Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
When I was a young teen and at the height of my earliest interest and obsession with superheroes, I read an article at a Christian publication about why women should not be portrayed in television or movies as action heroes. In summary, the author argued that because women in real life are not physically as strong as men, they should not be portrayed on the screen in ways that might encourage them to believe they are capable of fighting back against a male assailant. Such visuals in stories might conflate fiction with reality in dangerous ways—ways leading to scenarios where women believe themselves capable of actually fighting back, the author said. To me, as a young woman, the message was clear: you’re weaker than a man, and any story that encourages you to believe otherwise is not only a lie, but also dangerous to your well-being.
But the article went one step further. It said it was wrong for Christians to even consume such media, let alone support or cheer on such women as role models. It was the ‘90s and (for Christians) the culture-war narrative was raging. I was devastated by the article, even as a small voice in the back of my mind told me there was something off about it. 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. Men are the protectors, and women are those in need of protection. When women are taught they can’t resist, they might come to believe they shouldn’t. 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.
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.
Truthfully, though, I couldn’t really stop admiring strong female action heroes, so all the article really gave me was guilt. I still watched Star Wars and braided my hair like Princess Leia. I suffered through Batman and Robin multiple times and imagined myself as Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl. When The Matrix came out, I watched it three times in one day and went out and bought myself a (p)leather jacket in honor of Trinity. My Star Trek will always be Voyager, my captain Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway.
As I grew out of my teens and early twenties, and out of my guilt for loving the action hero women of television and movies, I had to acknowledge that I agreed with the author of that terrible article on one key point: Seeing ourselves represented on the screen as action heroes does powerfully impact our psyches—both individually and culturally. But unlike the author, 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.
When bad theology masquerading as Christianity takes a tyrannical hold on cultural narratives, it often allows misogyny to strangle the goodness out of stories. When articles such as the one I’ve been mentioning are published (which even today is a not-infrequent Christian response to big-budget movies featuring female action heroes), it is usually under the guise of wanting to protect women. The argument is not always “men are physically stronger,” but it usually takes some related form. And 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.
When bad theology masquerading as Christianity takes a tyrannical hold on cultural narratives, it often allows misogyny to strangle the goodness out of stories. A true Christian understanding of the arts acknowledges all truth as God’s truth. It sets our cultural narratives free to sing God’s praises. But while poor theology and the arts make for bad bedfellows, the imbalance between the sexes exceeds these bounds. It is a pervasive cultural belief that women are weaker than men, incapable of leading or inspiring (unless it be children or other groups of women), and unworthy of serious consideration. The imbalance is so pervasive—as demonstrated by the many injustices perpetrated against women in this country, and around the world—that we can’t blame it on one particular thing, unless, of course, that one particular thing is sin.
While some men with good intentions want to be strong protectors, others seek to dominate, and many fear an overturning of the status quo and a loss of power. When these fears collide with pop culture, fear often leads to anger, and anger leads to a host of sinful reactionary behaviors as such men—intrinsically understanding the power of visual storytelling—scramble to maintain gender imbalance in movies, or particularly, as we’ve seen this month, superhero stories.
In the weeks leading up to Captain Marvel’s release, men like this took to the popular review site Rotten Tomatoes to review-bomb the movie without having seen it, driving the “audience score” to the lowest of all the Marvel films. In the days after its release, Rotten Tomatoes removed over 50,000 bogus reviews posted by these trolls. What happened on Rotten Tomatoes was not an isolated incident. Unflattering memes, comments, gifs, and other abuses have been heaped against the movie and leading actress Brie Larson across various social media sites for weeks. The actions of these men have so well demonstrated the ongoing existence of misogyny in this country as to prove the necessity of the film. If such men are so afraid of women seeing themselves represented on screen as leading superheroes, then surely they know the power of empathetic storytelling—the inspiration that grips a viewer to action when seeing themselves reflected as a hero.
And Marvel Studios told a distinctly feminist story in Captain Marvel, if perhaps not in a way most expected by those who wanted Carol Danvers to be a “smash the patriarchy” feminist. In focusing on the shared experience of suppression of female emotions, Marvel created a much more universally feminist, less politically charged, experience for female viewers. Captain Marvel tells the story of Carol Danvers, an Air Force pilot who has been living with an alien race called the Kree for six years. In the film, Carol—who goes by Vers for most of the movie—can’t remember where she came from or who she is as she’s in training to become a member of the Kree elite fighters called Starforce. It’s only once she crashlands on Earth that she begins to put together her background and her life. And this is also when she gives in to emotions long held hostage “by necessity,” as she’s always been told as part of her Kree training. “Your emotions make you weak,” Yon-Rogg, her Kree instructor (played by Jude Law), tells her time and time again.
The particular message of Captain Marvel is that there is a special and unique strength in being a woman. That women aren’t less-than or weaker, that we have agency, and we hold equal power to men. Women are often afforded power in stories, as long as we “stay in our lane” as wives or mothers or objects of sexual desire or damsels in distress or the prize for a man at the end of his journey of transformation, or even as femme fatales—wielding sexual power over a man who really, actually, wants to be dominated in that way. But not all women are wives, or mothers, objects of sexual desire, or in any sort of distress. And we certainly were not created by God to exist for the pleasure of the male gaze. Furthermore, a movie about a grown woman should never be described as being about “girl power,” which is infantilizing and as absurd as saying the theme of Captain America: The First Avenger is “boy power.”
Strength comes in a variety of ways, and although women certainly do not need to be depicted as superheroes to be heroic, women as heroes in movies are few and far between when compared to men as heroes—let alone as the heroic leads. And there is a particular symbolic strength that comes from being a superhero, and because there is nothing intrinsically male about this strength, it is important that it is not afforded only to male characters. The strength to fight against great odds for what’s right, the strength to do battle against powers of evil to save the helpless, the strength to harness superpowers or super-tech for a greater cause, the strength to lay down one’s life to save and serve others. Carol Danvers—both as herself and as Captain Marvel—displays such traits. As does any host of female superheroes I can think of.
The person who wrote the article I first mentioned said he feared women would conflate fiction and reality—believing themselves to be strong enough to fight back against real male assailants. But he missed the point entirely. A superhero story is by nature a fantasy, and any rational person watching one knows that. Just as men don’t leave the theater after a Batman film and put on spandex to prowl the streets at night looking for thugs to beat up, similarly women aren’t going to leave Captain Marvel and jump off the tallest building they can find assuming they will go binary. The power in the story is in the inspiration to be heroic, whatever heroism looks like for each individual situation.
Girls get this sort of inspiration from books and other sorts of stories, but there is a special power in seeing oneself on the screen. They must believe they can grow up to be heroes in this world. They must know they can be agents of change—that their voices are as loud and as true, their strength and dedication just as valued and valuable, as their male counterparts. Furthermore, they must see female heroes whose power derives from virtuous characteristics and integrity, rather than from their sexuality. While perhaps, because of the curse of sin, there will be conflict between the sexes until the new heaven and the new earth, we can and should seek justice, restoration, and change in the areas of gender inequality. Movies like Captain Marvel that reflect how highly God values equality, where women are empowered to be on equal footing with men as agents of revolution and change, are stories that will shape our culture for the better.