The Joy of Brie Larson, the Big-Screen Heroine We Need Right Now
With Captain Marvel opening to strong reviews and impressive commercial success in its first weekend, it’s safe to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s agonizingly long wait for a woman led project has paid off. The film, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, is at its most vibrant and appealing when it plays into the specificities of Carol Danvers’s life as a woman consistently undermined and dismissed by the men in her life. Creeps ask her to smile then get mad when she won’t acknowledge them. The male air force recruits she trains and works alongside couldn’t make it any clearer how much they despise her mere presence in this world they consider a man’s realm. Even her supposed mentors only talk about her abilities in terms of something she should clamp down for fear that her emotions will spoil things. It’s no wonder so many women have latched onto Carol in these times. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of women, and even young girls, have shared many of her experiences. We’re hysterical, driven more by our out-of-control girly emotions than our strengths (and said emotions are seldom seen as one of those strengths). We’re told to shut up and stay in our place, or when we’ve fought hard enough for that seat at the table, it is demanded of us to prove ourselves to impossible standards. Any vague acknowledgement of your own womanhood is seen as political correctness gone mad.
Want proof? Go hang out in Brie Larson’s Twitter mentions.
Since the casting announcement of Oscar winner Larson in the role of Carol Danvers, her presence in the MCU has faced endless scrutiny. She’s too young to play Captain Marvel, she doesn’t have any experience in action films, she doesn’t have the physicality required, she’s too political, she won’t shut up, why is she spoiling this for all us poor beleaguered white men…
You’ve heard it all before by now. You’re probably dishearteningly familiar with the conspiracies, happily perpetuated by clickbait sites masquerading as journalism and right-wing shills looking for a new movement to hijack for their own gains. If these folks’ forced anger was anything to go by, you would think that Larson was the modern Medea or one of the greatest evil geniuses of our time on the level of ancient warlords or Bond villains. It is unfortunately true that a woman in the public eye doesn’t have to do all that much to inspire the ire or misogynists everywhere, a task that becomes all the easier if you’re not cishet or white. However, there is something especially virulent about the abuse that Larson is receiving that feels worth dissecting. It feels more comparable to the harassment and violent rhetoric directed at Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley than, say, Gal Gadot, who certainly received her fair share of bullsh*t but I don’t ever recall being accused of supporting white male genocide. However, it has been somewhat entertaining, as a Brie Larson fan, to watch the usual suspects claim that she entered her Marvel contract as some sort of undercover evil feminist agent, hiding her political agenda until her name was on the dotted line. In reality, Brie Larson has always been this kind of hero.
Brie Larson is a former child star raised in a single-parent household who has talked openly about living on the breadline, even while building up a reputation as a working actress. She admitted in an interview with Vanity Fair that, even only a few years before breaking out as a star, she was ‘living off the food in the film-festival welcome gift bags.’ Even after she started making real money, she confessed to feeling guilty about spending it on anything too luxurious and gave a lot of it to charity. Her giving spirit and advocacy was nothing something that sprung up overnight. It was a crucial part of her adult career for many years, even when she was best known for T.V. roles and indie movies.
Nowhere was that more obvious than during both Larson’s Oscar campaign for Room and the following year where she was on duty to give out various Best Actor awards. With the former, Larson put in the work to win her award but wasn’t afraid to talk about political and social issues at the same time. And these weren’t vague platitudes about equality that make for nice soundbites but don’t really say anything. She got specific, she talked about intersections of race, gender and sexuality, and she engaged with activists on social media over a range of topics. This was a woman putting in the work at every step, even when she so easily could have kept quiet and sailed towards that Oscar gold. In one especially touching moment of public solidarity, during the Oscars ceremony itself, she hugged and thanked every sexual assault survivor who had stood on stage with Lady Gaga during her performance of the song ‘Til It Happens To You.’ It wasn’t televised nor did she brag about it on social media. We only really knew about it because some of the evening’s attendees recorded it. It’s a small gesture, sure, but an achingly personal one at a moment when it was most needed.
And then there was the Casey Affleck moment. I think we’ve forgotten just how discomfiting it was to watch an accused sexual harasser be given the full red carpet treatment for that Oscar season, as he and his team executed the most precisely managed awards campaign I’ve seen in a long time. It was one everyone went along with too. Journalists fell in line, profiles were glowing, and even the most socially minded critics found ways to compartmentalize the problem in ways we wouldn’t be able to only a few months later. People were happy to see Affleck win that Best Actor Oscar. Brie Larson was less enthusiastic. She was never anything less than graceful or professional - to be otherwise would have led to much worse backlash for her than him - but she did something that so many women are extremely skilled in: She made her silent anger tough to ignore and impossible to misjudge. Everyone knew she wasn’t happy about having to constantly give this man symbols of his own glory, as reinforced by an industry willing to look the other way. She didn’t have to say she was mad, mostly because she couldn’t at that time. The landscape changed dramatically post-Weinstein and before that tipping point, you simply smiled and got on with it. I think we’re falling back into those traps now, unfortunately, but that’s a post for another day. Larson had a job to do but she could still silently say something as she complied. She didn’t clap, she didn’t force enthusiasm for his win, she didn’t go along with the herd.
Larson has been front and centre with the Times Up Initiative since it was launched, and she was one of the first major stars to add an inclusion rider into her film and press tour contracts following Frances McDormand’s own Oscar speech. She has urged fellow actors to speak out against the Trump administration and called out the President for his rollback on trans rights. She helps to raise funds for charities that look after people in the film and T.V. industry with little to no resources. She also, notably, called for more diversity among the press pool for Captain Marvel. That seems to have been the inciting incident for this current round of misogyny. Pop culture has long been a battleground for right-wingers and those opposed to inclusivity, a means for them to assert their dominance and reinforce the notion that cishet white male dominance is a universal mode of living and being. Everyone can relate to Superman but only women can relate to Wonder Woman. A white guy has the qualifications to review any film fairly, but people of colour watching the same title are ‘biased’. A woman can’t direct Iron Man but man should and will direct Sex and the City. We’ve been through this spiel before, and even as the voices of change get louder, the pushback is enormous. Just look at Green Book’s Oscar win. That’s why it matters that, when Larson got the biggest gig of her career and one that came with the potentially smothering weight of history on her shoulders, she didn’t back away. She knew she could set an example and she did, even though there was probably at least one harried publicist telling her not to ‘eliminate her fanbase’. She just did what Carol would have done.
And that’s one of the reasons she’s so damn great in the film. Granted, you don’t need me to tell you that an Oscar winning actress is good at her job. Even the most cynical reviews of Captain Marvel note her strength in the role. She’s a stubborn heroine who has no qualms with throwing herself directly into the fight and even in those darker moments she never loses the sheer verve of being a super-powered individual. This is a woman who woo-hoos during fights and blows her hair out of her face with a goofy gesture. She doesn’t walk so much as she struts, radiating the confidence of a woman who is all too used to having that sensation described as arrogance. She’s on the right path and she has nothing to prove, certainly not to the people who will never be satisfied with what she’s doing.
When I last wrote a longform piece about Brie Larson, I described her as someone who shines. As much as she draws eyes to herself, she is always working hard to share that light with others, be they her co-stars, fellow activists or the kids who call Carol Danvers their hero. She’s working hard and publicly to make her space more inclusive and better than how she found it. it’s always risky to invest so much of yourself in an actor and position any sort of celebrity as a hero, but given the mantle she now bears, it’s still encouraging to see Brie Larson understand the magnitude of those responsibilities and do good with them. I’m glad she’s the hero we have right now.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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