Sexism Is Over! And Other Astonishing Tales

I’ve been mulling over a new project lately.  Some weeks ago, I bought myself Essential Ms. Marvel and Essential She-Hulk, collections of the very first comics these female superheroes appeared in. The first Ms. Marvel was published in 1977, and Savage She-Hulk was published in 1979. The influence of Women’s Liberation is obvious in these comics, and I’m really intrigued by this period in Marvel history, especially in contrast to the modern Marvel. I’d like to examine how feminism affected Marvel comics in the 1970s and how it affects Marvel now.

I recently wrote this piece on Ms. Marvel, which should demonstrate what I’m interested in exploring through this project.

I’m a comics novice. I jumped into the world of comics because—you guessed it—I really liked the Avengers movie. I approached comics cautiously, aware that as a woman, this was not really a place where I was welcome, especially since I only wanted to read about female characters. I picked out three trades to cut my teeth on: In Pursuit of Flight, The Name of the Rose, and Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD.

So my first meeting with Carol Danvers was as Captain Marvel, and I liked her right away. My favorite trait in a female character is punching everyone in the face, and Carol is definitely one for punching people. Of course I subscribed to Captain Marvel right away, determined to both support a female character and a female writer.

I have to confess, though, that I didn’t become really interested in Carol Danvers as a character until I bought myself Essential Ms. Marvel, Volume 1. I’m a fan of vintage comics, especially from the ’70s and ’80s. They’re cheesy and dated, and I find them just delightful.

The early Ms. Marvel comics have some moments and lines of dialogue that had me rolling my eyes, I have to admit. But reading these comics, it’s obvious that Ms. Marvel is part of the Marvel’s response to Women’s Liberation, and I find this moment in Marvel history fascinating.

There was nothing subtle about Marvel’s response to Women’s Lib. They brought out some straw feminists in the form of Thundra and Valkyrie, but they also introduced superheroes like Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk.

The opening of the first Ms. Marvel comic goes like this:

She flies… Like the Valkyrie guards of Valhalla, she swoops across the face of the Earth, arms as wide-spread as an eagle’s wings, eyes burning, jaw set… Her every sinew throbbing with battle-anticipation…

Her name is her own, but for want of something better, we may call her—Marvel! Ms. Marvel!

And because of her—the world may never be the same!

If that opening doesn’t get you pumped, there’s something wrong with you. This is a remarkable woman, a remarkable hero. And she’s not Miss, or Mrs.—she is Ms. I’m not sure if the title Ms. has quite the same resonance today as it did back in the ’70s, but it’s an important title—not because it gives her a particular rank (Carol’s already a Major), but because of the cultural meaning of the title.

Quick warning: I am not a historian, and I’m depending on Wikipedia for this particular tidbit. I do encourage you to fact check me on this. The title Ms. can be attributed to Sheila Michaels, who wanted to have a title for women like the title Mr. for men, which did not indicate marital status. I’d say that the title became really attached to the feminist movement with the establishment of Ms. magazine, a few years before the Ms. Marvel comics were published.

In the first issue of Ms. Marvel, Carol’s gotten a job as an editor for Woman magazine, working for JJ Jameson. I love the exchange Carol has with JJ, who’s an old-fashioned sexist going up against the modern progressive woman. And Carol definitely comes out on top. First Carol negotiates her salary with JJ ($30,000, not bad for the time). Then she lets JJ know that it’s not Miss Danvers, it’s Ms. Danvers. And she won’t be writing about diets and recipes in her magazine, as JJ suggested. She means to write about subjects that are important to her, such as women astronauts.

Like I said, there’s nothing subtle about Marvel’s approach to feminism—and honestly, I love how Carol was written. We’re supposed to be impressed by Carol’s competency and strong will. Carol is not a straw feminist or a caricature; from the very beginning, Carol’s a woman and a hero who’s worthy of respect.

The early Ms. Marvel issues were written by Gerry Conway—a writer who, we should keep in mind, also wrote Power Girl’s first appearance in DC—and on the first page of the first issue, there’s a notation reading “with more than a little aid and abetment from Carla Conway,” Gerry Conway’s wife. It’s a very intriguing notation, but unfortunately, I can’t tell you anything about Carla or what her input on Ms. Marvel was like. I dream of interviewing Gerry Conway and finding out more about what it was like writing Carol, but I don’t imagine that will ever happen. For now, I must satisfy myself with this quote:

You might see a parallel between [Carol’s] quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity.

Conway knew what he was doing with this character, and I have real respect for his work on Ms. Marvel.

There are a lot of quotes from Ms. Marvel that I could throw at you, quotes that show Carol’s determination to win in a fight (“I don’t yield to anyone in a fight, and any fight I get into I aim to win”), her dismissal of others’ sexism (“My name isn’t babe, Avenger, it’s Ms. Marvel”), her edge of arrogance (“Try stopping a super-nova, villain, it’d be easier!”). But there’s one quote that I’d like to take a moment to discuss. We all know Carol as an Avenger, but she didn’t start off as one. She started off on her own, at one point even fighting the Vision in an attempt to save the day. Carol earns her place as an Avenger, and Tony Stark isn’t entirely pleased with her joining the team.

“Perhaps I’m a closet chauvinist,” he says to Carol, after she’s completed a training sequence he created, “but I’m afraid I still think this is the wrong business for a woman.”

“I knew a cute little button of a lass, literally the girl next door—five foot two, eyes of blue, gorgeous, you’d love her,” Carol replies. “She was an assassin for the KGB—the Soviet Secret Service. She scored 23 kills in her career, including a six-year-old boy.”

“You refer to her in the past tense,” Tony says.

“I was target 24,” Carol says, climbing up on a ledge, about to take off into the sky. “Some women prefer being protected. Some don’t. Some men prefer being the protector. Some don’t. You have no more right to impose a role on me than I have to impose on you. I’ve fought all my life for the freedom to choose the life I want to live, shellhead. I won’t have it any other way.”

It’s a remarkable exchange, especially when you consider it’s from 1979. Carol has been a pilot, a security chief, and a writer trying to make a women’s magazine that wasn’t about traditionally female subjects, and there’s no way she didn’t have to fight to achieve those things. I don’t know if Tony’s a chauvinist, but the fact that he’s kind of questioning Carol after he admits that she impressed him with her fighting—that really shows what Ms. Marvel had to go up against as a female superhero.

I dream of writing a book entitled Sexism Is Over! And Other Astonishing Tales that extends this discussion and includes She-Hulk and Power Girl. It’s probably stupid and it’s certainly something no one would care to read. But I look at Marvel in 1977 presenting a blatantly feminist character to what I’m sure was a largely male audience, and then I look at the modern Marvel which won’t dare to make a movie about a female superhero, and I have to wonder—have we gone backwards? Have we become so secure in this false belief that sexism is over that we don’t dare make as bold a move as Marvel did in 1977?

I can’t predict exactly where this project will go, but I’m excited to give it a try.

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