at the time didn’t look like her.

“I didn't want to be seen as a nerd, I didn’t want to be seen as a geek, and that was the association that came with comics. It's funny because people will tell me now, ‘I didn't realize you were into comics then,’ but as a 5-, 6-, 10-year-old Black girl at that time, we weren’t represented in that way. I didn't see anybody that looked like me so, therefore, I didn’t want to be a part of it,” Gipson says. “I’ll be grateful and glad for someone to call me a ‘Black girl nerd’ now; I embrace it. But the ’80s, ’90s? Nope, it was not the cool thing to be seen as that. And a lot of that is due to pop culture having a particular stereotype of what nerds look like.”

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 bias in society. The recent backlash over the casting of Halle Bailey, a Black actress and singer, in the upcoming live-action rendition of “The Little Mermaid” as Ariel (portrayed in the 1989 cartoon as white) is just one example.

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

But pop culture can also be a teaching tool to help people explore their biases. Gipson says 2018’s hit film “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 to leadership to race and gender generally.

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

Gipson says she’s seen changes in Hollywood as a result of the film too, such as giving observers greater permission to call out Hollywood when representations of Black characters in new films are problematic. It pushed Hollywood to prioritize representation in writers’ rooms, something she noted around the release of another Marvel film “Shang-Chi” in a 2021 interview with CNN. And, she says, it changed studios’ perceptions around how films centering Black characters and narratives will be perceived by non-Black audiences.

“‘Black Panther’ has changed the game of saying what can and does sell,” Gipson says. “It wasn’t just Black people who went to go see ‘Black Panther;’ everybody — the world — went to see it. If we think about top box office movies, ‘Black Panther’ is within that top 10, selling billions globally. That in itself is a reason to say it has changed the landscape, it has changed how we see media.

“I’m a huge movie buff, and being able to see new genres explore 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 diasporic experience, I’m always going to have hope that representation is going to be there and that the film industry is changing.”

She predicts Hollywood — and media — will see another shift after the release of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The film will focus on stories of Black women leaders — Wakandan Princess Shuri, Nakia, Okoye and Ramonda, to name a few — and Indigenous peoples — Namor, the leader of an ancient civilization connected to the Mayans.

“Now we’re going to get even more color, literally and figuratively,” Gipson says. “We’re going to see the screen feature the stories of many people who had not been on the big screen before.”

Gipson says representation in pop culture, particularly in fiction, matters when it comes to considering how cultural images can fuel bias. Better representation in Hollywood when creating films is a big part of that. But broadening perspectives around representation in pop culture and fiction altogether will help society rewrite narratives around race and gender for current and future generations.

“I can remember 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 create Wakanda?’ And I remember telling someone like, ‘Well, how did you all create Asgard? If you can do Asgard, you can create Wakanda.’” Gipson says. “Seeing a movie come to fruition like ‘Black Panther,’ that's definitely one of the reasons I’m so glad that I’m studying and talking about representation.”