Air Force’s Use of ‘Captain Marvel’ to Recruit Women Ignores a Grim Record on Sexual Assault

The film arrives just after Sen. Martha McSally’s testimony that she was raped in the Air Force

Captain Marvel Air Force
Marvel Studios

Thousands of screenings of “Captain Marvel” this weekend will include U.S. Air Force ads highlighting female pilots like Carol Danvers, the hero Brie Larson plays in the movie. “Every superhero has an origin story,” says a voiceover. “We all got our start somewhere. For us, it was the U.S. Air Force.”

But for many women, the reality of military service falls far short of the fantasy in “Captain Marvel.” The first Marvel film centered on a female protagonist arrives on International Women’s Day, but also just days after Sen. Martha McSally testified that she was raped by her superior officer in the Air Force. McSally’s experience reflects a wider, persistent problem.

“The U.S. military is one of the most dangerous places for women to work because of sexual violence,” said Kara Ellerby, author of “No Shortcut to Change: An Unlikely Path to a More Gender Equitable World.”

She said the military’s problems with sexual misconduct show that greater inclusion doesn’t necessarily lead to gender equality.

“Even though they have been including more women and promoting them into positions of power in different branches and in the Pentagon, that hasn’t really stymied the issue of sexual violence,” said Ellerby, a University of Delaware professor. “There is still something very deep-seated in the culture of the military that’s damaging to women.”

Hollywood’s relationship with the military has lasted decades. When “Top Gun” was released in 1986, for example, some Navy recruiters tried to recruit people as they exited screenings — with apparent success. (The fictional Danvers is almost exactly the same age as the young men and women who might have joined up after watching Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis onscreen.)

Marvel has kept Hollywood’s relationship with the military going strong: “Iron Man 2,” for example, was filmed at Edwards Air Force Base, with cooperation from the Department of Defense.

To prepare for her role, Larson visited Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to join simulated dogfights. The film’s red-carpet premiere included testimonials from Air Force men and women and a flyover by the Air Force’s Nellis-based Thunderbirds.

The “Origin Story” ads will play in about 3,600 theaters and, like “Captain Marvel,” feature women in prominent roles in the Air Force. While all combat positions were opened to women in 2016, the USAF has historically been the most female fighting force — it is the only branch to see its percentage of female service members climb above 25 percent.

But “Captain Marvel” and the ads don’t cover the dismal facts that McSally addressed in her Senate testimony Wednesday, during a hearing on sexual assault in the military.

In 2017, the Defense Department received 6,769 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or subjects of criminal investigation, as well as 146 cases in which accusers reported retaliation for speaking out.

Congress has passed recent laws eliminating the statute of limitations on military sexual assault and making it a crime to retaliate against military members who report such assaults.

Pentagon spokeswoman and Air Force Capt. Carrie Volpe said the abuses McSally experienced “violate every part of what it means to be an Airman.”

“We are appalled and deeply sorry for what Senator McSally experienced and we stand behind her and all victims of sexual assault. We are steadfast in our commitment to eliminate this reprehensible behavior and breach of trust in our ranks,” Volpe said in a statement.

But significant change still hasn’t come. The reported rate of sexual assault against servicewomen has remained nearly flat from 4.4 percent in 2010 to 4.3 percent in 2016, according to Air Force Col. Don M. Christensen, president of the Washington D.C.-area nonprofit Protect Our Defenders, who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing.

Those numbers also don’t reflect unreported incidents: In November, a Smithsonian Magazine survey found that two-thirds of women polled said they experienced gender discrimination while serving, and the same proportion also said they were sexually harassed or assaulted.

Christensen said the current system places sexual assault cases in the chain of command, rather than in the hands of military prosecutors. That discourages many women from coming forward, especially when a superior officer assaulted them.

McSally, who was the first female commander of an Air Force combat unit, said the response when she spoke out against her superior was “wholly inadequate.”

“I was horrified at how my attempt to share generally my experiences was handled,” said McSally, an Arizona Republican. “I almost separated from the Air Force at 18 years of service over my despair. Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again.”

Cynthia Enloe, a Clark University professor who studies gender and militarism, said there’s a simple reason the Air Force needs to recruit more women.

“In the military, there is the term ‘tooth to tail,’ referring to the ratio of combat roles to supply and support roles,” she said. “And the Air Force, of all the branches, requires the most tail to support the least tooth. While the fighter pilot is the public image, the largest amount of roles are in technical and supply positions.”

“Most people, men and women, in the Air Force learn how to be good ground mechanics, but those roles regularly require recruits with a college education,” she added. “With women more likely in the United States to graduate from college than men, that’s part of the reason why there’s a higher rate of female enlistment than in the Army.”

But recruiting and promoting more women — through military ads and others means — isn’t enough, Ellerby said. She believes the military needs to re-evaluate its values on a fundamental level.

“Equality could mean 50/50, but it could also mean how we value men and women within institutions. It’s about examining the culture in these institutions and whether it makes it easier or harder for people, not just women, to succeed,” she said.