Or why you shouldn’t look up only to people who look like you
By MARTIN REZNY
So, I just saw Captain Marvel, and I have to say, it was fine. I liked the cat, I liked the Skrulls, the de-aging technology is making some serious strides, and I didn’t even find Captain Marvel herself annoying. That’s everything worth talking about here, I guess. Bye!
You’re still here? Okay, let’s discuss the whole feminist agenda culture war surrounding this movie. I could start by saying that both sides are objectively overreacting. It won’t help, but here it goes — the movie isn’t offensively in-your-face with its opinion. It also isn’t the best, most daringest thing ever.
If you think it’s in your face, try to imagine how much worse it could have been. The answer is, so much worse. Fury could have been played as an idiot damsel. Worse still, every guy in the movie could have been insufferable. The movie only subverts some stereotypical expectations and comments snarkily on some more. As a fragile cis white male myself, I can take that. In fact, the subversion around the villains could be considered moderately clever.
Filmmaking-wise, the movie isn’t remarkable in any way. It’s fine. You can try to overanalyze it, how it retcons the whole Marvel cinematic universe continuity, or how much better constructed it could have been. Or, you could just watch it without analyzing it before or as you’re watching it. There are some fun jokes, Samuel L. Jackson is at his 90s best, the action isn’t the worst, the references are not excessive (again, think how much worse…), etc.
Let Me Tell You Something About Role Models
There is in fact only one aspect of the movie that I find worth discussing at length, and that’s the whole premise of female empowerment through representation. This is by no means exclusive to this movie, it’s in fact a trend recently growing in popularity, so what I’m going to say likely applies broadly.
To be clear, the whole idea of empowerment of individuals through representation of other members of their group in movies is rubbish, and it doesn’t matter what the group identity in question is.
The most basic level at which it fails is that individuals, especially exceptional ones, are neither defined by any group into which you can put them, nor can apply their own individual accomplishments to any other members of any group into which they belong. Confused? Well, it’s a stupid simple concept.
Let’s consider your direct family, the group into which you most belong. If you for example get multiple degrees, does it make your family educated? No. If you become athletic, does that make your family fit? No. You could maybe share any money you make with them, but a) it’s still you who made the money, and b) you are not the money you make. On the other hand, there are things that you are, like your intelligence, effort, integrity, and so on.
Flip it around and it still would make exactly zero sense — what other members of your family are doing is not what you’re doing, what they have is not what you have, and who they are is not who you are. In a legal context, if other members of your family commit crimes, it does not make you guilty. Individuality is being defined by who you are and what you do. That’s it.
Saying that little girls need a woman hero to get inspired is like saying that someone like me can only be inspired by a white dude hero. With the emphasis on white dude, not hero. I can get inspired by a hero who happens to be a white dude, but it would be exclusively because of what kind of hero he is, not what he, or she, or it, or shmlee, or whateveree looks like, or sounds like, or dresses like, or smells like, or how old they are, or whether they are short, or bald, or a tree, or from the past, or… Do I need to continue?
The Character Abortion Through Birthright
If you want to become a great individual, you don’t even need any role models to begin with, just an internal drive to excellence, but let’s ignore that. Role models should be exceptional people with remarkable character that other people may want to emulate. Inborn traits by which you can group people are the opposite of character. You’re not born with great character, you build it. Anyone can do that. That’s why a role model can be anyone to anyone.
That already means that there absolutely should be no restrictions on what inborn traits a hero in a movie must or can’t have. In this sense, movies like Black Panther or Wonder Woman were needed, but in order to inspire producers to hire a fair share of people of color and women in leading roles by proving that a movie with any type of lead can make money. That’s a serious employment issue, it’s good that it’s addressed, but it is different.
At the same time, that’s why the inborn traits of the hero, including color, gender, and sexuality most of all, should never be at the center of the focus of a story — they’re almost entirely irrelevant to characterization. In terms of both art and entertainment, making movie good is all that matters, and good characterization comes from the inside, it’s about personality.
Except maybe for when the story is specifically about overcoming oppression based on superficial traits, but even then, the hero can only prove the oppressors wrong by refusing to play the collective identity game. Accepting the terms of an oppressive discourse is an individual’s defeat, never victory. It’s not a sign of greater wisdom to keep defending yourself using the terms of people who don’t want to judge the content of your character. It’s not victory to emulate oppressors.
For example, if a white asshole defines you as a member of a race on the basis of the color of your skin, don’t adopt that. It’s a pseudoscientific delusion, in addition to being as close to objectively offensive as any notion can get. You can’t win that discourse, it is designed to make you lose by default. At best, you can flip which race is “better”, using force, not reason, and then you become an (insert color here) asshole. With emphasis on asshole, not color.
Similarly, if some dude asshole says what you can’t do as a stupid woman, ignore his gender and instead focus in your criticism on his individual idiocy. The reason for that is that if you find his arguments stupid, then all your arguments about all dudes have to be considered equally stupid, regardless of their content. Whether you’re aiming for an insult or a compliment, the wrong part, again, is generalizing individual traits to whole groups.
Why do you think that white asshole dudes only qualify what type of person a great thinker or author or anything is if they aren’t a white dude? If someone is a white dude, and they are great, historically, they have just been called great, at whatever it is that they were doing. If the word “man” was used, it meant “human”, much like most words that groups use to designate themselves simply mean “human” or “person”.
It is the sub-humans who need to be othered by a distinctive term so that you can put yourself higher and divide and conquer everyone who doesn’t look like you. That’s how the supremacist logic works. As long as superficial group distinctions are used and people base their sense of self on them, the supremacists are winning. Trust me on that. After all, it must have been an intellectual elitist white asshole dude like me who came up with this shit.
It’s always better to prove idiots wrong by doing actions that disprove their prejudices, anyway. Or, to be more precise, what I mean is idiots as in one individual idiot at a time. If a guy says a stupid thing, it makes that guy stupid, and only him, even if the stupid thing he said was trying to speak on behalf of all men at the expense of all women. For example, if you find this article of mine offensive, please, the least you could do is to hate only me because of it.
My Personal Heroes, Avenge Me!
Let’s do a little personal experiment. I will now list all my favorite heroes slash role models and look at how much they match with my “type” on the basis of all criteria relevant to identity politics. I encourage everyone to do the same — if all your heroes are exactly your identity type, please let me know. I doubt it.
In my case, there are some white dudes, like Batman or Captain America. But even then, any closer identity connection is shaky. I’m very much not rich and I’m a pacifist, so what can possibly be the connection there? Well, I empathize with Batman’s darkness and Cap’s humanism resonates with me. That doesn’t even mean that I want to emulate their behaviors or career paths.
Much more than white dudes, I have actually always appreciated badass heroines, especially damaged, abused ones like the Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager or Sarah Kerrigan from StarCraft, or very strong personalities like Ivanova or Delenn from Babylon 5. Look them up, they’re great.
Obviously, I’m not an abused woman, or any type of woman. But guess what, it takes so much more power to overcome not only a starting disadvantage, but also horrific trauma in addition to that, that I’d very much more like to be able to imitate those types of characters than any boring old white knighting dude whom these types of heroines don’t actually need.
At the same time, none of these hate men, or despise romance, or avoid femininity. They are true to themselves, they don’t hate themselves, they simply are who they are and will take shit from no one. Now that’s powerful stuff. You may think that all of these are a bit too white, but that’s actually more an artifact of the under-representation of people of color in TV and film (and games). If any of those were any other color, I wouldn’t care. These just happened to be the good characters I encountered randomly over the years.
Then again, I also really like Wesley Snipes’s Blade, most of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s, Jamie Foxx’s, Zoe Saldana’s, and Idris Elba’s characters that I’ve seen, the character of Zoë Washburne from Firefly and Captain Sisko from Deep Space 9, as well as Eddie Murphy, Jackie Chan, Teal’c from Stargate, Marvel’s Luke Cage, and the list goes on.
It’s not like I was at any point avoiding actors and actresses of color. What caricature of a human being, what unfortunate brainwashed soul would do that? It’s not like I can’t empathize with people who don’t look like me, see myself in their place, wish to be like them. When I look at them, I do see myself. Doesn’t it work for you the same way, whoever the flerken you are?
Also, there may be many more great actors and performances, but not all resonate with me. I’m not just listing good actors of color I know or their good roles, in a version of “I have a black friend” argument. If I say a character’s name, it’s the character that resonates with me, if I say an actor’s name, it’s something about that real person that clicks with me. What I can say for sure is that it’s never nationality, as none of them are Czech, and none of them share my preferred combo of long hair and beard, or dress like I do, nor would I require them to do so.
Guess what, one of those is even gay, and you’ll have to figure out which one by yourselves, if that’s what you really care about. I don’t. I don’t think anybody should. Sexual preference is not character. Gender is not character. Nationality is not character. Haircut is not character. All that is but flavor.
Also, don’t tell me how great the character is, or how much worse other people are. That just makes the hero look like an asshole. Maybe a well-meaning one, maybe even a charming one, but still like someone who is immature and unwise, full of themselves, misguided.
Instead, show me what the person believes, show me what they’d do in difficult situations, show me their struggles, their failures, their victories. Show me their growth. Show that they are a great individual and then I will consider what they have to say. Like it was handled in Wonder Woman.
In my opinion, Captain Marvel can work as a character if her current state is something that she will be forced to outgrow. But if this is the scriptwriters’ idea of her already being perfect, if she’s supposed to only stay like this, then I’m sorry to say that she’s not a great character. Not the worst one, but not anyone exceptional enough to be worthy of being emulated.
I certainly hope that changes, because I adore powerful female characters that punch things to make them explode. With meaning, of course.