Women who superhero: you would think, by this point in our collective pop culture, that this would be a thing that everyone is cool with. In 2019, some people (men) went completely bonkers when Brie Larson indicated that she only saw white dudes reviewing her new movie, Captain Marvel, the first female-led Marvel film. When she said she intended to make her press coverage “more inclusive,” a pre-backlash to the movie started, somewhat hilariously. A grassroots protest erupted, asking moviegoers to “Take the Alita: Battle Angel Challenge” (a response of sorts to Disney’s initiative to send young girls to see Captain Marvel, utilizing the hashtag #CaptainMarvelChallenge on Twitter). The point, so far as it had one, was in trying to sink Captain Marvel by influencing folks to see Alita: Battle Angel, which also was playing at the time, instead. “Send a message to SJW [Social Justice Warrior] Hollywood,” read tweet by one vile, bilious alt-righter, who had previously tweeted that Alita was a “boring mess,” “take the #AlitaChallenge.”
Of course what happened was that Captain Marvel made over a billion dollars at the box office, while Alita made 405 million. The ridiculous #AlitaChallenge was never about boosting up one movie with a strong woman lead, but about trying to silence a woman who had dared speak up about inclusion and equity.
It’s been three years since that weird and ineffectual campaign, but some people just aren’t over women in superhero projects. Well, correction: they seem to like it when women kick ass and look hot. They just don’t ever want them to say a word about the difficulties of being a woman, and they are never, ever to be better at a man doing the same job. (They also don’t want them to be Muslim, as the more recent backlash over the Disney+ series Ms.Marvel proved.)
So now we come to Marvel’s newest jam, the Disney+ show, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. The recent (and terrific) first episode of got really under the skin of a lot of insecure people (mostly men). A quick recap: while driving with her cousin, Bruce Banner (aka The Hulk), lawyer Jennifer Walters’ car is targeted by a spaceship from Hulk’s past (it’s complicated), and there’s an accident. Some of Bruce’s gamma-irradiated blood gets into Jen’s bloodstream, and instead of killing her, bam, we have a She-Hulk.
One of the overarching themes of the episode is how Bruce has had to isolate himself away from people, and to learn to control his rage – the thing that triggers his Hulk transformation. He tries to explain all this to Jen, and to teach her his ways of isolation, balance, and maintaining internal order. To his surprise, Jen is able to control her transformation into She-Hulk (name pending) far easier than Bruce had at the start, and doesn’t even lose her regular personality when she becomes a six-foot green creature capable of throwing a boulder further than him.
By way of some explanation, Jen reveals how difficult the act of living and surviving as a woman can be. “I’m great at controlling my anger. I do it all the time—when I’m cat-called in the street, when incompetent men explain my own area of expertise to me. I do it pretty much every day because if I don’t, I will get called emotional, or difficult, or might just literally get murdered. So I’m an expert at controlling my anger, because I do it infinitely more than you.”
Did guys get pissed? Oh my god, they got so pissed.
Now, beyond the fact that it’s the height of irony that so many angry men took to Twitter to minimize Jen’s existence, a good deal of negative reactions were just sort of nonsensical. One key argument against Jen’s speech is people saying that Bruce, as Hulk, has had to deal with way more trauma than Jen has. But the speech wasn’t about trauma – it was about anger, and learning to control and mitigate it long before she ever became a Hulk. One meme that went around showed Jen saying, “I get cat-called on the street” while Bruce says, “My father beat my mother to death.” I suppose this was meant to show that Bruce has had it a lot worse in life than Jen, and that microaggressions can’t compete with the trauma of seeing your mother beaten to death.
What they didn’t seem to take into account was that that argument proved Jen’s point. Yes, that’s a traumatic event for a young boy to witness … but it’s kind of a lot more traumatic for the young boy’s mother, who was, in Jen’s words, “literally murdered.” Because they can’t see beyond the point of view of the male in this situation, women’s issues – up to and including being killed – are simply not as important.
It’s been interesting (and a little exhausting) to watch the reactions to this show, which is a lawyer comedy show more than anything. It breaks the fourth wall just as it did in the comics (before even Deadpool did it) and has an irreverent sense of humor that most other MCU properties only hint at (a Thor or two notwithstanding). Most frustrating is the fact that we’re probably going to have to keep going through this. The fact that I’m writing a think piece about a fun show where big green people wrestle with each other and then share tiki drinks is … I don’t know, absurd? We accept a lot in our current world of superhero lore. We’ve accepted a guy frozen in ice since the 1940s, and then waking up as a super soldier in modern-day New York. We’ve accepted a kid being bitten by a spider and going into space with his spider-powers. We’ve even accepted that Paul Rudd and Kumail Nanjiani can get jacked as hell.
How long before we accept women being, you know, women?