Opinion: Femininity, flaws and female characters — What Captain Marvel got right

Note to reader: Spoilers for Captain Marvel (and many other movies) below


Marvel Studios’ 21st cinematic outing, “Captain Marvel,” has taken the world by storm. The film has already passed the $1 billion mark worldwide, with the highest opening weekend gross for a movie with a female lead. While it is a success with fans and critics alike, maintaining a solid 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, Captain Marvel triumphs with the portrayal of its first individual female lead, who should become the new standard for strong female characters in cinema.

It is important to note that the term “strong female character” does not necessarily mean a character who performs feats of brute strength, such as fighting or other dangerous activities. A strong female character at her core should be able to perform feats of emotional, intellectual, mental or physical strength. This definition expands the criteria to include a more diverse group of women such as obvious leading ladies like Wonder Woman, Ellen Ripley and Katniss Everdeen, as well as not-so-obvious ones like Maria Von Trapp and Elle Woods.

When it comes to writing strong female characters, they should be written as people, not invincible beings with plot armor. Give them flaws, struggles and, above all, give them weaknesses because that is what makes them compelling characters.

Too often in the attempt to make female characters “strong,” writers and directors choose to turn them into one of two things: a woman with virtually no faults or a traditional “macho man” in a woman’s body.

An unfortunate example of the former is Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy. She has a tragic backstory, but that does not give her the depth that she desperately needs. While she is on screen, Rey makes not a single mistake. In “The Force Awakens,” Rey, who has never piloted a ship in her life, is seen expertly piloting a broken down Millenium Falcon and escaping highly trained enemy fighters. How is an audience supposed to believe she can flip, dive and barrel roll without any prior piloting experience?

Later in the movie, she was able to defeat Kylo Ren, who is highly trained with the lightsaber, when she had never held a lightsaber prior to the altercation. She is a strong female character with admirable qualities, but that does not make her a good strong female character. Perhaps in future installments she will make mistakes and her character will develop, but, for now, Rey’s lack of flaws makes her uncompelling and sends the message that failure is the equivalent of weakness.

On the other hand, Carol Danvers, who plays Captain Marvel, was written to be arrogant and impulsive. She is knocked down too many times to count in the film, but that does not necessarily make her weak. In the first act of the film, her mind is corrupted by Kree propaganda and she refuses to see her people as anything other than “noble warrior heroes.” When everything she knew turns out to be a lie, she loses all sense of identity, screaming “I don’t even know who I am!” Her character was allowed to make mistakes, and that is what gives her depth and makes her not only a strong female character but also a good strong female character.

Often writers overcompensate and end up writing a female character stripped of any traits that would be traditionally feminine and replace them with traditionally masculine traits instead. This inadvertently communicates that having feminine traits is undesirable or weak, incongruous in the era of #MeToo where womanhood and femininity are celebrated as strengths.

As an extreme example, take the most stereotypical “girly girl” in cinema: Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde.” She is a sorority sister who shops, wears makeup, obsesses over boys, carries her chihuahua around and wears lots of pink. In the film, these traits are initially introduced as weaknesses. People make fun of her, calling her a dumb blonde and “Malibu Barbie,” and no one has any faith in her. However, in the final courtroom scene, her extreme femininity proves to be indispensable as she sways the jury by masterfully destroying the lying witness’s alibi with her “vapid” knowledge of perm maintenance.

Of course, Elle Woods is a caricature, and not an accurate depiction of women as a whole, but she does not compromise her beliefs or change who she is in response to outside judgement. Her core traits of ambition and stubbornness, as well as her stereotypically feminine traits, are a source of inner strength that carry her character throughout the film.

For more realistic strong characters, writers should start by writing the nameless, backstory-less, soul of a character. First, they should give them strengths and weaknesses in pairs to level out the character. Make them brave but impatient, smart but insecure, kind but naïve. Then, they should assign the masculine and feminine traits as desired. Finally, the gender should be given. If done right, the gender could be seamlessly switched back and forth without compromising the character. The only time it should not be capable of interchangeability is when the film specifically focuses on the triumphs and struggles specific to a certain gender.

For the title character of Captain Marvel, her gender could switch with little to no effect on the story. Admittedly, she does sign on to project P.E.G.A.S.U.S because her gender prohibits her from becoming a combat pilot in the Air Force, but that decision comes from her determination to get into the cockpit; if a theoretical male counterpart of Captain Marvel was faced with the same dilemma, he would have made the same choice. Carol is not a hero because she is female. She is a hero because she is a strong and determined character; plus, she can shoot photon blasts from her fists.

Having strong, realistic female characters in movies and other forms of mainstream media is invaluable to young girls and boys alike who are growing up and developing their own sense of self in this era. Seeing themselves—mistakes and all—validates their own struggles and emotions while simultaneously giving them hope that if their literal, on-screen superheroes can overcome insurmountable struggles, so can they.

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