It’s a big ask, being brought back from the past to save half the universe from a Mad Titan. As if that wasn’t enough, the woman behind Captain Marvel is flexing her own muscles to drive change for women in film.
As the MCU’s first solo female lead, Brie Larson isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to tackling a lack of visible diversity, particularly for women, in the film industry. The Oscar winner for heart-stopping abuse drama Room is no stranger to making a stand. She famously refused to applaud subsequent winner Casey Affleck – after she’d handed him the statuette – given allegations of his own inappropriate behaviour. More recently, she personally selected Keah Brown – who writes on pop culture, blackness and disability – to interview her for Marie Claire, and declared a preference that the Captain Marvel press tour not be a sea of white, male faces. As the Hollywood Reporter announces that Larson “can’t save womankind – but she’s doing her best”, it begins to look like the hopes of a different 50% are also resting on those Jeep-pushing shoulders.
As many outspoken women before her have experienced, this comes with a price. While the MCU’s most famous Captain, Chris Evans, is swamped in near-universal Twitter adulation for his frequent political takes, Larson lacks that level of support. ‘White dudes’ who never quite forgave her for decentralising their views on A Wrinkle in Time are quick off the mark with dismissive quips and calls to boycott. Others, male and female, call her a narcissist for talking more about herself and her views than the film. Perhaps they’ve forgotten Marvel’s infamously tight-lipped approach to junkets (Mark Ruffalo’s outbursts notwithstanding). Larson’s output isn’t faultless – consider the ill-conceived Basmati Blues – but the knee-jerk outcry over her attempts to advocate for others reads primarily as a bitter backlash for being a woman with a strongly-held opinion.
Fan fury and toxic online behaviour continue to be a problem for the industry, particularly where female-focused projects are concerned. In the last few weeks alone, Jason Reitman’s comments on handing his upcoming Ghostbusters reboot “back to the fans” were interpreted by many as supporting those who viscerally objected to Paul Feig’s gender-switched 2016 take – prompting a distressed reaction from troll-targeted star Leslie Jones and a hasty clarification from Reitman, with Feig’s support.
Taken together, these incidents are a keen reminder to look for a substantive shift behind the scenes, with the industry still making slow progress on all fronts. The biggest awards continue to shut out female directors – even when, as with Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, their casts are nominated – although the 4% Challenge is gradually gaining momentum. Direction tends to be treated as the ultimate in glass ceilings while there are many other male-dominated areas of the industry that – like Oscars technical awards – don’t usually get the kind of public attention that provokes change. This year’s Berlinale, after undertaking an annual analysis of female representation in direction since 2004, surveyed entrants and published the numbers for all to see – including production, screenwriting, cinematography and editing. The awareness involved in conducting the reviews in the first place might explain why Berlin’s showcase only just favoured male-helmed films, compared to last year’s Cannes, with its headline-grabbing red carpet protest.
Emma Thompson writes to the producers of "Luck" re their hiring of John Lasseter, who recently left Disney/Pixar following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. https://t.co/Bfxcn2bgNB pic.twitter.com/6ouWBkClpv— Letters of Note (@LettersOfNote) February 26, 2019
Of course, representation is just one aspect. Enough time has now passed to review the consequences of sexual misconduct allegations – and the initial returns haven’t always felt promising. Even among those who have confessed to some level of unacceptable behaviour, the repercussions seem fleeting. Louis C.K. is back on the stand-up circuit and disgraced Pixar boss John Lasseter has found a new home at Skydance Media. Once again, however, it is those women who do hold some cards pushing back against any attempt to reassert business as usual, by bringing the fight to the public eye. British national treasure Emma Thompson removed herself from Skydance’s Luck in protest at Lasseter’s hiring, concluding a blistering public resignation with the words “if people who have spoken out – like me – do not take this sort of a stand then things are very unlikely to change at anything like the pace required to protect my daughter’s generation”.
All of which suggests that Larson is right to join the growing crowd of resistance using sunlight as the best currently available disinfectant. It’s not a coincidence that the origins of multiple campaigns, including Tarana Burke’s #MeToo, lie with women of colour but the faces and bodies of female liberation in Hollywood’s press tend to be thin, white and able-bodied. Recognition of that is one of the reasons Larson has given for wanting to change the lens that’s viewing her. But whether or not movies like Captain Marvel decisively shift the dial on the other key momentum driver, box office dollars, bringing the industry up to date is going to take an ongoing superhuman effort – and one more hero on the team certainly can’t hurt.