Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

Captain Marvel: Diversity in the Marvel Universe

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 number four.

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.

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

Beyond Superheros: Why You Must Watch “The Incredibles 2”

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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Standing Up to Fear: Why Losing in Competition Can Help Others

Standing Up to Fear: Why Losing in Competition Can Help Others

Over the school holiday break my family and I, along with a large contingent of people from my taekwon-do club made the trek to Sydney to compete in the 7th ITF Taekwon-Do World Cup. I was a late entry (thanks to recent surgery) and so my preparation for this event was far from ideal. The reality was, however, that the chances of this massive event coming so close to home any time soon is remote, so for better or worse, it was competition time. The competition was a massive success for our club and it was a privilege to part of such an awesome team.

Just a little back-story:

As a young martial artist, I didn’t compete. It wasn’t part of our club culture. In fact, it wasn’t permitted. I entered my first TKD competition when I was thirty-one, after a six-year break from training, and less than a year after having had my second baby. I got hurt—no surprises there.

Since then I have entered the odd competition, most of which were club-based. They made me so nervous that I finally decided that I simply didn’t have the temperament for competition. Besides, I was overweight and over-the-hill. It was better to leave the competitive stuff to the young ones.

Back to the World Cup:

After four months off for surgery, I had a mere 3-4 weeks to prepare for this competition and at a reduced intensity, I stood up in front of a thousand competitors and gave it a crack. The results (personally) were as good as were to be expected. I lost my first round of patterns, I lost my pre-arranged (choreographed fight, like in the movies) and I failed to complete any of my board breaks. Bummer.

There were many positives, however: I remembered my pattern and while it wasn’t the best I have ever done I didn’t let my extreme anxiety completely overwhelm me; the pre-arranged was pretty good and pretty fun; my power-breaking was by no means a disgrace. Of all the women that entered across all division only three or four made their breaks. Mine attempts came close and I didn’t injure myself—so I’m counting that as a win. I also got to coach many of my fellow competitors, the highlight of which was being in the coaches chair when my husband smashed his special technique competition to take gold (jumping really high and kicking a target).

At key moments across the tournament I asked myself the question “Why?” Why do I put myself in stressful situations for which I am hopelessly under-prepared, and leading to an inevitable sense of self-disappointment? There are a few reasons:

1: I’m an idiot.

2: My instructor is very persuasive.

3: I am constantly banging on that older women aren’t irrelevant and should put themselves out there more often.

4: To encourage other female members of my club (of all ages) that they should get up and try even if they’re scared. I’m proud to say that our team was almost an even split of female:male competitors.

5: I’m an idiot who doesn’t like to give in.

The highlight of the tournament for me came, however, at the after party.

Imagine this: hundreds of young, fit, competitive athletes who have been training for many months and have travelled from all over the world are finally let off the leash. That’s right, by nine pm the little pub where the function was being held was transformed into a shirts-off, dance-battle mosh-pit as everyone let off their pent-up steam.

As I stood having a few drinks with my friends, a lovely lady who was the ring coordinator for one of the rings I had competed in came up and said hello. She told me that she had enjoyed watching my pre-arranged sparring and that it was exciting to see women actually competing. She didn’t like competing, she said, because she was never sure if she would have an opponent or if her opponent would be twice her size.

And suddenly my disappointment in my own performance didn’t matter.

I had achieved something important and tangible.

 

P.S. Apparently we are going to compete in the next World Cup: Slovenia 2020 here we come.

 

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Great Feminist Fiction: N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

Great Feminist Fiction: N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy

N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy is nothing short of incredible. Often fantasy fiction is written of as “genre fiction” which is code for a good story but essentially time-filling, superficial fluff. In other words, blockbuster material but nothing that is going to change the world. That honour is given to dark, moody, emotional dramas and often books that take two or three readings to really nail down. Given that the bulk of literature consumed is genre fiction this dismissive attitude from some writers, readers and critics of literary fiction must be wrong at least some of the time.

Fantasy fiction has come a long way since I was reading the same formulaic plot of teenage magician, dragons, mages, and journeys through deep, dark forests over and over again when I was a teenager. So burned was I by the generic template of fantasy fiction that I stopped reading it entirely for over twenty years. Then my hairdresser (seriously, I get book tips from my hairdresser) put me on to a few incredible authors and I’m back into a full-blown addiction. Science fiction is still my preference, but there are some serious players in the world of fantasy fiction.

N. K. Jemisin is one of them. Unsurprisingly all three books in the Broken Earth Trilogy won the Hugo award, with the final book also winning this year’s Nebula Award and Locus Award for Best Fantasy. These are a series of books that I would call literary fantasy fiction. Why? The prose is superb. The world-building immaculate. The magic system is new, imaginative and explored to its fullest extent. The novels are narrated in third and second person point of view—no mean feat. The protagonist is a middle-aged mother. Whoa. I know. How the *$#% did someone manage to make a middle-aged mother not only the heroine but portray her as tough, with emotional depth, and physically tangible without boring us? (Maybe this touches a nerve).

The strength of Jemisin’s narrative lies precisely in her choice of protagonist. There is no shortage of powerful male characters through which this story could easily have been told, but in choosing a female lead the personal and the political become indistinguishable. Her identity as a mother is inseparable from that of a community member, a “Raga”, or the potential saviour of the world. Jemisin balances the tension between the multifaceted identities of her protagonist in a way that is both heartbreaking and believable. Women, their bodies, their lives, their choices are expressed with nuance and sensitivity and no one identity is prioritised over the other.

These books are ultimately about the myriad of relationships that make up who we are: self, community, familial, maternal, global and environmental.

*N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy:

1: The Fifth Season

2: The Obelisk Gate

3: The Stone Sky

 

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“Girls Shouldn’t Play Soccer”: Why the Narratives Boys Tell Need to Change

“Girls Shouldn’t Play Soccer”: Why the Narratives Boys Tell Need to Change

We’ve all seen the leaf twirlers or cloud-gazers at kid’s sports. Their parent’s despair on the sidelines, hands clenched in hair, faces contorted in disbelief as the ball sails past their whimsical child who, lost in their own little world, is enjoying the outdoors and the sunshine (half their luck). Just this weekend, the coach of my son’s under 9s team had to remind one of his players to “stop looking at the puddle and pay attention to the game,” and don’t get me started on “the floss” as an on-pitch move. That’s not my daughter though. She’s been playing soccer since she was five and has always been one of those kids who takes sport seriously. She gets in the centre of the action. What she sometimes lacks in technical skill she makes up in sheer tenacity and that’s a valuable attribute in a team member. Skills can be taught, bravery is harder to come by.

Sadly, however, she’s never been able to find a team in which she truly fits. For three seasons she had been the only girl in her team, and while I wouldn’t say she was bullied in an overt way, she was certainly excluded from the camaraderie, fun, and friendship which should come with being part of a team. The sense of belonging and inclusion inherent in the shared experience of training, winning, and losing together just wasn’t there.

Come Sunday mornings she’d work hard to get herself into a good field position. She’d read the play, see her team mate making a run up the outside and she’d run forward, ready for the cross in front of an open goal. She’d call for the pass but nine out of ten times (that’s a generous statistic) her team mates would prefer to take on three or four defenders and be dispossessed rather than take a chance on her. As the seasons progressed she became increasingly demoralised. Stomping off the pitch at the end of each game, barely containing her tears.

This year we decided things needed to change. We were going to find an all-girls team for her to join, one that preferably played in an all-girls league. Early in the New Year our club contacted us. It was happening. They were putting a junior female team together and invited our daughter to come down and join. Even though it was an under 13s team (very different from under 9s) we were confident that as a tall, moderately experienced player, she would be fine. Even better, there was going to be a female coach.

She was delighted. She came away from the first training session buzzing. The other players knew her name and even complimented her for being a fast runner.

They actually talked to me.

By the time the season was ready to start the team didn’t have enough players and the club made the decision to open it up as a mixed team and therefore play in the mixed league. Fine we thought. The team is still more than half girls and it’s about friendship after all.

This team had some amazing female players. Girls that were tough and fearless, that threw their bodies into the game and took on male players twice their size. We didn’t have a great season in terms of results but we were happy that our daughter was making friends, improving her skills, and refusing to be daunted by playing against boys three years older than her. It was impressive.

Until that is, the last two matches of the season.

Before I launch into what happened with our players let me add a side-note here. We lost our female coach at about the half-way mark because of, you guessed it, bullying by some of the parents. Sigh. I firmly believe it is our job, as parents of junior players, to support that elusive person who has volunteered their time, mental energy, and Sunday sleep-ins to help our kids enjoy their sport—the coach. This coach copped it from every direction and I’m not surprised she moved on. So, the bullying came from the top-down.

Back to the kids.

In the second-last match of the season, our star defender, a girl in a specialist soccer programme at high school broke down crying at half-time. She didn’t want to go back out there. Her mum mentioned that she’d been having a tough time at school because she was being bullied by the boys in the soccer programme. As a result, her confidence had been slowly eroded over the course of season. Compounding the discrimination and harassment she was receiving at school it turned out that one of the boys in her own team, a boy she had spent the last five months training and playing with, had also been bullying her, telling her that: girls are useless. They shouldn’t play soccer.

(Between you and me, this boy is not much chop on the pitch. I’d take the girl over three of him.)

For the final game of the season the team faced a rival club who delighted in sledging and ridiculing their opponents. Some of our kids gave up entirely, many ended the game in tears. As the coach debriefed the group and thanked them for their hard work all season, he encouraged them to put the other team out of their thoughts. Let it go. It’s done. Walk away.

Then one of the girls said this:

These boys bully me at school. Now they are bullying me at soccer.

How can she walk away? Come Monday morning it would all be back again.

So, the season ended on a devastating low. From the hope at the beginning of the year that these girls would enjoy their sport, make friends, and fit in at last they had to keep fighting against discrimination. They experienced and witnessed it at all levels. From the other teams (all boys), from a parent group that bullied the female coach out of her role and, worst of all, from the members of their own team.

So, what am I getting at?

So much focus is put on trying to boost girls’ confidence within sport. We all talk about how important sport is for girls’ physical and mental health. The Australian Government’s “Girls, Make Your Move” campaign is just one example. We continuously send girls the message that they need to try, they need to join in, they need to stop being intimidated by boys. The message is that they need to take responsibility for stopping the bullying and the discrimination. But when do we tell the boys some honest truths?

They aren’t always the best or most talented members of the team.

They aren’t the ones who get to decide who is included and who isn’t.

They need to change their attitude to include and encourage girls into sport.

They need to accept that the girls have just as much right to be there as they do.

Many girls are trying. I’m so proud that my little ten-year-old refuses to be intimidated by thirteen-year-old boys. I’m proud of the talented girls at my Taekwon-Do club that compete hard and love and care for each other. But how many times can someone be excluded, belittled, and discriminated against before it’s too hard to keep going? This started when my daughter was five, at ten I’m exhausted on her behalf.

 

 

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