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She-Hulk: Superhero?

photograph of She-Hulk billboard with crowd walking below

What is the responsibility of those with power? Do they merely
have an obligation to refrain from the misuse of that power? Or
do they have a duty to protect those without it?

—Jennifer Walters

These are the very first lines of dialogue spoken by the character Jennifer Walters in the series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law. They echo words attributed to many others. In 1793, the French National Convention declared “they must recognize that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.” In 1854, the Rev. John Cumming stated that “wherever there is great power, lofty position, there is great responsibility.” Winston Churchill, in 1906, asserted in Parliament that  “where there is great power there is great responsibility.” And, of course, this ideal appears in the Spiderman comics and adaptations: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Jen’s invocation of this moral ideal, however, is distinct from these other versions.  Of the versions quoted, none of them tell you anything about the nature of responsibility. Each of these simple versions are consistent with a minimalist moral code instructing merely ‘do no harm.’ In other words, just saying you have responsibility may only invoke obligations of non-maleficence. This is the gist of Jen’s second question about refraining from misuse of power. But Jen’s third question explicitly suggests something missing in all these other versions, namely, that there is an obligation of beneficence, a duty to help those without power.

This inclusion of a responsibility to benefit others may strike some as odd. In the United States, we have a strong tradition of only recognizing negative responsibilities.

Negative responsibilities are those that require we avoid performing harmful actions. This is often expressed as an expectation that we not interfere in the lives of others. For example, our notion of property rights includes the negative responsibility to refrain from stealing or destroying someone else’s belongings. Similarly, our conception of liberty tends to be understood as merely negative: in order for me to exercise my freedoms to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, other people and institutions must refrain from creating obstacles to my exercise of those freedoms. It is a rare exception to these cultural understandings that we have any positive moral, political, or legal responsibilities.

A positive responsibility is an expectation that my actions will go beyond mere non-interference.

A negative right to life merely means I should not be causally involved in your demise. But, a positive right to life would require, if I am able with little or no chance to harm myself, to help you when your life is threatened.

A common example to make this point is to consider the situation where you walk by a fountain and notice that a person is face down in the water unconscious. If we only have negative rights, it is morally permissible to walk by without trying to help the unconscious person, even if they die as a result. The only requirement is that we do not act in a way that puts the unconscious person in a life-threatening situation, say, placing an unconscious person face down in the water. If, however, we have a positive right to life, I can’t just walk by and do nothing.  If I am physically capable of lifting the person out of the water and have a phone to call 911 for additional help, then I must do both.

It might surprise some to know that each of the three major ethical traditions – consequentialism, Kantianism, and virtue ethics – all seem to recognize some form of a requirement to benefit others. Consequentialism, of course, focuses on whether your actions create the best outcomes, and thus often require that you benefit others. But Kantianism also has a requirement of beneficence.  It is one of the examples of an imperfect duty to others mentioned in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Imperfect duties provide leeway in terms of how the responsibility is discharged, but benefiting others is nevertheless a duty for a Kantian. Virtue ethicists of the Aristotelian variety include benevolence as an important moral virtue. Developing this virtue requires acting beneficently. So, it seems as if we have a requirement to perform beneficial actions, either because of moral rules or because performing them will develop an important moral virtue.

But now, something odd comes up. There is general agreement that we have positive obligations to benefit others when we can. This is an important element in realizing that there might be a paradox of heroism.

We often hear in superhero narratives that part of being a hero is recognizing the moral duty of beneficence, namely, that they must use their powers to help others. However, it is also the case that part of being a hero is acting in ways that go beyond the expectations of duty.

Such actions are called supererogatory actions. They are permissible actions but not required. But, if these two statements—a duty of beneficence and the performance of supererogatory actions—describe two individually necessary conditions for being a hero, can there actually be heroes, super or otherwise?

The duty of beneficence might eliminate the possibility of supererogatory actions. If one only has a negative duty to refrain from hurting others, then there is a large class of permissible but not obligatory actions – the supererogatory – that we can perform.  As just indicated, heroism seems to require that there is such a class of actions because a hero is someone who performs these actions that benefit others, and are permissible but not obligatory. But, if heroes also have a positive duty to benefit others – to help others when we can do so – then it is unclear whether there is any type of action that is permissible but not obligatory: due to human limitations in terms of self-sufficiency, She-Hulk, Captain Marvel, and the rest of the MCU characters would be obligated to help anyone near them with no opportunity for doing something supererogatory.

Quite frankly, each of us, superhero or not, seem to have that obligation. But then supererogatory actions define a category that is empty — there are no possible supererogatory actions. This, in turn, means that it is impossible to meet both requirements of being a hero.

If this is correct, how are we to make sense of our esteem for She-Hulk or any superhero? Jen doesn’t have a moral choice in the matter of whether to be a heroic She-Hulk. The larger community has enforceable expectations of her now that she has power. This is the point of Bruce, in what seems to be a throwaway comedic moment, explaining that the moniker ‘Smart Hulk’ was not his choice, but a decision made by the community that he must accept. Similarly, the obligation to benefit others with her Hulk powers is also not Jen’s choice.

Jen tries to reclaim that freedom to be something other than a Hulk.  She literally states “I didn’t want to be a Hulk” and “I’m not gonna be a superhero.” Instead, she is going to choose “to help people in the way that [she] always wanted to,” as a lawyer in a District Attorney’s office prosecuting those who prey on the vulnerable. Kantianism, with the idea that imperfect duties can be discharged through many different types of actions, might initially agree with this, and thus recover the supererogatory. Jen has to benefit others. But can she meet this requirement by merely being a good lawyer?

It doesn’t appear to be possible. Despite Jen’s attempt at living a normal life, and her claim that she was right to believe that she never has to be a Hulk, we quickly learn that this isn’t true. Bruce Banner’s predictions come to pass. He points out that the appearance of the Sakaraan Class-8 Courier craft isn’t really an accident. It is just another instance of the rule that when you are a Hulk, “weird stuff just kinda finds you.” How better to explain the event of Titania interrupting Jen’s closing arguments. With the arrival of Titania, Jen immediately accepts Bruce’s prediction that she is now a superhero. With a courtroom of non-Hulks and the arrival of enhanced individuals, Jen Hulks-out and protects everyone in the courtroom. Thus, she answers the rhetorical question of her closing argument: those with power have a duty to help those without power.

She has that duty. She accepts that duty. She acts in accordance with that duty. She chooses to do so because she has free will. But that is not a choice of supererogatory behavior; it is merely a choice to follow the minimum requirements of morality.

Jen acts beneficently; the moral choice is an obligation, and not supererogatory. She is not acting like a super hero.

But she is acting like a moral exemplar. In other words, she is someone who understands the moral expectation placed upon her, recognizes the possibility that she does not have to meet those expectations even in a minimal way, and yet chooses to meet those expectations anyway.

And often, even the minimal expectations, especially in terms of benefiting others, are quite demanding. Many of us fail, regularly, to meet those minimal moral demands.

Hopefully, we are all trying to better recognize them and choose to become better. Moral exemplars, then, are people to admire and aspire to be.

And that should be enough. Whether or not it is even possible to be a superhero, it is possible to be a moral exemplar. Furthermore, no one, not even our favorite fictional characters, need to be perfect – what Susan Wolff derisively calls moral saints – to be moral exemplars. We just need to make choices that help us each become a bit more like these exemplars, a bit more consistent with our moral ideals. And if Jennifer Walters’ narrative arc plays out this way and she heeds the call of beneficence, she will be worthy of our esteem, and maybe that’s what it truly means to be a superhero.

What It Means to Be a Hero

photograph of mural of DC superheroes

This is an article about oral sex, gender roles, and fictional characters who like to dress up in dark leather and hurt each other (specifically, DC’s Batman and Catwoman).

According to a recent interview with the executive producers of Harley Quinn, an R-rated DC-owned television show streaming on HBO Max, the corporate owners of the Dark Knight vetoed the showrunners’ intentions to include a sex scene between Batman and Catwoman where the Caped Crusader would have performed cunnilingus on Selina Kyle. Explaining their decision, DC told the producers that “…we sell consumer toys for heroes. It’s hard to sell a toy if Batman is also going down on someone” because “Heroes don’t do that.”

For many reasons, it’s understandable if you’re confused right now.

Why are comic book characters (ostensibly created as children’s stories) involved in sexual content? Why is Batman (a “good” character) having sex with Catwoman (a “bad” character)? And why don’t heroes “do that”?

The first two questions are answered fairly easily: since his introduction in the pages of Detective Comics back in 1939, Batman has developed into one of the most popular, recognizable (and, therefore, lucrative) characters in American culture. With dozens of live action and animated movies and television shows, video games, graphic novels, and more, it is safe to say that, in 2021, Batman is not just for kids — HBO’s Harley Quinn is on the list of properties like the Oscar-winning 2019 film Joker and the Arkham games from Rocksteady that are marketed more directly to older fans. (To be clear: this is hardly a new phenomenon: Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and plenty of other authors have been writing “adult” Batman stories for decades.)

Similarly, Catwoman has developed since her debut in 1940. While Selina Kyle was originally a simple jewel thief and burglar (and was famously portrayed as a straightforward villain by award-winners like Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt), recent decades have seen the character grow into more of an anti-hero who often trades flirtatious banter with Batman. From the latex-clad Michelle Pfieffer dating Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne in 1992’s Batman Returns to the most recent pages of Tom King’s take on the characters (which saw Kyle and Wayne in an overt romance), the sexual tension between the Cat and the Bat is a well-established element of their relationship.

So, what about the sex?

Although the quote doesn’t give us much to go on, it seems like there are at least two ways to interpret the studio executive’s warning to the Harley Quinn showrunners; “Heroes don’t do that” might mean:

1. “Heroes don’t have sex.”

2. “Heroes don’t give oral sex.”

For several reasons, option (1) seems unlikely: not only is sexual virility a common feature of the “masculine hero” trope in American cinema (think of everyone from James Bond to Captain Kirk to Indiana Jones), but the full quote suggests specifically that “Batman going down on someone” would hurt toy sales.

Again, there is more than one way to understand what “Heroes don’t give oral sex” might mean in this context:

3. “Heroes can’t be depicted performing sex acts.”

4. “Heroes don’t perform that specific sex act.”

And, again, option (3) seems unlikely: not only are sexual innuendos and double entendres commonplace on the silver screen — including even in animated DC superhero shows intended more overtly for children — but Batman himself has already been featured in sex scenes. Even if we rule out straightforwardly pornographic content, there is still plenty of evidence that heroes have sex of one kind or another on screen (or just off its edge, at the very least).

So, that leaves us with (4). In context, it seems like particular emphasis is on the term ‘heroes’ — other characters might “do that,” but heroes don’t. Why might someone think this?

Here’s where a little philosophy can be helpful. According to the French theorist Luce Irigaray, “Female sexuality has always been conceptualized on the basis of masculine parameters” (from This Sex Which Is Not One, published in 1985) — as many feminists have pointed out, the historical over-emphasis of men’s perspectives has traditionally led to the silencing of women’s perspectives. When it comes to sexuality and the experience of sex, Irigaray argues that oppressive cultural habits have turned the public understanding of sexual pleasure into something that properly “belongs” to men: “Woman, in this sexual imaginary, is only a more or less obliging prop for the enactment of man’s fantasies.” So-called “good” women (in Kate Manne’s analysis of the term) will play their part within this misogynistic system, thereby allowing the patriarchal structure (that benefits men) to be upheld. Against this, Irigaray calls for a “rediscovering” of women’s pleasure (and, by extension, women’s perspectives and power): “in order for woman to reach the place where she takes pleasure as woman, a long detour by way of the analysis of the various systems of oppression brought to bear upon her is assuredly necessary.”

Ironically, the socially-constructed nature of various gender roles, although stereotypically beneficial for men in many ways, also serves to define expectations and norms for them that, when breached, can bring shame and ridicule down onto the offending man’s head. This is just one more disturbing element of so-called “toxic masculinity” that, in short, is much like Manne’s point about how misogyny can benefit “good” women: patriarchy can hurt “bad” men (or “men who are bad at being men”). Not only can this observation help to explain, for example, homophobic reactions to gay men (but not gay women), but, as philosopher Robin Dembroff argues, “Patriarchy, it turns out, doesn’t put men on top; it elevates men who are most mirrored within manhood — an ideal that was shaped, all along, to reflect that group of men. Or, to put it simply, patriarchy puts real men on top.”

It is not hard to see, then, why a corporate exec concerned with merchandise sales might worry about Batman giving Catwoman oral sex: in such a scene, the woman — and the woman alone — would (presumably) be experiencing sexual pleasure in precisely the way that the patriarchal system cannot compute. Were the characters’ positions reversed, and Catwoman were giving Batman oral sex, then consumers and toy-purchasers would likely interpret that as just one more risqué sign of the hero’s strength and power — in short, of his manliness. For Batman to “go down” on Catwoman might suggest instead that he is submissively giving up his masculinity — and, by extension, his right to be a hero.

By definition, heroes don’t do that.

Military Propaganda and Empowerment in Captain Marvel

Photograph of a Captain Marvel poster above a movie theatre entrance; the poster shows Brie Larson as Captain Marvel standing with a star and flashing lights behind her

Captain Marvel, Marvel’s newest superhero flick, had a very successful opening weekend at the box office, despite backlash from Internet trolls and diehard comic book fans leading up to the release. Most of the negative responses have been what one might expect for Marvel’s first female-led project; many complained that Brie Larson sported stoic expression in the film’s poster, or that the feminist slant of the promotional material ended up “isolating the audience” (a baffling statement, as though the film was only meant to be viewed by men). Despite these complaints, the film has received overwhelmingly positive responses from female viewers.

This is hardly surprising, as film was clearly marketed as another fissure in the glass ceiling. It’s premiere date was set for International Women’s day, and Brie Larson even went so far as to call the project “the biggest feminist movie of all time.” In interviews, Larson expressed her hope that Captain Marvel will inspire a generation of young girls to pursue careers as pilots, saying, “I really do hope that it inspires girls and women – that if that’s the path that they want to take, that they know that it’s available to them.”

But the film has received negative responses from a more progressive quarter as well. Some critics have called the film military propaganda for the U.S. Air Force, denouncing it as little more than a flashy and expensive recruitment ad targeted at women. This reading has been bolstered by the film’s marketing strategy. Ads for the Air Force played before many screenings of the film, specifically linking the heroic character of Captain Marvel (who is herself a former Air Force pilot) to real members of the armed forces. In one, a female pilot proclaims that “Every superhero has an origin story. We all got our start somewhere. For us, it was the U.S. Air Force.” Real army pilots were included in press tours and other promotional materials, and were also used as extras on set. Dr. Roger Stahl, a professor of communications at the University of Georgia, said of the film in an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, “[The military is] killing a few birds with one stone with Captain Marvel. They’re recruiting, they’re rehabilitating the image of the Air Force, and they’re appealing to an elusive but desirable demographic.”

Modern propaganda is much harder to spot (and therefore much more insidious) than blatantly biased World War II posters and idealized statues of dictators from autocratic nations. It’s also especially damning when used as a label, which is why the army has tried desperately to distance itself from it. Phil Strub, a former navy officer who currently works as a liaison between the DOD (Department of Defense) and Hollywood, often consults on blockbuster films like Captain Marvel. When asked if military-sponsored films should be classified as propaganda in an interview with Outline, he rather defensively said,

“I associate [the word propaganda] with something that is not truthful. Something that is put together deliberately to mislead, to brainwash people, to twist the real. They whip [true and false] together in a smorgasbord. That’s propaganda. And maybe you’d accuse me of being too pro-military but to me, the movies we work with, they’re morale-improvement. We don’t say, ‘OK! Let’s see what we can do to exploit this opportunity!’ We’re not trying to brainwash people! We’re out to present the clearest, truest view.”;

The military’s official stance on Captain Marvel falls pretty closely in line with Strub’s viewpoint. The Air Force has denied that the film is a subversive attempt to boost enlistment, but claims that they worked with the production solely to ensure the military was given as “accurate and authentic” a portrayal as possible.

We should also understand that Captain Marvel isn’t the first big-budget film (or even the first Marvel film) the government has had a hand in. Iron Man, the very first movie in the Marvel cinematic universe, was backed and largely shaped by input from the DOD. The 1986 film Top Gun was also used to rehabilitate the public’s view of the military in the wake of Vietnam, boosting recruitment numbers by a considerable amount. However, almost none of these films have faced backlash to the same degree that Captain Marvel currently is. This might be because the recruitment is specifically targeted at women now, which not only indicates how the demographics of our armed forces are shifting but how much more of the population is being targeted by these efforts and implicated in warfare.

However, it’s pertinent to ask if the actual message of the movie itself conflicts with its purpose. As Elena Levin points out, the Skrulls, an ostensibly villainous race of shape shifters that Captain Marvel is pitted against in the first half of the film, are eventually revealed to be

“a refugee group being hounded across the galaxy by the military of a fascist hegemony […] that denies them their basic dignity […] The movie doesn’t just show the galaxy from the Skrull point of view, it asks viewers to identify with them. Like the Skrull, people conceal themselves in order to survive in an oppressive world. When they defend themselves, the oppressors call it war.”

Captain Marvel eventually joins the Skrulls and protects them from the Kree, the fascist hegemony she was brainwashed by in the beginning of the film.

There are some flaws in the movie’s anti-war message, though. Dr. Lawson, a defector from the Kree, professes that her aim is to end all wars, not win them. And yet Lawson, it seems, can only do this from within the United States military, which she works for as a research scientist after leaving her home planet. Despite this, the film ultimately sympathizes with those disenfranchised by imperialism, and Lawson’s goal (strange as her methods may be) is still portrayed as a pacifist one.

The conflict between message and purpose raises a number of interesting questions. Is it possible for a movie to be military propaganda and also advocate against war, or does the recruitment goal render the anti-war message hollow? Is the goal of the propaganda merely to inspire positive emotions associated with the Air Force (which it certainly does; the colors of Captain Marvel’s uniform are chosen because of their association with the Air Force), so therefore it doesn’t matter if it’s wrapped up in an anti-war package? Furthermore, is it ethical for us to feel empowered by this movie?

On the one hand, something about the film smacks of white feminism, namely in it’s disregard of the horrific experiences women of color from other nations have had with the U.S. military. This goes beyond general statements on the evils of imperialism, which the film certainly offers. Dr. Elizabeth Mesok, a researcher who studies gender in the military, said of the film, “If we’re going to talk about women’s equality and women’s empowerment but we’re going to divorce it from a conversation about the rights of Afghan women and the safety and security and wellbeing Iraqi women or women in Yemen, then that’s not a conversation that I think is politically fulfilling.” It might be compared to what what Sarah Banet-Weiser calls “empowerment feminism,” of the kind of feminism that encourages self-confidence and success under a capitalist system to the detriment of economic or political autonomy, which ultimately reinforces rather than dismantles patriarchal and white supremacist values. In that sense, we might hesitate before surrendering to the emotional high of the film.

On the other hand, the emotions elicited by the film are potent and may be understood separately from the pro-military message. There’s a wonderful moment near the end where Captain Marvel goes up against her former mentor, played by Jude Law, without giving in to the rules he tried to impose on her in the beginning of the film. He encouraged her to be emotionless and fight within the restrictions he provided her with, but she ultimately realizes that she has nothing to prove to him and triumphs over him her own way. It might be pointless to dismiss such genuinely uplifting moments as irredeemably tainted by their association with propaganda, and acknowledge their value for female audiences who may come away with no more interest in the Air Force than they went in with.

Like all films, we have to view this one with a critical eye, and understand both its actual purpose, how it’s meant to influence us unconsciously, and what we might consciously chose to take away from it.

What Does Ant-Man Say about our Morals?

If you have not yet viewed Marvel’s latest production, Ant-Man, take this as the obligatory spoiler alert. Those who have viewed this perplexing film about an ant-size superhero that saves the world, however, probably have several questions running through their minds: How can such a small superhero be so powerful? Will Ant-Man join other Marvel heroes in future films? But the most important question, one that has yet to be asked by the masses, is what the very idea of Ant-Man and the plot of Marvel’s film says about our morals and whether the ideas in this film allude to a bigger problem in terms of warfare.

Continue reading “What Does Ant-Man Say about our Morals?”