Hero Complex has a long interview with Kelly Sue DeConnick, who is writing Marvel’s new Captain Marvel book which has a woman, Carol Danvers, taking on that mantle. In a particularly interesting section towards the beginning of the conversation, DeConnick goes back and forth on the question of whether, though Danvers was conceived of as an explicitly feminist character, she is writing a feminist book:
I don’t think this is new to my interpretation of Carol. I think that she’s an incredibly driven individual. The single line that I use for her off the top of my head is: Crackerjack pilot races to prove dead daddy wrong. I think Carol’s wound comes from …. well, she comes from a family of three kids, two younger brothers. Her dad was an old-fashioned construction foreman who loved her very much. This book was conceived as an unapologetically feminist book. It happened in the ’70s during the feminist movement and that was very much what the book was about. We’re much more skittish about that today, interestingly. Well, her dad opted not to pay for her to go to school and thought it’d be better spent on her brothers. That’s why she enlisted — to get her education paid for. I think that hurt her, and she’s always been trying to prove to her dad that she’s worthy. But her dad’s gone now, so it’s not a thing that she’s ever going to be able to get closure on…I’m not trying to write a feminist agenda. This is part of who the character is. And I’ve heard people question the Absorbing Man thing, like ‘Since when is the Absorbing Man a misogynist?’ That wasn’t my intent. My intent with him was that he was pushing her buttons. It wasn’t that it was a particular thing with him. Although he is a very old-fashioned character, and I think it’s hilarious. It was trash talk in a fight.
I’d argue that given that the first lines that are spoken in DeConnick’s take on the character are Carl Creel’s snarl “Lucky me! If it ain’t Captain America’s secretary, Mrs. Marvel,” and that he goes on to clock Carol, declaring “I’ll show you smarts, lady!” and to tell to Cap, “You lettin’ the little missus give the orders now? Wouldn’t catch me getting bossed around by no broad,” she’s probably writing a feminist comic. When someone brings gender (or race or sexual orientation or religion) into trash talk, they’re not just joshing someone, they’re setting up a hierarchy where whatever characteristic they’ve singled out is disqualifying, and that someone allied with their target will suffer a worse loss because they’ve inverted the gender heirarchy, etc.—they won’t just be defeated, they’ll be degendered.
Feminism isn’t just about getting women into positions traditionally occupied by men. The second half of the DeConnick response I’ve quoted there is in response to the question from Hero Complex, “We’ve already seen some dismissive behavior from Absorbing Man in the first issue. Will her proving herself as a hero in a male-dominated super-landscape be an ongoing theme?” Feminism is also about what happens when women get there, about the fact that earning the job is often the first step in dismantling sexism, and sexists don’t exactly roll over and die when women obtain positions of power. And fighting sexism isn’t solely women, or superheroines’ purview. Part of what’s thrilling about reading DeConnick’s version of Captain Marvel is watching Captain America joke with Carol about Absorbing Man’s sexism mid-fight and afterwards to encourage her to take up the Captain Marvel mantle, saying “Bottom line is this: you have led the Avengers. You have saved the world. Quit being an adjunct.” Their conversation is just the superheroic version of a mentor encouraging a female mentee to give herself credit instead of deferring it, pitch more ambitious stories, or to ask for that raise.
In other words, just because we’ve moved from one phase of feminism into the next isn’t a reason to abandon that as a framework as a character (or for an actress like Melissa Leo, whose work is clearly feminist, to declaim the label). Sexism isn’t over, in the superhero world, in the real world, or in the places that they intersect. And that sexism’s become more diffuse and complicated just means there are more ways to use gender dynamics to tell fascinating, complex stories about how people, male and female alike, construct their identities and understand their relative positions in the world.