I started writing this piece the day that I went to see Captain Marvel with my Aunt. I’m proud to say this, that it wasn’t with friends or a partner, because my aunt is one of the women in my life that I respect and look up to the most (to any ‘meninists’ reading this – a woman being a role model for a man? How revolutionary!). And funnily enough, that is exactly what this piece is about. Good female role models. Well, that and superhero and comic culture and its lack of representation of certain minorities. Which, thankfully, seems to be changing. Anyway, both my aunt and I thought Captain Marvel was amazing.
In fact, I think it was my favourite Marvel movie in a long time – up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. Black Panther is an important precedent for the discussion I’m going to have – it may not have had the gargantuan 300-million-plus budget of Infinity War or have raked in its obscene $2.048 billion at the box office, but it was a standalone cultural phenomenon in its own right. Finally, peoples of colour, particularly in America, had a superhero that represented them and much of their culture. It was also a brilliantly executed allegory for two opposing means of the black struggle to equity – violence, and aggression, represented by Killmonger, and diplomacy, discussion, and politics, represented by the titular Black Panther/T’Challa. Alongside this, it had a slapping hip hop soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson and curated by Kendrick Lamar (which won it an Academy Award for Best Original Score). Very poor racial representation at awards ceremonies needs a whole multitude of articles on its own, but Black Panther wasn’t a film for judging panels, it was for the people. Now, we get to another film that is similar, except that this film is representing the female, not a racial minority.
The reason Captain Marvel is one of my personal favourites in a long time is that, well, it’s basically the quintessential Marvel movie. Brie Larson is excellent in the lead role of Marvel/Carol Danvers, bringing the right dash of parallel confidence and vulnerability, fierceness – and humour when needed. It got the balance of action, self-referential comedy and character development pretty dang right across the board. The feminist element of the narrative was handled very well, and never appeared preachy – it was subtle, even; something I’ll come back to later. The nineties soundtrack tied into the film’s setting and featuring classics from No Doubt, Nirvana and Salt-N-Pepa, was amazing. It was fun to see a nascent SHIELD, young Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. It was weighed down by an overlong third act, a problem that almost all modern comic book movies seem to be plagued with. However, this was about the only gripe I had with it, and this was negated a little by the fact there wasn’t a city-destroying finale – more reminiscent of films from the early 2000s, like the X-Men franchise or, dare I say it, Raimi’s Spider Mans. The fact that it ended on this smaller scale, too, made it far more personable – the fact that Danvers is fighting her own demons and adversaries at a close scale makes it much more relatable. And relatability is a key point here: this is one of the first times women have seen themselves reflected as a solo superhero up on the silver screen.
Obviously, as a white male author, I can never truly understand the female experience (duh), but I can see it represented in film. There were some typical sexist jeers through the movie, such as when an unnamed male pilot says to Danvers, of flying a military aeroplane, “you know why they call it the cockpit, don’t you?”. Not only did the film highlight, multiple times, the issues a woman would have to deal with daily in a male-dominated profession (there is also a reference to “women weren’t able to fly combat yet,” as the film is set in 1995 and Danvers starts flying in 1989), but also the military’s intrinsic linking with stereotypical maleness and machismo – and the issues with openness to other groups that this entails. The unassailable strength of many a female friendship is shown by Danvers’ relation to her best friend and literal co-pilot, single mother Maria Rambeau. Further, an incredibly simple but poetic image that didn’t stand out to me until later was Larson’s and Jackson’s characters standing side by side, equidistant from the camera, both doing the dishes. Messages of equally shared work and equity, anyone? Jude Law’s character, Yon-Rogg, states multiple times throughout the film that Danvers will have to control her ‘emotions’ if she is to truly master her power, reflecting the archetype of the emotional woman, with Rogg suggesting that these emotions will cloud her judgement. And yet, emotional or not, she masters them anyway; hence negating Rogg’s notion and making it a strength of her character rather than a weakness.
One part that stuck with me the most was when Danvers was told, by a female character in fact, that, “you’re nothing without us” (I won’t say who, because of spoilers). Echoing the possibility that, other women, too, can be complicit in restraining women from progressing, particularly if they come from a traditionalist value set. But the without us part, I think, could be taken in one reading as women being told that they are nothing without men, that they supposedly wouldn’t have gotten to where they are today without them. This made me think of a lyric in Camp Cope’s The Opener:
“You worked so hard, but we were just lucky
To ride those coat-tails into infinity
And all my success has got nothing to do with me.”
Captain Marvel certainly has a similar message, done very cleverly. There doesn’t need to be a densely-worded feminist monologue because the very act of having a female protagonist do things at the same level as a male superhero, with exactly the same formula as a male-helmed comic book flick, is a subversive act in and of itself. Largely, the only thing that has changed from the standardised formula is that she is a woman. The film’s narrative doesn’t need to shout, ‘I can be as capable, if not more so than you, and you don’t need to be afraid of that’, it shows it. I remember a line from media class in high school, viewers want to be shown, not told something. For example, using a low camera angle and looking up at a towering figure is a much more effective characterisation than simply saying “oh, they’re tall.” If Carol Danvers can be shown doing all of what, if not more than, any male superhero can do, what kind of message will this deliver to women, and particularly young girls, who would idolise and hold the character as a role model? We’ve already seen countless wholesome posts along this line on social media. People who for many years haven’t had characters in this particular genre they can identify with can see themselves represented on screen. Of course, there is still a way to go in representing all facets of humanity – we are yet to see a female superhero of colour, or one representing the rainbow community, or one from a lower socio-economic background. This is reminiscent of early Marxist feminism, where these groups were largely ignored. But like all good things this progression takes time, and I have no doubt we’ll see these characters shown one day. This could be used as a very powerful tool – perhaps this method of characterisation could be far more effective in changing some viewer’s mindsets, and hence affect positive social change, than ardent dialogue.
In a property such as The Handmaid’s Tale, which is one of my favourite series of all time (especially the first season), the message is expressed much more explicitly. As such, I sadly feel there is no way ‘meninist’, MRAs, or even many more regular male viewers would be responsive to, or swayed by, Handmaid’s Tale, because of its directness. I feel they would be frightened of the harsh truths it portrays – that these groups are scared of – and that they would immediately ‘shut off’, call it feminist propaganda, and reject its message. Because of the extremity of its message and content, Handmaid’s is in a sense, ‘preaching to the converted’ (which is funny given all its religious referencing). This doesn’t make Handmaid’s any less powerful or valid. But this is where pieces like Captain Marvel come into play. It is far more accessible to a wider audience. I still doubt it will be swaying the attitudes of any hard-line MRA groups, but, crucially, due to its accessibility, it could alter the attitudes of men – particularly young men who are still learning – and are sitting on the fence, in the middle. It can be an educative experience; it could just be a factor in preventing them from developing harmful ideologies. If I get any death threats from those aforementioned groups, come on guys, you’ve got better things to do – if a mere movie is enough for you to express this kind of attitude you need to go to therapy. You could say that my argument is playing into the hands of the Reddit edgelord’s concept that modern film is carefully constructed ‘SJW [Jesus Christ, I hate that term] propaganda’, except that all the characters here have far more depth than mere propaganda vehicles – which they are categorically not. Plus, the point is about the diversity of stories and good role models, not force feeding anyone any particular ideology, something I’m very strongly against. It’s more of a ‘take it or leave it’ approach. Basically, my statement is this: film and screen media could dually be used to give women and girls outstanding role models and representation on screen, and to also teach young men how to be respectful to and look up to the female elements in their life.
This is because film can be an exceptionally powerful tool – it can help change not only individual, but also group social attitudes. And Captain Marvel has already had an effect in a very tangible, real-world way – look no further than the Rotten Tomatoes example, where the website decided to shut down its pre-release review feature. The ABC’s Paul Donoghue wrote a great piece on the matter. As he says, “a lot of people seem to really hate films they have not seen.” The Rotten Tomatoes issue involved its ‘Want to See’ percentage score, where site users can post, pre-release, in anticipation for films. In a move known as review bombing, a huge wave of trolls expressed rabid opinions regarding Captain Marvel. In other news, I really wish we could find another word for trolls because it never truly expresses their level of vitriol and hatred (a discussion for another time). Unfortunately, the ‘WtS’ score can often be directly expressed in a film’s final ‘Audience Score’. It’s something I’ve personally witnessed spreading across a lot of fanbases, not just Marvel, but examples like Star Wars, too – which I’ve loved since childhood. It’s grown on the meme pages, on YouTube, and on forums. Angry reactionaries have purported that Star Wars is now pushing a certain ‘SJW agenda’, and that they’re only casting women and people of colour in correspondence with this, even incorrectly conflating race or gender with poor characterisation or writing. Actress Kelly Marie-Tran, who played Rose Tico, infamously had to delete her Twitter after the verbal spew she incessantly received. Rose was a poorly written and constructed character, but this had absolutely nothing to do with her ethnicity or gender. It’s honestly really sad. Look, we get it, old traditionalist fanboys, young, disillusioned fanboys: the new version of the character doesn’t represent the sexy, disproportionate, male-designed old version, subject to your pubescent fantasies, splayed in a ridiculous pose across the cover of the issue. But sometimes, to appropriately quote Kylo Ren, you have to let the past die. Like a Comicsverse article I’ll reference later flippantly put it, “comics are not just for heterosexual men to get their fix of looking at superhero boobies.” As part of his piece, Donoghue interviewed Dr. Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer from the University of Melbourne. She very cleanly crystallised the issue with this quote,
“Misogynistic trolling disproportionately impacts remakes and reboots of material that some men have decided are sacrosanct, be it because these uber-fans considered the earlier version as seminal in their childhood and don’t want it altered, or because the franchise is one that they deem sacred and untouchable.”
Not only this, but as Rosewarne also states, many of these men “exhibit possessive ownership over [these genres]” to a somewhat unhealthy level. Well, they’ve been convincingly wiped from Rotten Tomatoes for now, but there’s always work to be done.
I’ve held the belief for a while now – I didn’t always, until I learned – that more diverse characters are a necessary move forward for all entertainment industries, otherwise they are at imminent risk of stagnating. This is not merely for the sake of filling a quota or progressive social thinking (I hate the phrase political correctness – a lazy, band-aid term, almost always used negatively, that never encompasses the whole nuance of these problems). More diverse characters mean the telling of more interesting stories. We can see the variety of humanity and life experience shown on screen. If you keep creating the same character over and over again, with the same writing style, and production methods, you’ll end up with what is essentially the same narrative. This is never to say, as some posters are purporting is the goal, that, ‘all white male protagonists are bad’. But surely after so many years, you’d get bored of absorbing those white male protagonist’s narratives? I want to see more female leads, more peoples of colour, more of the LGBTQIA+ community represented, because they offer a new story, a different perspective. Their stories reveal challenges I couldn’t possibly imagine as a cis white male, and hence the opportunity for far more intriguing narrative development.
A more subtle, and slightly more amusing change over time has been the progressive reduction in the height of female superhero’s heels. This ridiculousness probably peaked in 2012, with both Scarlett Johansson’s heeled one-piece zipped halfway down her cleavage – for some unknown reason – and Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises, who fought with somewhat insane literal stilettos (knives for heels). Wonder Woman’s boots still had a slight wedge in 2017, but it was only a couple of inches. Now in Captain Marvel, Larson wears what is basically a flat-soled combat boot (as one of Pelican’s resident fashion editors, I also got very excited about Brie Larson being able to wander around in a Nine Inch Nails shirt, distressed jeans, Doc Martens and a cowgirl belt in a 90s look that is right back on trend currently). As far as the impracticality of superhero fits goes, there’s a surprising amount of literature on the subject. Two excellent articles on the matter, ‘Sexism, Impracticality and the Hopeful Future of Costuming’ by The Artifice’s Sarai Mannolini-Winwood, and ‘How to Change the Problem with Female Superhero Costumes’ from Comicsverse’s Tomi Nabach provide further insight. As per my mention of Black Widow and Catwoman, Nabach talks about how there are many glaringly impractical “fighting outfits that bafflingly include 6-inch heels.” Most of these characters are designed by male proponents, which is why the far more practical armour in Wonder Woman (2017), created by costume designer Lindy Hemming, has been so widely lauded. It opposed the oft-spoken about ‘boob armour’ issue that plagues pretty much every part of pop culture, be it film, games, comics or anime. Those outfits, designed purely as ‘eye candy’ also create a problem with relatability, as Nabach says:
“Thus, when a character is built primarily on the basis of appearance and sex appeal there is little for a modern female audience to emphasise and connect with.”
Which is silly given that in some examples, comic audiences are actually over 50 percent female, which Mannolini-Winwood says is the case with Teen Titans. This total negation of real-world practicality completely blindsides this audience. Yet hopefully things are changing. In 2014, both Batgirl and Spider-Woman got a hugely significant redesign (look up Batgirl’s 2014 threads, they’re great). There are multiple layers, textures, clasps, and armour plates – more reminiscent of the way Hollywood currently creates their comic costumes, look no further than Captain Marvel herself. It is also more suggestive of the way a fighting outfit like this would actually work in the real world because as both pieces of literature mentioned, the typical one-piece spandex leotards are so out of touch with reality that they defy the laws of physics – they are unmakeable. One could argue that this is a shallow discussion reserved exclusively for the geek-sphere, except that I think that’s a superficial viewpoint in and of itself. Superheroes are fast becoming a mainstream piece of cultural iconography, more than they have ever been – their costumes figuring into this hugely – they are more accessible and appear in a large chunk of AAA Hollywood film. It seems character and costume designers have finally realised, ‘oh, maybe it is a bit ridiculous to expect someone to fight in this’. Having said that, props to anyone who can dance or do acrobatics in heels, you are amazing.
Why has it taken this long? Yes, we also had Wonder Woman in 2017, which in my opinion is still the strongest of the DC stable – but still. As an interesting side note, Wonder Woman was created by psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston – the character drew deliberate inspiration from early feminists. Her initially heroic efforts, and famous boots, were later denigrated to her becoming the Justice League’s secretary, likely due to pressure from the publisher. The way I consider it, the truly modern era of superhero film started not with 2008’s smash hit Iron Man, but with X-Men in 2000. That’s still a mighty seventeen-year gap until you get to your first top-billed female actor in Wonder Woman. The early X-Men franchise still had many excellent and diverse female characters (see: Rogue, Halle Berry’s Storm, and Jean Grey). Strangely enough, more so than many comic book movies currently. Why then, and why now? The explosion of the #MeToo movement could have been an influencing factor, but I don’t think that’s the full story. Funnily enough, the largest number of heads to rightly roll from #MeToo seem to be from the entertainment and film industry. I think it’s also a sign an inherently sexist industry, which places ridiculous bodily expectations on both women and men, is undergoing wider social change – albeit slowly. I sincerely hope it’s a sign of acceleration towards a brighter future, and the move towards better role models for all on the big screen. If I happen to have a daughter in years to come, I hope there’s more Reys, Korras, Hermiones, and Carols than ever for her to look up to.
Words by Sam Worley // @driftnumbat