Captain Marvel Has Been Battling Misogyny Way Before the Current Trolls (Guest Column)

Captain Marvel Still 6 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Decades prior to her strong female-penned current incarnation, writes a USC professor, the character was crafted by male writers as a hyper-sexed caricature of a second-wave feminist who was casually subjected to sexual assault.

Never mind that Captain Marvel can fly. Her greatest superpower — at least in her print incarnation, which has been around since 1968 — may have been surviving misogynistic attacks. These range from a brutal rape in Avengers #200 to an ill-conceived revamping into “Ms. Marvel,” a hyper-sexed caricature of a second-wave feminist, in 1976. Not surprisingly, the upcoming movie version starring Brie Larson as Captain Marvel has also attracted misogynistic trolls — to the extent that Rotten Tomatoes had to curtail the trolls’ ability to post prerelease negative comments.

In 2012, writer Kelly Sue DeConnick reimagined the character. When DeConnick, who has also penned independent comics such as Bitch Planet, sought an ongoing, brand-name character to write, she pitched Marvel on a Captain Marvel overhaul. “It was a careerist move,” she admits. And it worked.

DeConnick and Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel’s off-duty name) seem to have been made for each other. Her Danvers is an Air Force pilot — able to fly a plane without superpowers, yet hesitant to own the godlike abilities (including flight) that she has gained through an accidental fusing of her DNA with that of an alien. Early in DeConnick’s version, Captain America exhorts Danvers to “stop being an adjunct,” to lose the honorific “Ms.” and to embrace “the mantle” of Captain Marvel. It is a soaring moment — a moment of clarity and ascension — especially considering the decades of misogynistic tailspin that preceded it.

Some might say Danvers hit bottom around 1980 when Marcus, a character in Avengers #200, kidnapped her, then used mind control to violate and impregnate her. In a well-known essay about this incident, critic Carol A. Strickland took issue with the all-male creative team at Marvel: “They presented her as a victim of rape who enjoyed the process and even wound up swooning over her rapist,” Strickland wrote. “For such a storyline to pass through the echelons of editor, editor-in-chief, and Comics Code can only be a crime.”

Yet if this was a crime, it was a widespread one. In both the Marvel and DC universes, rapes, beatings and dismemberment of women were routine devices to advance the plot. Even Watchmen, the critically acclaimed DC book by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, features a graphic flashback of a brutal rape in its second chapter. Readers viewing this scene today may be less aghast at the explicit violence than at the cruel shaming of the victim. “Cover yourself,” her rescuer instructs.

By 1994, comics writer Gail Simone felt compelled to expose this pattern of brutality. In response to a horrific sequence in Green Lantern #54, she created "Women in Refrigerators," a website listing over 100 female comic characters who were raped, battered, “de-powered,” murdered and occasionally resurrected so they could be roughed up and slain again. In the story that inspired the website’s title, Kyle Raynor, aka the Green Lantern, returns home to find a note that directs him to his fridge — which contains the butchered remains of his girlfriend.

“It’s not that bad things can’t happen to female characters,” Simone told me in email, “but these were such thoughtless stories. Hero comes home, his girlfriend is chopped up in the refrigerator, he vows revenge, she’s never mentioned again. It’s just lazy, and for a while, it was easier to list female characters it didn’t happen to than those it did.”

In comics shops, Simone recalled, men would ask: “Why don’t more women read comics?” They didn’t see the obvious answer.

Women in Refrigerators, however, “suddenly brought all the female fans out of hiding,” Simone said. “They started standing up and saying, ‘We’re here, we’re buying, maybe don’t kill all of the characters we like?’ And there was also an influx of writers, mostly guys but some women writers as well, who weren’t so enamored of comics being a boys-only club. They started telling stories where the women weren’t just props and eye candy or victims of convenience.”

Simone has kept her original website intact: “I want it to remain a time capsule, something we can point at for how far we have traveled.”

Had Women in Refrigerators appeared 20 years earlier, it might have helped rein in the worst excesses of “Ms. Marvel,” a reworking of Captain Marvel that tried to trade on the visibility of chic, high-profile feminists like Gloria Steinem. Hard to say what aspect of the comic was most tone deaf: the sleazy costume that exposed Ms. Marvel’s navel or the bizarre, defensive letter that her first writer, Gerry Conway, placed in the inaugural issue. "Why is a man writing this book about a woman?” Conway asks. “Why didn’t a woman create Ms. Marvel? For one thing, for whatever reason (right or wrong), at the moment there are no thoroughly trained and qualified women writers working in the super-hero comics field. (By making that statement, I’ve alienated half a dozen talented women; but I stand by what I said – no women writers trained in super-hero comics.)”

After the strange suggestion that comic-writers require certification — as if they were attorneys passing the bar — Conway cuts to the chase: “Reason two is more personal. A man is writing this book because a man wants to write this book: me. It’s a challenge. I want to do it.”

And he did do it — ignominiously — with the help of his wife, Carla.

For her rehabilitation of Captain Marvel, DeConnick did not sidestep the character’s challenging past. In the 2012 collection, Danvers journeys to New Orleans to assist Monica Rambeau, a woman of color with superpowers who had herself previously embraced the Captain Marvel mantle. (To accept the “mantle” of a brand-name superhero, a human being is endowed with special powers and wears a designated costume. The Captain Marvel character in the past was not always Danvers. Similarly, a series of humans passed down the “mantle” of the Green Lantern over the years.) Danvers also travels through time to engage with Helen Cobb, a fictional World War II flying ace who shares some characteristics with Jere Cobb, a pilot who trained to become an astronaut with the Mercury 13.

By creating a playful rivalry between Cobb and Danvers around their stick-and-rudder skills, DeConnick hoped to belie another misogynistic stereotype: the notion that women cannot compete without being enemies. In popular culture, men have historically been depicted as loyal opponents, women as ruthless backstabbers. Perhaps because she works in collaborative media — comic books and, more recently, film — DeConnick knows firsthand both how wrong and how damaging this misconception can be.

“I have dear friends — writers — and we don’t compete as if there’s only one seat at the table,” DeConnick explained. “When somebody does something that brings all our games up, I applaud.”

M.G. Lord, the author of Forever Barbie and The Accidental Feminist, is an assistant professor of English at USC, where she teaches a course on comics and graphic novels.