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The Lean-in Feminism of 'She-Hulk: Attorney At Law'

by Alex Mell-Taylor about a month ago in review / tv / superheroes / pop culture / entertainment / comics
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The promising show about feminism ultimately defends the status quo

Image; Den of Geek

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law was meant to be a meta-textual, feminist deconstruction of the MCU, and in some ways, it succeeds with this goal. Whether it's referencing Roxane Gay's Bad Feminist or jokes about women in the workplace, there are plenty of progressive nuggets for viewers to mine.

It reminds me (loosely) of the meta show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend where showrunner Rachel Bloom comments directly on how patriarchy hurts women with mental health issues. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is the same with women in a professional setting, and more importantly, how the MCU has framed its women characters.

Yet by the time we get to a close, it's not clear that this show is saying something all that cohesive. She-Hulk: Attorney at Law makes many stabs at trying to tell stories about feminism, the law, the nature of the MCU, and more, but ends up telling a mess that epitomizes the worst aspects of "lean-in feminism."

It’s good to be angry

“Lean-in” feminism is in reference to executive Sheryl Sandberg's book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. It was a self-help book meant to help women succeed in the business world. The term “lean-in” has since come to represent a stand-in for a certain type of white feminism, where a person seeks acceptance within the system rather than seeking to abolish its more problematic elements. When I watched this show, its one of the first concepts that came to mind because we have this character who clearly understands that our system is toxic, wants empathy from the viewer about her plight within it, but doesn't stand against that system to destroy or overhaul it.

On the one hand, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is clearly about the misogyny and rage that comes when having to exist within our toxic system. When Bruce (AKA the Hulk) tells Jennifer Walters (played by peerless Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black fame) in the pilot that as a new Hulk, she has to learn to control her anger, she correctly informs him that many women have already had to do this training from an early age. "I'm an expert at controlling my anger because I do it infinitely more than you," she accurately states to a stunned Bruce.

In this first episode, the show seems to be setting us up for a conversation about female rage. However, this direction never materializes into anything beyond words. We get commentary on her rage— we are told repeatedly (mainly through jokes) how our society punishes women for being angry — but nothing that points to how to use that anger against our unjust society. We don't get rebellions against the patriarchy, where Jen taps into her justified anger to root out systemic injustices, only token gestures and passionate monologues that viewers can share on Twitter and TikTok.

We know from her fourth wall breaks to the audience and her sassy one-liners that Jen is angry, sure, but outside of dialogue, that's where the show leaves it. When she's using her anger as She-Hulk, she is mainly in "control of it," but not for good reasons. She confuses the repression she has had to wield as a defense mechanism against misogyny as a form of success. Her laughing at the therapy techniques Bruce tries to show her in the pilot does not come off as the "girl boss" move the show seems to think it does but paints the picture of a deeply repressed person.

Worse, Jen mainly uses her rage to serve the people oppressing her, helping her wealthy clients win frivolous lawsuits. The closest she comes to standing up for those who "slip through the cracks" is when she aids a high-end fashion designer for superheroes and then, separately, takes down the organizer of a 4chan clone whose biggest target is her. She's not exactly helping members of the oppressed here. And these are isolated incidents, too, and are not attached to a larger movement or issue.

There is one real moment in the show where she truly loses it — and gets angry. This is at a gala where, after receiving an award for "best lawyer of the year," she gets doxxed publically. She hulks out and destroys some property — an understandable action, all things considered — leading to her arrest. We briefly think she will have to grabble with what happens when the facade of control breaks, and she has to come out of the [email protected] sunken place, but by the end of the next episode, she absolves herself of all charges and sends those responsible to jail. The system ends up working for her.

We don't get her drawing on her rage to disrupt society or to hurt troublesome people who are using our capitalist system to cause systemic problems — you know, that thing superheroes allegedly do. Jen's too busy leaning in and working within the law, and she doesn't have to change much to do it.

Uphold, not smash, the status quo

My main gripe with this show is its angle on the nature of superheroes and how that intersects with "the law." Jennifer Walters wants to be a different type of hero who balances the law and vigilantism. As she says in the show's closing moments: "If you attack, harm, or harass innocent people, I'm coming for you [both in the courtroom and as She-Hulk]." She's someone who will work outside of the law, but not enough to alienate herself from a courtroom.

This supposed difference in perspective comes to a head in the final episode where, in the most meta twist of all, Jen "leaves" her own show to converse with MCU Showrunner Kevin Feige, who, in this reality, turns out to be an advanced AI (Knowledge Enhanced Visual Interconnectivity Nexus) crafting "perfect" MCU content. Rather than a finale where incel men get a hulk super serum, and Jen has to battle them, she convinces K.E.V.I.N. to change the ending so that her antagonists go to jail rather than having an angsty battle.

She frames this as accountability and true justice. We are meant to think that she is breaking the mold here. Yet, it doesn't feel all that different from most superhero shows. Superheros working closely with law enforcement to send people to prison is a genre stable. There is a reason Batman has the Bat Signal, and the Avengers have such a close relationship with the government agency SHIELD. Truthfully this rhetoric of accountability feels like a cheap sidestep.

It didn't feel like we were going here initially. Earlier in the season, we got hints that She-Hulk: Attorney at Law would deconstruct how the law fails people, not just occasionally, but systemically. A significant plot point is her defense of Emil Blonsky, AKA the Abomination, who has been in prison for over a decade for his actions in the first Hulk movie over 15 years ago. The show seems to point out that this sentencing is unusually cruel, that he is being actively discriminated against for his "beastly" powers, and that reform is possible. When freed, he opens up a retreat, so other heroes can talk about their superpowered issues in a judgment-free space — something that helps Jen process her own disappointment and trauma.

Yet, in the finale, it's revealed that he is doing toxic self-help work on the side for incels — the very incels who run a misogynistic website called Intelligencia, responsible for doxxing Jen at the gala. And while that's gross, notice the show's conclusion here. Accountability is framed as him going back to prison for ten years for breaking his parole and using his powers. But if the law has been cruel to him, and the censoring of his powers is active discrimination (as the show suggested), then is this a feel-good move? He's already been in the system unfairly for years, and sending him back reads more like an injustice than "accountability" — a word, I remind you, that has historically meant paying reparations to victims, not using the violence of the state to dole out punishment.

Accountability would involve Emil Blonsky working with victims of Intelligencia to undo the harm he has done. It has nothing to do with the carcel system, and there's no way he will be able to work on these goals in prison (an institution focused more on torturing inmates than reforming them). The logic here is one of an oppressor — not a superhero — and it's upsetting that this show is appropriating the social justice language of accountability to ultimately uphold the powers of the state.

The show was at its best this season when it "leaned in" (pun very much intended) to how misogyny can be systemic. When it's revealed in the penultimate episode that, again, Jen has been doxxed, the show emphasizes that she had no legal recourse to go after these people. We get a good sense of how ingrained these problems are in the MCU (and real life). Yes, the law mainly doesn't help women with harassment — that's the reality — and our police state is not great at solving this problem.

By ending on a happy note, where Jen can send her enemies to prison, cutting out all this vigilante "nonsense" and working within the law, we get a naive sense of how justice in America works. A more realistic ending would be Jen failing to send her enemies to prison even after finding evidence against them because the reality is that the rich and powerful often don't face accountability. Jen would have to grabble with how the law cannot help her and most people. She would have to come to terms with how if she wants to get proper accountability, she would have to use her rage, and maybe even some Hulk-smashing violence, to tear down the system she has spent years of her life wanting to represent.

Yet, we know she won't do this because if Jen has to decide between breaking the status quo and keeping her privileged position, she will choose the latter. After all, more than a She-Hulk, Jennifer Walters is an attorney.

An angry conclusion

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law is struggling to be multiple things at once: a piece about misogyny amongst the professional-managerial class, a meta-commentary about women in the MCU, a treatise on rage, and so much more. It would have been fine if it had just presented itself as a quirky feminist comedy, using its superhero setting to make fun bits. Who doesn't love a good skewering of misogyny?

Yet because it also has the MCU's baggage of how vigilantism must work within our corrupt system rather than oppose or even overthrow it, its message is severely limited. It's hard to feel like Jennifer Walters is a source of justice when she's working on behalf of some terrible institutions. Vigilantes doing direct actions don't give statements to the cops, not because of some abstract moral code, but because they will suffer violence and imprisonment for doing so, even if they are doing the right thing. Jen's entire worldview comes off as naive, and it's not clear that the show disagrees with her.

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law makes feints to this conversation by bringing up all the points I mentioned, but it's not seriously willing to entertain it. I am not sure the Disney company wants us to start talking about how powerful entities manipulate the law to take advantage of people because that conversation ultimately ends with us despising them (see the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act as one example of how they have [email protected] us).

But it's a conversation we need to have because if anything ought to be smashed, it's our inequitable legal system and the men and businesses who not only abuse it, but hold it into place.

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About the author

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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