Life

Why Attributing Black Achievement to a “Wakanda Effect” Isn’t Helpful

Lupita Nyong'o, wearing a high-collar white dress, attends the screening of 'Sorry Angel
Lupita Nyong’o’s career can’t be reduced to one movie.
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

If you take a quick glance across the magazine rack this month, expect to be greeted by an unprecedented wave of black cover stars. From Glamour to Vogue to Marie Claire, black women are currently providing a welcome respite from the lily-white stars that usually front a depressing 67 percent of fashion magazines. A brief list of the stars making covers this September—the fashion industry’s biggest issue of the year—include: singer, actress, and wine glass thief Rihanna on the cover of British Vogue, Beyoncé on American Vogue, Lupita Nyong’o on Porter, Tiffany Haddish on Glamour, Tracee Ellis Ross on Elle Canada, Zendaya on Marie Claire, supermodel Slick Woods on British Elle, Yara Shahidi on Hollywood Reporter, and Aja Naomi King on Shape.

In a year that, politically, has largely felt like a rebuke of not only blackness but any divergence from whiteness, the recognition of black women as both leaders in their respective fields and as cultural tastemakers is both welcome and long overdue. And yet there are some who are searching for an explanation of this sudden uptick, rather than simply celebrating it. One theory? According to the headline of a CNN.com piece, something called the “Wakanda Effect.”

Despite the fact that only one of the multitalented women in this roster was in any way involved with the Marvel box office smash Black Panther, crediting a Wakanda effect reduces these women’s careers and wide-ranging achievements to the impact of a single movie based on a 50-year-old comic. A tweet from the official CNN International account, which reads “The Wakanda Effect? Black women are dominating magazine covers this month” links to a story on the Month of Peak Blackness by CNN senior writer Lisa Respers France. What makes the tweet even more unfortunate is that the piece itself only passingly mentions Black Panther before quickly segueing back into the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the covers:

The covers shatter the myth that black representation doesn’t sell, much like Marvel’s Black Panther proved that more than black audiences would be interested in immersing themselves in the world of Wakanda.

 The film, which this week reportedly crossed $700 million at the North American box office, has been touted as helping to further open the entertainment industry’s eyes to how profitable diversity can be.

 The covers were greeted with plenty of excitement on social media.

The idea of a “Wakanda Effect” implies not only that the accomplishments of black women are a trend to be figured out, but also that (presumably white) audiences had to see fictional black women to care about the accomplishments of very real black women—in other words, that black accomplishment is inherently fantastical. It also unfortunately undercuts France’s point that the idea that “black representation doesn’t sell” is a myth by suggesting that the only reason this spate of black representation is selling is because of a superhero movie. Since writers very rarely have any input on headlines or social media framing, I can only assume that the idea of a “Wakanda Effect” was not what France wanted readers to come away from her piece—a dissonance that can emerge when writers are black, and their editors are not. In this case, the framing has only added to a general fatigue with the concept of Wakanda. Black accomplishment, after all, isn’t a fantasy; mainstream media just too rarely has the imagination to show it.