The Problems with Representation in Fiction

A serious discussion on superhero cinema, comics, animation, and the representation issues they contain.

First off, we need to talk about Captain Marvel.

In 2018, me and my best friend sat down in a Philadelphia movie theater to watch the one movie we'd been waiting a long time to see; Avengers Infinity War. In possibly the most successful superhero franchise of all time, the Avengers would be facing off against one of Marvel's most iconic and dangerous villains: Thanos. While the movie was amazing and totally worth the wait, the ending made people even more excited: Captain Marvel was on her way to give the remaining Avengers an assist in the final battle.

Then producer and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige made a statement that would cause an intense storm of controversy. He made the bold claim that Captain Marvel would be the most powerful hero the MCU had ever seen.

What about the might of Thor, the God of Thunder? What about the power of Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme? It seems as though Feige completely ignored these characters and placed Captain Marvel on a pedestal, making claims that she would be an essential part of what was coming next for Marvel films. In response to this, I simply remained silent and went with the flow, buying a ticket to see Captain Marvel and seeing it within a week of its release.

It was okay, but we need to break down what's really going on here.

Captain Marvel puts too much emphasis on feminism

In the movie, Carol Danvers is an air force pilot who gains cosmic powers after her body is exposed to the cosmic energy of the tesseract. She can fly at extreme speeds, possesses superhuman strength, can fire photon beams from her hands, and can absorb and redistribute energy. She's got a number of other powers too, but we'll save that for later.

The issue with Captain Marvel is the fact that this movie did not handle her origin well. For one, the writing was poor. At one point in the movie, Carol has flashbacks to her earlier years when she was in military training. At one point we see one of her colleagues talking down to her, saying: "you know why it's called a cockpit, right?"

I cringed upon hearing this line. It doesn't feel natural, and I find it difficult to believe that a human being would actually say this, even if this is a work of fiction. Good writing makes the sexist undertones more subtle, but definitely present. Maybe have a seen where Carol engages in a fight that her male cohorts don't believe she can win, because she's a woman, but actually mops the floor with her opponent with little effort. It seems like even big budget filmmakers forget the rule of show and don't tell.

We have yet to see her face a real challenge, and this makes her seem overpowered

Let's look at Thor, a literal thunder god from another realm. He is immortal, has superhuman strength and durability, possesses the god level weapon Stormbreaker, and of course can manipulate thunder/lightning. Did I already mention that he has all the attributes of a god? Despite having all of these powers, Thor still faces challenges and faces the reality that he can still be killed in combat. The rule of thumb for most people is that no matter how good you are at something, there will always be someone on your level, if not better than you. If, for some reason there isn't, that provides a reason for someone to rise to that rank.

Captain Marvel still kicked major ass in her standalone flick, even while her powers were dampened. Still, it was clear while watching the movie that Carol Danvers was never in any real danger. The main villains in her movie were Skrulls, and they weren't much of a threat in all honesty. Furthermore, the climax revealed that the Skulls weren't even the bad guys after all, just people trying to find a new home to raise their families and live in peace.

Additionally, the joy of watching a superhero origin story is watching these characters learn to use their powers. Watching Peter Parker crawl up a wall, leap from building to building and swing on a web for the first time is fun. You watch these moments of trial and error, witness the struggles that they encounter, and watch in satisfaction as they overcome the odds and come out on top. Captain Marvel's limited use of her powers was kind of a plot point that wasn't effectively utilized. So, let's compare Captain Marvel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In Spider-Verse, Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains spider powers. However, there's a learning curb on the road to being Spider-Man. His lack of self-confidence, his ever-present fear and hesitation basically dampened his powers. He was unable to use his camouflage ability, he couldn't stick to walls properly, and his venom blast could only be triggered on accident. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, he has learned how to adapt. This is a personality trait that many adults don't have, as people are so accustomed to one way of doing things that they cannot handle the idea of doing it another. Miles adapted to a superhero lifestyle, realizing that he has to be put his fear aside and focus on accomplishing what he needs. He adjusts to life at his new school and no longer is ashamed to tell his Dad that he loves him.

Then there's Captain Marvel who gains cosmic powers, gets a power dampener slapped onto her and after she finally breaks it off, is able to reach her full potential. After that, she proceeds to obliterate several enemy warships without any effort. This isn't how you handle a character.

She isn't humble at all.

I think Brie Larson is perfect for the roll of Captain Marvel. She's done a magnificent job and doesn't deserve any of the hate that the media has been throwing her way. Keep in mind, actors and actresses have a script to work with, and it's not their fault if the script is complete shit. Moving forward, one thing I've noticed about Captain Marvel, both on screen and in comic book form, is that she's a very militant individual. She's a serious individual and always fights with everything she's got. While being disciplined isn't a bag thing, many people have described her using the word "bitchy."

I have to agree.

In her standalone film there were numerous instances of her being a smartass and exhibiting asshole-like behavior for no reason. Many heroes make quips or tease villains, and that's normal. But Captain Marvel's snide remarks in Avengers Endgame pissed off many people. After rescuing Tony Stark and Nebula from space, she says during a meeting with the Avengers that they lost to Thanos because she wasn't there. Firstly, here's the misunderstanding: Carol has been in space doing who knows what whilst Earth was attacked by aliens, almost invaded by Ultron, and of course we can't forget about all of the insanity that was going down in space with the Guardians of the Galaxy. The majority of our Earth dwelling heroes have known each other for years and have fought alongside each other. All of a sudden, this woman with cosmic powers shows up claiming that she alone could kill Thanos.

The nerve of her.

Tony Stark went from cocky billionaire to a man who wants to do the right thing and make the world a better place. Thor went from a cocky self-absorbed god to a humble and understanding person. Captain America will always fight for justice but went from someone who was always by the book to someone who will gladly break the law if it's for reasons he sees as just. Keep in mind that a good portion of their character development took place in one movie. Captain Marvel had her debut film and went through absolutely zero-character development.

Furthermore, Captain Marvel has no personality. There's nothing interesting about Carol Danvers so far. Tony Stark's frequent quips, pop culture references, and mannerisms make him hilarious and an absolute joy to watch. Starlord is constantly cracking jokes and the way he and his friends interact is always entertaining. Peter Parker is a dorky teenager and a total pop culture nerd and that makes him interesting. We have no idea what Carol likes, if she has any hobbies, if she has any love interests, we don't know jack shit. Carol is that one person you'll chat with in class or work, but you'd never want to hang out with her.

The public attitude is not helping at all, and I find that disturbing

Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman are not the only female led action movie protagonists. What bothers me to no end is when people say that there aren't a lot of female protagonists in film and TV. Here's the issue with that statement: there actually are numerous movie franchises and standalone films with female main leads. The Resident Evil franchise, the Underworld franchise, the Alien franchise, Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow, Kill Bill, The Hunger Games franchise, Annihilation, Terminator 2, and even more. Yes, it's true that the entertainment industry is a male dominated film, but what filmmakers need to do is just start casting more women for the roles of main characters.

You can't force diversity

You may have heard of a western anime series called "RWBY." It's a science fiction fantasy series about teenagers training to become warriors known as hunters and huntresses in a world known as Remnant. It has a wide cast of characters and the world building is pretty well done. However, something I noticed in the latest season is that two prominent characters, Yang Xiao Long and Blake Belladonna are now in a lesbian relationship. Now, RWBY has shown viewers and LGBT couple before in the form of Jaune Arc's older sister who is married to a woman. Now, let's dissect this.

When viewers were introduced to Jaune's sister and her family, it was done tastefully and casually. The fact that these two characters were married and just introduced provided excellent context. These are two characters who viewers can tell have known each other for what we assume has been a long time.

Then there's Yang and Blake, who despite being on the same team for years, have not had that many interactions with each other. It was never hinted in the past that these characters had feelings for each other. What most shows do is establish a connection between two characters before making them into a couple. Maybe character A and character B had fight once or are childhood friends. What matters in the end is that these characters have a solid connection with each other before making them a couple. In Yang and Blake's case, they were hastily thrown together and I'm willing to bet that the RWBY fanbase pressured the writers into doing so. RWBY isn't even the only Rooster Teeth show to not properly handle representation. A new show called Gen-lock features a transgender character as a member of the main cast, and at one point they have a whole discussion on how he doesn't feel like a female and how it works and just…it was a conversation that didn't need to happen. Good writing keeps things subtle but understandable. Let the viewers learn things as the characters do or on their own.

One show that I've noticed handles representation the best is AMC's The Walking Dead. We've seen characters from all walks of life on this show: lesbian, gay, deaf, and others. It was all done so casually so that it's become a completely natural part of the show.

Addressing Complaints

Some of the most common complaints from viewers regarding diversity in media: "I don't care if this character is gay. Just don't rub it in my face." What this basically means: "I don't care if you're gay, I just don't want to see any of your homosexual behavior." Heterosexual couples have been a staple in narratives for centuries. There's nothing wrong with having a gay couple onscreen, just write them as a normal and couple and leave it at that. However, this doesn't change the fact that there are indeed people in society who are genuinely uncomfortable with homosexuality, and seeing two males or two females kiss or show affection on screen becomes a problem for them.

Take for example, the upcoming video game The Last of Us Part II. Those who played the previous entry are perfectly aware of the fact that one of the game's central characters, Ellie, is a lesbian. In an early trailer for Part II, there's a scene in which Ellie shares a kiss with her lover, and this sparked a number of accusations against the development team and the game's director, Neil Druckmann, of appealing to the SJW agenda. For those unaware, SJW is short for "Social Justice Warrior," and basically an SJW is a term used for an individual who promotes multiculturalism, feminism, and other progressive views. Now, this sounds good on paper, but this term now has a significant negative connotation behind it now. People who consider themselves SJWs are accused of only seeking personal validation rather than possessing true conviction to fight for what is right. This term has been seriously overused, as many people have slapped this label onto Neil Druckmann, who is actually going about having an LGBT character in a narrative the correct way. What makes this issue more prominent is that people will complain if the characters are or aren't there. If a heterosexual couple share kiss, no one will bat an eye. If a gay or lesbian couple share a kiss, people lose their minds. While we live in an era that is more progressive, there are still people out here who just won't stand behind progressive ideals.

Solutions

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how good your cinematography is, how talented the cast, or how high the production value; if the writing behind a film or television show is trash, there's no saving it. Flesh out your characters before any filming takes place. Furthermore, it's not that difficult to search for a list of clichés and make an effort to avoid them. We don't need any token black friends, overly aggressive feminists, an overly attractive bad guy, characters that easily have sex, and unnecessary cliffhangers. By all means, tell the stories that you wish to tell, but please make sure that the writing is strong enough to hold your narrative together.