Captain Marvel’s story is one of learning that she is fighting with one hand tied behind her back. To tweak a quote from Lindy West: through a certain lens, feminism is the process of learning the many different ways your hand is tied behind your back.
Why? Because if our hands weren’t tied behind our backs, we would all soar.
The Supreme Intelligence and Yon-Rogg could only keep “Vers” under their thumb by disconnecting her from her history, hobbling her power, and pushing her away from her emotions. Without the dampener, Captain Marvel not only breaks from the supreme Intelligence and defeats Yon-Rogg, she literally flies.
There are many ways that women are kept at lower power, even without Kree technology. Unequal pay, street harassment—like the biker demanding that Captain Marvel smile—and the kind of run of the mill sexism that has people searching for every reason to hate a woman-fronted movie before they even see it, are just a few ways that women are prevented from reaching their full potential. And each and every one of these is worse for women of colour, disabled women, queer women, trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming folks.
Throughout the movie, we hear Yon-Rogg tell Vers that emotions are holding her back. She must control them, push them down, and learn to live without them. Her memories of her human life – her emotional connections – are causing her unrest and, he says, literally keeping her from achieving her potential. It rankled when I heard it, but frankly it’s a message we hear often enough. Can a woman really be president— what if she has her period? Will this woman be able to lead, or will she get too overwhelmed by her feelings? What is this woman doing suddenly jumping into the MCU out of nowhere, and can she really lead the Avengers?
As women have fought for better on-screen portrayals, to be more than just the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives to the people going on the real adventure and making a real difference, there has been an evolution in the way that women’s emotions are seen on screen. A plea for strong women characters was answered by some with women that are just as emotionally stunted as many male action heroes. All brawn, with no emotional depth. No femmes allowed.
It’s great to see hardened women on screen, but it shouldn’t be the only thing. And if the 80s taught us anything in all their shoulder-padded glory, it’s that women don’t have to pretend to be men in order to break barriers. As we shift away from flat portrayals and toward complex characters, it’s important to see characters like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel who are allowed and even celebrated for bringing emotions with them when they save the world.
Yon-Rogg is nothing if not audacity personified, plucking Carol Danvers from her home world and the community of women who helped her become the best version of herself and instead viewing her as his own creation. The audacity to insist you gave someone powers when you know firsthand that you didn’t. The temerity to claim that her past is clouding her judgment and holding her back, when really it would make her question him. The bold-faced assertion that she must fight him without powers because it’s more noble, knowing all the while it’s the only way he stands a chance of beating her. It’s emotional manipulation, a tactic used by many abusive men.
He is every man insisting he knows best. Every man trying to explain a woman’s own power to her. Every man claiming to support women while not-so-secretly holding them back, in ways large and small.
Like so many sexist guys on conference calls or arguing in Facebook posts, Yon-Rogg tries to make Carol Danvers play by his rules in a final battle. He even insists on calling her the name he assigned her, Vers, even after she has regained her memories and told him to call her by her real name. He sets out the premise, and she must beat him on terms that he sets. But we know that even accepting those terms means conceding a loss.
Instead, Carol Danvers punches Yon-Rogg’s framework into oblivion. She refuses to play ball. She refuses to even explain her refusal. She doesn’t owe him anything. But she does use him; Yon-Rogg is a good way to send a message to the Supreme Intelligence, with the added benefit that it makes sure her former mentor will be labelled a coward.
The creators behind Captain Marvel promised us that it wasn’t quite an origin story, yet we see Yon-Rogg act like it is. He, Vers and the Supreme Intelligence all refer to the lie that the Kree bestowed Carol’s power upon her. Yon-Rogg trains Vers like so many senseis and Jedi masters have before. He tells Vers to tamp down her emotions and that she must learn to beat him without her powers before she can fully master those glowing fists.
It’s frustrating and dumb, but what woman hasn’t been spoken down to by a supposed expert before? Who hasn’t received one-size-fits-all career advice from a white guy and shared that knowing glance with others in the room, the one that says, “well obviously that won’t work for us”? Just because we know this advice is bad doesn’t mean we trust that Marvel knows that. This may be her movie, but frankly that’s not always enough—just ask the Disney princesses. He is her teacher. She is his student. So we roll our eyes and wait to be informed that there must be a lesson in all of this, and she is simply too impulsive, too headstrong, too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate the knowledge he wishes to impart.
Instead, the movie is saying that emotions are an asset. It’s Captain Marvel’s emotional ties that help her remember Mar-Vell, locate the ship, and find the Tesseract. It’s her emotions, empathy, and judgment that guide her to see the Skrulls as worthy of life and safety and see Kree hypocrisy rather than blindly following orders. That’s also how Phil Coulson makes the right choice to let Fury and Captain Marvel go free, paving the way for the two SHIELD agents to have a lifetime of trust, and for Fury and Captain Marvel to trust one another, embarking on a partnership that may well save half the galaxy.
Captain Marvel knows that women don’t become heroes on our own, and they built a story to support that. Carol’s best friend and her daughter, Monica and Maria, were clearly her chosen family in her earlier life. Her mentor, the face she would be most comfortable with, was also a woman, Dr. Wendy Lawson. And when it came time to show he hero’s origin story, Captain Marvel adjusts it to keep agency with Carol. Gone is the powered love interest Dr. Walter Lawson, replaced instead by the older, gender-swapped to Dr. Wendy Lawson. She dies before the blast, ensuring that Carol’s powers are her own. Unlike in the comic, there is no lingering question of romance. The film’s screenwriters, most of whom are women, ensured that Carol’s narrative would be her own.
In the world of Captain Marvel, qualities that are often associated with women and femmes – like emotional intelligence and empathy – are features, not bugs. It’s sad really, but beyond the world of television, it’s still shocking for a major studio film to say that being emotional is an asset. That being a woman is an asset. Someday, I hope there will be enough of these movies that we won’t bat an eye when a character like Carol Danvers isn’t portrayed as “just as good” as the other heroes because she might as well be a man – she’s more powerful, and it’s because and in spite of she’s spent her whole life fighting with one hand tied behind her back.
Between being a human woman and being under the thumb of the Kree, she is like a baseball player who has spent her whole life warming up with a weighted bat. Lucky for us, Captain Marvel has just now stepped up to the plate.