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Psych Geeks: 'Black Panther' Shows The Way In Representation

Black Panther poster
Mark Lennihan
"Black Panther" has its claws in the top of the box office for the second week in a row.

The latest offering from the Marvel Cinematic Universe clawed its way to the top of the box office for a second week in a row. That's unsurprising, according to GLT's Psych Geeks, because "Black Panther" is a film that's fulfilling a deep need for audiences.

"Black Panther" is set in Africa, in the fictional country of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced nation in the world, where Black Panther rules as king and protector. The film has a black director (Ryan Coogler) and a predominantly black cast featured in nuanced roles. In just 12 days, the movie has earned over $700 million.

The film's success comes not just from the artistry of its creators, said Scott Jordan and Eric Wesselmann, Illinois State University professors of psychology and GLT's Psych Geeks. Its popularity springs from the need that it is fulfilling. Black Panther is center stage in this film, not playing second fiddle to Iron Man or Captain America.

GLT's Psych Geeks Eric Wesselmann (L) and Scott Jordan
Credit Laura Kennedy / WGLT
GLT's Psych Geeks Eric Wesselmann, left, and Scott Jordan agree that the new "Black Panther" movie brings much-needed diversity to the screen.

"The film is set in Wakanda and it's told without any intervention of any of the Avengers," said Jordan. "He's not a supporting character in this."

And that's a crucial difference as the much-loved black superhero finally gets equally standing with others in the Marvel Universe. It's important for all audiences to be able to look up on the screen and see someone like themselves, noted Wesselmann.

"When we consume a text—a comic book, a novel or a film—one of the major functions is to empathize with that character. As humans, we can do that across social category lines, we're hard wired to empathize. But decades of psychological data at this point show that we empathize easiest with people we see as similar to ourselves. And so to have a main character, a three-dimensional representation of yourself, is terribly important for not just the process of engaging with the film, but seeing a positive view of people just like you." 

Such representations can do wonders for self-esteem, added Wesselmann.

"The data suggests that for members of underrepresented groups, having more diversity is good for them. But it's also good for members of different social categories. Having more diversity, more rich, authentic stories is only going to increase out ability to empathize with each other across these lines. It can change things from 'us versus them' to 'we'."

"Increased diversity is only a problem for people who view these sorts of issues as zero sum games," said Wesselmann. "There seem to be some internet trolls who view increased diversity as if it means that it's going to diminish their group. They think it's a zero sum game. But it's not about that. We're all in this together."

"We just need to keep telling these stories," added Jordan. "These more sophisticated stories."

Hear this bonus audio from the Psych Geeks looking further into the importance of diversity in our entertainment.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.