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

A few days ago, an international Christian ministry I greatly respect published an article critiquing the new movie Captain Marvel. I found the article to be confusing, troubling, and even dangerous. It doesn’t so much critique the content of the movie as it does the existence of the movie and the reason for the movie. Those are issues I can address without having first watched the film (which, for the record, I have not).

As I see it, there are four main problems with the article: 1) unclear language, 2) genre confusion, 3) the appearance of reverse chronological snobbery, and 4) the appearance (unintentionally, to be sure) of a demeaning attitude toward women.

1. Unclear Language

The article’s author, Greg Morse, pushes back against what he calls the “feminist agenda,” but he never clarifies what that term actually means. The truth of the matter is that feminism, like many other ideological positions, is too broad a description to condemn or praise outright. One must be more nuanced and specific.

There is a feminism that wants to devalue men in the same way that women have been devalued, and then there is a feminism that wants to see both men and women viewed as equal in value and worth. There is a feminism that embraces pornography as empowering and liberating, and then there is a feminism that condemns pornography as objectifying and dehumanizing. There is a feminism that seeks to deny the differences between the sexes, and then there is a feminism that seeks to embrace those differences as worthy of acknowledgement and respect.

The group New Wave Feminists seeks to protect the lives of the unborn. Part of the mantra of the feminist nonprofit Beauty Redefined is “Women are more than just bodies.” The feminist organization Collective Shout fights against the sexualization of women and girls. Greg Morse would, I believe, find an overlap between his sense of Christian ethics and the ethics espoused by the above groups of women. (I know I do.) As such, Morse would do better to clarify which “feminist agenda” he’s going after.

As proof of the movie’s moral failings, Morse refers to an interview with actor Brie Larson (who plays Captain Marvel), where she says the executives at Disney wanted to make “the biggest feminist movie of all time.” Morse himself points out what I’ve seen other reviewers say: Captain Marvel is nowhere near achieving such a status.

In fact, film critic Steven D. Greydanus says that praising the movie for being feminist is “like Christians cheering every faith-based film that comes along: It’s settling for too little. At the same time, anti-feminist backlash against the film seems disconnected from reality. For a Marvel movie, Black Panther had some provocative themes; Captain Marvel really doesn’t.”

In any case, I watched the entire interview with Larson to get a better feel for what she was trying to communicate. She came across as gracious and humble, and certainly not combative. On the contrary, actually. The overall tone of her interview can be better encapsulated by a part where she said that, in making this movie, “[we aren’t] trying to stick our tongues out. It’s just, this is who she is, and this is the story that we’re telling.”

2. Genre Confusion

Morse takes a huge and faulty logical leap by comparing Captain Marvel (unfavorably) with the Disney princesses of old. At one point, he says, “Along with Disney, we abandon the traditional princess vibe, and seek to empower little girls everywhere to be strong like men. Cinderella trades her glass slipper for combat boots; Belle, her books for a bazooka.”

This language conflates the fairy tale and superhero genres. Captain Marvel is not a Disney princess, nor is she trying to be. Her physical abilities are way above and beyond anything a princess—or any woman—could ever do, just as the physical abilities of Captain America are far beyond anything a prince—or a man—could ever do.

When talking about the abandonment of the “traditional princess vibe” (as if that were the standard by which superhero movies should be judged), it’s interesting that Morse uses Cinderella and Belle as examples. Disney has recently produced live action versions of both those stories, actually, and in neither of these modern retellings does the princess swap her traditional accoutrements for combat paraphernalia.

The goal of a superhero movie is not to get people to try flying off balconies or become autonomous vigilantes. No, the goal of the superhero genre is not audience imitation but rather audience inspiration. The virtues and character arcs of superheroes can—and do—motivate us to pursue virtue and character growth ourselves.

For example, I found it incredibly inspirational in Captain America: Civil War when Sharon Carter spoke the following words during her eulogy for her aunt:

[Aunt Peggy] said, “Compromise when you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move. It is your duty, to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, ‘No. You move.’”

This call to resilience and commitment to do what’s right, no matter the cost, proved to be a catalyst for Steve Rogers’ actions in the rest of the movie. Civil War gave an illustration of what it might look like to pursue what’s right even when the rest of the world is against you. It’s a powerful illustration, and it inspired me while watching it. Years later, even just thinking about it inspires me still.

Or consider, in the words of cultural commentator K. B. Hoyle, how a movie like Captain Marvel can inspire audiences:

I think it is absolutely crucial for girls and women to see representations of themselves as heroes on the screen—as more than love interests, supporting characters, femme fatales, or damsels in distress. Furthermore, we need to see ourselves headlining our own movies as heroes capable of standing alone against evil when no one else can, no one else is left, or no one else will. Stories that do not reflect real life cannot be called true or good, and in real life women are often alone—whether by choice, circumstance, or abandonment. Not that a woman needs to be alone to stand against evil, but she needs to know she is capable of it.

Princesses can be inspirational in their own right, of course, but not typically by exerting superhuman abilities. Princesses aren’t comic book heroes, and comic book heroes aren’t princesses. There’s plenty of room for both, and neither should be judged arbitrarily by the merits of the other.

Those are the first two problems I have with Morse’s article. As this blog post is lengthy enough already, I’ll need to save the rest of my thoughts for my follow-up piece: Captain Marvel, Disney Princesses, and the “Feminist Agenda,” Part 2

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: VCU Capital News Service via flickr, CC