Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There’s an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again… A moment when she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she flies. In that moment, every little girl flies. (Captain Marvel #1)
When I was nine years old, I accompanied my university professor father to Bali, Indonesia. In Bali, nine-year-olds tend to know at least four languages, but being American I only read English. My reading material was therefore limited to what I brought with me and a shelf of Classics Illustrated Graphic Novels. My first comic book was David Copperfield. Maybe that’s why I have such an affinity for the orphaned boys that populate the superhero comics I eventually came to love.
My daughter, Aeris, is nine years old. In 30 years, when she looks back on now, she’ll remember her first comic book was Captain Marvel.
Carol Danvers was one of my favorite superheroes even before Kelly Sue DeConnick rescued her from relative obscurity. I adored Brian Reed’s 50-issue run on Ms. Marvel and her adventures in Brian Bendis’s Mighty-and-then-New Avengers. In deciding what comics I want to read and buy, I don’t follow titles or creators so much as characters. Carol has been one of “My Characters” for a long time. But as much as I loved her, she wasn’t a great fit for my daughter. I’ve described Reed’s Ms. Marvel as a story about a grown woman’s coming of age, which was perfect for me, and it’s why I still hold that run in high esteem. For me. But that’s one great thing about comics — different takes on the same character allows different kinds of people to relate to her story. Kelly Sue’s Captain Marvel, where Carol is explicitly a little girl’s hero, is perfect for Aeris. And for us to read together.
In America, nine is a turning point for girls. It’s the beginning of puberty and middle grades. Sports teams start to segregate by gender. I remember a health unit in fifth grade describing the differences between our bodies. The boys spent the time snickering about the word “penis” while the girls were told how to hide the fact that they were bleeding. The tween years are when boys start to gain confidence and girls start to lose it.
According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, of Harvard Medical School, “One of the overriding messages for girls is that if they’re confident, they’re conceited.” Similarly “30 percent of young girls are opting out of leadership because they fear being called ‘bossy’ or otherwise disliked by their peers,” said Kelly Parisi chief communications officer for Girl Scouts of USA as an explanation for their Ban Bossy Movement (co-sponsored with LeanIn.org). These same concepts also prompted the Girls Leadership Institute’s research into bravery, Dove’s Self-Esteem campaign and New York City’s Girls Project. Academy Award winning actress Geena Davis started an institute to research the portrayal of girls and women in media, how it harms, and how it can be helped.
As a feminist and a mother of girls, I’m pleased that a diverse group of people and organizations are taking these statistics and stories seriously, and are trying to combat the problems and reverse the trajectory. But as the mother of one specific nine year old girl, I can’t wait for that to happen. I don’t need a report to tell me that my daughter is poised to lose confidence and step away from leadership roles, physical activities, and STEM interests. I live with her. I see it happening. I dry her tears and hide my own. Because here’s another finding: “Mothers are the leading source of support and encouragement in helping girls pursue their goals with bravery and confidence.”
Being a mother is the scariest thing I have ever done and probably will ever do. It’s something that worries even the comic book superheroines I look to when I need a little boost to my own self-esteem. I’ve spent a lot of time imagining Carol Danvers as a mom, and specifically the mom of a little girl, and I feel very secure in the belief that she would be terrified. But also really good at it, once she pushed through that feeling. Carol was the older sister to two brothers and that ‘big sis’ attitude comes across in many of her relationships, for example her interactions with close friend Jessica Jones and her ability to make Tony Stark listen. We’ve also seen her take a number of young girls under her wing: teen superheroine Anya Corazon, personal assistant Wendy Kawasaki, pint size neighbor Kit Renner. Current Ms. Marvel Kamala Khan sees who she could be in Carol, and Carol sees who she was in these girls — and she chooses to be the mentor she wished she had. That’s how I know she’d be great raising a daughter, too.
Being a mother, or being a nine-year-old girl, is a lot like finding a dinosaur in the middle of Midtown while bringing your cat to the vet. You have to keep your cool. You have to multitask. You have to decide who to trust, but recognize you can’t do it all yourself. You have to stop the dinosaur from rampaging, but also keep the dinosaur safe. Especially if said nine-year-old girl has wanted to be a paleontologist since she was about four (or her mother).
That’s how Aeris and I look at it, when we meet up with bullies or sexism or good old fashioned fear of the future: What Would Carol Danvers Do? Reading Ms. Marvel (among other things) when I was a grown woman coming of age gave me the bravery and confidence to be the mom Aeris needs; reading Captain Marvel (among other things) with Aeris now gives her the bravery and confidence to be the heroic little girl I know she is. Because in Carol’s universe, every little girl flies.