By Clarissa Göppinger and Leah Philippo
The omnipresence of comics has made them play a significant role in constructing and shaping our ideas about the social (Brown, 2013; Hansen, 2016). The particular genre of superhero comics often depicts gender and racial inequality, in which women are hypersexualized, men show hypermasculinity and non-white characters are underrepresented or are merely subordinate to the white protagonists (Brown, 2013, 2000; Facciani, Warren & Vendemia, 2015). This unequal representation can only reinforce existing stereotypes and rudimentary conceptions about race and gender, which is the issue brought to attention by this research (Brown, 2013; Facciani, Warren & Vendemia, 2015).
This work will focus on different superheroes and superheroines, by the comics company Marvel, that go by the moniker ‘Captain Marvel’ and can all be looked at from different perspectives regarding gender and race. First of all, Mar-Vell, a white male superhero, who was the first to be called Captain Marvel in 1966. A year later, Carol Danvers was introduced, yet as Mar-Vell’s white female counterpart who had her own series starting in 1977. It was not until 2012 that Carol Danvers went by the name of Captain Marvel. The second character to actually call herself Captain Marvel was Monica Rambeau, who already occurred in 1982 as a black female superheroine (Gustines, 2019; Dietsch, 2019).
Mar-Vell is a classic white heterosexual superhero. Like many others, he is a “hyper- masculine ideal, with muscles, sex-appeal, and social competence” (Brown, 1999, p.25). He is one of many representatives of the ‘hegemonic masculinity’ that comic books perpetuate. This term describes a “dominant masculinity; one that is exclusive, privileged, strong, and rejecting of anything feminine or otherwise stereotypically ‘unmasculine’” (Fleming, 2015, p. 6). This construction of masculinity is reproduced through bodily depictions of superheroes like Mar-Vell, which “are perhaps the quintessential expression of our cultural beliefs about what it means to be a man” (Brown, 1999, p. 26). This results in a masculine power which is then directed towards the ‘Other’ against which the dominant masculinity is constructed and thus leads to “the submission, exploitation and objectification of both women and ‘lesser’ masculinities” (Fleming, 2015, p. 6). This becomes especially clear when we look at Carol Danvers, Mar-Vell’s female counterpart.
Carol Danvers has often been described as Marvel’s first feminist character: especially the fact that she was called Ms. Marvel when her first issue appeared in 1977, “clearly highlights feminist awareness” (Curtis & Cardo, 2018, p. 389). However, scholars seem to agree on the insight that this feminist project was at least ambivalent, as “the character was given a generally shoddy treatment […], including an infamous rape story” (Curtis & Cardo, 2018, p. 389).
Before (accidentally) gaining superpowers and becoming Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers was introduced as Mar-Vells love interest and was repeatedly rescued by him. When she finally got her own issue as a superhero after having been neglected for almost a decade, she could neither control nor remember her metamorphoses into Ms. Marvel (Donnelly, 2015). This lack of agency adds to her hypersexualized depiction. As Donnelly (2015) states, the revealing costume “can be read as either a symbol of sexual liberation or as an example of the Male Gaze dampening the power of a female superhero” (p. 14). This becomes especially clear when compared to Mar-Vell, whose depiction is always meant to communicate his strength and self-control, while one can ask whether “a woman’s power [does] indeed still mainly lie in her sexuality” (Robbins, 2014, p. 12). Although there are some possibilities for a feminist interpretation of Ms. Marvel comics, they are “almost immediately constrained by the male gaze” (Donnelly, 2015, p. 27). This changed when Carol Danvers was given the moniker of Captain Marvel in 2012. Today, she is “not only exercising agency, but also exercising the modern woman’s right to make her career a priority” (Robbins, 2014, p. 13).
Even though, according to Facciani, Warren, and Vendemia (2015), there has been a continuous increase in the racial diversity of the comic book industry, others state that it has “more or less managed to erase all evidence of cultural diversity” (Brown, 2000, p. 3). Consequently, Brown (2000) writes that for decades comic book readers “have encountered a defining and idealized image of heroism” (p. 3) and this image is, in addition to being an advocate of the universal right and wrong, explicitly white (Brown, 2013). Monica Rambeau is the first racially diverse Captain Marvel character. As previously mentioned, she first appeared on the stage of Marvel’s superheroes’ comics in 1982 (Gustines, 2019). To create a black female superheroine as Mar-Vell’s first successor is remarkable, considering that they could not oppose each other more with regard to both gender and race. Despite this, she seems to be repeatedly neglected by scholarly literature on the topic. Whenever female ‘Others’ do appear in comics, they are often portrayed as “hypersexual and metaphorically bestial” (Brown, 2013, p. 124) or they are “treated as erotic spectacles” (Brown, 2013, p. 126). Monica Rambeau, on the other hand, is illustrated in a much less sexualized manner compared to Ms. Marvel, which becomes clear when looking at the visual material provided. Nevertheless, she does not seem to be a successful promoter of diversity in terms of gender or race, as she is often left out of any discussion.
This work focused on the representation of masculinity, femininity and race in superhero comics. The visual material is supposed to show how comic books perpetuate existing stereotypes regarding the mentioned categories. We think that the pictures of Mar-Vell and Carol Danvers speak for themselves, while it is much harder to interpret the depiction of Monica Rambeau. She does not seem to reproduce so many stereotypes, but her depiction does not deconstruct them either. This could also be the reason why it was very hard to find literature about her character.
Marvel seems to try and tackle its diversity issues more seriously now, which can be seen in the pictures of Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel (as compared to her time as Ms. Marvel). During our research we nevertheless came to the conclusion that the “subversive potential of the popular superbody” (Taylor, 2007, p. 346) could be used in a much more radical way in order to challenge the existing engendered and racialized social order.
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Brown, J. A. (2000). Introduction: “New heroes”. Black superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their fans (pp. 1-14). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
Brown, J. A. (2013). Panthers and vixens: Black superheroines, sexuality, and stereotypes in contemporary comic books. In S. C, Howard & R. L, Jackson (Ed.). Black comics: Politics of race and representation (pp. 123-136). Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
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