There Is No ‘M-She-U’… But Maybe There Should Be

When the first episode of She-Hulk: Attorney At Law hit Disney+ on August 18, an almost instant wave of backlash hit the internet. Some people did not like the series explicitly discussing the very real challenges that women face in their careers and their lives as a consequence of the patriarchy. She-Hulk was also review-bombed online similarly to Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Eternals, and Ms. Marvel for having main characters that were not white, heterosexual men, and/or for discussing issues of racism and sexism.

split photo of ms. marvel, she-hulk, and scarlet witch
Marvel Studios

But, some of the most egregious complaints are about the so-called rise of the “M-She-U,” in which women are apparently replacing men in the MCU. There may certainly be valid criticisms of She-Hulk; however, labeling the series “anti-man” or “woke” is really just thinly-veiled misogyny and fragile masculinity. Furthermore, when we look at the history of women in the MCU both in front of and behind the camera, calling the MCU the “M-She-U” is simply inaccurate.

The Beginnings of “M-She-U” Complaints and the Sacrifice of MCU Women

The complaints about the “M-She-U” from misogynistic fans goes back to Captain Marvel‘s release in 2019. Apparently, Carol Danvers was too “mean,” “overconfident,” and/or “powerful” for some people. And, the “M-She-U” chatter became more intense when, in Avengers: Endgame, the MCU women (excluding Black Widow… more on her in a bit) came together for this moment.

Somehow, this incredibly quick scene became the focus of much online furor over it being “forced,” as if the Avengers having the time to slowly assemble, take their cool positions, and wait for Captain America to say “Avengers… [dramatic pause]… Assemble” was not “forced” at all. But, because it is men, it is seen in a different light.

So, what is the history of women in the MCU? Let’s go back to the MCU’s original woman Avenger: Black Widow. We first met Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, in Iron Man 2. She might be the most consistently objectified character in the MCU. In that film, Tony Stark looks at her and says, “I want one.” He views her as if she’s nothing more than an object for purchase. This line’s problematic nature becomes even more stark considering Black Widow’s history.

Her training in the Red Room was to become General Dreykov’s weapon, essentially an object to fulfill the goals of a man. Natasha spends much of her MCU tenure in service to other characters. She finally gives Clint Barton his redemption after his stint as Ronin in Avengers: Endgame by sacrificing herself for the universe. After being crucial in the fight against Thanos, Natasha does not even get an on-screen funeral. (Years later, Ms. Marvel honors her memory via a tribute at Avengercon.) And, unlike her fellow Avengers who have their own lineup of solo films, Natasha only got one posthumous film.

Natalie Portman as Mighty Thor in Love and Thunder wielding the hammer
Marvel Studios

Of course, Black Widow isn’t the only MCU character to face poor treatment. Recently, Jane Foster became the Mighty Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder only to die in the same movie to save Thor Odinson’s life. This is supremely disappointing considering promises to fans that Natalie Portman’s otherwise boring role as Thor’s love interest and damsel in distress would take an interesting turn.

In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch, sacrificed herself to destroy the Darkhold, after going on a rampage across universes to get her children back. And, in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Ying Li sacrificed herself to protect Shang-Chi and Xialing. There’s a clear pattern here and these examples are not even all the MCU women who have faced death in some way, often sacrificing themselves for other characters. (Honorable mentions to Ajak, Gamora, Aunt May, and Frigga). If a swath of these characters are dying to further someone’s growth or a plotline, then there is no “women taking over and leading everything” agenda, right? A true “M-She-U” would not have so many women characters facing these types of fates.

The Facts on MCU Women Characters and the Creatives Behind the Camera

That brings us back to She-Hulk. This show is only the fourth solo woman-led MCU property (not including ensemble-led films). And three out of those four properties feature white women: Captain Marvel, Black Widow, and She-Hulk. In June 2022, Ms. Marvel became the first MCU project—series or film—to be led by a woman of color. It also marks the first time that a woman of color, Bisha K. Ali, helmed a show in the MCU. That milestone comes 14 years after the release of Iron Man. At this point, Marvel Studios has 36 MCU projects so it is in fact not an “M-She-U” takeover.

Iman Vellani as Ms. Marvel/Kamala Khan making a fist.
Marvel Studios

And, when it comes to behind the scenes, only a handful of women are directing these stories. Ten to be exact, with only three women of color: Chloe Zao (Eternals), Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Ms. Marvel), and Meera Menon (Ms. Marvel). The next will be Nia DaCosta, a Black woman, directing The Marvels, coming to theaters on July 28, 2023. In comparison, all 11 films in Phases 1 and 2 of the MCU had white male directors and writers.

The Women-led Series of the Future Still Doesn’t Equal an “M-She-U”

Phase 5 promises a few women-led series and films, including Ironheart, Echo, Agatha: Coven of Chaos, and The Marvels. Notably, many of these MCU projects featuring women of color in lead roles (not in ensembles) are not theatrical releases. (Although Black Panther: Wakanda Forever may be the first, depending on who takes up the Black Panther mantle.) And, of course, Phase 5 and beyond has no shortage of films and shows with male leading characters. There have certainly been improvements in women’s portrayals in the MCU; however, there still is a significant gap to overcome with some marginalized characters and their portrayals.

A recent example of this was America Chavez. In the comics, she’s Afro-Latina and a lesbian. While her ethnic identity is never known, a Puerto Rican family adopts her. The casting of Xochitl Gomez, a Mexican American actress, as Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness did raise concerns with many fans hoping for an Afro-Latina actress of Puerto Rican descent. But an even bigger problem was the film’s reduction of America Chavez to a mostly helpless girl with no control of her powers. The spunky, bold America Chavez of the comics did not fully come to fruition on-screen despite Gomez’s endearing performance. There’s also the rather perplexing journey that Kamala Khan/Ms. Marvel went on with believing she was a djinn, veering into Orientalist trope territory of associating Muslims with mysticism.

Monica Rambeau, a Black woman character whom we met in WandaVision, took bullets for Wanda’s children. And she became a nonfactor in the series finale despite being a key player in previous episodes. Thor: Love and Thunder did not give Valkyrie, who is bisexual, any sort of romantic tie. In fact, she barely did anything in the film. Meanwhile, Thor and Jane’s romantic reunion and relationship took center stage. In summary, the MCU still generally compromises stories about its women of color and shies away from pushing boundaries on discussions of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

The Bottom Line of the “M-She-U” Chatter

Jen Walters arrives at her new law firm in epsidoe two of She-Hulk.
Marvel Studios

When the MCU does address real world issues that affect women, like it does in She-Hulk, the “M-She-U” crew gets upset without a valid reason. Jen Walters’ minute-long explanation that, as a woman, she regularly faces misogyny in the workplace and in her life in general so she knows how to control her emotions, became the center of backlash from those who see it as an attack on their own toxic masculinity. How dare a woman lead a show and speak candidly on her experiences that many women agree with?! This discussion of the challenges women regularly face as a result of the patriarchal world we live in was long overdue in a universe where women characters are either on the sideline and/or face ridiculous sexualization.

The real discomfort isn’t from women taking over the MCU. It is with women existing and having significant space on-screen to tell their stories. If there are any complaints to be made about women in the MCU, it is that there are too few who do not ultimately end up serving the male characters’ storylines, being sidelined in favor of white characters (specifically women of color), and/or suffer from poor development and writing. There isn’t an “M-She-U,” but to balance out the history of the MCU’s mishandling of women characters, perhaps there should be one. 

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