Film & TV

Captain Marvel and Today’s Exhausting Feminism

Brie Larson in Captain Marvel (Marvel Studios)
Forget ‘leaning in,’ America — lean out with me!

Gird your loins, America, for I have a bone-rattlingly powerful tale to tell: In case you haven’t heard, there is a new movie hitting theaters, and it will reportedly change the way you look at the world forever. It is called “Captain Marvel,” and it is based on a comic-book superhero, and the superhero is played by . . . here, you might grab your smelling salts, because this is super groundbreaking and wildly controversial in the year 2019 . . . A WOMAN.

Whoa! I know! It’s mind-boggling! This has never happened before, except when it happened two years ago, when Wonder Woman came out, which was also when an impressively large press cohort collectively and conveniently forgot the countless strong female leads that had occurred even before then! Remember those fevered days? Remember when an alarming number of movie critics simultaneously lost their minds over the sheer raw feminism of Wonder Woman, documenting how they cried at the theater and declaring that viewing Wonder Woman might have been the most powerful experience of their life, which should deeply worry us all if that is indeed really true?

It’s okay if you don’t remember: The Internet appears to be melting all of our brains. Anyway, I liked Wonder Woman, and I’m sure Captain Marvel is fine, despite the web of semi-hysterical press surrounding its release. The women in the film, intones one review at Forbes, “are pilots, they are scientists, they are warriors, and while some of the men around them might not understand that or accept it, the women don’t frankly need them to and aren’t going to wait around for the myopic men to catch up to the facts.”

Ah, yes! Those daft, myopic men, always fouling things up! But wait, there’s more: “That’s not to say, however, that Captain Marvel doesn’t remind us of the sorts of daily frustrations, struggles, and inequalities women face in society — being told to smile more . . .”

Wait. What? Let’s stop here, shall we? Out of the world’s massive crab bucket of problems, let us stop and consider the modern scourge among American women of being told to smile more. Has it been two seconds? Okay, that’s probably enough time — although if you google “Captain Marvel” and “smile more,” you will discover that many people fervently disagree.

For the record, I have never been told to smile more. This deeply worries me, because perhaps it means I am smiling too much. Truly, it keeps me up at night, brooding like a superhero in anguish! Just kidding. It doesn’t worry me at all, because it doesn’t matter. I don’t care, and neither should you, and nobody should be in a tizzy about this particular subject in general, because life is precious and very short.

With that in mind, here’s what does worry me a bit, even if it is a bit tangential: Captain Marvel, or at least the reception of it, might be a subtle indicator of how suffocating modern feminism has become.

At a base level, the very idea of a superhero is innately goofy or farcical, or at least it should be. But Captain Marvel, by most accounts, is almost perfect: Strong. Beautiful. Driven. Ultra-powerful. According to Slate, she is a “serious, stolid type whose steel will and laser-focused commitment to her mission make her a formidable foe even when her fists aren’t glowing orange with photon-blasting superpowers,” which is impressive indeed.

But what does it say about our culture that influential people take a movie like this — and similar so-called “representations” of women, which, as a reminder, are based on fictional comic-book characters with alien superpowers — so seriously? Perhaps it’s because modern feminism has morphed into a crazed culture of unforgiving, humorless, and ultimately atomized workaholism. But hey, that’s just my theory.

On February 24, The Atlantic published a fascinating essay by Derek Thompson on the rise of American “workism,” which he describes as a “kind of religion” that promises “identity, transcendence, and community” by centering one’s life around work. While traditional religious faith has declined in America, Thompson notes, “everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.” Morph workism with feminism and boy, oh boy, you’ve got something to behold.

I have a fairly old-school view when it comes to female empowerment: Women should be free to pursue their dreams, whether that involves being an astronaut or an accountant or a farmer or a stay-at-home mom. I’ve also been around long enough to see that American culture relentlessly pushes high-achieving young women to obsessively put their careers first in their lives, no matter what their ultimate personal goals might be — even if those goals involve having a family.

As Thompson notes in The Atlantic, “having a job or career they enjoy” is noted as “extremely or very important” for 95 percent of teens. Only 47 percent rank getting married with the same importance. Between men and women, guess who loses more from this cultural phenomenon? (Hint: It’s the half with the shorter biological clock.)

Don’t get me wrong: Work can be very good! I’ve done a lot of it myself. I’m as big a fan of free-market capitalism as the next red-blooded American who grew up during the Reagan administration, trust me. Unfortunately, the modern feminist vision somehow morphs that capitalism into its worst caricature, or a Hobbesian war of all against all. Weirdly, it also simultaneously suggests that we all should be getting up at 5 a.m. daily to prep for, say, three Ironman races a year — or, even better, as the Los Angeles Times recently put it, “train like a noble Kree warrior hero” based on Captain Marvel star Brie Larson’s nine-month pre-movie workout plan. Right.

Alternatively, you could just go running a few times a week and call it a day. Forget “leaning in,” America — lean out with me! Let’s start a movement together! You won’t get to be a proverbial Captain Marvel, but that’s okay. Like much of today’s pop feminism, that sounds kind of exhausting and not very fun.

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