Nothing to Prove

Why yes, Virginia, I did enjoy Captain Marvel yesterday.

Now, there’s no need for me to do a full-on review: there’s enough examples of that out in the wilds of the Internet. In case you need them, here’s some recommended links:

  • Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone
  • Owen Gleiberman’s review for Variety
  • Alex Abad-Santos’s coverage in Vox about sexist responses to the film, in the larger context of similar buffoonery around Star Wars: The Last Jedi and other genre flicks

Instead, I’m going to focus on one small moment, recounted in as spoiler-free a fashion as I can manage.

It should surprise no one that at various points in the film, Carol Danvers finds herself face to face with different antagonists. It should also surprise no one that, in at least some of these encounters, Carol is confronting a male antagonist.(1)

Now, in one of these conflicts, as the momentum is turning Carol’s way, her male opponent attempts to alter the rules of engagement, pitching this change as a way to make her victory more virtuous and to make her, as a person, more worthy of his respect.

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It’s a moment that had painful resonance for me. And, I’d expect, for most of the women and girls viewing it during the film’s blockbuster opening weekend.(2) It reminded me of all the different ways the kyriarchy’s rules—explicit and between-the-lines—jam members of disenfranchised categories into double-bind after double-bind.  (I’m imagining the resonance I’m describing was also palpable to those individuals used to fighting against white supremacist, heteronormative, and/or transphobic double-binds, in addition to the patriarchal/sexist ones I’m exploring here.)

You need to be pretty, and follow all the grooming rituals (makeup, coiffures, hair removal, etc.) to show that you take pride in your appearance—but not so much that you’re seen as shallow or vain. If you’re too likable at work, you won’t be seen as competent enough, but if you’re too competent, you won’t be seen as likable enough. And whichever side of that razor’s edge you fall on will leave you less likely to receive a job promotion. As Arghavan Salles observes in USA Today,

when people are asked to choose between male and female job applicants for a traditionally masculine job, people say they value whichever qualities the male applicant possesses. Standards shift to accommodate biases.

Let me say that again for the folks in the back: Standards shift to accommodate biases.

There’s the patriarchal/kyriarchal double-bind in a nutshell. We will tell you what rules to follow and what personality traits and behaviors to prioritize in order to be accepted. But as soon as you come even close to achieving the made-up, arbitrary standard that has been articulated to you, we will move the goalposts and fault you for failing to match up to an equally-arbitrary but different set of standards and “rules.”

Of course, I’m presenting this as if the goalpost-shifting is a clear, linear sort of process. Alas, what with the miasmic nature of the kyriarchy(3) and the power of implicit bias, it’s a much messier territory to navigate. You struggle to meet up to incompatible and contradictory standards in different arenas of life, and sometimes in the same arena as inconsistently determined by different standard-bearers in that environment. And the standard-bearers often have the luxury of paying lip service to equality while maintaining the structures of inequality.(4)

Frankly, it’s exhausting to live through. Which is why it was so damn satisfying when Carol refused to take the bait of new rules, saying with all confidence

I don’t have to prove myself to you.(5)

May we all be blessed with more and more circumstances where we can make the same declaration.

Also: that soundtrack was the bomb.

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(1) See how coyly discreet I am being here? Props to me!

(2) $153 Mil domestic, $455 Mil world-wide. Take that, boy-trolls.

(3) What I still choose to call the “Palmolive” level of patriarchy, i.e., the “you’re soaking in it” level.

(4) See: the “I’d vote for a woman, just not that one” shit-storm we’re about to endure in the 2020 Presidential season.

(5) I may not have the wording precisely correct in this paraphrase, but I got the essence of the meaning.

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Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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