Notes & Essays

How Captain Marvel Can Make You a Better Feminist Ally

Let Captain Marvel educate you on gender equality.
IMAGE Marvel
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As the very first female-led entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel has been subject to a lot more scrutiny than most of the other filmsscrutiny colored with a feminist tinge. A large portion of the conversations taking place around the movie revolve around the idea that perhaps some of its quality suffered from its “feminist agenda,” with most of those concerns coming from males. And yet, despite all the naysayers, there’s good reason to believe that many men will come out better feminist allies after watching it.

Captain Marvel covers all the usual beats of modern female empowerment in film: a lead whose identity isn’t determined by her relationship with a man; women of diverse ages and ethnicity playing significant roles; commentary on sexual harassment and gender inequality; and men eschewing norms of toxic masculinity, choosing instead to show qualities that used to be stereotypically female in a positive light. There are, however, three key takeaways from the film that aren’t usually discussed in depth, and it’s these points that more people should be talking about:

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(There are very heavy spoilers after this, so make sure you’ve seen the movie before reading on)

IMAGE: Marvel Studios

Women are often asked to suppress themselves

Early on in the movie, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) asks Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) to go sparring with her. He defeats her easily in hand-to-hand combat, telling her that she’s too “emotional” to defeat him. While this sounds a little bit like sage Jedi advice, it’s actually indicative of a problem many women today face.

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There is a strong bias against women on the basis of them being too “emotional,” or “moody,” or “hormonal”—even when they’re not. This is seen as a weakness, and is used to delegitimize a woman’s concerns. Emotions are often taken to be inferior to logic, and women being stereotyped as "emotional" are made out to be illogical. If she is able to display control over her “emotions” in a way that a male-dominated society finds acceptable, only then is she taken seriously.

This goes well beyond notions of “emotionality.” Women are asked to suppress themselves through their words, their clothing, and their behavior; often in ways that men aren’t expected to regulate themselves. To make things worse, when a man goes out of line in his interactions with a woman, the blame is often still on her somehow, for not self-regulating. How many times has a woman been asked what she was wearing when she was assaulted? Why is the blame on her clothing choices, and not on her attacker?

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A lot of guys out there may not be aware that these are considerations women have to take every single time they step out the front door. There is constant pressure for them to fit inside a box meant to keep them safe; they need to withhold themselves so that society doesn’t blame them for what others do. They need to conform to an arbitrary, gender-imbalanced set of standards just so they’ll be taken seriously. They need to be less of themselves in order to be legitimized.

This is not only wrong; it’s exhausting. What makes Captain Marvel such an empowering character is the fact that she never lets it get to her, not even once. She fights with emotion throughout the entire film. She never holds back. When we finally see what this woman can do without anything forcing its limits on her, we witness the MCU’s most powerful hero in action, and it makes us think twice about holding the women in our lives back.

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Mar-Vell’s gender-swap matters, but not in the way you think

In what is likely to be a major point of contention for people familiar with the character, Marvel Studios decided to completely overhaul the character of Mar-Vell (Annette Bening) who, in the comics, is the original Captain Marvel. The film version of Mar-Vell isn’t a decorated male Kree warrior, but a female scientist who sympathizes with Skrull refugees. Given the dramatic changes made to the character, many might come to the conclusion that Mar-Vell’s sex—in relation to the plot and movie as a whole—didn’t matter at all, rendering the gender-swap unnecessary.

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While the gender-swap might indeed be unnecessary, it is important. Female representation in these sorts of films is still woefully lacking, in comparison to males. If a character could be played by either gender, then why not make the choice that favors equal overall representation? There is no harm to be found in keeping Mar-Vell male, but there is so much more to gain with the character being female.

This new version of Mar-Vell gives Carol Danvers a female role model to look up to, much in the way that many women and children have Carol herself. That she is a scientist of mature age sends the message that girls have the option of having a sustainable, long-term career in STEM fields—a message that is incredibly significant since many promising young girls lose interest in pursuing science because STEM careers are usually attributed to men.

Representation matters in ways that aren’t easily apparent. For the longest time, women have been deprived of representation outside of outdated Hollywood stereotypes, and this has created a glass ceiling not just in the entertainment industry, but also virtually everywhere else. If making Mar-Vell female brings that ceiling one tap closer to breaking, it’s a choice worth supporting.

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IMAGE: Disney/Marvel

Women are constantly asked to justify themselves on men’s terms

In their final battle, Yon-Rogg challenges Carol to stop using her powers and take him on mano-a-mano, to prove to him that she can finally beat him. She promptly sends him flying with a photon blast and tells him, “I don’t have to prove anything.”

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This is something that a lot of guys don’t immediately understand: that women don’t need to prove themselves to them. We see it in the way men test gamer girls on their video game credentials; in the way they challenge female comic readers on their knowledge; in the way they dismiss a talented executive as someone who got the job not because of her skills, but because of her ability to flirt with the boss. We’ve gotten so accustomed to media portraying women as supporting characters that we tend to question their abilities as leads.

Men don’t usually suffer through that instinctual belittlement. We’re hardly ever questioned on whether or not we deserve the labels we attribute to ourselves, or those granted to us by others. This creates a subconscious notion that our abilities are the gold standard by which others—meaning women—are measured. If they can’t compete with us in the way we compete with each other, that makes them weak.

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This, of course, is utter bull. Gender doesn’t qualify a person’s skill level; even NBA legend Reggie Miller knows his sister Cheryl is a much better baller than him. Beyond that, there’s no sense in devaluing a woman’s abilities if she is able to achieve things in ways men can’t; asking her to achieve them in a way that utilizes your strengths over hers speaks more of insecurity than fairness. Outright assuming that she isn’t as good as you on something you’re passionate about, in turn, just makes you a jerk.

All three of the above points might not come instinctively to people watching the movie, but understanding them goes a long way toward developing attitudes that contribute to gender equality. At the end of the day, while people can disagree about Captain Marvel’s qualities as a film, there’s no denying the value it brings to a much bigger conversation—and that’s what makes this movie a hero.

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Marco Sumayao
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