On Monday evening, Marvel Studios invited a small group of reporters into its innermost sanctum (a screening room) for an early look at a number of its upcoming films.
While some of the films, like Captain Marvel, are still in the very early stages of development, others, like Black Panther, are far enough along that there was ample footage to be seen. By nearly all accounts, Black Panther is going to be something that changes the way we think about superhero movies.
In addition to being Marvel’s first film to feature a predominantly black cast, Black Panther was also positioned to bring a number of queer characters from Ta-nehisi Coates’ ongoing Black Panther comic to the big screen in a major way.
Ayo and Aneka, two of the Black Panther’s elite royal bodyguards who happen to fall in love with one another before leading a feminist uprising, were introduced early on during Coates’ Black Panther run. The pair have since gone on to headline their own series in Roxane Gay’s World of Wakanda that fleshes out their origin stories both as lovers and warriors.
According to a report from Variety, a version of Ayo (Florence Kasumba) prominently featured in the footage screened Monday shows her dancing with another woman, Okoye (Danai Gurira), in a way that reminded some fans of Ayo’s queer comic book counterpart.
In the rough cut of this Black Panther scene, we see Gurira’s Okoye and Kasumba’s Ayo swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, “You look good.” Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, “I know.”
Within hours of Variety’s initial publication, a Marvel spokesperson reached out to clarify that despite early speculation, “the nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba’s Ayo in Black Panther is not a romantic one.”
As is often the case with the cycle of fan hype being tamped down by statements from studios, the news that this version of Ayo wouldn’t be depicted as a queer woman quickly spawned the #LetAyoHaveAGirlFriend hashtag. Much like #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, the idea behind #LetAyoHaveAGirlFriend is simple: queer representation, especially in big-budget studio films like Marvel’s, is non-existent and could easily be fixed by making the relationships that already read as sub-textually romantic more explicitly so.
Unlike the push for a gay Captain America, though, Ayo was created and written as a canonically queer woman and sidestepping the obvious chance to portray her as such feels, to many, like a form of erasure.
To Marvel’s credit, there’s been no indication as to whether or not Ayo might still identify as a queer woman or if, in subsequent films, her relationship with Okoye might become romantic. As a number of people have pointed out, though, Marvel head Kevin Feige is on the record as saying that there’s no real reason that Marvel hasn’t brought any of its gay, bisexual, or lesbian characters out of the comics and into the theaters yet.
“We keep track of all of those things and are inspired by all of those things,” Feige told Slash Film in 2015. “I’d love it to find an organic, meaningful and natural way for that to happen at some point in the not so distant future.”
There is literally no more organic, meaningful, or natural way to put a lesbian character into a film other than, you know, to write her as a lesbian. Black Panther hits theaters next February, just in time for Black History Month. There’s still time for reshoots, Marvel.