This week I saw the movie, Captain Marvel. I’m so grateful that middle class white women are finally being given the credit we deserve for all the years we worked our asses off trying to save the world. Yes, I am being a little sarcastic. I also think with real affection and respect about all the middle class white women I’ve met in my twenty years working in non-profits and in mental health who are genuinely committed to the work they do and the populations they serve. And there is a very real politics that comes with being this kind of woman doing this kind of work. I think it has changed somewhat in the last two decades, since I first started being one of these white women. But in my day, at least in South Africa, non-profits were dominated in leadership positions by well-intentioned white women, whose organizations tended to serve people who were not middle class white women. Good intentions are not enough to manage the complexities of this situation.
It is not only a problem of white liberals speaking for society’s others. It also calls into focus a fundamental and really quite shitty aspect of being a white woman: as a woman, you bear part of the brunt of thousands of years of Western cultural chauvinism, and the patriarchal oppression that enabled it. As a middle class white woman, not only do you have class privilege and white privilege, which means you get to take for granted a whole series of benefits and entitlements, but you also carry the burden of all the things that were done by Empire in your name. By this I mean to acknowledge the ways in which various kinds of violence against men of color have been perpetuated in the name of “protecting” white women. I also mean to acknowledge the ways in which women of color have been made to bear the abjected aspects of female sexuality on our behalf. We white women have benefitted from these exercises of power, and been made subject by them. Aspects of this dilemma are invoked for me precisely by the figure of the hard-working middle class white woman, saving the universe, either by working for little pay in socially under-valued jobs where she nevertheless holds specific kinds of economic and institutional power, or by this movie, the story of how Carol Danvers discovers her grit and comes into her power. In the discussion that follows, I’ll be representing from memory the things characters say, so please note that the content represented as speech is not actual verbatim quotes.
The film seeks to address sexism: early in the movie, Captain Marvel is told her weakness is that she is “too emotional”; her final repartee to this criticism is, as she kicks smarmy Yon-Roggs’s ass, “I don’t have to prove anything to you.” It is kinda cool and satisfying. It’s clear that this, Marvel’s first superhero movie to feature exclusively female heroes, is taking the glass ceiling seriously.
But here’s the thing: Carol’s best friend is a black woman, Maria Rambeau, who has a black daughter, Monica. Who says to her mom, when Carol asks Maria to blast into space with her to fight evil aliens and Maria tells her she can’t because she has a child to care for, “Mom, what kind of example are you setting for me?”
Interestingly, Monica Rambeau is the name of one of the many alternative comic book Captain Marvels, this one from the early 1980s. So the film is indicating that Maria’s child grows up to be like her Aunty Carol. There is a shot in the film, towards the end, when Carol takes off to go into space and help the refugee Skrull families find a new home (see? Middle class white women work so hard to make the universe a better place!), that presages this. Monica and Carol say a touching goodbye, and then Monica stands outside the front steps of her house looking up into the sky after Carol, a beautiful smile on her beautiful face, as Carol zooms into the stratosphere.
On the one hand, I love the sisterhood being represented here. On the other hand, it makes me cringe. There is too much unacknowledged whiteness at work here. Black people are once again cast as the supports to white people. Black women are once again the facilitators. And Carol is the inspiration for Monica, in what runs the risk of being an uncomfortable recasting of the White Man’s Burden. This is all especially noticeable in a film that is so conscious about its gender politics.
Perhaps most egregious, there’s a very real history of mainstream feminism not acknowledging the difference that race makes to a woman’s experience in the world. Monica’s message to her apparently single mother, to leave her child and go to work, to not set the “bad” example of being a woman who stays at home, sums it up. The desire to leave the home to work in the world was historically a middle class white woman’s desire, and a white woman’s privilege. For centuries, the right to stay at home with one’s children was denied many black women.
I’m not saying Maria can’t be her own person, and Monica can’t be a child of the class for whom going out to work is desirable as a gender norm. But taken all together, the movie seems to me to whitewash a much more complex relationship between women, and one that deserves to be treated more carefully. Or it runs the risk of reinscribing the mistake made by well-intentioned middle class white women. Again.