Critical Thought · Social Contract

She-Hulk: Is Marvel Failing Feminism?

I won’t name her, but YouTube decided to hit me with a video the other day about how woke superhero Hollywood was failing women. It begins with an article supporting She-Hulk that drove the talking head into a froth because it included comments from the show creators about how the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has shied away from certain humanising things like sex.

The YouTuber agreed with that, pointing out that notorious womanizer Tony Stark is never explicitly shown sleeping around and Thor is a literal god surrounded by gorgeous women. Those men are, to paraphrase her, too busy saving the world to even notice those women.” She-Hulk, on the other hand, eschews her superpowers to pursue her career while also seeking a boyfriend.

Before we come back to the topic of the MCU women though, I want to take a moment to examine this side point that the men focus on saving the world at the expense of their love lives:

  • Captain America – Peggy Carter: Steve Rogers is driven by his mission and dislike for bullies, but let’s not forget how much of his arc focuses on his love for Peggy Carter. She-Hulk takes an early moment to poke fun at his supposed prudishness to confirm that Rogers has slept with women, and while it’s meant as a funny side note it does confirm that these things occur if not on screen. It’s also worth noting that after returning the Infinity Stones, Rogers opts to stay in the past and have a life with Peggy Carter. One could treat this as a simple Hollywood happy ending, but Stark remarks earlier in the film, “You mess with time, time tends to mess back. You’ll see.” In the multiverse/timeline obsessed new saga, it’s possible that the MCU is not done with potential fallout from that choice.
  • Iron Man – Pepper Potts & Morgan Stark: Tony Stark is revealed as a womanizer in the MCU – from his early comments about “going 12 for 12 with the Playboy covers” that year to Pepper Potts “taking out the trash” after his night with a reporter. Stark’s story soon pivots to his relationship with Pepper though, with it being a focus of Iron Man 2 and a main plot point in Iron Man 3. His desire to protect Pepper, especially after the events of the first Avengers movie, inspires his work on Ultron that nearly obliterates the planet. Infinity War separates him from Pepper, and a central conflict for Stark in Endgame is that he managed, miraculously, to get back to her and have their child Morgan (who was not brought by a stork). When he agrees to help the Avengers in Endgame, it’s to set right what went wrong but not change what he has.
  • Thor – Jane Foster: When we first meet Thor, he’s basically a frat guy on a rampage. Odin declares him unworthy of Mjolnir and banishes Thor to Earth (Midgard) where he continues to be unworthy. Meeting Jane and an appeal from his comrades is what spurs Thor to growth, and Thor’s decision to remain a staunch defender of Midgard is due largely to Jane. He then spends the majority of Thor: The Dark World attempting to protect and restore Jane. When he’s at his lowest point in Endgame, he lists the loss of Jane as one of his biggest, and then there’s the whole [spoiler-free] plot of Love and Thunder.
  • Hulk – Black Widow: Do a lot of people think it was weird? It sounds like it. But when Ruffalo took over the role in the first Avengers movie, they reintroduce Banner to the team by sending Natasha to recruit him. The MCU immediately begins to build a connection between the two characters, with Natasha being the one in charge of calming Hulk back to Banner via a lullaby. It’s a big part of what spurs Hulk to abandon Earth at the end of Age of Ultron, and we see Natasha’s death in Endgame hit him especially hard.
  • Hawkeye – Laura Barton: Clint Barton is married with multiple children. Losing them at the end of Infinity War/beginning of Endgame hits him so hard that he becomes Ronin, and he goes full murderous vigilante. Rhodes reports that his trail of damage is so severe that he “almost hopes he doesn’t find him.”
  • Ant-Man – Hope van Dyne & Cassie Lang: Scott Lang enters the MCU with his release from prison and a promise to turn straight because of his daughter Cassie. Hank Pym recruits Scott into assisting him, where he meets Hope and falls in love. Hope and Cassie become Scott’s main motivator for doing most things in the MCU, and that does not appear to be changing with the initial trailer for Quantumania. Scott is the one who brings the time heist idea to the rest of the team, complete with requisite Pym particles and quantum tunnel, because of his desire to recover those two people.
  • Spider-Man – MJ Watson: Peter displays a connection with MJ in the first solo Spidey outing, even if she is not his romantic interest yet. When the sequel rolls around though, Parker is all in on his love for MJ and tries to avoid Spider-Man duties to focus on spending time with her for much of the film. Fury has to conscript Spidey into action with* Mysterio until the need to protect his friends, including MJ, pulls him fully into conflict with the villain. That battle goes so poorly that Parker enlists Strange to help him erase everyone’s memory of the reveal and screws up the spell so bad (because he wants to make sure MJ remembers him) that he launches a multiverse incursion they barely contain.
  • Vision – Wanda Maximoff: Vision is created from a mix of Ultron, J.A.R.V.I.S., and the mind stone. He comes to life and helps the team defeat Ultron, then immediately turns his attention to Wanda. Civil War: Vision spends his time trying to protect Wanda and lets her defeat him rather than attack back. When she is injured, the AI becomes so distracted that he nearly kills Rhodey. As Wanda flees as a fugitive of the Sokovia Accords at the end of Civil War, Vision goes off the radar with her and their romance serves a critical subplot of Infinity War. The consequences of that give us WandaVision, where again Vision’s entire focus is on his relationship with Wanda.

The point is, while the MCU may not make an explicit point of muscular men bedding women, women play a critical role in the arcs of most of the leading Marvel men. “Too busy saving the world to notice these women”? Most of them are saving the world because of a specific woman.

So, we put the matter of the women aside to make that point about the men – now we circle back, and I have a few personal observations on MCU women:

  • Wanda Maximoff, now Scarlet Witch, is widely regarded as a great MCU character (she even seems immune to as much of the misogyny as her counterparts – not completely immune, but less vitriol than others). As covered with Vision, their romance takes hold in Civil War and then becomes a defining part of their story moving forward. She spends Infinity War trying to protect him. She spends her return in Endgame avenging him. She then corrupts an entire town to resurrect him and have children in WandaVision. That goes so well, she makes a villain turn in Multiverse of Madness. We love the heart and authenticity of her story, and recognise her badassery does not make her a feminist failure for wanting a family.
  • But that’s just Wanda – we also have Carol Danvers who the misogynists absolutely hate. Until She-Hulk (possibly even still), she is the biggest lightning rod for sexism in the MCU, with fanboys lamenting her “I don’t have to prove myself to you” message and critiques about being over-powered (shared with Scarlet Witch). Never mind with the latter that the poster boy for superheroes is often Superman, the literal definition of an over-powered character who is so strong he is apparently immune to the same criticism, it also overlooks the point of the story. Let’s come back to this after one more quick note –
  • She-Hulk is the name given to Jennifer Walters, a fourth-wall breaking attorney who wants a man in her life. She refers to her own show as a legal drama repeatedly, which then proceeds not to be a legal drama for most of its runtime. This received its own criticism, which ignores that the main conflict of She-Hulk is actually people taking the narrative away from Walters (which is a brilliant idea with a meta character like She-Hulk – who predates Deadpool by a full decade).

Broadly speaking, one of my criticisms of entertainment criticism is that people have a tendency to talk about fictional stories as though they were documentaries. While writers have a need to create a logical consistency within a story, audiences also have a role with respect to suspension of disbelief. The characters and plots do not exist to convey actual events but to convey ideas. While we don’t want to read or watch something that feels contrived, they are contrivances (which good writers disguise well).

Part of that is understanding the purpose, or theme, of a particular piece.

Captain America in The Winter Soldier stands opposite a taunting Batroc who asks if he’s more than just a shield. Cap responds by removing his helmet and putting away his shield for some hand-to-hand combat.

When Captain Marvel squares off with Yon-Rogg, she uses her powers to blast his face into a mountain.

People seem to get bent out of shape over the idea that Steve Rogers would never whip his shield at someone in that situation. He’s a true hero who rises to the challenge and fights honourably. That’s why he puts away the shield. So, why can’t Danvers put aside her powers and beat Yon-Rogg to a pulp with her hands to show that her skills have grown beyond his?

Because the entire plot of Captain Marvel is about Carol Danvers constantly under the control of other people, getting knocked down, standing up on her own, and getting knocked down again. Her victory in Captain Marvel is in knowing she can beat Yon-Rogg without her powers without having to prove it to Yon-Rogg. Her value is not in proving it to him or, by extension, the audience. It’s a different motivation than the Rogers’ situation.

What about She-Hulk then? We’re going to pivot from “Danvers does not need to define her value by proving herself to a man” to “Walters needs a man to prove her value?” No, because Jen does not need a man to establish her worth – she wants a boyfriend. She also struggles with self-esteem questions, but hers is not one of being controlled by the men in her life. She feels invisible to them. It’s normal for a person to want a relationship. To make matters worse for Walters, when she becomes She-Hulk she discovers a new world of male attention, but the men only want She-Hulk. Walters is still invisible to them (with the exception of Matt Murdock and an epic walk of shame).

It’s problematic if society says, “You’re a woman so you need a man.” That is not what unfolds in She-Hulk. Jen is a woman who wants a man despite a successful legal career – she’s in a position where she absolutely does not need a man. That agency is a huge part of feminism. Yes, she expresses several explicit feminist talking points during the show, especially during a monologue with Bruce. That’s her reality and the experience of many women.

In one of the most original, inventive finales in a long time, She-Hulk not only breaks the fourth wall again but demands changes to her finale. We don’t even see those changes unfold. She pauses the scene, negotiates the changes with K.E.V.I.N., and we understand that to be how things conclude…because the point is not the conclusion but Walters taking control of the conclusion. She pauses the episode in the climax of her “legal show” that has not been a legal show but for a few minutes to make a case for her finale. It’s Walters saying, “No – you’ve been dictating the genre and events of my show this whole time. It’s my show, it’s a legal show, and this is how we’re doing it.” Is it realistic? Of course not – but it’s not a documentary. It’s the thematic conclusion to a character-driven story.

You know what doesn’t make sense? “Hulk-King” gaining superpowers to fight Walters in another CGI-heavy battle while Titania watches and Banner inexplicably returns to fight Abomination. Fans would have been critical of that as well (I mean, rightly so in this case), but for different reasons. Any conclusion to that show that was not Walters re-taking control of the narrative would have been popcorn fodder meant to dazzle audiences with extravagance.

People love to complain that Hollywood has no original ideas, but whenever Hollywood presents one that same audience complains that it didn’t conform to the same tired archetypes and formulas that are familiar.

There’s no one objective reality to artistic creation, but one has to rely on the available evidence to make a case for the criticism. Bringing broad, real-world context into a particular story and ignoring what was presented within the story is not a valid criticism. Was She-Hulk all over the place with its story? Yes. Consider Walters’ repeated fourth wall breaks though:

Yes, it’s a self-contained wedding episode. And if you think this is happening at an inconvenient time, you’re right. ‘Cause that’s how weddings always are. But I’m gonna look great, so let’s go.

Episode 6

When we see Daredevil in action in the penultimate episode, Leapfrog questions him giving Walters legal advice by asking if he’s also a lawyer (which he is). Daredevil responds, “No, I’m just a big fan of legal dramas.” Jen, who has been insisting She-Hulk is a legal drama the whole time, turns to camera and says, “This guy is really doing it for me.”

She refers to the show as a mess several times. When a narrator starts talking, she cuts him off with, “We aren’t doing that. We aren’t that off the rails yet.” At one point she questions the pacing.

All of that is deliberate by the writers and speaks to the aforementioned point. When someone complains, “Ugh, this show is all over the place” when ignoring EVERY SINGLE TIME the self-referential show comments on how things are all over the place, they are ignoring the theme and subjecting the piece to their expectations.

That includes all of these allegations that the MCU is failing horribly on the feminist front because Danvers doesn’t fistfight Yon-Rogg, or because Jen wants a boyfriend. It’s not anti-feminist to want a romantic relationship; it’s anti-feminist for a woman to define her self worth in terms of someone else. What Marvel delivered was 9 episodes about Jen asserting her agency and taking control of her narrative. Not everyone is going to like that story or how they did it, but the misogynistic complaints are not valid criticisms of the story.

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