My parents and nana were here this weekend to help us finish up things we needed to do for our soon-to-be-born daughter. As is tradition, dad and I headed out on Saturday to see Marvel’s Eternals. I went in with very low expectations because I had read reviews blasting the movie and some of my favorite YouTube movie critics were “meh” about the movie. I ended up lining up with their perspective. It was a very long, tedious, exposition-heavy slog. I didn’t hate the movie, but it is definitely in the bottom half of Marvel movies for me.
As we left the theater, my dad and I went over the things we liked and things we didn’t, and since I’m a comic book geek I explained some of the nuances of the gender-swapping that occurred with characters and the controversy over the gay character and the subsequent ban in many Arab countries. As we got in the car I told him one of my biggest surprises was the portrayal of Icarus and Sersi and the seemingly pro-motherhood, pro-feminine-temperaments messaging I found throughout the movie. If Mandalorian was a rare positive portrayal of masculinity and fatherhood, Eternals would be a rare positive portrayal of femininity and motherhood. I’ll explain what I mean but before we go further - spoilers ahead!
The Gender Scandal
Do Egalitarian Societies produce men and women who are more similar or more different?
Since the 1960’s we’ve seen a massive expansion of women entering every single measurable level of society that was historically closed off to them solely based on gender. So much so that women now outnumber men in college almost 60-40 (here), women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men since the 1980s (here), and girls in high school, middle school, and elementary school outperform boys in each level of American education. Girls are less likely to misbehave than boys (here), girls tend to get better grades (here), and girls spend more time studying on average than boys at every single level of schooling (see previous Atlantic article). The swing has been so massive that women are now reporting difficulty in finding men to “settle down” with (here) and some countries are purposefully incentivizing men to date and marry women to help make up for the gender and birthrate gap.
Many feminists will acknowledge these trends but still point to the “pay gap” (here & here) and any other part of western society that women are underrepresented as the latest battlefield for female empowerment (here). But as society has become more egalitarian has it finally proven that women and men are not different? Yes, but where it’s no it’s a drastic no!
The number of studies I found showing that men and women are more similar than different is staggering. A simple Google search will produce hundreds! It’s true even cross-culturally. Since the 60s we’ve seen a massive realignment between what was naturally considered feminine and masculine and much of these changes are good and even a bit cringey we used to believe such things. Yet, while the genders are more similar than they are different, the differences are pretty drastic and may account for some of the current disparities I mentioned above. For example, a recent study in 2018 (see here) showed that egalitarian countries produced fewer women in STEM fields. Further, another study showed that the much-debated “pay gap” might have more to do with female/male differences and choices and not gender discrimination (see here).
The Gender Scandal is that egalitarian countries with policies in place to force culture away from either patriarchy or male majority still end up with differences between the sexes in temperaments, lifestyle choices, and even career choices. And as the evidence and data continue to grow, what is currently championed as the front line for equality may not be a battle against discrimination, but against biology. So what does any of this have to do with the Eternals? I’m glad you asked.
Sersi and the Traditional Feminine Temperaments
Eternals attempts to juggle 10 characters in its story (hence the heavy exposition throughout the movie) but a few characters quickly stand out from the group. Mainly Sersi and Icarus. The movie spends a lot of time expanding on their history, their powers, their romantic involvement, and Sersi’s feelings of abandonment when Icarus just up and left suddenly.
Sersi’s superpowers allow her to manipulate molecules and atoms while Icarus can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. Icarus is purposefully modeled after Superman (the director even admitted as such) and throughout the film we see Sersi grow more and more fond of the people of Earth, even using her powers to push them to the next stage of evolution, while Icarus is portrayed as cold, powerful, and mission-driven in contrast. We get montages of Sersi attempting to humanize Icarus but it only seems to make him love her, not the humans she cares about.
This all comes to a head in the third act where Sersi, now the leader of the Eternals, has to fight Icarus, who murdered the former leader who was not going to complete the mission of allowing the “emergence” to complete. Sersi’s love for the people of Earth and her desire to protect them ends up winning over even Icarus and the Celestial who was about to destroy the earth is either put to sleep or killed by Sersi’s powers of manipulation of atoms enhance by linking together with the other Eternals (I’m still a little grey on what she actually did here?).
Icarus is the quintessential “uber-mensch” found in Nietzche’s writings. He also exhibits a few of the temperaments that differentiate the average male from female. Men are on average less agreeable than women. Men on average are more competitive, skeptical, unsympathetic, and care more for things than people. Icarus cares more for the mission than the other Eternals he’s known for billions of years or the 7 billion people on earth who would die if he succeeds. However, his motivation is not malevolence, but for the greater good! He mentions to Sersi that 7 billion people dying is horrendous, but so is the alternative of 100’s of billions of people dying if they stop the “emergence” from happening. Icarus encapsulates many of the temperaments that are common in the average man and shows the dilemma of a masculine utilitarian approach to life.
Sersi is the foil to Icarus. However, Eternals does not make Sersi an equal to Icarus or give her the same powers, as is all too common in the “strong women” trope in most modern movies. Instead, Sersi embodies temperaments that are common to the average woman and those temperaments serve to help her to defeat Icarus. She doesn’t need to become him, instead, she becomes herself.
Women on average tend to care for people, relationships, and the nurturing of those relationships over the accumulation of things. Women also on average experience far more often the “negative emotions”. What is meant by that is that the average woman experiences anxiety, emotional pain, self-conscious doubt, and even depression more often than their male counterparts.
Much is made of Sersi’s nurturing temperament throughout the movie. She creates a knife for a child who had just lost his father to a Deviant to protect himself, moving the entire civilization into a new age. She creates water from rocks in Babylon to help them learn to farm barren land. We see her helping young girls braid their hair and helping them cook. At this point of the movie, I thought it was bordering on feminine stereotypes and was surprised it made it through the cutting room floor. That said, it was clear that the reason for all of these examples was to contrast Sersi with Icarus, and in my opinion, it’s one of the few character development moments that ended up working.
Sersi experiences self-conscious doubt (“Why was I chosen to lead?”), regret over not being able to convince all the Eternals to care for the humans as she does, and even when she’s literally stabbed in the back (by a child no less), she holds no grudges against her and even helps fulfill a dream of hers. In the climactic battle against Icarus, her devotion to the people and her love for him end up convincing Icarus to not doom the planet (and also end up apparently killing himself by flying into the sun which was really weird, on the nose and off). Sersi saved the planet in a uniquely feminine way in contrast to the utilitarian masculine alternative.
I explained to my dad that I found all of this not only surprising but also a bit refreshing. Acknowledging and celebrating uniquely feminine temperaments is a good thing. Having the hero of the movie overcome immeasurable odds with these temperaments as the motivation was such a stark contrast from the normal tropes that get passed off as female empowerment. I told my dad maybe it’s the upcoming birth of my daughter that’s got me reading this into the movie, but empowering my daughter to not base her value or worth on how well she can adapt masculinity is an incredibly powerful message.