It seems like every day, there’s a new public figure who’s managed to make the words “female empowerment” sound more cringe. And thanks to James Cameron, director of Avatar: The Way of Water, Wednesday, December 14 was no different. In an interview for Variety’s “Directors on Directors” series, Cameron told director Robert Rodriguez about his decision to include a pregnant warrior in The Way of Water’s battle scenes. And as difficult as it is to botch commentary praising pregnant people’s power and strength, he managed to do just that.
“Everybody’s always talking about female empowerment,” Cameron said, at which point I had to take a deep breath. “But what is such a big part of a woman’s life that we, as men, don’t experience? And I thought, ‘Well, if you’re really going to go all the way down the rabbit hole of female empowerment, let’s have a female warrior who’s six months pregnant in battle.’” I have to believe that if Cameron had asked, say, a woman, instead of his own stream of consciousness about the “big parts” of women’s lives, he might’ve received a slightly different answer. But alas!
“It doesn’t happen in our society—probably hasn’t happened for hundreds of years—but I guarantee you, back in the day, women had to fight for survival and protect their children, and it didn’t matter if they were pregnant,” Cameron continued, for some reason. “And pregnant women are more capable of being a lot more athletic than we, as a culture, acknowledge.”
The unbearable gender essentialism of his comments aside, I can respect Cameron’s point about the true grit of pregnant people. But something about his observation that “back in the day,” pregnant people actually had to
“fight for survival” feels pretty icky. Modern medicine and bare-minimum workplace safety guidelines have tangibly improved pregnant people’s lives, but the conditions pregnant people continue to face aren’t exactly cushy. The U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rate among wealthy nations, sir.
In any case, because women heroes and female characters in general (but not their male counterparts!) must always be compared to each other, Cameron added, “Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel—all these other amazing women come up, but they’re not moms and they’re not pregnant while they’re fighting evil.” Do you hear that, Diana Themyscira and Carol Danvers?? You’re amazing, but… you’re women who don’t have kids and aren’t pregnant. It’s sad. Embarrassing! That’s not very “female empowerment” of you, ladies.
To state the obvious, there are no arbitrary metrics for male superheroes to promote “male empowerment,” and there certainly isn’t an expectation for them to have kids. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female Avenger, Black Widow, didn’t even have the option to have biological kids as she underwent a forced hysterectomy as part of her training. I would’ve loved to have relayed Mr. Cameron’s message to her, if only she hadn’t died saving the world in Avengers: Endgame—and if only she weren’t a fictional character.
Cameron’s controversial comments about “female empowerment” are hardly the first time he’s talked about female characters and given women audiences the ick. In 2017, Cameron went back and forth with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins after he made comments sexualizing the titular Wonder Woman, and extrapolating that women in Hollywood only know how to create “drama” films and not action. He sounds like a delight to work with.
Cameron ultimately concluded his latest observations on a more gender-neutral note, referencing the heroes of the Marvel and DC universes. “They have relationships, but they really don’t. They never hang up their spurs because of their kids. The things that really ground us and give us power, love, and a purpose?” he said. “Those characters don’t experience it, and I think that’s not the way to make movies.”
Once again, I get what he’s trying to say—it’s a common critique that Marvel heroes have no lives outside of work, nor any deeper loyalties to each other beyond completing missions. But there’s something so dated and innately patriarchal about the expectation that having kids is the only way to experience fulfillment.