Hair’s To You: The Idie Okonkwo Story Marvel Won’t Tell Us

By Guest Contributor Cheryl Lynn Eaton, cross-posted from Digital Femme

Straight, curly, relaxed, or natural—it really shouldn’t matter how you wear your hair. And yet it does. Simply put, when one particular type of hair (kinky, or tightly coiled) is repeatedly demonized in the media, those who alter their appearance to mask that type are going to be scrutinized. Does she hate herself? Is she trying to pass as something that she is not?

For those happy and well-adjusted black women who have long since come to terms with negative media portrayals and still choose to wear relaxers or press their hair, these questions are infuriating. Can’t one simply desire a different look? After all, it is rare to encounter a white woman who has lightened her hair subsequently accused of despising her ethnic background. It’s just hair. I still press my hair occasionally, and any poor soul who had the audacity to question me about it would need at least a full day of mental recuperation from the verbal assault that would ensue.

Over in Marvel’s Wolverine and the X-Men, resident ingénue Idie Okonkwo has changed her hairstyle from a large, black afro to an equally cute straight, brown pixie cut. Normally, for a well-adjusted black teen who loved herself, such a change would not draw any attention. Nor should it.

However, Idie is not normal.

She is broken and emotionally scarred. She has been shown to loathe her mutancy, an aspect of herself that is demonized in the media and in the parochial area where she grew up. If she has been shown to listen wholeheartedly when the world tells her she is a “monster,” would she not listen to the world telling her she is “ugly” as well? It is not farfetched that she would internalize negative comments regarding kinky hair.

In addition, her change in appearance occurred on the heels of her receiving her first doll from Wolverine, who quite heartbreakingly and unknowingly merely reinforced traditional notions of what is “normal” and emphasized how “different” Idie is physically. It would have made for a fabulous scene—had it been later touched upon by Wolverine or other characters within the franchise.

It hasn’t been — and it is extremely frustrating to me to see a writer leave what could be such meaty content on the table. That no other character is willing to address what is a glaring problem with this child in regards to her mutancy and her appearance is difficult to accept. These are missing scenes from Idie’s life, and Marvel has chosen to dance around these lost stories in the gutters, while I want nothing more than to read them.

I hope these avenues are being ignored simply because the writer wants to tackle different topics and not because the writer is wary of handling themes involving race and gender. No subject should be off-limits to a writer simply because of the circumstances of his or her birth. And race and gender? Those are human topics that involve us all.

How interesting would it be if Quentin Quire took it upon himself to telepathically “fix” Idie — only to encounter an Idie as militant and arrogant as he? And should he be reprimanded by Wolverine?Well, at least someone cared enough about Idie to do something. It would make for a powerful, and humorous, set of scenes. And it would also allow for Idie’s mental growth, acceptance, and adoration of herself, from her straight pixie cut to the strands of her X gene.

Here’s to black love for 2012’s Black Future Month—not just for each other, but for ourselves.

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  • Sugabelly

    This character is also immensely problematic for the cultural issues that Americans might not realise.

    First of all, her name is IDIE OKONKWO. Any Nigerian will immediately recognize the problem here. Idie is Edo while Okonkwo is Igbo and each is completely different from the other.

    Worse, she is from Oyo in DELTA stare – An absolute IMPOSSIBILITY – Oyo is an ancient Yoruba town in Ibadan while Delta is a combination of Igbo and Ijaw territory.

    Even worse she seems to be represented as OYA the Yoruba storm goddess. Having a character that is clearly Edo and Igbo portray or manifest the powers of the YORUBA goddess is not only insulting, exclusionary and hurtful to Yorubas but it also shows that Marvel Comics thinks so little of Nigerians that they can’t even be bothered to do their research properly and think they can just grab what they want from our cultures and just jumble themup in a diseepectful manner.

    I mean if she’s Igbo then make her Agbala or Amadioha (the storm god) but calling her Oya is ridiculous on unbelievable levels.

    Maybe like many American companies Marvels think Africans are too poor and unimportant to be looked upon as consumers whose reactions need to be taken into account, but nothing could be further from the truth

    • Anonymous

      Exactly I noticed that too. Nigeria alone is so complex throwing any old names and towns and religion together is not going to go unnoticed by Nigerians. 

    • Avy Caplan (Shahana Style)

      Thank you for that lesson. I didn’t know any of this, and am now officially interested in Nigerian deities. 

      I can’t say I agree with this: “…
      Marvels think Africans are too poor and unimportant to be looked upon as consumers whose reactions need to be taken into account…” I think it was a result of lazy research, but not deliberate oversight. At least that’s what I’m hoping. 

      • Sugabelly

        The various Nigerian ethnicities have very different cultures and religions and of course different gods. I’m Igbo, which is a majority ethnicity from the south and there are some similarities between my culture and Yoruba culture which is another majority ethnicity from the south. Americans will be more familiar with because Brazilians practise Candomble which is a Yoruba derived religion.

        Anyway, we’ve got amazing pantheons of gods with lots of legends and stories and mythology surrounding each one and their interactions with humans and so on.

        Some of the most important Igbo gods are Ani ( the earth goddess, second most powerful only after Chukwu the supreme god), Idemili – the water goddess (controls all bodies of water and her form is a mermaid – speaking of which, mermaids are part of Igbo mythology for thousands of yeara but media always portrays mermaids as white)

  • *diana

    That’s a possible interpretation, but it seems a bit of a stretch to assume that it’s the only one. If the writer never clearly explicates how Idie’s race interacts with her self-image, it’s equally possible that it’s never crossed his mind. And even if he is somehow trying to tell that story without ever mentioning it in the text, we can still ask, why? Why is it better to tell a story about Wolverine’s incompetence, than about how Idie feels about some of the other ways in which she is different? 

     Still, Wolverine’s not the only person who doesn’t know what to say when Idie blurts out her self-loathing. Which, now that you’ve brought it up, doesn’t necessarily make sense. What are those mutant havens for, if not to teach kids like that how to deal with being themselves? Storm the only other visibly Black female characterCecilia Reyes. Wears her hair natural *and* would have met Idie on Utopia.

  • Frank David Green

    I should add, that in a recent issue, we were allowed to see a glimpse of an adult version of the students in which Idie seems to have conquered her self-loathing and accepted her identity as well as her natural hair. However, this was only a glimpse of a possible future. 

  • *diana

    The “it’s just hair” defense is always a little disingenuous to me. We’re all here talking about ‘just skin’, i guess that’s a waste of time also? Yes, accusing people of self-hate and shaming them for their grooming choices is always going to be a dick move. But given the horrifying things white people still think/say about natural hair, and given that the media is full of affirmation for white ladies’ hair that doesn’t exist for all black ladies, I feel like it should be okay to talk (without shaming, or grilling total strangers) about WHY a 14 year old would think she looks prettier that way.

    • Anonymous

       honestly, when I wear my hair straight there is more mention that I seem more asian. rarely do I ever hear the black, white girl thing. but yeah, idk i’m going to say hair is an accessory unlike skin. it’s like painting your nails. my korean gf used to chemically make her hair nappy sophomore year, yeah it freaked people (of all races) out at first cause it wasn’t ‘normal’ but then people told her it fit her face and that it’s cute. Hair just doesn’t take on the same weight that skin does. Also because there are also blacks with naturally loser textures. I have brownskinned and even dark skinned friends and acquaintances with naturally, lose curls or waves, hair that took on the ‘hispanic’ effect far more than black that looked almost naturally straigt when flat ironed. which would then complicate the argument that dark skinned women wearing straight textures is exactly self hating (based on race) because women of similar complexions exist with natural occurrences of the texture.

      That’s like saying wearing certain eyeliner trends makes you self hating. the white bottom liner to make eyes look larger or the cat eye to give an almond shape.
      Whatever the case, all women are pretty much taught to want to change SOMETHING physical and most women chose avenues like hair and nails because they’re flexible and can be reverted back to the old in shorter periods of time.

      I’ve been natural for 2-3 years but  every now and then I get it straighted or add pieces and units just to switch it up and have a little surprise and twist in my looks.

      While I admit some women still have a complex about looking ‘ too black’ or associating natural hair with poverty and all that is unfavorable. Some women just see hair and makeup and nails as like.. costumes and dress up. I like to look at drag queens and see their interpretations of female glamour and ideals are and it has less to do with texture and more to do with drama. lots of  DQs wear afro wigs Like raven or manila luzon or even gender benders like the whole gang of club kids  from the 90s, in glam …and Ru Paul has been doing his blonde straight get up since the dawn of humanity.. lol

      • *diana

        While I admit some women still have a complex about looking ‘ too black’ or associating natural hair with poverty and all that is unfavorable. Some women just see hair and makeup and nails as like.. costumes and dress up. 

        I agree with this. What I’m asking is, why can’t we talk about the ‘some’ (and they’re really not so rare, I’m related to one) without it being assumed (as seems to be happening right here) that one is coming from a place of wanting of accuse every single person who has ever straightened their hair, of self-hate. 

        There must be some room for a non-shaming, non-defensive conversation? Just like we can talk about how the media influences some people to want to be skinny, or how societal pressures play a role in women removing body hair. I don’t object to people straightening their hair, I’m just confused by wanting to pretend that it happens in a context-free vacuum.

        Also I am not sure tattoo artists and tanning salon techs would agree that skin is not an accessory. And some folks of Asian descent use eyeliner to camoflauge an eye shape that differs from a white person’s eye shape, so I can’t say I’m buying that comparison either.  (To be super clear this time, I am not saying they all hate themselves. I am saying that not all – very few – beauty choices happen without social influence. Sometimes those influences have race-related origins.)

        • Anonymous

          I completely agree with you. I guess my defensiveness came out of my initial response to ‘thinks she looks prettier that way’
          Every time I take a break from natural hair I hear .. but why don’t you like your natural hair? (as if they don’t knowI shaved my head bald (right before hs prom mind you)to stop the pressure of relaxed hair.

          And also the discussion that needs to be had every time a POC makes an aesthetic change. It’s well meaning to consider that this may come from idealized european beauty standards and to make sure it’s known that other options are just as pretty, but then it  also makes it increasingly hard to produce something that doesn’t come off as erasure or belittlement .


  • Maxine N.

    I totally get this post. I’m pretty sure the artist was thinking “oh, I’ll just give her a different look for this issue”, but for me, it felt more significant. It’s kind of sad that black hair must be fraught with so many issues but that’s reality, and it would be nice if there was some kind of nod to this struggle (along with Idie’s many other struggles with accepting herself) in the comics. 

    • *diana

      Yeah. Similarly the white doll was probably just a colourist in a hurry used  to dolls being white, but it made that scene *so* much sadder for me.

  • Keith

    Kind of like Star trek. Even in the 22 and 23rd century black women still have to deal with the social stigma of having naturally kinky, or tightly coiled hair, yet white men have no issues with going bald, although I am pretty sure they have a cure for baldness by then. That’s privilege for you.

  • Marge

    Quentin “fixing” Idie would be telepathic rape.   As for her changing her hair, her changing her hair could just be a teenage whim not black self-loathing.

    • Anonymous


    • Avy Caplan (Shahana Style)

      I wish I could “like” this simple but perfect comment twice. When I was a teen, my hair was natural and often pressed because I just loved versatility. It was also purple, blood red, auburn, green, and served no socio-political purpose. It was just fun and to me it was always “just hair.”