ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY, Marvel Studios opened its first ever female-led movie: Captain Marvel. Played by Oscar-winning actress Brie Larsen, Captain Marvel tells the story of Carol Danvers, a pilot who goes on to become the most powerful Avenger—more potent than The Hulk, Thor, the Black Panther and Captain America.
But as terrific as the movie was, behind the scenes, another plotline was brewing that provides a case study for how to “do” diversity and inclusion in a way that actually has impact. Here are three lessons in diversity and inclusion from Captain Marvel.
Power means nothing until you use it: 2016 was a major year in the career of Brie Larsen. She won an Oscar for her role in Room and went on to secure the role of Captain Marvel. She transformed her newfound influence and celebrity into real power when she became a vocal and status-quo disrupting advocate for greater diversity in Hollywood, using press interviews and award ceremonies to pointedly make her case.
To understand the magnitude of what Larsen did, put yourself in her shoes. You have just received a major promotion and you are now the face of a major corporate initiative. Do you immediately use your newfound influence to lobby for much-needed yet potentially unpopular change? Or do you bite your tongue and play it safe? Larsen chose to use her influence and privilege to help others, which, when you think about it, is a superhero thing to do.
Tackle a piece of the issue you can actually impact: “diversity” is expansive and means different things to different people. This is why so much money is invested into diversity initiatives with little to show for it. Larsen wisely focused on a sliver of the overall diversity in Hollywood pie: movie reviews. In a 2018 speech, Larsen cited data collected by the USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative which showed that 80 per cent of all movie reviews are written by men, and just 2.5 per cent of reviews are written by women of colour. As Larsen argued, reviews are important as they impact film sales, award nominations, role selection, what films get funded and how much they receive. Her advocacy worked: Larsen was successful in ensuring that more press passes, press accreditations and actual press coverage for Captain Marvel was created by women and people of colour. The lesson here? If you want to tackle a big issue like diversity and inclusion, choose a small but meaningful slice where you can actually move the needle.
Don’t give your power away to a fear of backlash: one of the hallmarks of Brie Larsen’s effectiveness in advocating for greater diversity among Hollywood critics was her willingness to speak about the issue plainly, without sugar-coating. For instance, when discussing the mediocre reviews received by A Wrinkle in Time, she said, “I don’t need a 40-year-old white dude to tell me what didn’t work about A Wrinkle in Time. It wasn’t made for him! I want to know what it meant to women of color, biracial women, to teen women of color.”
This “white dudes” comment in particular rubbed many fans the wrong way. In retaliation, many people “review bombed” Captain Marvel, resulting in dismally low ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes, even before the movie was released. It is precisely this fear of backlash that silences well-intentioned people who would like to advocate for change. If this is you, then take a lesson from Captain Marvel’s alter ego. At the time of writing, Captain Marvel is the single biggest movie of 2019, and is currently the seventh highest grossing global comic book movie of all time. The review bombing was ultimately a non-issue.
Thanks to Larsen’s heroic actions in support of diversity and inclusion, justice did prevail in the end. With a little bit of courage, strategy and plain speaking, it will for you as well.