Superheroes, Women and Emotion

So, from another site I came across this post by Jessica Toomer that takes an … interesting take on Captain Marvel, focusing on the idea that she sees in the movie about the conflict between Captain Marvel’s emotions and potentially emotion-based powers and the Kree notion of emotionless honour. She’s fully in favour of emotion as a power source and guiding light, especially for women. I haven’t seen the movie yet — and probably won’t until I can get it cheap on DVD — but as someone who is Stoic-leaning — hence the name — I definitely have opinions on emotion, which is what I’m going to talk about here.

But, sadly, the first thing I’m going to have to talk about is how yet another feminist critic of a media doesn’t actually seem to understand the media she’s criticizing:

For many superhero flicks, a fight scene is a climactic atom bomb bursting with CGI effects, logic-defying action, a sarcastic quip, a kick-ass soundtrack.

It infuses stakes into a story, it delivers on an unspoken promise that draws fans to theaters: yes, there will be violence, come and marvel at it. Rarely does a fight sequence serve a larger purpose, one beyond thrusting characters into world-shattering realities or introducing audiences to the glossed-over destruction caused by our heroes awe-inducing abilities.

Um, no, no, that’s not true of most superhero movies, and especially not of any good ones. The thing is that superhero movies aren’t generally entertaining because of their massive action scenes. That’s what we have traditional action movies for. Instead, superhero movies are always built around some kind of core conflict, usually inside the superhero themselves, with the supervillain generally being there to highlight that core conflict. The villain, in general, has traits that reflect the overall conflict in the story, if they are the driving force in that conflict. So, usually, the villain will either be completely different from the superhero and so the clash will literally be between those two sets of values, or the villain will be what the superhero could become if they embraced the values of the villain, and so will indeed be their dark mirror that they need to overcome. What this means is that the final battle is ultimately the culmination of the conflict, tying directly into the theme and so always serving the larger purpose of settling the conflict and satisfying that underlying theme.

I can’t see how could miss that if she watched the other Marvel superhero movies. Civil War’s final fight is between Cap, Iron Man and Winter Soldier, and reflects the final dismantling of the Avengers — as was also hinted at in the big set piece fight between the two Avengers splinter groups — and has as its underlying theme the main motivations of the characters, for Stark to avenge wrongs and Cap to protect his friends. In Winter Soldier, the final battle is between Winter Soldier and Cap, and ends with Cap refusing to fight him anymore, tying back into his caring for his friends. The original Captain America’s final fight was the direct clash of Cap’s and Red Skull’s ideologies. The final fight of Spider-Man 3 was resolving the rift between Harry and Peter while opposing what Peter could have become if he hadn’t rejected the alien symbiote. The final fight in “The Avengers” is about the Avengers assembling and coming together as an actual team that can rely on each other. And in pretty much every movie that isn’t a cliffhanger, the final fight at a minimum includes these sorts of character resolving moments (Wanda deciding to use her powers at Hawkeye’s prompting in “Age of Ultron”, for example, or Doctor Strange winning his fight by being prepared to die over and over and over again to foil the villain’s plans). So, no, Captain Marvel is decidedly average in making the final fight scene more than just a stakes-raising fight scene by adding character points to it. All good superhero movies do that, because all good superhero movies have some kind of character conflict as their basic theme. That’s why they work and work better than simple action movies.

So, what, then, is Captain Marvel’s main conflict?

Carol, like so many women, is told repeatedly throughout the film that she must “fight fair.” And “fair,” in the case of the men she encounters both human and alien, means “void of emotion.” When we see Carol square off against Yon-Rogg at the beginning of the movie, we’re led to believe that detachment is necessary for any Kree warrior. It’s how this race of people survive and thrive. Nobility, honor, these are the things that matter most. That might be true, but it’s also a guise for a more sinister reality, one in which a man in power tries to stifle the abilities of a woman by equating her emotions with something negative, something shameful.

For Carol, her powers are directly connected to her feelings. She’s able to blast Kree warships from the sky because of her love for people like Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her mentor on Earth, Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening). She’s able to battle Skrulls with iron-encased fists thanks to her rage at their perceived injustice. She’s able to channel her emotions into a weapon, and that weapon scares the sh*t out of men.

So, to sum it up, Captain Marvel has to learn to embrace rather than suppress her emotions. This … isn’t exactly a new concept in general media. In fact, in general there tends to be far more media where a person who is trying to be dispassionate has to learn that lesson than the other way around. So other than Toomer deciding to link it to a personal feminist interpretation, this isn’t all that new. Thus, it’s not really something that “scares the sh*t out of men” because a number of male heroes do it, too. Captain America’s greatest powers, for example, are his positive emotional ones, which are responsible for his getting the actual powers he does get, as Erskine points out that the serum enhances what they already have, and that a bully becomes even more of one but a good person becomes even better.

But let’s examine the notion of “fight fair.” Toomer presents that here as being a bad thing, but this is shaky because there are generally only two kinds of people who don’t want to fight fair: people who can’t win a fair fight, and bullies. Characters who want all fights to be fair and refuse to accept unfair advantages — even natural ones — even for themselves are seen as incredibly moral people. Potentially Stupid Good people if doing that causes them to lose key fights that they, as heroes, need to win, but Good nonetheless. Thus, in general, if you start off with a character or race that act this way but want them to be villains, you tend to make them hypocrites in that they want others to fight fair while not wanting to do that themselves, and usually if you do that the key is the hero realizing that and stopping them from cheating. But Captain Marvel is the one who has the potential advantage, and so it’s not that likely — from what Toomer says here — that he cheats, at least at the start of the battle. So it’s a very dangerous move to present a hero who has to learn not to fight fair without giving that a pragmatic twist, such as in the Kenny Rogers song “The Coward of the County” where the main character has to learn that sometimes you have to fight, and doing so isn’t the same thing as starting them or being violent.

So, what does happen at the start of that final battle?

Yong-Rogg, like every abusive, controlling partner, attempts to emotionally manipulate Carol into denying a part of herself in order to make him feel more comfortable. He demands she battle him without her abilities, just fist-to-fist, believing her emotion-fueled powers serve as some kind of handicap. He hurls words like “noble” and “honor” to demean the source of Carol’s strength, to make it seem like something that must be dampened, not nourished. He challenges her to fight on his terms, to adhere to his rules so that he can hold on to some semblance of control.

And Carol, in a true act of indifferent dismissal, silences Yon-Rogg’s commands with a photon punch that leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge. She doesn’t try to reason with her former mentor, she doesn’t feel the need to answer his questions, to justify her actions. She simply blasts her way past his bullsh*t with a sly smirk and a bigger message.

So, she uses her overwhelming power to establish dominance over him, with a smirk. That sounds like a bully to me, not someone whom many have tapped as taking Captain America’s place in the Avengers.

Look, there are a few tropes that are used in situations like this. I’ve already mentioned the hypocrite one, which reveals the demand as being an attempt to manipulate and nothing more. There’s also the trope that the demand for a fair fight is not necessarily hypocritical, but is done to achieve a greater purpose. In short, they challenge them to fight fair to delay them or achieve some other goal, with the hero seeing through that as the key. There’s also the notion of the “pragmatic hero”, where the hero scoffs at the idea of playing fair when the stakes are as high as they are. The scene in Indiana Jones where Indy, faced with a swordsman, draws his gun and shoots him instead of fighting him is the epitome of this scene.

Toomer does not comment on the villain being hypocritical, nor does she show that there was an ulterior motive and, in fact, her feminist analysis doesn’t really allow for that as Captain Marvel has to be embracing her powers for the analysis to work, not merely noting that the demand is a trick. She has to see her using her powers as good and right there because they are good and right, not because they are needed in that situation. This, then, leaves only the pragmatic hero line, and explicitly a pragmatic hero who believes in using any means in order to win the fight, and here doing so even when it isn’t necessary to fight unfairly — as Toomer says that Captain Marvel knows that she could beat him fairly, but chooses not to.

The thing is, taking that tack says something about a hero. An example of this case comes from the Avengers comic books. In a set of Avengers and West Coast Avengers annuals, the Grandmaster sets up a competition between both Avengers teams and the Legion of the Dead to defuse a number of bombs that will destroy the universe, with the Avengers trying to defuse them and the Legion of the Dead trying to kill the Avengers. After the first round, one bomb has gone off — destroying 1/5 of the universe — and only Hawkeye and Captain America have survived the first round. The Grandmaster then reveals that he’s going to keep playing the game until they’re all dead and he wins. Hawkeye then decides to play on the Grandmaster’s love of games by taking two of his arrows and one modular arrow head, and asking the Grandmaster to choose one. If the Grandmaster chooses correctly, he can destroy the universe, and if he chooses incorrectly, he has to give up the plan. The Grandmaster, overcome by his obsession with games, chooses, and Hawkeye says “Congrats, Granny … you lose!” This gives Death — whom he had imprisoned — a chance to break free and end the game.

Afterwards, Cap asks Hawkeye what he would have done if the Grandmaster had chosen the right arrow. Hawkeye reveals that he had chosen the right arrow, but Hawkeye detached the head from it as he pulled it out of his hand so that the Grandmaster only say an arrow without an arrowhead on it and thought he had chosen wrong. Hawkeye says “The fate of the universe was at stake. What, did you think I’d be a cornball like you and play fair?”.

This establishes — although we did already know that at the time — that Hawkeye is a pragmatic hero, but also that he’s not to be trusted (Cap, as they resume the baseball game that was interrupted, tells Thor to watch Hawkeye because “He cheats”). We can’t be sure with such a hero what rules or principles they’d actually follow if they felt the situation demanded otherwise. The extreme end of this — to match the potentially “Stupid Good” of people like Captain America — are characters that you can’t rely on, like the Punisher or some versions of Wolverine (usually versions, ironically, before he did samurai training and so learned about honour). But a good example of that in the MCU itself is probably Tony Stark. The main clash between him and Captain America throughout the Avengers movies is that if Tony needs to break a few eggs to make the omelet of world security that’s exactly what he’s going to do, whereas Cap is going to try really, really hard to avoid breaking eggs. Most people seem to think that Captain Marvel is going to replace Captain America’s role in the Avengers, but her character as Toomer sees it fits Stark better than Cap. Which might be the point, as they might replace Cap with a new Captain America who fulfills those ideas.

This, of course, might make Captain Marvel an unreliable character. And basing her powers on emotions only adds to that because emotions are unreliable. Let’s return to the description of how emotions fuel her powers:

For Carol, her powers are directly connected to her feelings. She’s able to blast Kree warships from the sky because of her love for people like Monica Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and her mentor on Earth, Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening). She’s able to battle Skrulls with iron-encased fists thanks to her rage at their perceived injustice. She’s able to channel her emotions into a weapon, and that weapon scares the sh*t out of men.

There are two ways in which emotions are unreliable. The first is that emotions are often disconnected from actual reasoning and so from how the world really is. We all know of phobias where people are inordinately afraid of things that can’t harm them anywhere near as much as they’d have to in order to make that level of fear justified, and we know that outside of absolute phobias people can fear things far more than they objectively should. Anger tends to overwhelm people and cause them to commit actions that are justified by the perceived wrong. Love can get people to not see flaws or defend people when they shouldn’t. All in all, emotions gets things wrong often enough that relying on them to recommend correct actions is always a shaky proposition. If Captain Marvel needs to generate them to use her powers fully, then she’s going to risk being wrong a lot of the time.

The second way is that if her powers rely on her emotions, then she’s going to have to generate the right emotions to do the right thing. What happens when she’s put in a situation where she doesn’t feel the appropriate emotions? What if she’s required to save aliens that she thinks in general are acting unjustly but don’t deserve to just be killed? Or, to follow on with the feminist theme, what if the people she has to save are privileged cis white men that she’s having a hard time mustering empathy or sympathy for? Will she fight at less strength and potentially fail because typically her emotions fuel her powers and skills? Or will she decide that if her emotions aren’t in accord with what she has to do her emotions are right and so leave them to their “deserved fate”? Either way, you won’t be able to rely on Captain Marvel to do the right thing, because she’ll be using unreliable emotions to power her heroism or, potentially, to determine it.

So let’s return to how this ties in to women and feminism:

It’s no secret that men and women argue differently. Gendered stereotypes aside, men have been taught to protect their masculinity at all costs, which means things like emotions are foreign and apologies are seen as a defeat, the metaphorical waving of a white flag. Women enjoy reasoning through problems; they often see the bigger picture in disagreements, they’ve been taught to empathize (and worse) prioritize others’ feelings above their own — which is why it’s so easy for men like Yon-Rogg to discredit women by attacking their emotional intelligence.

Um, to start with, men are the ones who are seen, at least, to enjoy reasoning through problems, which is what follows from a mindset that rejects emotions. This should be obvious, because of the long-running stereotype of women who complain to try to get sympathy and get frustrated when the men immediately jump to trying to figure out what the solution to their problem is. To be honest, I get that sometimes from my manager and co-workers where I’m just trying to tell them what’s going on so that they know and they keep trying to tell me how to solve the problem, almost always by telling me things I already know. So there is good evidence that women don’t reason through problems more and no evidence that they see the bigger picture. I will agree that women, stereotypically, tend to place more emphasis on coming to a socially-harmonious agreement than on agreeing on the right answer, while men stereotypically are more interested in coming to the right answer — which they in general think is the answer they like — than in ensuring that everyone is happy or on board with it. This is, of course, the reasonable conclusion from styles that focus on empathy vs reason.

I don’t recommend Googling “how men win arguments” if you’re not ready for the deluge of incel propaganda and blatant misogyny that follows. It’s … rough. But in reading through articles that promise to give “Tips For Winning A Fight With Your Crazy Girlfriend” or reveal “5 Tricks Girls Use To Win Arguments” it’s clear that, when it comes to confrontation, men see facing off against a woman as some kind of test of macho-ness. By viewing fights — both physical as in Yon-Rogg’s case with Carol, and verbal as with every woman’s experience with trolls online — as some contest to be won, men equate emotions as an unnecessary advantage in the war. Meninist heroes argue that, because men aren’t allowed to be physical with a woman — the natural progression of an argument that cannot be won definitively by either party, an underlying rule that keeps things civilized in our cave-man brains — they cannot win an argument. And when they’re thrown a curveball, like being forced to negotiate emotions, the futility of their resistance is made all the worse. Why?

Because fists solve things, while emotions just make them messier.

Okay, there’s a lot wrong here. The “Meninist hero” she’s referring to here is Jordan Peterson, but his comment wasn’t how she — and most people — present it. He was not advocating for the use of violence to solve disputes. What he was pointing out is that in any dispute between men, there’s a limit on how antagonistic they can be to each other because, if they go too far, then the side pushed too far will escalate the dispute into a violent one, and then the winner will be the one who is better at violence. Because there are also consequences for violence — in general, to both parties — in any formal setting, both sides want to keep the dispute non-violent, because they might not win if it goes to violence and both sides are likely to lose something if it goes that far. However, in a conflict between men and women, that’s not the case for women. In general, if a dispute gets violent, the man is blamed for using violence to end the dispute and so loses the dispute. A woman cannot generally win a dispute by lashing out violently, but if she can get the man to lash out then she can indeed appeal to others to have her seen as the winner. At least, to Peterson. So women can be as antagonistic as they want because the method men generally use to restrict that doesn’t function here.

The proper response is not the typical “Misogynistic!” rants, but to note that it’s actually not true. Because men would win any actual violent confrontation, women in general learn not to incite a man to violence in a dispute unless they know they have direct protection — usually from another man — backing them up. In general, women are more afraid of a dispute with a man turning violent than men are. Thus, men can use the implied threat of violence — even if that’s just getting angry — to intimidate women into backing down. Or, at least, some women a lot of the time.

This, of course, isn’t the right way to go about these things. My personal view is that two people who are having an honest dispute who are both acting honestly — and honourably — should be able to convince each other what the right answer is if there is, in fact, any kind of right answer, and so the right approach is to try to make things impersonal and focused on the facts of the matter, including the situation of the individuals involved. For example, in deciding what design to go with at work I do think you have to consider the fact that the solution you like might make things a lot harder for the other people which is a reason to consider using another one if it’s less work for you to do another one. Reasonable people should always be able to come to reasonable decisions and compromises that maximize correctness and the desires of everyone involved.

Violence makes this messier because it reduces the situation to whomever is the best at fighting, which is why there is so much effort to avoid actual violence in these sorts of things. Emotions also make this messier because the more emotionally attached you are to an idea, the harder it is to give it up. To use an example from Seneca, he tells a story of a general who was faced with a soldier who had disappeared and another soldier who was blamed for his death. Enraged, the general condemned the suspected murderer to death. Before the sentence could be carried out, the purportedly murdered soldier returned, as he had been on leave at the time. An officer rushed to the general to stop the execution as the soon-to-be-executed soldier was innocent. But, still enraged, the general ordered the execution to continue, the soldier who had been away to be executed, and the officer who stopped the execution to be executed. Strong emotions are self-justifying; we are likely to spin more and more elaborate rationalizations rather than give them up.

Thus, when someone lets emotions take over the dispute has gone to another level. What’s a man supposed to do, for example, if a woman breaks down crying in an argument? At that point, she’s likely not capable of reason, and an emotional display on his part isn’t going to get him — or anyone else — anywhere. Other than simply giving in to her emotional display, there’s nothing to be done. And deliberately advocating for using emotions to win fights is, in fact, an explicit admission that you can’t win them with reason or logic, despite Captain Marvel thinking that she could win it fairly. Add in how emotions often get answers wrong and it’s hard to see how emotions in an of themselves can carry the day here. She can argue that it’s not emotion but empathy that’s useful, but that’s not her argument with the Captain Marvel analogy, you don’t need to have actual emotions to have empathy, and empathy still gets things wrong a significant amount of the time.

Instead of engaging with trolls who demand we “debate them” in a form, a language, a medium they prefer, we just… don’t? I’d love to vaporize all the men who’ve insisted I “argue logically,” or “explain this,” or “justify my thinking” with and to them, but sadly, I lack the appropriate photon-blaster energy levels, so maybe it’s time to stop wasting energy on these men, period? Maybe, instead of defending our right to emotions that are integral and inherent to our species and gender, instead of meeting men on “their turf” by suffocating our own voices, we instead, like Carol, embrace our unique powers and unapologetically wield them to our benefit?

The problem with using emotions instead of using logic, explaining things, or showing and justifying your thinking is that emotional appeals only work when the other person feels the same emotions as you do. If they don’t, then your emotional appeal is going to be utterly unconvincing. Thus, you can only rely on this when you don’t really care about convincing them that your view is correct. This can only happen whether either a) you don’t need to them to do anything at all or b) when you can use the emotion to bludgeon them into doing what you want even if they aren’t convinced. The entire progressive/feminist line about “lived experience” is often used as the latter, as attempts to deny the conclusions presented are seen as denying the validity of the experience or emotions themselves, followed by demands to simply accept them and the suggested action without argument. Feminists often try to pull off the former with claims that they don’t need to educate people, but the cases where they really don’t care about the people they are talking to changing their behaviour are infrequent and so it always devolves into the latter case.

Men don’t rely on reasoning because it’s inherent to their masculine personalities. Masculinity does indeed allow for some emotions. No, they rely on reasoning because there are few positive emotions that are universally convincing and reliably reflect reality. You should be able to rely on logic, reasoning and the facts to convince people of anything that’s actually true. If you have to rely on emotions, then maybe that’s because what you’re asking for isn’t true.

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4 Responses to “Superheroes, Women and Emotion”

  1. Featherfoot Says:

    Interesting. I did go see Captain Marvel, and I see it from a very different perspective. I’d say, when you do see it, don’t expect to see the same things that Toomer did. It’s not that you can’t read those things into the story, but rather that there’s no reason to.

    For instance, I don’t recall any mention that her powers are emotion based. Maybe they said something and I just missed it, or forgot it, but I don’t think that’s a plot point. Now, her emotions do affect her powers, but only in ways that emotion might affect other fighting abilities. e.g. if you’re enraged, you may well use more physical strength than if you weren’t, you might find it easier to ignore pain and be more aggressive, etc. And Yon-Rogg doesn’t want to shut Marvel’s powers down – he wants to control that power. So it wouldn’t make sense for him to teach her to be unemotional if that would diminish her abilities. He seems more worried that emotion will get her into trouble. And indeed, when they are sparring in the beginning, he’s able to use her emotion as a weapon against her. He does prove himself to be the better combatant when she doesn’t use her abilities.

    The rest of my reply is fairly spoilery, so I’m giving you a chance not to read this anymore if you don’t want to. It sounds like you know a lot of the plot anyway, so maybe it won’t matter.

    I actually loved it when Marvel refuses the “fair fight” at the end, precisely because of one of the tropes you mention. Yon-Rogg only suggests a fair fight when it’s clear the battle has gone against him. Until that time, he has no problem ambushing her, using weapons against unarmed opponents, using vastly superior numbers, targeting innocent people, etc. Since he himself ignores honorable combat whenever it’s not useful to him, he can be ignored when he demands it. I’d also argue that Marvel never rebels against Yon-Rogg’s stoicism so much as she casts off his control. That’s really what it’s about: not allowing yourself to be mad, but to take control back after being manipulated. I mean, she does get mad, but to me, the emotion is secondary to the situation.

    Right or wrong, I had one lens, Toomer had another. But I’ll be interested to hear what you think once you do see it.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’m not surprised that Toomer sees it differently, as she didn’t get the point of other MCU final battles and that sort of interpretation is common to attempts to analyze works from a Social Justice perspective.

      I’m not likely to see it any time soon, as the last few movies and the overall debate in pop culture has kinda soured me on the movie. It’s fairly certain that I’ll see Endgame before Captain Marvel, and likely won’t see Endgame until it comes out on DVD.

  2. Of Course This Makes Me More Likely to Watch “Captain Marvel” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] it justified and then moves on to seeing it as showing a character flaw that she develops out of (if she does, as the end of the movie doesn’t necessarily show her in a new, less bullying ligh…). So while the critics might have ulterior motives, the critics have a point. And the fact that it […]

  3. Thoughts on “Captain Marvel” | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] including in two posts on my own blog:  one about a cut scene and one about an interpretation of one of the last scenes in the movie.  As the title of the first post listed above suggests, I wasn’t all that interested in […]

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