Captain Marvel is capable of anything. She can zip through the galaxy. She can shoot photon beams from her sparkle fists. She can command the Avengers and has superhuman strength and fighting abilities. But for as awe-inspiring as she is, she is still susceptible to the frustratingly sexist tendencies of our non-superhero-filled reality.
After the first trailer for Captain Marvel was released this week, a sect of fans started bemoaning what it showed of Brie Larson’s performance in the title role, complaining that her acting seemed stiff and wooden. That sentiment led one Twitter user to literally and creepily photoshop a smile onto Larson’s face in stills from different scenes, claiming they had “fixed” her.
Manipulating a smile onto Captain Marvel’s face is seemingly a digital extension of the “smile more” harassment that women hear all the time. As the Atlantic explained in 2016, women are frequently advised to smile by the people around them — from co-workers to strangers on the street — implying that they need to appear happier, for the benefit of others, usually men. And despite its inherent disrespect, the mindset is pervasive; it was even used to criticize Hillary Clinton during her 2016 campaign for president.
A man telling a woman to smile — and in Captain Marvel’s case, digitally altering a woman’s face to smile — capitulates to the crooked idea that it’s not up to women to decide when to smile, that a woman appearing to be happy and pleasant is more important than how she might actually feel, that women owe it to others to perform a certain emotion whether it’s sincere or not.
Ironically, this specific type of catcalling and harassment is something Marvel has directly addressed with one of its other female characters. Marvel’s Netflix show Jessica Jones made the insidiousness of the “smile more” command a sinister point in its depiction of Kilgrave, the show’s villain. Kilgrave had the power of mind control and would use it to abuse Jones, including by making her smile as he forced her to do other things against her will.
Concern over how much they’re smiling isn’t something male superheroes typically have to deal with. There haven’t been any viral calls for Iron Man or Thor or Captain America to be more smiley.
And to prove that very point, one Twitter user has responded to the Captain Marvel complaints by manipulating photos of Marvel’s male superheroes to smile in moments where they’ve otherwise expressed more dour expressions:
I saw some dude use an app to make Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel smile more, so I thought I’d do the same with the male Marvel superheroes.
I think we can all agree that this is a totally normal, non-creepy thing to do. pic.twitter.com/jLONpjGQch
— David Chen (@davechensky) September 20, 2018
When Captain Marvel hits theaters, the movie will be the first solo female superhero film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an achievement that is both wondrous and long overdue. Hopefully, the title character will be able to do everything her superheroic male counterparts do, including smiling on her own terms.