Captain Marvel: A Feminist Therapist’s Thoughts on the Film

Captain Marvel is a handbook for living as a woman in the world, an example of the obvious and subtle challenges women face.

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It’s no surprise that Captain Marvel has caused a stir; there’s a wealth of voices arguing against the need for a female-led movie, as well as many arguing that the movie doesn’t live up to its progressive angle. 

But Captain Marvel offers a unique opportunity in a world filled with superheroes; to market what it could look like for each young girl in the audience to look up at a heroine on screen and feel empowered and strong.

Marvel Studios’ first solo-led film starring a superheroine, Captain Marvel, stars Brie Larson as Carol Danvers, a powerful warrior on a journey to uncover her past. The movie is co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck and influenced heavily by the writing of Kelly Sue DeConnick.

But while practically, yes, the primary goal of Captain Marvel is to make money, the narrative goals are beyond the simplistic accusations of a diversity pick.  Captain Marvel is a handbook for living as a woman in the world, an example of the obvious and subtle challenges women face. It’s a chance for girls and women alike to feel recognized and understood for the challenges they have faced while celebrating the resiliency of communities centered in empowering their voices.  It’s a beacon of what feminism in action can do.

Before we go any further, can we clarify the “f word”?  

The goal and definition of feminism is to empower and strengthen women and nonbinary people’s voices, to ask that voices of all gender be welcome to the table with equal access.

And while feminism started with supporting women, at its best it has progressed towards an intersectional model, seeking to highlight the voices of POC, disabled people, LGBT communities, religious minorities, and anyone who regularly doesn’t have a seat at the table as well.

Feminist therapy was born out of a lack of women’s voices in the psychological world– early therapy was a men’s game and it felt like women’s experiences as clients and practitioners weren’t being honored.  Much like the feminist movement itself, feminist therapy is not about eradicating men’s opinions but is focused on equality– ensuring that all voices, regardless of biology or background, were heard. 

“Feminist therapy was born out of a lack of women’s voices in the psychological world.”

We can look back at the MCU films released over the past decade and what do we see? Mostly narratives centered on white men. The truth is, most of the world is not a white man.  Asking that anyone else might have a seat at the table isn’t too much to ask. There will be enough seats.

So how did Captain Marvel do in addressing key feminist therapy tenants?  Spoiler alert: not too shabby.

[Warning: Contains Spoilers]

Women’s Voices Matter

It’s amazing how such a simple phrase can be so controversial.  Women and nonbinary people’s voices matter, but that doesn’t mean men’s voices don’t.  The goal is to elevate voices that are less often heard because of their gender, race, religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, or any other reason.  By being the first solo female-led MCU film, Captain Marvel checks this box– but it’s not enough for a movie to just cast a leading lady.

Captain Marvel provided an intriguing plot, dynamic character growth, and powerful relationships.  

The film powerfully illustrated what it means to be a woman—not incidentally but intentionally. We don’t just want to see women on screen; we want to see dynamic, complex, authentic women. Captain Marvel nailed it.

(And for anyone tracking, yes Captain Marvel does pass the Bechdel test!)

Intersectionality Matters

The feminist movement was born out of feeling silenced, and true feminism works to ensure all people feel heard, especially anyone who has been marginalized by society.  While having a young black girl talking about building a rocket ship was a beautiful moment, casting black actors as a supporting characters doesn’t ensure intersectionality.  Where Captain Marvel, and all MCU films, can continue to grow is in increasing the way they share underrepresented people’s stories, not as tangents or secondary characters but as continuous complex storylines. 

Bring me a film starring Monica Rambeau next, please. And while you’re at it, America Chavez and Kamala Khan films too.

Personal Is Political

This is a foundation of the feminist movement: a phrase that means what we experience in our personal lives is directly influenced by our political society and vice-versa.  It recognizes that there is a clear connection between how we understand OUR world and how we understand THE world. 

In Captain Marvel, Carol experiences this first-hand. 

She starts the movie as a dedicated Kree soldier with some questions but even more determination to embody the Kree’s mission as her own.  But slowly her personal experiences start to unwind her understanding of the political world.  She meets and speaks with Skrulls.  She recognizes her own role in the chaos and bloodshed.  She remembers the wisdom of a trusted mentor. And as she connects with others personally, her worldview changes. It feels impossible to continue a war against the Skrulls when she has become friends with Skrull families. And it feels impossible not to act to better the world for them.

Impact > Intent

Carol messed up. She played her part in a war that destroyed lives.  Now that she has connected emotionally with those she used to see as an enemy, she can’t ignore her mistake. 

In what was a crucial part of the movie, Carol did not try to find excuses.  She took ownership of her actions (while recognizing her context) and she promised to do better. She listened to the needs of the people she had wronged and dedicated herself to the cause of not only making amends for her crimes but ensuring that others would never experience the same. It’s a terrifying process to recognize our failures, but even more so to do it humbly, to recognize that why we harmed others doesn’t undo the harm we did. 

“It’s a terrifying process to recognize our failures, but even more so to do it humbly.”

Challenge the Narratives

We are all raised surrounded by stories and ideas of who we are and who we should be– when the truth is that we have the right to challenge and choose.  We can analyze each message critically, weigh its value and leave the rest behind. And as we challenge what the world tells us about ourselves, we can challenge the stories about those around us and question just how true such hatred or prejudice might be.

There were many people telling Carol who she was. The Kree defined her identity by erasing parts of her. SHIELD challenged her by questioning her truth.  Even through empathy, the Skrull Leader sought to help Carol redefine who she was.  But Carol denied all of their opinions.  She chose to challenge each finite identity and instead embraced a simple and powerful truth shared from Maria, who she loved and trusted. She chose the narrative that connected with who she was as a person, rather than any semblance of a narrative around her as a soldier.

Healthy and Toxic Masculinity

We see two examples of masculinity in Captain Marvel: one championed by our de-aged veteran Nick Fury, the other embodied by Yon-Rogg, Carol’s Kree mentor.  From the beginning, Yon-Rogg manipulates Carol and even manipulates her memory in his favor.  He ruthlessly attacks the Skrulls, caring very little of the innocents, out of a place of pride and cold-hearted stubbornness.  He doesn’t choose empathy.  He doesn’t consider that he could be wrong.  Instead, he will hurt others just to prove how right he is. 

Nick Fury, however, is a glorious example of healthy/non-toxic masculinity.  Fury questions Carol, challenges her, and at one point even tries to undermine her.  But he learns, recognizes his mistakes, and chooses to listen.  He chooses to hear her truth and consider it rather than clinging to old unhealthy ideas.  He is adaptive, empathetic, just, and stronger for it.

Power of Authentic Emotions

A huge tenant of feminist therapy is the power of authenticity—the idea that two vulnerable human beings can create a transformative connection through the innate power of vulnerable expression.  Societally, we tend to demonize feelings, argue that people who feel strongly are weak and just need to “get over it” or “man up.” But our emotional experiences connect and unite us. They help us better understand one another and ourselves.

Throughout the movie, Carol is told that her feelings weaken her—that if only she could keep her feelings in check, then she would become the master of her self.  She doesn’t buy it. Instead, she sees how her emotional experience allows her to see past the Kree lies and into a deeper truth.

Even outside of the film we see this in many viewers commentary.

“She sees how her emotional experience allows her to see past the lies and into a deeper truth…”

People argue they felt Brie Larson’s emotional acting wasn’t believable. Viewers wanted her to smile more but also look angrier and not cry too much but also show some feelings already. But Brie brought the power of subtlety and authenticity to Carol’s emotions. We need more characterizations that feel this vulnerably real.  

Ownership of Our Bodies & Bodily Autonomy

When the poster for Captain Marvel was released, there was a chorus of complaints centered around one idea: Carol Danvers wasn’t smiling on the poster.  Despite the fact that hardly any of the male-led solo films featured a smiling protagonist, many thought that her lack of smile made her alienating and unapproachable.

In the film, Carol is asked by a male stranger to “give him a smile” as she is focused on uncovering her past and saving the Earth from annihilation. She has no patience for his nonsense and when she doesn’t smile at him, he quickly calls her a “freak” and walks off angrily.

Brie Larson was asked about the scene in an interview with Yahoo!, noting the similarity between the movie scene and what happened for the movie poster.  It wasn’t a reshoot; they didn’t sneak the scene in as a retort to opinions of the poster. “That’s just a depiction of the female experience,” Brie explains.

A huge tenant of feminist therapy is the importance of bodily autonomy—that we are the sole owners of our bodies and therefore in charge of what we do with it or what happens to it.  Something as simple as being told to smile is a way of systemically challenging bodily autonomy by demanding that someone has to change how their body is just to please another person. Feminism has no time for that.

Personal Power over Power Over Others

Arguably one of the most impactful scenes in the movie happened as the conclusion unfolded, shortly after Carol had single-handedly defeated a fleet of warships and destroyed their missile attack. She comes back to earth to face her former Kree mentor, Yon-Rogg.  Yon-Rogg, obviously aware of how outgunned he is, quickly tries to challenge her to hand-to-hand combat, trying to goad her into fighting without her powers.

Rather than even entertain the notion, she blasts him away, only to tell him “I have nothing to prove to you.”

When I saw the film, the entire theater broke out into applause.  I felt such a strong sense of vindication, in awe of her transformation into such incredible personal power.  To beat him in a fight might have been momentarily satisfying, but she recognized that fighting him would still give him power over her life.  By choosing not to, by choosing not to limit her own power to meet him at his level, she was completely free.

Feminism is a conversation about power.”

Feminism is a conversation about power. As a feminist therapist, I help clients understand where they feel empowered and disempowered. In a world that can be so incredibly disempowering, recognizing and holding onto our inner power can feel impossible.  But Carol proves, without question, that there is a power in all of us, a power rooted in our innate, flawed, and vulnerable human experience. If we hold onto that power, nothing can take it away.

Build a Bigger Table.

As a feminist therapist, what I appreciated most about this movie was its many layers. 

This is a film that can help a child feel heard when she sees Carol being told off for stepping outside of typical gender roles.  It’s a film that can challenge social norms and identify the small, everyday sexism women face.  It’s a film that can acknowledge the absurdity of the woman who literally provided the name for the Avengers Initiative not getting her own film until 21 movies in.  And it’s a film that can have a real protagonist– flawed and resilient. 

To anyone who’s against Captain Marvel (and to all of you Rotten Tomatoes reviewers trying to bomb the film), maybe stop and consider that this film just isn’t for you.  So many of us have spent decades trying to see ourselves in white, straight, able-bodied men. There are enough seats at the table for all of us.

And if not, let’s just build a bigger table.

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