by Dr. Samantha Langsdale
SPOILERS: the following post DOES contain spoilers, so if you prefer not to have various plot points of the film revealed, read no further.
For those of us who enjoy superhero films, the last couple of years have been game changing. True, Hollywood has been producing superheroic blockbusters for decades, but the last two years in particular have given us a lot of firsts. Wonder Woman (2017), Black Panther (2018), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), they all gave us something groundbreaking and put heroes on our screens that we had only caught glimpses of before (if ever). Captain Marvel (2019), starring Brie Larson, is the newest entry in this “Whoa! What was that!?” hall of fame. As Marvel’s first full-length feature with a solo female lead, and as a film that uses an unprecedented level of de-aging technology, Captain Marvel (CM) is definitely novel. But what really struck me, and I imagine, a lot of other women, was how intensely relatable the film was—not only because, for only the second time ever, the main superhero protagonist was a woman, but also because her greatest enemy was one that I too fight on a regular basis. And I’m not talking about Skrulls.
As the film unfolds, we as the audience follow Vers on her journey to complete her first mission as a Kree warrior, and also to truly gain a sense of who she is. Her memories of her early life are patchy, and even though she is confronted by the Supreme Intelligence in a form that she is meant to recognize, Vers has very little sense of her past. It is not until Vers is captured by the Skrulls—the alien race we are led to believe are the “bad guys”—and then crash-lands on Earth that she starts to understand the complexity of her own identity. Vers, it turns out, is not her true name, and while she does indeed have Kree blood running through her veins, Carol Danvers is from Earth. With the help of SHIELD agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, one deceptively cute Flerken (watch out, they bite), and the clan Rambeau, Carol née Vers, discovers more about who she was, how she became who she is, and that her mission to hunt Skrulls is based on a lie. Skrulls, it turns out, are not the prime enemy; rather, they have been colonized by the Kree and are under threat of extinction. So if it isn’t the Skrulls that Carol must fight, then who, or what, is it?
Misogyny. That’s right, I said it. Captain Marvel teaches us that it isn’t the Skrulls we need to be worried about, it’s the misogyny.
For most folks, the meaning of misogyny is fairly straightforward—it is the hatred of women because they are women, right? If that’s the case, then my claim may seem a bit extreme. There isn’t anyone in the film who hates Carol (even Minn-Erva stops at saying she “never liked” Carol), and even if there was, we really don’t have any evidence that that kind of hatred is rooted in Carol’s gender identity. So what in the worlds am I thinking? Well, what if I told you that you’ve got the meaning of misogyny all wrong? What if we thought about it not in terms of a handful of people who are exceptionally hateful, but instead in relation to the ways most people are invested in propping up the patriarchal status quo?
In her recent book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018), philosopher Kate Manne argues that the “naïve conception” of misogyny (i.e. hatred of women as women) fails us on a number of levels: first, it suggests that misogyny is a virtually nonexistent phenomenon which, may seem to make sense to those who believe that gender justice has been fully realized, but for those of us aware of the persistence of vast inequalities, and who experience hostility or exclusion on a regular basis, this suggestion belies reality. Second, if misogyny is believed to be about hatred of women as women, and it is understood as being relatively rare, than it is immensely unhelpful for victims because it becomes “inscrutable” and thus, any claim that something is misogynist becomes “very difficult to justify” (19). Finally, if we continue to insist on this “naïve conception,” those who are accused of misogynist behavior have only to say that they don’t hate women and then point to the women in their lives whom they love or care for. Again, for those of us who have experienced harassment or abuse in ways that we are certain relate to our gender identities, it hardly helps to know that there are others like us in the lives of our abusers. Manne argues that another definition of misogyny is necessary, one that does not lapse into psychological explanations, or that makes the coexistence of care for, and hostility towards, women impossible.
Manne proposes instead that misogyny be understood as “a property of social environments in which women are liable to encounter hostility due to the enforcement and policing of patriarchal norms and expectations”. In other words, misogyny is “a name for whatever hostile force field forms part of the backdrop of [a woman’s] actions, in ways that differentiate her from a male counterpart (with all else being held equal)” (19). This alternative definition ameliorates the difficulties outlined above because “misogyny’s essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature” (20). A person may be enacting misogyny not because they “feel” hatred, but rather because they are upholding what they believe is right, i.e. the patriarchal norms, ideals, and practices that have been privileged by dominant social structures. The conversation then is less about what misogyny is and instead more about what it does. More specifically, Manne outlines the operations of misogyny in the following steps:
Misogyny takes a girl or a woman belonging to a specific social class (of a more or less fully specified kind, based on race, class, age, body type, disability, sexuality, being cis/trans, etc.). It then threatens hostile consequences if she violates or challenges the relevant norms or expectations as a member of this gendered class of persons. These norms include (supposed) entitlements on his part and obligations on hers. She may also be positioned as the type of woman who is representative of those who are not playing their assigned parts properly or are trespassing on his territory (20).
There are a number of things to take note of here: one, we are no longer beholden to a definition that presumes that all misogynist behavior looks the same and instead, this alternative definition allows us to understand misogyny in more intersectional ways. Two, this type of behavior can be performed by anyone who believes that there is a proper “place” for women in patriarchal society and that men are justified in laying claim to disproportionate amounts of power and control. Three, misogyny may be directed at particular women even if they have not specifically behaved in ways that defy “patriarchal law and order” simply because they are perceived to be the type of woman who does not perform her role properly. In short, Manne writes, “sexism [is] the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny [is] the system that polices and enforces its governing norms and expectations” (20).
So, what’s this got to do with Captain Marvel?
The Many Faces of Misogyny
Through the frequent flashbacks Carol experiences in the film, we learn that there were many points in her life where she was told to stay “down girl,” and we see that these directives came from different types of people. The first person, of course, is Carol’s Kree mentor Yon-Rogg (played by Jude Law). Although their relationship seems to be one of mutual respect, and good-natured snark, the interactions between Yon-Rogg and Carol are unquestionably misogynist. In their opening fight scene, Yon-Rogg insists time and time again that Carol must not let anger and emotion be a part of her combat, that she must remain calm and rational at all costs. This kind of psychological policing has a long history in our patriarchal society where it is assumed that to participate in a “man’s world” all emotion must be erased, and further, that if women in particular want to be taken seriously, they must control their anger which is always assumed to be irrational. When Carol asks why she was given the power she has if they expect her not to use it, Yon-Rogg again insists that she must learn to use it right, or, in other words, she must learn to use the power according to what he says is right. Manne reminds us that “misogyny is primarily a property of social systems or environments as a whole, in which women will tend to face hostility of various kinds because they are women in a man’s world (i.e., a patriarchy), who are held to be failing to live up to patriarchal standards” (33). Again, while Yon-Rogg and Carol verbally banter throughout the opening scenes, giving it a more playful feel, Yon-Rogg consistently emphasizes Carol’s failure to live up to (his) Kree standards.
Yon-Rogg also threatens Carol a number of times, a key component of the mechanisms of misogyny according to Manne. As stated above, misogyny “threatens hostile consequences if she violates or challenges the relevant norms or expectations as a member of this gendered class of persons” (20). As Carol continues to fight in her own unique ways, Yon-Rogg warns her that what has been given, can always be taken away, alluding to the Kree technology embedded in Carol’s neck that we are led to believe is the source of her power.
We hear this same threat echoed by the Supreme Intelligence who, in Carol’s visit, takes the form of a woman, Dr. Wendy Lawson (aka Mar-Vell, played by Annette Benning), and who makes the threat when Carol refuses to give up her mission to help the Skrulls. This too is a powerful lesson in recognizing misogyny; it can come in many forms, including in the behavior of some women. As Manne writes, patriarchal ideology “enlists a long list of mechanisms” in service of policing women’s behavior, “including women’s internalization of the relevant social norms, narratives about women’s distinctive proclivities and preferences, and valorizing depictions of the relevant forms of care work as personally rewarding, socially necessary, morally valuable, [etc]” (47). The particularly insidious aspect of these social roles is that they are “supposed to look as natural or freely chosen as possible” such that it can be difficult to distinguish how they prop up patriarchy. Of course the Supreme Intelligence’s adoption of Lawson’s image does not mean that the character Lawson herself was guilty of adhering to patriarchal social norms (in fact we know she absolutely was not!) but instead, what I find important here is the reminder that misogyny—as a system that polices women’s behavior via hostilities and threats—does not always wear a man’s face.
That said, Yon-Rogg also gives himself away (as perpetuating misogyny) at the conclusion of the film. When he finally reaches Maria’s house on Earth, and encounters a person who appears to be Carol, Yon-Rogg follows custom by asking questions only Carol would know the answers to. The Skrull who has shape-shifted to resemble Carol does relatively well until Yon-Rogg asks whose blood was used to give Carol a transfusion in order to keep her alive after an explosion. The Skrull cannot answer and so after shooting him, Yon-Rogg says bitterly, “my blood. It was my blood.” Later, when he is fighting Carol, he reminds her of this fact and again threatens to take away her powers, claiming that she would be nothing without him, or without the Kree. Manne writes that misogyny involves “(supposed) entitlements on his part and obligations on hers,” which in this case, manifests in Yon-Rogg’s implication that Carol owes her allegiance to the Kree and to him, because she was given some of what was his. In other words, Yon-Rogg believes he is entitled to Carol’s obedience.
And of course there are more familiar misogynist faces in the film as well. Flashbacks reveal a fellow Air force cadet who attempts to put Carol in her place by arguing that being a fighter pilot is a “man’s territory” and asking, “you know why they call it a cockpit, don’t you?” In military training scenes, we see Carol clinging to a rope, trying to fling herself forward and all around her, male cadets are laughing and shouting “you’ll never make it.” Standing outside a biker bar, Carol is told to smile by a man who arrives on his motorcycle just moments before. We are also shown a scene from Carol’s childhood where, after she crashes a go-cart, her angry father rushes over, not to ensure her safety, but to chastise her for daring to participate in a boy’s activity that he forbade her to try. A recent Captain Marvel comic develops this paternal anger into physical and emotional abuse, again resonating with Manne’s suggestion that women’s and girls’ behaviors are often policed via violent means.
In all of these examples, women in the audience will have undoubtedly recognized themselves in Carol’s experiences and for so many of us, these parallels made the “stand up” scene all the more powerful. Carol isn’t just getting up after falling down, being knocked down, being thrown out, she’s getting up time and time again after misogyny tells her to stay “down girl.” A meme currently on social media shows a quote from Kelly Sue Deconnick, the writer who is credited with revitalizing and retconning Carol’s story in ways that ameliorate her deeply sexist origins, stating “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up—we say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F— you’.” A better understanding of misogyny, and the ways it constantly shapes women’s lives, makes it easier to understand the kind of people who are implicated in this “you.”
Misogyny Before and After
The lessons CM can teach us about misogyny are not limited to the film itself. In fact, for months leading up to the film’s release, and in the days since, we have learned again and again how very entitled certain folks feel to controlling superhero narratives, box office results, media discourses, and representations of women. Recall, for example, the scandal that erupted upon the debut of the first CM trailer. Rather than focus on the content, or the aesthetics of the fictional world depicted, a disproportionately loud group of fans (largely male) lodged complaints about the unpleasantness of Brie Larson’s appearance, demanding that she “smile more.” A well worn trick of misogyny, men’s persistent suggestion that women should smile is solidly rooted in beliefs that women should, first and foremost, be pleasing to the men around them, and thus, their behavior should always adhere to patriarchal preferences for women’s embodiment. Of course many men still fail to recognize the prevalence of this problem, and so at a recent press conference, a reporter asked Larson if the “smile” scene in the film was a response to this criticism. Larson firmly assured the reporter that the scene was a part of the script far before the fan controversy went viral, “that’s just a depiction of the female experience. That’s just what it’s like,” she stated.
These types of fans also set about creating a campaign to review-bomb the film because of the trailers (which heavily indicated a strong female lead who makes a habit of doing precisely what mean tell her not to), in response to Brie Larson’s critiques of sexist fan culture, and in order to “prove” that female-led films cannot succeed. This kind of reaction is not unprecedented, however. Ghostbusters (2016) was similarly targeted and resulted in weeks of online abuse and harassment of the cast, the worst of which was directed at Leslie Jones. While this may strike some as rather ridiculous, it is important to observe how emphatically misogynist these campaigns are. The (mostly) men who run them and engage in online abuse are demonstrating their entitlement to controlling certain types of films such that the films in question should only be made in their own images and according to their own desires. That women are encroaching on what these men perceive to be their territory is characterized as disruptive, destructive, and entirely unjust, thus resulting in hostility and threats designed to police women’s behavior and to put them back into their relatively marginalized, invisible, or objectified places.
This pattern of misogynist behavior has also manifested in the press coverage of the film. Larson, echoing observations made previously by actresses like Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling, suggested that the press coverage of the film should be done by more than just white men who, like in so many arenas of our culture, are overrepresented in film criticism and media. Moreover, Larson has highlighted that women and men will come to certain films with different perspectives and so will find different aspects meaningful; the call for more diverse reviews therefore is not rooted in a desire to exclude, but rather to be more inclusive. But in a world where certain territories (like film criticism) are assumed to be the sole remit of one gender, Larson’s comments have been treated as threatening and met with vitriol. As popular journalist Melissa Leon has said, “To them, a call for expanded access to opportunities for women and people of color in a space traditionally dominated by white men (like a Marvel film’s press junket) is not only an insult—it amounts to a threat to take away what they consider theirs.” As Manne suggests about the operation of misogyny more generally, Larson’s statements were perceived to be threatening to what men are supposedly entitled to such that even though she did not explicitly say that white men should not cover the film, she was met with hostility as if she had. She became a representative of the type of woman (read: a feminist) who is perceived as desiring to supplant men, and so treated to backlash deemed proportionate to her imagined crime.
Thankfully, Captain Marvel can teach us about more than just misogyny. Carol is a strong, yet complex female character who embraces her vulnerabilities, who loves the women in her life, and who can deliver as powerful a verbal jab as she can a punch. As more and more folks go to see the film, and as scholars and popular writers invest time and thought into analyzing CM as a text, I expect that we will be treated to many more lessons from our Captain. I, for one, can’t wait! Let’s take the feminism higher, further, faster baby!