Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and the Power of Gender Stereotypes

Actress Brie Larson with Brig. Gen. Jeannie Leavitt, the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. (TriiipleThreat / Wikimedia Commons)

Two years ago, I watched Wonder Woman with excitement and enthusiasm. It had its problems, but I was willing to overlook them for its positives. As a movie, Captain Marvel also has some flaws. But as a superhero, Captain Marvel is just right. 

Weighing the differences between the titular heroes in Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman may seem extraneous—some might even say that I shouldn’t compare the two women, since they literally don’t belong in the same universe and the only thing they have in common is their gender. But that’s exactly why I’m compelled to compare them.

These are the only two female superhero leads that we have ever seen in Marvel or DC films—and whether it’s incidental or not, they reveal much about how our culture thinks about power, femininity and womanhood.

Wonder Woman’s femininity is safe and soft. She’s beautiful, kind, gracious, innocent. She loves babies and she falls in love with the first man she sees, not unlike most Disney princesses. We know that she is supposed to be strong, but we don’t actually see a strong muscular body—we see a skinny, relatively delicate one, especially in comparison to the other women in her homeland of Themiscyra.

Even if we were trying hard not to see Wonder Woman as sexy, the men around her constantly remind us that she is, in fact, very sexy. Her outfit—an improvement on previous renditions of the costume—is less sexualized than Lynda Carter’s, but throughout the film we also see her wearing a revealing gown and even a pencil skirt and stiletto heels.

Wonder Woman, like most superheroes, is also stubborn—which should be a plus—but she also smiled often, in stark contrast to her own mother and aunt, who trained her and have much more of a warrior demeanor about themselves. Wonder Woman’s excessive questions also made her appear confused; even though I know it’s because she comes from another world, her curiosity made her appear naive and clueless.

There is nothing wrong with valuing love or being gracious and kind. There’s also nothing wrong with being beautiful. But these are qualities and ideals that are typically associated with women, and which women constantly feel the pressure to live up to—even when they are successful and powerful, or perhaps even moreso when they are powerful and successful. In some ways, Wonder Woman’s version of femininity and womanhood unfortunately ended up reinforcing people’s definitions of how women can or should be.

We see this dynamic play out in the sports world, where female athletes are expected to keep their tempers in check, be gracious and be “feminine” or “sexy” all at once. (Their male counterparts don’t face such scrutiny or pressure.)

Research on Jeopardy! contestants also revealed that women who were winning by $10,000 started to engage in more uptalk—ending statements with a questioning lilt, which projects uncertainty rather than confidence—than their losing counterparts; perhaps, as the author suggests, to “compensate” for their success. Men who were winning by $10,000 uptalked less than their male counterparts who were losing, thus reasserting their confidence.

These are the kinds of ideals and expectations that Wonder Woman, as a superhero, didn’t challenge. But Captain Marvel, in many ways, directly addressed and subverted them.

Captain Marvel’s physical appearance is different from any other female superhero we’ve seen. She appears to be physically strong; her stance and her body exude strength and muscularity. While her suit is form-fitting, it’s not sexualized—we never see cleavage, legs, high heels or shots of her behind, as we often do with Black Widow. Instead, her outfit feels practical for what she needs to do, as it appears to be an armor shielding her from enemy fire that also allows for her own ease of movement. 

Captain Marvel hardly ever smiles, which even became a point of criticism among some anti-feminist trolls after the first trailer was released. (It’s also directly addressed during a cat-calling exchange in the movie.) She doesn’t talk unnecessarily—after all, she’s on a mission to save Earth, and she’s got amnesia! She doesn’t even stop to coo at babies or cats. 

There’s nothing naïve about Captain Marvel—she’s a smart soldier who understands strategy and betrayal. That’s what makes her a formidable opponent.

Perhaps the most significant departure in Captain Marvel from previous depictions of womanhood is that she draws her strength from her deep friendship with a woman and fellow fighter pilot, Maria Rambeau, instead of any romantic or sexual relationship—with a man or otherwise. Rambeau helps Captain Marvel remember who she is and what her strengths are. That a woman can “find herself” without needing heterosexual romantic love to guide her is something we don’t see enough of in movies across genres—and strangely, not even in Wonder Woman, where the superhero grew up on an isolated island populated only by women.

Much ink has been spilled, and precious airtime wasted, on how much Hillary Clinton should or shouldn’t smile. We’re all familiar with the dismissive remarks about women being too emotional, at least for one week of the month, to be in the White House. Captain Marvel, however, doesn’t “overcome” the dismissiveness that women face as they enter fields previously occupied by men—instead, she shatters their expectation that she must fit into their mold. In one moment of defiance, she even declares to a male colleague that she has “nothing to prove” to him.

Captain Marvel’s womanhood is centered in her refusal to tame herself, as the men in her life want her to, or buy into the mindset that her emotionality will be her doom, as her Kree male mentor insists. Her true power is unleashed only when she taps into her typically “feminine” traits—and derives strength from characteristics men were all too often eager to write off as flaws and failures.

I don’t want to be dismissive of qualities like love and kindness that Wonder Woman embodies, especially in a world where those qualities are perceived as feminine and devalued because of it. Wonder Woman proves that love and kindness can make us powerful, and in doing so she venerates the typical notions of womanhood. She was the hero we needed, especially when compassion began being in such short supply in the nation’s capitol.

But Captain Marvel’s strength challenges a stereotypical depiction of womanhood—and as women around the world continue to rise up, she’s the kind of hero we deserve.


Afshan Jafar is an associate professor of sociology at Connecticut College, the author of "Women’s NGOs in Pakistan" and the co-editor for "Bodies without Borders" and "Global Beauty, Local Bodies."