Captain Marvel, Disney Princesses, and the “Feminist Agenda,” Part 2

The response to Disney’s Captain Marvel has been fraught with controversy, even before the film was released. Greg Morse, a staff writer at Desiring God, wrote about the movie after seeing it, and his article has received a lot of criticism (rightfully so, in my opinion). Morse makes four dangerous rhetorical errors in his piece, and in my last blog post we examined the first two: unclear language and genre confusion. Now let’s look at the other two problems: reverse chronological snobbery and a demeaning attitude toward women.

3. Reverse Chronological Snobbery

C. S. Lewis coined the term “chronological snobbery” to describe the belief that the “intellectual climate” of our own time is automatically superior to that of the past, as the beliefs and practices of previous generations are outdated and less enlightened. This is a dangerous and pernicious mindset, blocking us from learning from past eras.

Another detrimental mindset is reverse chronological snobbery. This is the belief that the intellectual climate of times past are inherently superior to those in the present. The person who holds this view practices what my friend E. Stephen Burnett has called “nostalgia-based discernment”—looking back to the good old days when times were ostensibly simpler or better or easier. In the words of author Jen Pollock Michel, it can be tempting to “decry the abasement of morality in contemporary culture…when compared (however naively) to an idyllic yesteryear.”

The idyllic yesteryear Morse apparently longs for is the time period of the earliest Disney princesses. But were things better for women back when those movies came out? The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. However, if you look up some of the advertising from the period when, say, Sleeping Beauty was released, you come across horribly sexist and disgustingly unbiblical views of women.

One ad for a line of neckties encourages husbands to “show her it’s a man’s world,” picturing a subservient woman in a house-robe kneeling before her husband. Another ad for climbing sweaters boasts, “Men are better than women! Indoors, women are useful—even pleasant.” Yet another ad shows a husband holding his wife over his lap, spanking her because she purchased the wrong kind of coffee.

Based on these three advertisements alone, we see women depicted as slaves, nuisances, and children. These ads (and countless others like them) may not encapsulate how everyone viewed women during the 1950s. They do, however, show that the societal climate which created the “traditional princess vibe” was not a sterling example of how to cherish and value women. The 1950s may not have been the epitome of misogyny, but they weren’t the epitome of chivalry either.

I find it odd that a writer for Desiring God, a ministry with a reputation for strict Scriptural fidelity, would be content to myopically and wistfully gaze a mere 60 years in the past, rather than resolutely looking several thousand years back to how Scripture—and Christ himself—demonstrates the value and importance of women.

4. A Demeaning Attitude Toward Women

It is true that men are generally physically stronger than women. A recent BBC article I read said that men have “40% more upper-body strength and 33% more lower body strength.” To deny differences between the sexes, or to promote the idea that one sex is better than the other, is dangerous.

Morse, however, goes beyond cautioning against such dangers. In fact, he fights so hard against the “myth of sameness between the sexes” that he communicates (inadvertently, I believe) not just that men and women are different, but that men are better than women. How does he do this? Let me share three examples.

First, he says the “alternative universe where an accident infuses the heroine with superhuman powers…seems to stand as a reasonable apologetic for the feminist agenda.” This implies that Captain Marvel is basically a wish-fulfillment fantasy for women, since they have no hope of such amazing powers in our universe.

But what about all the superhero stories where men are infused with superhuman powers through an accident? Are stories about Spider-Man, The Hulk, and The Flash just wish fulfillment fantasies for men who lack a sufficient amount of masculinity? Are these comic book heroes a reasonable apologetic for the misogynist agenda? Of course, to ask such a silly question is to answer it.

Morse would have a stronger point if he critiqued movies and TV shows featuring petite women fighting and overcoming larger, stronger men in real-world, hand-to-hand combat situations (often involving a quasi-sexual move where the woman wraps her legs around her enemy’s head to gain the victory). But his claim that a superhero story will lead women to think they can have superhero powers too is one step away from ludicrous wish fulfillment itself.

Second, as I have already mentioned, Morse wrote with a mournful tone, “How far we’ve come since the days of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.” In highlighting and praising the two Disney princesses who exerted the least amount of agency, Morse implies (whether he realizes it or not) his longing for the good old days when women were considered not just weak, but inferior—so fragile and helpless as to be childlike in their dependence upon others (men in particular).

The Sleeping Beauty and Snow White reference in Morse’s article has since been replaced by the following sentence: “How far we’ve come since the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women.” If Morse believes female protagonists were more protected and cherished in the earlier princess days, he insinuates that men can’t rightly cherish and protect our women unless we reduce their abilities and contributions—and even literal screen time. (Princess Aurora, for example, has only 18 lines of dialogue in Sleeping Beauty, and she never speaks again after the 40 minute mark.)

Third, consider another line from the article which I’ve already mentioned: “Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men.”

Here, the enviable “traditional princess vibe” involves cases where the princess is comatose and unable to participate in her story at all. This goes way beyond a desire to faithfully communicate that God made men and women different—including in the area of physical strength. It communicates a desire to “care” for women by infantilizing them—something that is neither protective nor cherishing.

To once again quote K. B. Hoyle:

A teaching like this leads to insinuations beyond physicality to comparisons of strength and weakness of all types. Mental strength, spiritual strength, emotional strength. In all ways, one might be led to believe that men are stronger, women are weaker. . . . Couple this with an overreach of complementarianism that teaches girls and women to always be submissive to men, and you generate an environment ripe for potential abuses. What a damaging—I would go so far as to say damning—theology of image bearers of God. . . .

I don’t fault men who want to protect women—it is noble and godly to desire to serve others. But to do so to the exclusion of the strengths of the helpmates God created to work alongside men is to take a good mandate and poison it with pride and self-sufficiency. In real life, not all men are strong. And even when they are, they are often not protectors.

The Proverbs 31 Superhero

A year before Sleeping Beauty, the exploits of a superhero-like woman graced the silver screen in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Starring Ingrid Bergman, this movie told the story of Gladys Aylward, based loosely on her autobiography, The Little Woman. Here’s the tagline for her book (as listed on “A solitary woman. A foreign country. An unknown language. An impossible dream? No.”

What was this movie about? Who was Gladys Aylward? Here’s more of her book description:

With no mission board to support or guide her, and less than ten dollars in her pocket, Gladys Aylward left her home in England to answer God’s call to take the message of the gospel to China. With the Sino-Japanese War waging around her, she struggled to bring the basics of life and the fullness of God to orphaned children. Time after time, God triumphed over impossible situations, and drew people to Himself. The Little Woman tells the story of one woman’s determination to serve God at any cost.

Ingrid Bergman’s stellar performance in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness gave us an entry into what we might call the “Scripturally-informed strong woman vibe”—a protagonist of immense physical and emotional fortitude, demonstrating a kaleidoscope of virtues worthy of emulation and respect. Aylward’s superhuman efforts provided an engaging viewing experience, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness proved to be the second most popular film at the British box office in 1959.

Over the years, Sleeping Beauty may have won more hearts in the public consciousness, including that of Greg Morse, but The Inn of the Sixth Happiness gave the world a more complex, three-dimensional, and admirable portrayal of femininity. Hollywood would do well to give us more cinematic characters like Gladys Aylward, and writers would do well to remember that honoring femininity does not necessitate making them helpless damsels in distress.

Theoretically speaking, it is possible for filmmakers to use a superhero story to push an agenda that is diametrically opposed to biblical principles of masculinity and femininity. But with the “particular message of Captain Marvel [being] that there is a special and unique strength in being a woman” (to quote K. B. Hoyle again), Greg Morse is barking up the wrong tree, in the wrong forest, on the wrong continent.

In closing: If Greg Morse and I were to sit down and have an in-depth talk about our worldviews, my guess is that we would agree far more often than we disagree. I haven’t shared my thoughts here because I have an axe to grind or because I’m out for blood. It is, in fact, because of my respect for those at Desiring God that I wrote this critique. A misguided attempt of such magnitude as Morse’s, on such a public platform, is worthy of constructive criticism. My prayer is that this two-part blog series qualifies as such a response.

UPDATE: I have since had an in-depth conversation with Greg Morse, necessitating a third blog post to modify my critiques and help bring some much-needed clarity to Morse’s initial intentions. You can read that entry here: What REALLY Went Wrong with Desiring God’s Critique of CAPTAIN MARVEL

photo credit: AntMan3001 via flickr, CC (this photo has been cropped)


Charity said…
As a woman, I love all kinds of heroines. I spent the weekend not watching Captain Marvel but catching the 80th Anniversary of Gone With the Wind -- who has two strong women in it -- Scarlett O'Hara and Melanie Hamilton. They are strong in different ways. I have as much affection for Amy Dorrit in Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit as I have for Sydney Bristow in ALIAS. Good stories show us a large variety of women with all kinds of strengths. Some of them are wives and mothers. Some of them have super powers. It does not have to be all or none. It can be much like actual women are -- a blend of things. :)

Excellent blog post.