Last Friday, Serena Williams was one of many celebs to take to social media with praise for Black Panther. Williams posted a photo on Instagram, showing that a special group of guests had accompanied her to the screening: Young girls from the not-for-profit organization Black Girls Code.
This is important because while Black Panther has already been touted as a source of inspiration — even Michelle Obama weighed in to note as much — it presents an especially strong role model for young black women who are interested in STEM. In the technologically advanced world of Wakanda, it isn’t a man who is behind the kingdom’s latest innovations, it’s the hero T'Challa’s younger sister, Shuri, played masterfully by Letitia Wright.
Shuri’s character type is a familiar one: Behind many great superheros and action heros are the gadget savvy geniuses who outfit them with the high tech gear they need to conquer their nemeses. These characters are often male: James Bond has Q, Batman has Lucius Fox, and Tony Stark’s Iron Man has, well, himself. There are some exceptions, with female characters who work in STEM — in Thor, for example, Jane Foster is a leading astrophysicist — but none, I would argue, are as prominent and important as Shuri is in Black Panther.
Shuri is smart, funny, and, above all else, unapologetically confident in her creations. She runs the gadget lab where all of her innovations come to life, and you don't even hear from others who tinker in the space, though you do see a few in the background. It's very clear from the outset that this is Shuri's domain.
In most superhero movies where a tech genius is involved, there will be a scene where the genius guides the hero through their space, showing them the new gadgets that will power later action sequences. In Black Panther, Shuri leads this scene, showing her brother the vibranium suits she has crafted for him and demonstrating how they work.
Shuri will later join the fight herself, alongside the other strong female characters in the movie, but it’s her role in the lab — as chief inventor and tech leader — that is so crucial for setting a new precedent for blockbusters to come. The timing is critical: As discussions about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley continue, it’s more important than ever for young black women to see a character like Shuri, and want to become her in real life.
According to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, only 3% of the computing workforce in 2016 was made up of black women. In other areas of tech, the numbers are even worse: Only 0.2% of women of color earn venture capital funding. Issues of bias and pattern recognition are at play, but it's also important that women continue to enter the space to begin with, Shauntel Poulson, a co-founder and general partner at the educational technology fund Reach Capital, told Refinery29 regarding VC funding.
“We need more women of color to be starting companies and wanting to be entrepreneurs," Poulson said. “That comes with having more role models.”
Shuri exists in a fictional universe, but if she can inspire members of Black Girls Code and girls who wouldn’t have otherwise envisioned a career in STEM, that’s a very powerful thing indeed.