This weekend my family I watched the latest iteration in the Marvel universe, Captain Marvel. I was curious to see how my eleven-year-old daughter felt about this new female lead. I hadn’t let her watch Wonder Woman because I felt Wonder Woman was a character written more for the pleasure of men rather than the empowerment of women. You can read my full discussion of that film here in relation to Black Panther.
I was hoping for something more from Captain Marvel.
I have been following with interest the chatter around this film from both sides of the divide. On one side naysayers of the film and its depiction of women as powerful and independent have, like the reboot of Ghostbusters before it, tried to harpoon this film because of its female lead. Ridiculous, I know. To the point that the movie site Rotten Tomatoes has had to take action against trolling and negative reviews before the film was even released. (Link to article here.)
On the other side, the star of Captain Marvel, Brie Larson has proudly spruiked the films feminist credentials. An article on womenintheworld.com outlines Larson’s discussion around the film as a “meditation on intersectional feminism.” This one really interested me. The Cliff note version is that intersectional feminism explores the way that different combinations—or intersections—of power act upon people’s lives. In other words, an individual’s level of acceptance or discrimination, their access to education or opportunities in career and social status are shaped by a complex intersection of gender, class, sexuality, race, education, age, political affiliations and language. Therefore, examining feminism through intersectionality accounts for not just gender, but other mechanisms through which people are discriminated or oppressed.
In particular, intersectional feminism is a back-lash against white feminism, whereby educated and wealthy white feminists are unable to see themselves as more privileged than other groups of women.
So, when I read that Brie Larson had called this film a meditation on intersectional feminism, I was skeptical.
Okay, context provided.
This is a lot of baggage to take into a film, let alone a Marvel film about superheroes that—let’s face it—is escapism at its best. I tried hard to enjoy the experience of the film for its visual aspects, its humour and its role in the larger Marvel landscape. Also, as a child of the 90’s I was excited about reminiscing over the soundtrack (A Guardian’s of the Galaxy for the grunge brigade.) More than anything I wanted to see something different in terms of how a female superhero is represented on-screen.
The first third of the film was slow. Larson barely spoke. She stomped around, almost robotically, looking puzzled and lost as she followed her mission and tried to piece together her past. To my delight, however, she stomped around in flat shoes and the same suit as the men from her planet. Win number one.
The soundtrack was heavily skewed to iconic female songs of the 90’s. Win number two.
The digitally youthified (is that a word?) Samuel L. Jackson provided excellent comic relief as the sidekick to Larson’s endearing hero. Win number three. (*note: the mouthy, African-American sidekick is an insidious stereotype = intersectional fail.)
Where the film really took off is the unveiling of the
backstory. Yes, there was a montage. Yes, she fell down and got back up again.
But this montage showed the young Captain Marvel, not fighting against her own
willpower, or her own doubts, but against a society and culture that tells
little girls that they are “too emotional”, too delicate and too weak. Win
At times the pro-feminist rhetoric was like a sledgehammer, but I felt my daughter physically respond to the power and positivity that this film engendered, almost as though she were seeing something novel. Perhaps we need a sledgehammer until the message becomes as natural for girls as it is for boys.
Win number five? No love story. This was a film in which the female protagonist (unlike Wonder Woman) was compassionate, caring, ethical, supportive of other women AND had agency without romance being a major plot line. She didn’t have to sacrifice herself for love. She didn’t need to fall in love to find her power. She owned it all on her own.
Was this the best movie I’ve ever seen? Not by a long way. It was pretty, it was funny, Ben Mendelsohn was awesome, it was fun. Was it intersectional? Maybe. The film addressed refugees, sexism, discrimination and social/cultural expectations. Was it a step in the right direction? Absolutely. My daughter walked out beaming and I, for once, wasn’t cringing at the subliminal messages she was being sent. This added to what Black Panther started and I’m excited to see what the women of Marvel do in the upcoming Avenger’s film.
This week I’m in Sydney for the Feminist Writer’s Festival and I had planned to repost an older blog post that pretty no one read. It’s lazy, but practical in the midst of an incredibly busy and blustery week. However, last night as I flew over from Perth I watched The Incredibles 2 and was so taken with this lovely little film that I changed my mind and decided to write about it.
Confession: Life is tough at the moment. I’m in The Queen Victoria building, waiting for my coffee to arrive. I slept in until 9am. Seriously, 9am? And am a free agent until six when the first lecture of the festival starts. Pity me.
The Incredibles 2.
The first Incredibles movie is one of my favourites. Anyone with small people in their lives will know what it is like to have to continuously watch the same trite, vacuous and irritating animated films on repeated loop for say… ten years? The Incredibles was one that I got into. It’s take on life after superdom. That is, life after the romance, the adventure, the thrill of the chase. Married life. Family life. How do we reconcile our young, beautiful former selves with this ragged person just trying to hang on. This, all mixed in with a super cute super-hero storyline.
The latest iteration of The Incredibles somehow does it better again. This time we follow the rebooted career of Elastogirl (The mother, wife and carer of the Incredibles family). The husband and wife team reverse roles and while there’s nothing new in that plot-line it is handled so beautifully and poignantly that I almost forgot I was watching a kids’ film. The film begins with the family saving the city from “The Underminer” (where the first film ended). When the action scene ends, the family is arrested. Superheros are still illegal. The insurance won’t cover the damage of their intervention. Now homeless and unemployed the family is destitute. This is when Elastogirl is offered an opportunity to raise the image of superheros through a suit-cam and PR campaign. Like the first film, the superhero plot is an absolute aside to the relationships and identities this film is exploring.
It is overwhelmingly exciting that the protagonist of a kids’ superhero movie is a middle-aged mother-of-three who is trying to recapture her own sense of self as autonomous and important while balancing her need to care for her family. Layered over this is the equally amusing but touching narrative of Mr Incredible. He too struggles to give up his past identity in order to do maths homework, care for a baby and steer his teenage daughter through adolescence. COupled with this is his own identity crisis in which he must manage his ego and expectations as he is outshone by his previously second-fiddle wife. While the film draws on familiar jokes about a father’s inability to cope in the home it swiftly dispels the rather insulting notion that it can’t be done. Mr Incredible adapts, learns and copes in order to give Elastogirl the space and the time she needs to thrive outside the home.
This film is funny, beautifully made, and full of pop-culture references. It engages with the social and political sphere in its ongoing storyline about doing what it right versus what is legal and the way that governments and legislation can lose sight of people.
Why do I think this film is important?
This film is about family. It is about the relationships that make us who we are. It doesn’t valorise youth and beauty. Nor does it dismiss its young characters as incapable or reliant. Rather, The Incredibles 2 is a film I want my children to see because it shows a family working together to navigate life and reminds us that every member has value, both within the family and as a member of the larger community.
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Okay, so I might have missed the wagon on this one, but as I sat in the theatre with my two mesmerised children watching “Black Panther”, I couldn’t help but feel validated about my earlier dark and angry feelings towards “Wonder Woman” (both as a film and as a ridiculous icon).
Let me start with her, the object of sexual fantasy for so many men, through their awkward youths and continuing long into adulthood. Let’s be honest, she is little more than a wet-dream made flesh. When the world proclaimed that this latest incarnation was a heroine for women—a blockbuster character who was finally made for women by women—I eagerly joined the throng at my local cinema and strapped myself in.
Before I begin berating Wonder Woman herself let me first acknowledge the incredible presence (albeit short-lived) of the most spectacular and kick-ass, Robyn Wright. SHE was a wonder woman. Sexy. Strong. Gritty and grisly, covered in scars. My heart beat faster with joy and recognition and delight while she was on the screen. But like I said, it was short-lived.
Instead we got the same-old/same-old metal corset clad, wide-eyed, pouty-lipped and infuriatingly virginal depiction of Wonder Woman herself that made me want to scream at the screen before tracking down all those women who had tricked me into thinking that this film was in ANY WAY new. But that’s the trope! I hear you cry. Yeah. It is. It’s also the problem.
Many people disagree with me. I get it. That’s okay. When it isn’t okay, is when some people (mostly men I’ll admit) make me feel as though my frustration with this film has more to do with my own insecurity and jealousy of Gal Gadot’s exquisite beauty. Because what am I but a middle-aged, frumpy (at times), mother with bad skin? But isn’t that the problem? That a movie about a female superhero reminds me constantly of how I don’t live up to the fantasy? It didn’t empower me. I didn’t want my daughter to see it.
Phew! That’s said now, and I feel all the better for it.
So why did I come away from “Black Panther” feeling the weightlessness, delight, and sense of liberation that others recorded gleaning from “Wonder Woman”. The women in “Black Panther” were no less beautiful that Wonder Woman, much more attractive in my opinion. They were sexy, yes. They were side-characters. So how did this film produce such a vastly different experience?
One: They wear clothes.
Two: They don’t pout. They are in charge of their sexuality and unapologetic about it.
Three: They fight against (at times) the men they love, choosing honour and nationhood over their personal relationships.
Four: They are smart.
Five: Don’t get me started on the fight scenes.
Six: They literally save the day.
These women were strong, athletic, sexy, intelligent, principled and EQUAL.
THESE were the female characters I wanted to show my daughter. Not Wonder Woman. Ultimately I stopped feeling as though I had to apologise for not liking “Wonder Woman”, for being angry about it. Because great, inspiring and kick-ass women can exist on the screen.