When Letitia Wright played Shuri in Black Panther, she brought something to our screens that we hadn’t seen before — a hip engineering mastermind who just so happens to be a princess of an indomitable kingdom.
For young women working in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) — and school girls who aspire to enter these fields — Wright’s superhero character achieved overnight hero status. And, rightfully so.
But, Wright isn’t about to let her character’s impact fade away anytime soon. She’s working with young female engineers who are building technology that will shape our future.
“I got a lot of messages, especially from young women, who were so happy to see themselves on screen, they were so happy to see someone making science and technology cool,” Wright tells Mashable. Shuri’s draw, Wright feels, is just how down-to-earth and relatable her character is. She’s super smart, yes, but she’s hip and cool, too.
“Shuri is appealing and inspiring to so many women around the world because she’s just relatable, she’s like, a princess but everything about her is ‘girl next door,’” Wright says. “So many young girls saw themselves like, that’s me, that’s how I pick on my brother, that’s how I think about things, that’s how I get excited about creating.”
In the UK, only 23 percent of the STEM workforce is female. Things are changing, thankfully. Per the Wise campaign, more women than ever before are working in STEM. In 2017, 61,430 more women worked in STEM than in 2016. But, an absence of female role models is something that’s been cited as a reason for this gender imbalance in this field.
After Black Panther came out, Wright says she received a “flood-load” of messages from girls saying: “hey that’s me, I feel cool again.” But, these messages were surprising to Wright, who responded saying: “What do you mean you feel cool again?”
“When you’re a kid and you’re doing so well in these subjects, sometimes you can be called a nerd,” she says. Wright says that the meaning of the word “nerd” has evolved since she was at school. “Back then, when I was growing up, being a nerd was not a cool thing, and so many people felt isolated just because they like science, just because they were acing their maths exams or homework, they were looked down upon.”
But, through her role in Black Panther, Wright has sent a clear message to young women: Being a nerd is cool. Being a woman in STEM? Even cooler.
“Now that you have a character and so many other girls are doing it too, you have a character that’s so well rounded and so relatable, that those girls that don’t feel isolated anymore,” says Wright. “This person is sticking up for me, this person is saying, ‘hey I am cool.’”
Wright has, in turn, been inspired by the young women she’s represented on-screen. That’s why she’s supporting Shell’s Eco-marathon, an event which will see bright young engineers battle it out in an engineering challenge to produce an energy-efficient car.
During this project, Wright met four female engineering students from diverse backgrounds who she describes as “the most amazing group of people I’ve met so far.” “They made my responsibility of playing Shuri even more real,” says Wright. “They’re really motivated to make our world better and I would not be surprised if they created the next thing that moves us forward in terms of technology.”
Wright is keen to continue flying the STEM flag in future acting roles. She believes that on-screen representation is vital in showing young women that entering the STEM field is achievable and accessible. “The more that we see them, the more it’s embedded in our society, the more that it becomes normal,” she says.
“It’ll be so fresh to hear a young kid be like, ‘oh mum I’m gonna be a scientist,’ and it’s not like, ‘woah, oh my god, how are you gonna do this? Where do we find the funding. Are you that smart?’
She wants young women who aspire to work in the STEM field to be told “you can do it because we’ve seen it so many times, and it’s embedded in our society, and it’s embedded in us that it is possible to go ahead and try that.”
She doesn’t want young women in STEM to feel isolated any longer. Most of all, she wants them to succeed.
“We can have another Steve Jobs, but a female one,” she says.
Long may Shuri reign.