Superheroes and Gender Roles: Captain Marvel vs. Ant-Man [Spoilers Ahead]

Photo: https://comicbook.com/marvel/2017/05/25/ant-man-captain-marvel-quantum-verse-/

The thing that initially prompted me to write this post is rooted in wondering if the examples of sexism in Captain Marvel were a little too on the nose. An early example of this occurs in a flashback memory of Carol Danvers’s childhood, where after having crashed while racing go-carts (presumably with her brother) she has a tearful argument with her father, wherein she states “you always let him drive”.

It is not explicitly stated but is very heavily implied that her father doesn’t allow her to race like that because she is a girl. Although considering she crashed spectacularly in the preceding cut while someone screams “you need to slow down when you go around the corner!” it could be he just doesn’t let her race because she does stupid and reckless stuff like that. It would be a consistent character trait for Carol, and her daredevil ways could be the point of contention that has estranged her from her parents, without gender being a large component of the conflict. And then of course, it could be both about gender and about general recklessness. But the movie doesn’t explain much more about it.

I admit, I kind of rolled my eyes at it during the film. I mean come on, of course Marvel’s first female-headliner would have this level of heavy-handed sexism in her back story #feminism blah, blah, blah.

But after seeing the movie, and then comparing it to previous Marvel films, I realized something. Literally every instance of blatant sexism which Captain Marvel faces in the movie also occurs in previous movies. It’s just framed differently. You know, like sexism is a bad thing instead of just, a thing. Which is how it comes off in previous movies.

Case in point, a father who patronizingly prevents his daughter from taking risks while allowing a man to head directly into them? Basically the plot of Ant-Man. In a lot of ways, Ant-Man is even worse than what we see in Captain Marvel with her father—as mentioned before, Carol is reckless, and in that flashback, she is still a child. Her father has some justification. Meanwhile Dr. Pym does the same to Hope, only this time she’s a grown woman who is trained and competent and as she points out in the beginning, knows the mark better than anyone else in on the job.

But no—Dr. Pym must protect her. Now I understand that she is his daughter and there is a personal reason he is afraid to put her at risk. But it is still selfish, stupid, and above-all condescending. Worse, he is willing to risk a man with less training and experience. A man who himself recognizes he is there because he is expendable.

So here we have the old trope: women are precious, shielded from both the fallout, but also the payoff of taking risks, and men are expendable, but allowed the opportunity to become the triumphant hero. We can see easily how Captain Marvel herself smashes against this trope—over and over throughout the film we watch her rush headlong into danger, her aim is to be bold—her motto is “higher, further, faster”. This is not a woman who is content to sit by while the men-folk go out and save the day—nor is she too afraid of failure. Probably the biggest grrrrl power moment in the movie is a montage showing her resilience, of her failing, being beat down and knocked over, but always getting up again (#neverthelessshepersisted). And it is because she takes the chance to fail that she is ultimately able to have the opportunity to succeed.

But this subversion doesn’t just end with Captain Marvel herself—in a later scene where Rambeau is deciding whether or not she should join Carol and Fury on their mission to find Mar Vell’s lab considering she has a daughter to take care of, said daughter pipes up and asks her what kind of an example does she think she is setting for her daughter by not taking the opportunity to fly into space to save the day? I saw some criticism about this online that was very typical of the sort of responses women with dangerous jobs often get—how this is a selfish and unreasonable choice. One which prompts me to ask the question, What, do people think that women belong to their children? and perhaps more pertinently Why do people expect mothers to sacrifice goals and opportunities simply because they are mothers? We certainly don’t expect that of men.

Let’s consider Ant-Man again, Dr. Pym sells the highly-risky mission to Scott as something he should do for his daughter. And Cassie is used repeatedly throughout the film as an incentive for Scott to put himself in danger. And not just when she is directly in danger and he has to step in to save her. Why shouldn’t Rambeau also see her daughter as an incentive for engaging in heroics? Why shouldn’t a woman be just as eager to have her child see her as a hero? To be that kind of an example? To be the kind of woman who dares?

But then on the other hand, Scott also faces the sexist end of the stick as well. At the beginning of Ant-Man when he goes to his daughter’s birthday party (which he was not invited to), he is immediately ushered away. The excuse he gets from his ex is that he doesn’t have a job, or an apartment, and he hasn’t paid child support. For one thing, it doesn’t look like she really needs child support, and while his lack of an apartment and/or job is maybe a good reason to keep Cassie from staying with Scott for the weekend, it is really shoddy reasoning to keep him away from her birthday party. Again and again, Scott’s value is reduced to what he can provide, or what his job is—as if he himself, and his physical and emotional presence as a father has no value to his own daughter. This too, is damaging sexism at play.

And it’s on this point that Captain Marvel does something really interesting. I will note here that in Wonder Woman, the last great female-led superhero movie, we get a woman prepared to rush into battle—but the expendable male remains in the form of her love interest, who sacrifices himself heroically. Now, to be fair, Captain Marvel is by far a much lighter movie than Wonder Woman and there is comparatively very little death in the movie, but there is a moment where it almost makes the same choice—and then, remarkably, doesn’t [Warning: Major Spoiler Ahead].

When Talos is shot in front of the wife and child he has just reunited with, I was worried that he would die, and this would turn into an angsty Captain Marvel swearing to avenge him to his grieving family and that his death wouldn’t be in vain, etc.

But he lives! He gets to live! This is great because he is honestly a pretty funny character. But more importantly, we are presented with a male character who is allowed to live for his family, rather than die for them. And at the end of it—Talos remains safe with his family while Captain Marvel shoots off on her own to take on the task of finding his people a new home.

But she doesn’t fly off before having a conversation where she and Fury engage in a moment of platonic yet genuinely warm male-female bonding while they both wash the dishes. This discussion involves mutual respect and a reiteration of the duties each has set for themselves—for Captain Marvel in the greater galaxy and for Fury on Earth. And when I think about it, that is probably the most feminist moment in the movie. A man and a woman together, liking each other, respecting each other, both engaging in a wholly domestic activity while discussing matters of literally galactic importance in which they are both active players. They each have their roles to play—but they are roles which they have set for themselves. And that makes all the difference.

Also, Samuel L. Jackson is legit adorable in this movie, which is not a word I ever thought I would use to describe that man.

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