Captain Marvel, released in March of 2019, broke records for being the “highest-grossing female-led superhero film of all time.” Female fans around the world rejoiced to see an Avengers film with a main character who looked like them- but there has still been resistance from Hollywood to create these non-traditional films. Besides “Wonder Woman” (part of the lesser D.C. universe) and “Captain Marvel,” the world of supers is still largely dominated by men. A lot of people say these woman superheroes are subpar characters working to fit into the ‘politically correct’ trend of the day- they argue we don’t need to create bad movies just to include women. So does it matter? Do we need female superheroes or are the men enough?
The same debate that has been playing out around the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes place within the political realm. Around 51% of the United States population is female, but only 25% of the United States Senate is female and only 23.6% of the United States House of Representatives is female. So again, does it matter?
Political Scientists would argue that yes, representation based on gender matters. In the eyes of these researchers, there are largely three types of representation: Descriptive, substantive, and symbolic.
First, let’s define these terms. Descriptive representation is what we are seeing with Captain Marvel: does the person look like me, or have they shared similar experiences as me? (Think of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Substantive representation is the delegate articulating policy in line with the opinion of those that they are representing. Symbolic representation, although a bit fuzzier, usually aligns itself with descriptive representation- is something or someone representing a group that is not present? I will largely be focusing on descriptive versus substantive representation.
Critics argue that substantive representation is what is important- who cares what a person looks like if they are pushing out policies that are similar to your views? A lot of people view voting based on descriptive characteristics as a fast path to getting ill-equipped people into power. Don’t we care more that smart, qualified people hold office? Don’t we care more that we make good movies- Who cares if Marvel doesn’t have women leads when they have powerful superheroes like Captain America for boys and girls alike to love?
The problem with these arguments is that there are legitimate reasons to care about descriptive representation. One prominent political scientist, Jane Mansbridge, published an article about the reasons to care about descriptive representation. Mansbridge identifies four areas that descriptive representation really matters.
1. “Communication in contexts of mistrust.” When you are a historically oppressed or ignored group, like women or African Americans, you are used to those in the majority group invalidating and questioning your experience. Even if that isn’t true of your current representative, you have been taught through toxic experiences in the past that people who haven’t had similar experiences simply cannot fully understand. Thus, historically less represented groups are less likely to talk to people who don’t look like them, leaving their voices unheard. If we want to hear what women have to say, we need to elevate people like them to listen.
2. “Descriptive representation leads to substantive representation.” Let’s go back to the Marvel Universe. Captain America has no idea of the problems that Thor faces on Asgard, and thus Captain America doesn’t try and fix problems on Asgard- he doesn’t know about them, so he can’t address them. The same holds true in the regular, non-superhero universe. Members of oppressed groups have lived the experience of being disadvantaged, and therefore can recognize problems that members of a majority group would be blind to. These members can then bring policy to the table to correct the issues that they face. Black representatives can identify issues unique to the black experience better than whites can. Thor can represent Asgard better than Captain America can.
3. “Descriptive representation creates meaning for ‘ability to rule’ where ability has been questioned.” Governments that do not have representatives from all groups are not seen as legitimate as others. Movies that do not represent groups are openly critiqued- see Aloha, Annihilation, or Lone Ranger. When people do not see others like them in settings of any sort, the overall attitude toward the group lowers.
4. “Increases attachment of the polity to members of the group.” This sounds much more confusing than it is. Basically, it’s the idea that descriptive representation makes people more attached to the group as a whole. We’ve seen this happening with young girls and Captain Marvel- girls who experience Captain Marvel as a superhero idolize her- it’s made some girls interested in the superhero industry as a whole. Similarly, people express feeling more of a connection to representatives who represent them descriptively, and they view the government as overall more legitimate based on that fact.
When little girls look at the superhero scene, they now can see someone who they can strive to be when they grow up. Little girls can be superheroes too. The hope is that a similar attitude permeates when they look at government- little girls can grow up to be senators, Supreme Court justices, and (someday) president. Descriptive representation helps knock down one mental barrier for women entering a space. When they see others do it, they feel motivated to do it themself.
It can be argued that there is inherent importance to letting people see others who look like them in places of importance-whether it be superhero movies or the government. However, regardless of whether or not you subscribe to that thought, there are real benefits to having people represented descriptively in all sorts of settings.