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Move over, Cinderella. There’s a new princess in town, and she’s wearing sneakers. Black Panther, which smashed box-office records this past weekend, introduced audiences to the royal family of Wakanda, a fictional African nation more technologically advanced (and impeccably accessorized) than any on earth. Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the title character, next in line for the throne after the death of his father in Captain America: Civil War. But it’s his younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who’s making waves all over the internet, as it dawns on fans that the teenage tech genius is a real Disney princess.
Let’s talk about why this is a big deal. For one thing, there have been only two black Disney princesses in the 81 years since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That’s counting Kida Nedakh, the princess in the largely forgotten 2001 animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire (voiced by Cree Summer, who played Freddie on A Different World). The more prominent example is Tiana from 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, a member of the official Disney princess canon/merchandising juggernaut. Although she was presented as a hardworking restaurateur with the heavenly voice of Anika Noni Rose, Tiana is transformed into a frog for the majority of the film. Mothers going to The Princess and the Frog hoping their black daughters would finally see a princess who looked like them were instead presented with the adventures of a bizarrely skinny amphibian.
Shuri, on the other hand, is fully herself, all the time. Born to royalty, in a society that sees black women as leaders and warriors, she has limitless self-confidence. And she has earned that confidence by being amazing at everything. This is a girl whose inventions and technological savvy blow Tony Stark out of the water. She designed an ecofriendly high-speed train system for Wakanda, a bulletproof Black Panther suit that can be stored inside a necklace, and medical technology to heal severe wounds overnight. It’s work for the betterment of her people, and work in which she clearly takes joy.
On top of that, she’s the most runway-ready character in Wakanda, rocking urban-casual fashions that would turn heads on the streets of New York City. When she’s in her full warrior mode, she accessorizes with laser-shooting gloves (that she definitely designed) and a headdress made from animal jawbones. This is a princess who knows who she is, and isn’t afraid to show the world.
Not least of all, Shuri has a sharp sense of humor, something that has been notably lacking in the history of Disney royalty (sorry, Sleeping Beauty). Quick with a comeback to undercut her brother, or a sarcastic quip for Martin Freeman’s CIA agent (“Is this Wakanda?” he asks. “No, it’s Kansas,” she replies), she’s a keen and witty observer of the world around her. And anyone who designs a pair of self-fastening shoes as an homage to Back to the Future II understands when it’s time to take herself less seriously.
The best part of all? As readers of the Black Panther comics already know, and the rest of the world is just figuring out, Shuri is next in line to be Black Panther. The book Marvel’s Black Panther: The Art of the Movie includes concept art of Shuri in the Black Panther costume. By the time the sequel arrives, Shuri will likely be both a princess and a superhero. Wonder Woman, watch your back.
And yes, “Disney princess” is an increasingly meaningless moniker, since that royal title is no longer the endgame of all its female heroines. (Remember Moana’s insistence that she wasn’t a princess?) The “official” Disney princess canon hasn’t been updated since 2012, meaning it doesn’t include Shuri, nor does it include Moana, Frozen‘s Anna and Elsa, or Princess Leia. Still, the fairy-tale princess has a deep hold on girls’ collective imagination, thanks in large part to those Disney classics. A princess like Shuri offers young audience members a whole new set of aspirations. She breaks the mold, reassembles the pieces, and uses them to make the world a better place. All hail.
Over the weekend, fans spotted another nod to Shuri’s princess status in her Leia-like hairstyles…
And costume designer Ruth Carter pointed out to Yahoo Entertainment that Shuri wears a cape in her first onscreen appearance, like the true superhero she is.
[Editor’s note: This story was original published Feb. 19, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. PT]