Captain Marvel is a Female Cowboy on a Mission to Obliterate Patriarchal Exploitation
Image source: Marvel Studios 2019.
My whole life, I’ve wanted to be the female cowboy – especially at 13 years old. The year I turned 13 was the year I became a teenager, the year I was first cat-called, the year I had my first period, the year my body “grew up” and stopped becoming my own and instead was something to be looked at, the year in which I started to feel less like a child and more like a sex object.
The year I turned 13 was also the year when Carol Danvers first transformed into Captain Marvel. She stood confidently in her own body on the cover of the comic book, a golden glow emulating from her portrait. It was the first time I could really remember seeing a woman take up the entire cover of any comic book. Before, I’d only seen women on comic book covers posed in sexual ways, their bodies bent out of shape to look more appealing to the male reader. Wednesday after Wednesday, I returned to the most special little comic book store down the street from my home and I read up like a dedicated student. I read up on the visual power of the female cowboy amidst an industry designed to promote the white-male-underdog’s succession to sovereign power. My womanhood was never sovereign to power, but Captain Marvel made me feel like it was my absolute duty to demand it.
I’ll be clear: the bottom line of this article is you need to see “Captain Marvel.” Your daughter needs to see “Captain Marvel.” Your mother needs to see “Captain Marvel.” All of the men in your life need to see “Captain Marvel.” Eight-year-olds everywhere need to see “Captain Marvel.”
It’s not a perfect film. Under the structure of Marvel and Disney, who historically give platform to the reinforcement of white masculinity, it cannot be a perfect film. But, it’s damn near perfect. This film lets women be as they are. They are emotional, conflicted in whether they’re being exploited or empowered, and bettered by their relationships from other women. The film allows women to be capable of rewiring patriarchal expectations at large.
I didn’t expect this film to get so many things right: female friendship, the notion of empowerment being grounded in patriarchal rule, how emotional intuition is just as logical as calculated objectivity, and that it’s not surprising that a woman can be a hero. Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) is written as a woman by other women, but she is not extraordinary on the fact that she is a female superhero. She is extraordinary because she is Captain Marvel.
I grew up with an obsession for the fantastical. I immersed myself in 1950s cardboard space operas, spaghetti westerns, and any form of magical realism. I now realize the reason I dug fantastical modes of cinema and literature was because classical genre is rooted in the notion of the “other.” In sci-fi flicks, it is the notion of the invasion of the “other” (either the invasion of aliens to humans, or humans to aliens). In spaghetti westerns, it is the rogue stranger who overcomes moral ambiguity to defeat villainous rule. In magical realism, the feeling of not belonging is personified in witchcraft, the paranormal, and other magical beings. Theoretically, these fantastical realms could be a place where the marginalized could demand power because there were limitless fictional possibilities, with significant removal from a grounded reality.
But, consequently, my love of fantastical cinema and literature was my own undoing. I was rooting for the white male hero to overcome his own “othering” within an institution. This “othering” was a bizarre nothingness–it was “othering” from pushing the limits of an institution or being physically weaker than other white men. It was not the form of “othering” I experienced. I wanted to be the astronaut. I wanted to be the wizard. I wanted to be the cowboy. And I wanted this because I was fringed from the masculine narrative.
I didn’t belong in spaces where I could take up power. Instead when I felt like the cowboy, the only visual representation of myself was compartmentalized body parts. The visual representation of myself was as little space as possible: lips, legs, breasts. I wanted more! I wanted a whole body that invaded spaces I was systematically designed not to enter. But even as late as the 2000s, I never really got that.
But the female cowboy has arrived. And she is a superhero! And she is at large! And she is not willing to take empowerment from patriarchal rule. She needs to stop patriarchal rule in its totality. She, of course, is Captain Marvel.
While comic books can be inaccessible to some, cinema is an ever-growing accessible medium. What’s even more important in cinema’s accessibility is the visuality of representation. With more and more girls seeing Captain Marvel take up space, more and more girls will feel entitled to take up space. The goal of representation is not just for the marginalized to be in the narrative, it’s to create entirely new narratives for the marginalized.
The adaptation of the comic book to film is an important move. What we see on screen (without giving too much away) is the singular action of a woman positing new radical rule. This is done by Captain Marvel directly dismantling a system not designed for her by removing herself from patriarchal empowerment and defining power for herself outside of the system in totality. This directly teaches young girls how to demand respect without bargaining for it. Whether this is a conscious decision in the part of the filmmaker, the institution that Captain Marvel rejects could be seen as U.S. hegemony.
Yet Captain Marvel is both a perpetrator and a victim of this U.S. hegemony. She’s a woman who has battled microaggressions and blatant sexism which is promoted by U.S. ideology. But she also chooses to wear the colors of the U.S. Air Force–commenting that the superheroes are on the same side as the U.S. military–portraying the long withstanding war propaganda in superhero films. This upholds the U.S. as a superpower itself without understanding the ways in which the U.S. espouses war to supremacy, both in content and promotion.
Now, let’s talk about the female cowboy.
It should be noted that I use the term female cowboy because the cowgirl is already a term that exists in western cinema. But the cowgirl is often seen as passive and in service to the cowboy. The female cowboy is her own breed of destruction to sustain civility.
The structure of “Captain Marvel” follows Sergio Leone’s framework for a spaghetti western. In that, the film espouses the notion of the cowboy through stylized showdowns, moments of contemplation, how the stranger becomes the hero, and use of moral ambiguity or moral perspective switch. But what is most important in the stylization of the film as a western is the space which women and Black people claim as cowboys.
The traditional spaghetti western visualizes the cowboy as the white hero of a foreign terrain, rooted in a glorification of colonialism. The obsession with the cowboy in western cinema is connected to Herbert Hoover’s “rugged individualism” which posits that a person should be entirely independent from outside assistance. Cowboys represent rugged individualism through espousing the stranger (who is often nomadic) as lawless, heroic, and violent, by means of necessity to dismantle a greater power.
However, a white male cowboy can be entirely independent from outside assistance because he is privileged to inherently be advanced by a U.S. institution. The institution already serves him so he is independent in the sense that his birthright is systemic power. But if women and people of color were to be the cowboy, they would need to create a singular action that ruptures a historic structure of the white male invader. True “rugged individualism” should be people on the fringes of society going out of their way to actively undo the injustice that harms them.
Let’s dive deeper with some SPOILERS:
With Captain Marvel’s team being made up of herself, Black women and men, and alien refugees (although sometimes voiced by white men), they create the visibility of marginalized communities defeating the white man (Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg). And specifically because this film is about Captain Marvel herself, this visibility of the female cowboy allows the female spectator to imagine a world in which women have the power to completely obliterate the patriarchy instead of reinforcing a masculine sovereignty of the U.S. frontier. There is no need for white male power in this film. There are moments of white male allyship (Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson) but they never overpower or save Captain Marvel and her team.
This representation of allyship shows the ways in which young boys can support women without overpowering them. The film also shows that women who are hurt by an institution that tricks and withholds power from them should be the ones taking back their power. Power is not reclaimed via internal empowerment; it is claimed through direct action. It is claimed by destroying the institution itself and setting a precedent for other women to learn from. By the end of the film, Captain Marvel even vows to come after the entire Kree empire for its injustice to the Skrull refugees, her mentor, Mar-Vell, and herself.
Carol Danvers acts as a surrogate aunt and mentor to her best friend’s daughter, Monica Rambeau. Carol calls eleven-year-old Monica (Akira Akbar) “Lieutenant Trouble,” allowing the audience to believe Monica will end up fulfilling the title of Lieutenant Trouble with some major superpowers of her own. This potential rise to “Lieutenant Trouble” also comes from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) telling Monica that she can “light up like (Carol) one day”. What’s even more exciting is that “Captain Marvel” is set in the 1990s, meaning if we fast-forward to today, Monica is in her 30s and could likely come into powers of her own. Hopefully, Marvel is setting us up to see Monica in “Avengers: Endgame,” another upcoming film, or potentially even her own franchise. It’s not far off to think Monica Rambeau will become a superhero because Monica Rambeau is the original female Captain Marvel in comics from the early 1980s, decades before Carol assumed the mantle.
Monica later underwent the alter-egos of Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum. But she was the first female Captain Marvel. And it’s also important to note Monica is a Black girl. The Carol Danvers we see on screen and in the comics is a white woman. In this film, Carol Danvers is mentoring Monica Rambeau who historically precedes her. Monica becomes inspired by the white woman. This is problematic because Monica as a Black superhero has her own motives, her own traits, and her own abilities. She does not need outside inspiration from white sources to step into her true power.
Monica’s visibility in the film, although secondary to Carol, is still incredibly important. The character could have easily been erased from the narrative altogether but the choice to portray Monica as a young girl leads a path for Monica post-“Avengers: Endgame.” It should also be noted that Monica and her mother, Maria (played by Lashana Lynch), provide visible female relationships that exist intergenerationally. Carol, Maria, and Monica all support one another and although Maria is a single mother, the absence of a man is not an issue. Monica’s father is never even mentioned. Instead, the film accepts that single mothers raise daughters with the help of friends and it’s ordinary.
Another intergenerational female relationship explored in “Captain Marvel” is that of Carol and Dr. Wendy Lawson. Carol sees Lawson in visions after her transformation, and the audience later learns that these vision simulations are supposed to portray the person Carol respects the most. This shows that “Captain Marvel” embraces women in the now (Carol), pays respect women who have helped paved the way for other women (Lawson), and encourages women of the future (Monica).
Lawson is a mentor of Carol’s before Carol forgot who she was and became a Kree warrior. Lawson is the ultimate catalyst into Carol’s powers. Carol consumes an energy core that belongs to Lawson, making her a superhero. This is key because Dr. Wendy Lawson is an adaptation of Dr. Walter Lawson (or Mar-Vell), the original Captain Marvel. In the comics, Carol Danvers becomes Captain Marvel due to the influence of a man. In the film, Carol receives her powers from another woman exuding the possibilities that patriarchal influence is not necessary to accessing power. This allows Carol to play a more active role by purposely choosing to stand against Yon-Rogg and shoot the energy core that he is after.
We learn also that Captain Marvel is the inspiration for the Avengers Initiative. In the world of the film, Captain Marvel is the first superhero (after Captain America disappears for sixty years). Her aide to the Skrull refugees and defense of the energy core leads Nick Fury to seek out more heroes with her abilities. By her prompting the Avengers Initiative, Captain Marvel shows that through her power, she can rewire systems of government. This poses to young girls watching that by continuing to fight for something you can enact direct change. Just as I used to scream at thirteen-year-old boys during the eighth grade lunch hour, Captain Marvel is the most powerful superhero! No question about it!
Perhaps the most important feature of the film is the line, “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” Carol says this to Yon-Rogg after he tells her he’s proud of how he’s designed her and that he wants to see her beat him without clinging to her emotions. In this moment, Yon-Rogg represents the withholding of patriarchal power onto women. Patriarchal institutions will often protect full access to power from women so as to hold on to the ideal that patriarchy can grant “empowerment” to women. These institutions simultaneously are able to take back any notion of “empowerment” if women use it too much to their advantage.
By Carol Danvers verbalizing not needing to prove herself to anyone, she’s rejecting this grant of empowering altogether. This is a reminder I still find myself needing today, even as the educated, well-read feminist I am. There are still situations where I feel the need to prove myself to men simply to be seen as an equal. But I don’t. No one does. I know my power; no one needs to define it for me.
An organization designed to reinforce white men coming into their power (and bonus points: rooted in war propaganda), Marvel is no messiah for the female cowboy. It takes tactical subversion to re-route the visibility of who power belongs to on screen. Similar to “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” uses the unavoidable institution of the superhero narrative to challenge the disparity of who is afforded power. What is said when white boys get films about heroes that look like them who are entitled to confidence and agility? What is said when they see this on repeat? What is said when girls and kids of color don’t see themselves in these films? So, yes, I’ve heard arguments for Marvel being untouchable because the superhero narrative has already caused damage. But we aren’t expecting a revolution any time soon. So if we can’t dismantle, what is proof that we can redirect it?
The proof is behind-the-camera! “Captain Marvel” is successful because it is written and storyboarded by women (Anna Boden, Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Nicole Perlman, and Meg LeFauve as well as Ryan Fleck) and co-directed by a woman (Anna Boden). The first Captain Marvel comic book starring Carol Danvers as the hero was also created by a woman (Kelly Sue DeConnick). The reason the film succeeds is due to the women behind the film. “Black Panther” also succeeded in representation due to its majority Black creative team and that the film was written by Black men (Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole) rather than white writers attempting to adapt the mold of the white superhero to Black bodies. Both “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel” show that Marvel can advance representation, but only if they choose to hire people who reflect the story. Behind-the-camera representation also proves another power to audiences, it shows that power doesn’t just exist in the superhero. It exists in the creator too.
Films like “Captain Marvel” aren’t just necessary for young girls to see. Boys need to see this too. They need to see what allyship is. They need to look up to women. Boys need to see films where female superheroes aren’t posed as out-of-the-ordinary but instead framed in the same amazement that male superheroes are. Captain Marvel is never questioned in her abilities because she is a woman by her comrades or her enemies. She is overpowered by her father and male air force pilots in flashbacks, but this is to pose how she has dealt with misogyny and fought it her whole life. But these are the issues every woman faces in some facet or one another. Her superhero abilities, however, are just a given. She is seen as weak by her enemies because she is a human, but this is no different from other superheroes. This visibility highlights that young boys should look up to Captain Marvel just like they look up to Spider-Man. Captain Marvel demands space and respect which shows young boys that women can occupy the same space that any man can.
Some may criticize the more on-the-nose moments of the film or the obvious notes of “girl power.” These are moments like a man telling Carol to smile or “I’m Just A Girl” playing in the final epic battle scene. But I’d argue that these on-the-nose moments are necessary because they break down feminist theory and action for young girls. These moments directly showcase what’s sexist and what can be done to combat it. These moments say “be the cowboy.” They say “do it yourself and demand respect.”
Although Marvel is still a flawed system due to its roots in American war propaganda and the white-male-underdog narrative, it is still an unavoidable and powerful medium of representation. Because of its visibility in Hollywood, it is incredibly important to disrupt this system of representation. “Captain Marvel” proves that Marvel’s history of hegemonic power can be disrupted to showcase films where a woman can obliterate that which does not serve her own autonomy.