Lately there has been a lot of talk about whether a piece of media is feminist or not. There are many different definitions and beliefs about what classifies a film as feminist, but the general consensus is that a feminist film is a political movement that aims to educate viewers about social inequality between men and women (ideally, a feminist film also refrains from sexualizing, demonising, and degrading women). The ever-more popular superhero genre in particular has received a lot of scrutiny over providing accurate representation–strong female characters and people who identify as LGBTQ+. The people in charge of those movies have historically not been very diverse in their representation, but lately, as the demand becomes greater and harder to ignore, they have slowly been doing better. The CW has a wide array of DC superhero shows that feature people of all different identities, and the DCEU released in 2017 a very successful solo-female feminist superhero movie Wonder Woman, and is in the process of preparing a sequel. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, however, is unfortunately a bit slower in its attempts to provide representation. For a long time the Marvel movies featured typically strong white males as the leads with very few powerful women present, and only recently with 2018’s Black Panther have they included significant characters of other races. The TV show Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., to be fair, has had quite a few diverse superheroes and strong women, but Marvel’s television exploits are far less popular than their movies. Their plans for future films promise more LGBTQ+, racial, and gender representation, but for now, their best example is 2019’s Captain Marvel.
Captain Marvel is set in the 90s and follows the Kree warrior Vers as she uncovers the secrets of her people and her past as a human U.S. Air Force pilot named Carol Danvers. It is Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie and really delivers in terms of supporting feminism, showing that a non-realist film can be feminist. Before diving into the story, it is clear from the female filmmakers (Anna Boden), screenwriters (Nicole Perlman, Meg LeFauve), and musical directors (Pinar Toprak) that this superhero film promotes the power of women.
First and foremost, Carol is a female alien warrior, and no one ever questions that fact. She serves with other female warriors and their male teammates respect them completely. The evil Kree warrior Ronan calls Carol a weapon without an ounce of surprise or judgement. As she takes down countless Skrulls, Kree, and enormous spaceships and missiles, no one ever says “she’s powerful, for a woman.” The familiarity among the other aliens is understandable, but even on Earth in the 90s when there was still a long way to go for equality between men and women, she reveals the truth about aliens to Nick Fury and who she is and he never doubts her worth or ability because she is a woman.
It is inspiring to watch Captain Marvel and see Carol accepted as a strong and independent woman by everyone she meets without falling into “weak-women” stereotypes. The one typical attack on her gender–that women are more emotional and therefore less capable–is never even about gender. Yon-Rogg urges Carol to control her emotions, but he insists that that is necessary for any warrior, not specifically women.
Additionally, among the many empowering songs throughout the film, one of the final battles near the end between Carol and her mostly male enemies is accompanied by No Doubt’s “Just A Girl,” a song about Gwen Stefani’s experiences as a woman that men rarely share. This ties in to an earlier scene in the movie when Carol faces a situation many women have unfortunately had to navigate in real life–being told to smile by random strangers. While Carol is trying to figure out her next move on Earth, a man on a motorcycle approaches her and first sarcastically comments on her outfit, then tells her to lighten up, and finally asks, “got a smile for me?” When she ignores him, he calls her a freak. Throughout history and still today women have been told to smile by complete strangers because of the sexist and outdated belief that everything they do should please men, and there is never an easy way to deal with the situation. If the encounter occurs on the street, the man is likely to verbally abuse the woman if she does not comply, and if the the event happens in a work setting, the woman’s job and even her financial security could be threatened if she does not obey. Captain Marvel addresses this societal issue by presenting the situation but instead of getting flustered or worrying about the proper response, Carol ignores the biker and steals his bike. Granted, thievery should not be the response to something like this in real life, but it still shows that Carol does not care what others (men) think of her and promotes the message that other women should not either.
Another common trope among female superheroes (or any female leads in any genre of film) is to dress them in provocative and revealing clothing; Natasha Romanoff wears skin-tight leather suits, Diana Prince’s armor shows off most of her body, Supergirl’s costume sports a skirt instead of pants. Refreshingly, Carol Danvers’ uniform covers every inch of her skin and is entirely about functionality rather than appearance and appeal to the male gaze. Additionally, many superhero movies include a sexy “suit-up” scene that ultimately becomes provocative when it features women, but that scene in Captain Marvel is simply a little girl playing with the different colors on Carol’s suit. This helps reinforce the idea that women are strong, powerful, and valuable for their abilities and brains rather than their looks.
Even before the incident that gave Carol superpowers and turned her into an intergalactic warrior, she was fighting against societal norms and being true to herself. As an Air Force pilot, she had to deal with arrogant men who were perceived as better than her just because of their sex. Throughout her entire life she faced criticism by men, but she never let that stop her. In one of the most powerful moments of the film, we see a montage of Carol falling or being put down by men, but she gets back up every single time. She is pushed down on the beach and gets back up. She falls off her bike and stands back up. She trips when swinging a bat and climbs to her feet. She crashes a go-cart and emerges from the dust as strong as before. She fails a rope course during her military training and is ridiculed by men but she gets back up immediately. Her plane is shot down but she stands ready to fight. With each instance, Carol rises and takes one step closer to becoming a great pilot, fighter, and person. The main theme of the entire movie is defying expectations and deciding for oneself what you can and cannot do. As Carol says at the end to Yon-Rogg, “I have nothing to prove to you.” Carol has nothing to prove to anyone, and neither do any other women. That is a powerful message for a superhero film to promote, especially a feminist one.
The Bechdel Test is often used to evaluate representation within a movie, and Captain Marvel passes it with flying colors. To pass the Bechdel test, the subject must 1) have two named women, who, 2) talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. Captain Marvel includes many conversations between Carol and Maria about each other, their past, and saving the world. Carol talks with Monica about their past, present, and future. Carol talks to Mar-Vell about the war they are fighting. Carol even talks to her ally-turned-enemy Minn-Erva about their relationship. Not every movie that passes the Bechdel Test can still be called feminist, but it is easy to see why Captain Marvel can with the wide range of empowering messages, images, and ideals it promotes.
Finally, the biggest piece of evidence proving that Captain Marvel is a feminist film is its lack of a love interest. There is subtext and debate over the exact nature of the relationship between Carol and her best friend Maria Rambeau, but ultimately the movie never centers on finding someone for Carol to spend her life with. The men in the movie are either Carol’s enemies whom she defeats epically or her allies who look to her for protection and leadership. Carol is never the typical action-film “damsel in distress” that needs rescuing, and in fact she is often the one doing the rescuing. Nearly every previous Marvel movie seemed to insinuate a romantic relationship between Natasha and one of the other heroes, and Wonder Woman told a clear love story between Diana and Steve Trevor, but Captain Marvel never forced in unnecessary romance, which is one of the biggest wins for feminism in film. Captain Marvel is very much a feminist film, and every woman should be proud to see it.
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Captain Marvel. Dir. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. Prod. Kevin Feige. Perf. Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2019. Film.
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