Is ‘Captain Marvel’ Actually the Feminist Film It’s Billed As?

This week the New York Times published yet another op-ed about the dangers of ideological conformity on leading college campuses, because this is the most important free speech issue of our times. (Spoiler: It is not the most important free speech issue of our time.)

Buried in the vague and not especially convincing list of grievances, though, was some prime geekbait. The author, Emma Camp, said that one of her fellow students had had a frustrating classroom conversation about the 2019 MCU film Captain Marvel.

I spoke with Abby Sacks, a progressive fourth-year student. She said she experienced a “pile-on” during a class discussion about sexism in media. She disagreed with her professor, who she said called “Captain Marvel” a feminist film. Ms. Sacks commented that she felt the film emphasized the title character’s physical strength instead of her internal conflict and emotions. She said this seemed to frustrate her professor.

Sacks says her fellow students disagreed with her vehemently, and she felt targeted and singled out.

If this second-hand account is accurate, that seems like a failure on the professor’s part. Because…is Captain Marvel a feminist film? It’s an interesting question! (As many on social media have noted.)

If a feminist film is a film that is engaged with feminism and inspired by feminist discussions about women’s empowerment, then Captain Marvel is pretty clearly a feminist film. The story is about how Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), an alien Kree supremacist, brainwashes Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and suppresses her cosmic energy abilities. She has to reconnect with her close friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose sisterhood and support allows her to recuperate her true self and full power. At the climax of the film, she casually blasts Yon-Rogg into a mountain and tells him, “I have nothing to prove to you.”

Carol is in thrall to patriarchal false consciousness which prevents her from fulfilling her full potential until the female community sets her free to analyze oppressive power structures and knock them down. That’s a straightforward, explicit feminist storyline.

If a feminist film means not “a film that is intentionally feminist” but “a film that is successfully feminist”—then things get a little more complicated.

This is the definition Abby Sacks is using. She thinks that the film is not feminist because it is about physical rather than emotional power. For Sacks, that means it’s not effectively feminist.

Not to further pile on Sacks, but to me, that doesn’t seem like a strong argument. Recognition of women’s physical abilities and potential is a longstanding feminist goal. There’s an extensive history of advocacy for equal recognition and pay for women in sport. Even if you think the movie emphasized physical feats at the expense of emotional development (a reasonable criticism of any superhero film), that wouldn’t necessarily make it unfeminist.

There are, though, aspects of Captain Marvel that arguably undermine its message of empowerment for at least some feminists.  The most obvious perhaps is its militarism. Carol Danvers is a fighter pilot, and the film is unabashedly pro-military. Disney coordinated with the Air Force while creating the film, and there’s some evidence it substantially boosted the enlistment of women fighter pilots.

Many feminists do believe that including women in the military is an important feminist goal. They argue that women should have the same career opportunities as men and that it is sexist stereotyping to consider women less violent or less able to fight.

Captain Marvel
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

There’s also a feminist tradition, though, which links war to patriarchy, and argues that women’s experience outside the military is a resource rather than a deficit. In Virginia Woolf’s antiwar book Three Guineas, she writes “to fight has always been the man's habit, not the woman's,” and builds on that to suggest that warfare doesn’t have to be natural or inevitable. Feminist peace movements have been important at least since World War I. For feminists who believe militarism and feminism are at odds, Captain Marvel isn’t going to look like a very feminist movie.

Similarly, many LGBT fans have been frustrated with Captain Marvel’s deliberate sidestepping and disavowal of queer relationships. The intense friendship between Carol and Monica would absolutely be treated as a source of sexual tension if one of them were a man. But the narrative refuses to consider romantic possibilities, and the directors have gone out of their way to deny them.

Again, this is a longstanding fault line in feminism. The Women’s Movement of the 1970s deliberately excluded lesbians and tried to force them to stay in the closet because heterosexual feminists feared that being associated with queer people would delegitimize the movement.

Marvel in The Eternals and Loki has been willing to show explicitly queer heroes in the last couple of years. But Captain Marvel failed to do so, and its timidity in that regard undermines a narrative that is supposedly about finding your true self and refusing to conform to male patriarchal expectations.

Captain Marvel isn’t just slotted into heterosexuality. She’s slotted into whiteness. Brie Larson is white, obviously. But more than that, she occupies narratively the position of a white savior who swoops in to rescue the beleaguered Skrulls from ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Kree.

As green, shape-shifting lizard people, the Skrulls touch on antisemitic stereotypes, while the narrative of potential genocide nods to many a gentile-savior movie like Schindler’s List. Carol, as an American military hero, becomes the white, gentile savior in question—a warrior who swoops in to save the weak, foreign others.

Carol’s self-actualization is achieved by demonstrating that she is more powerful than marginalized people. That’s a dynamic that sidelines marginalized women within feminism.

If this is a movie about the oppression of Skrulls, why doesn’t it center on a Skrull woman? Or more broadly, if it’s about marginalized people fighting against Nazi-like Kree, why isn’t Maria, a Black woman, the star? Feminist white savior films often leave you feeling like “viewers are watching the wrong main character,” as Hannah Hope Tsai Kim writes of another film that has similar problems.

So, is Captain Marvel feminist? It certainly has many flaws. A corporate cishet militarist white savior feminist film is going to leave a lot of feminists feeling alienated and disappointed. I don’t like the film much myself. But the film’s successes and (many) failures do all seem rooted in recognizably feminist histories and concerns. On those grounds, I’d say it’s a feminist film that reminds viewers that feminism, past and present, is a struggle, and Yon-Rogg isn’t as easily defeated as Captain Marvel would like to make him out to be.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios. 

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.