Captain Marvel and the Evangelical Male Ego

Captain Marvel and the Evangelical Male Ego March 12, 2019

Captain MarvelI remember once venerating “the gospel” as a sacred message with which you weren’t supposed to tamper. In fact, I recall reading somewhere that even if an angel from heaven were to appear delivering an alternative message, faithful Christians should disregard it. Given how precisely that comment anticipated the Mormons (I mean Latter-Day Saints), I sometimes wonder if Joseph Smith wasn’t just trolling everybody.

In context, Paul was berating the gullible residents of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) for accepting a theological framework which took something he felt was non-essential to the core message—like converting to Judaism—and making that a non-negotiable. To hear him talk, you’d think there was an official version of Christianity, when in reality at that point there already were as many Christianities as there were churches. His much headier version of the faith was only the latest revision, and I’m not personally convinced the Jerusalem crowd ever officially endorsed it.

The truth is that all religions evolve, including the ones perpetuated by those who think theirs descended straight from heaven, already perfect. By no means is the Christian faith an exception, although that’s not how people see it who write for the Desiring God website. It’s basically like midrash for followers of Reformed pastor John Piper, and they believe they preserve the only correct version of the Christian faith, which they believe has never changed in 2,000 years.

They say that, but to hear them talk you would think that something relatively recent has moved from the circumference to the center of their faith: preserving the patriarchal family structure. Not to put too fine a point on it, they seem to feel that the traditional American division of labor within the family is sacrosanct; in fact, the whole traditional American family structure is now essential to the gospel: One man…married to one woman…and the man calls the shots. The wife and kids (and dog) obey. End of discussion.

Deviating from this traditional view of gender roles amounts to apostasy, and in today’s cultural moment evangelical Christians have decided they have been uniquely called of God to stand for this one thing more than anything else because, well…the reason why that’s happening should be a post of its own. Today I just want to look at one particular expression of this phenomenon.

An evangelical Christian writer went to see Captain Marvel this weekend, and he did not like what he saw. [**Note: One or two relatively minor spoilers ahead**]

Evangelical Butthurt

Greg Morse begins his response to the film by tracing the socially-driven evolution of the comic book character over the years as if to imply that a hero who has to grow into a form you can admire somehow merits your admiration less than one who appeared on the scene fully developed (see: Jesus). Of course, anyone who writes for Desiring God holds too high a view of the immutability of God to accept that his own Object of worship has evolved at all, let alone as much as the comic book character he is critiquing.

You say this hero changed over time to fit a different age? God forbid! I wonder if that’s ever happened in other mythologies, or even other religions? Surely not in his religion, though. I’m betting if I checked his sacred texts, I would find that his deity never changes or evolves, right?

He feels he is justifiably offended that the creators of the Marvel Universe saw fit to make a female hero capable of accomplishing more than the six or seven remaining male Avengers combined. Given that all of them exhibit one form or another of the kind of power that men would appreciate, I can’t say that I’m shocked to discover an evangelical doesn’t see how that could be plausible.

“Marvel may be on the verge of ruining a decade-long movie saga with identity politics.”

Yes, all those previous movies devoted to male heroes have now been spoiled because they made a single movie focusing on a female one. All is LOST.

By my count, up until now there have been 20 films in this Marvel Universe (excluding the earlier Spider-Man flicks). If you eliminate the ones with ensemble casts, 14 of them focused on one particular hero at a time. All 14 of them have been about a male hero. After twenty consecutive films over nearly eleven years, Captain Marvel is the first in the franchise that places a woman on center stage, making her the hero.

So of course the internet exploded with male rage. Anyone who’s paying attention could have predicted this would happen. The day of the film’s release, Rotten Tomatoes had to delete 58,000 negative reviews generated by people who had yet to see the movie but who wanted to drive the ratings down so that fewer people would go see it. They were unsuccessful, evidently, as the film raked in over $450 million worldwide in a single weekend, globally grossing more than any other single Avenger and even beating all the previous ensemble productions excepting only Infinity War.

As a side note, I was oddly amused at the number of people who felt Brie Larson should have shown more emotion while portraying a career military woman competing in a male-dominated field, especially since she was repeatedly ordered to bury her emotions throughout the movie. That’s an instructive microcosm of the real world wherein almost all paths to power reward those who exhibit traditionally masculine traits only to turn around and then punish any woman who makes it to the top of that scheme because she isn’t more traditionally feminine.

Power According to Men

As previously noted by Hemant Mehta over at Friendly Atheist, Morse here articulates his core grievance:

“As I consider Disney’s new depiction of femininity in Captain Marvel, I cannot help but mourn. How far we’ve come since the days when we sought to protect and cherish our women.”

For an evangelical like him, the essence of femaleness lies in vulnerability and dependence on men. In his ideal world, women need men to keep them safe, to be their saviors, because surely there is something woven into the laws of nature itself which distributes the roles of the sexes in precisely this manner. It’s certainly true if you squint and make sure not to look in this corner of nature or over there at that one, or at that other one over there.

He laments that Disney princesses are no longer celebrated for the fact that their slipper is made of glass, and that all that book reading (with no pictures!) eventually led to picking up a weapon! Is the whole world being turned upside down?! Stop the train, we want it to go backwards because we liked the old days better, when America used to be great!

“Have we forgotten how precious our women are? Have we forgotten that it is our glory to die in their place?”

As a veteran of this mental world, I recognize this approach immediately. It is blissfully unaware of the subterranean misogyny undergirding the concept of chivalry. It cannot see it because, for them, heroism is defined as something a man can do for a woman, not vice versa. And the hero’s power will be rated on a scale that’s based on things a man would value…never mind what a woman would say in critique of it.

Women can’t be stronger than men, you see. Just look at our biology and think about our hormones and comparative bone densities. In other words, be sure to define “strength” according to whichever traits men specifically value. That should be the only appropriate scale, right?

The movie responded to this line of reasoning before the first critic could reach for his laptop. Each time someone tried to tell Carol Danvers who she was and how she was to supposed to fight, she found a way to break their rules and display forms of power the rest of them couldn’t even understand. After discovering she could take down a star fleet destroyer with nothing but her own body, her personal trainer challenged her to a fistfight. How pathetic.

“I have nothing to prove to you,” she said. That pretty much sums it up.

The Modern Gospel of Sexism

Upon first reading Morse’s review, you’d probably think the main thing bothering him is women being sent into combat, as if admitting women into the military is really the core issue, here. The underlying issue is that if women can be allowed into every area where men are, it would upset the power structure on which his whole worldview depends. Just like Yahweh can’t have a wife because she would be equal to him in power, even Jesus didn’t get an IRL wife because that would have made a woman equal to God incarnate.

The feminine side of worship had to show up somewhere, so in time an abstraction appeared to take its place, making the church his collective “bride” or whatever. But even then they made sure to spell out that this doesn’t mean the church gets equal say in things—it just means that she’s the one that Jesus gets to keep saving, because that’s what God needs most, to be the savior. He needs it. Depriving him of this would be emasculating him, you see. And remember we’re talking about God, not the men who keep describing his emotional needs to us, okay?

And now comes the most revelatory statement in his article, the moment the unspoken ugliness of his premise finally rears its head:

“God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride. Jesus did not put his woman forward, and neither should we. Where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded.” (emphasis mine)

Wait a second. Where Adam failed…how, specifically?

We were clearly told by the author of the Pastoral Epistles (who most likely wasn’t Paul) that the woman was the one who was deceived, and she was the one who brought the curse upon humanity, not Adam. Her husband let her call the shots, and that’s where he failed. The essence of the fall of man lie in subverting the hierarchy of the sexes. Behold, the modern gospel of sexism.

Feminism becomes the essence of sin, the key element of the curse of humanity (“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you”). From now on, “the gospel” can be about men regaining their rightful place over women, and it turns out that patriarchy is the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ!

I want so much to support my progressive Christian friends in undermining this relic of a subculture, but I’m afraid they are only trying to save their religion from itself. I suspect there is too much patriarchy woven into the Bible to extricate the Christian message from it without tearing itself to pieces. Do you realize how many women Jesus picked to be among the original Twelve? None, actually. Unless “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was really a woman and they covered that up. But let’s jump down that rabbit hole some other time.

A Different Kind of Heroism

Male-dominated Christianity views “laying down your life” in death as the greatest sacrifice a person can make. But is it really?

In many ways, dying for someone is easier than living for them for years or even decades because the former can be over with in seconds while the latter could last for the rest of your life. It means waking up every morning and consciously deciding that you are going to make meeting someone else’s needs a priority—whether it’s members of your family, the people you serve through your work, or even four-legged friends—and then going to bed and getting back up again to do it again the next day, and the next, and the next. Is that really a lesser sacrifice than dying a hero’s death?

There are more ways to be a hero, and more ways win a war besides fighting with your fists and blowing stuff up. I touched on this briefly toward the end of my review of The Last Jedi. Throughout that movie, two contrasting models of heroism clash in the form of Poe Dameron and Princess Leia, among others. All the men wanted to go out with a bang, putting their lives on the line with odds overwhelmingly against them. That sounds like a great way to be remembered.

But is that really the essence of heroism, doing something to ensure you’ll be remembered for it after you die? Isn’t that ultimately about memorializing your own ego? What about those who saved hundreds or thousands of lives by choosing not to fight, living to fight another day? What of those who protect their loved ones by refusing to be a hero in the traditional sense, opting instead for a less obvious path to victory, one with less fanfare but more lives spared?

Being a survivor is another expression of power. Showing patience, mercy, and even forgiveness for those who change for the better so that now you have an ally instead of an enemy. Enduring great pain and loss but continuing to go on, never giving up. Getting back up again every time you fall the way Carol Danvers does her whole life, never giving in. Sometimes it’s about outsmarting your opponent, being more resourceful than they could even understand. Those are forms of power that are perhaps less obvious, less personally aggrandizing, but no less heroic.

Movies like this challenge our conventional understanding of heroism, and we could use the push. Strong, smart women are most threatening to those who know they wouldn’t be able to compete without being allowed to dictate all the rules of engagement. But all’s fair in love and war, as they say, and you don’t always get what you want.

[Image Sources: IndiaTV, Disney]

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About Neil Carter
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture. You can read more about the author here.
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