One of the most important praises for Marvel’s Black Panther film is for the movie’s inclusion and focus on the king’s army of warrior women–the Dora Milaje. These women are sworn to celibacy, as they are technically the king’s wives, whose sole duty and purpose is to protect king and kingdom. As rare as the image of black female warriors are, it is not surprising that the actual existence of such a troop of female warriors is lost on many–a fact only now rectified by their reference in Black Panther.

The Dora Millage were often recruited as teenage girls, some as prisoners of war from other countries. The women were revered and feared, trained to be ruthless in battle by spending weeks in the forest with only their weapons and limited rations–or “insensitivity training,” in which each had to throw bound prisoners into violent angry mobs (to their death) without hesitation. The results of their rigorous training was that they became famed for their swiftness and precision, their fearlessness and dedication.

Upon their discovery by European observers, the warrior women were dubbed the Dahomey Amazons, as they reminded colonizers of the mystical Amazon women warriors. Dahomey, their country of origin, was protected for hundreds of years from colonization because of the fierceness of these female warriors. The King who formed this legion, King Houegbadja, allowed no men inside the palace walls besides his main entourage–which meant that the soldiers protecting the king’s quarters had to be women. The emergence of these female fighters was not the product of a feminist ideal, but seemingly out of sheer necessity.

That being said, there were definite advantages to having your warriors be women. As colonization became more and more of threat in the 1800s by the gun-wielding French, many male fighters hesitated to kill members of the Dora Millage, fooled by their young girl-ish appearances. That underestimation served the kingdom of Dahomey well, as these fierce women were able to evoke vulnerability and sensuality to make their foe easier to take down. The women were so respected for their fighting ability to commitment to the king, that young female slaves traveled with them in the villages, ringing a bell to warn passersby of the warriors’ presence. People had to make room and avert their eyes, or risk death or imprisonment by the king.

There were efforts on the part of the successant kings of Dahomey to expand the Dora Millage, given the success of training the young women into brilliant warriors. They became known for their quick beheading techniques. Fighting was not all these women did, however; as is present in African culture, dance and performance were an important part of their service to the king. Their weapons were used in their choreography, for royal celebrations (which were one of the extremely rare occasions where men were allowed inside the palace walls). Their performances were consistently flawless, as was their fighting techniques. The women were legal wives of the king, who rarely had any relations with them; their marriage was a formality to symbolize their devotion to their posts and to the king.

Black Panther plays with the legend of the Dahomey Amazons in a genuine way, making their contributions equal to the success of the Wakanda nation as the female warriors were for Dahomey at the time. The famed costumes of the real Dahomey Amazons are represented in the lavish practical costumes of the Dora Millage in the film. They are not sexual symbols or tokens; on the contrary the Dora Millage are portrayed with respect to the legends they are based on–fearless and committed skilled soldiers. This was by no means a perfect system, as some women were given into service by husbands who couldn’t “control” them, or as aforementioned prisoners of war. Many warriors were deeply traumatized by the cut-throat life of being one of the king’s first responders, resulting in mental illness and poverty. As the French advanced on Dahomey continuously, the massive skills amounted by the fierce soldiers were no match for the guns the Europeans used to seize control. As a result, the king surrendered, burning the royal palace to the ground. Most of the Dahomey Amazons were killed in combat, and their conquests became memory.

Like many of the early accomplishments of African-descendant women, the Dahomey Amazons are not a regularly taught part of African history. Many of the accounts of their bravery have been passed down through oral histories, only to be pieced together into a coherent timeliness much later. There is speculation that the last of the Dahomey Amazons lived into the 1960s or 70s, dying at over 100 years old. The image of a fearless and competent black woman warrior is an image so far-fetched in the public imagination that is tough to imagine that they actually existed and were successfully implemented to protect their kingdom from colonization as long as was possible. This is why there have been so many journalistic pieces written about the importance of representation in Black Panther.

The film brings us into a world close and personal with a re-imagining of these warrior women, including and making us fall in love with individual characters; the film gives audiences an opportunity not only to imagine these women, but to respect them and their agency in their lives and country. These are things that would have been a given in the time of the Dahomey Amazons, because their fierceness and integral role in the societal order have required nothing but. Representation on screen in as many different ways as possible is the utmost of equality in entertainment–and it is more special when that representation gives us also a slice of history. These women, now with new light on their existence in power, will surely be kept in the public imagination, as a reminder of what once was and what is missing from our current society.

 

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About The Author

Eboni Boykin is an opinion and cultural analysis writer from the southern United States. She combines her extensive knowledge of genre films with her critical thinking training from the English BA program at Columbia University in the City of New York.

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