Overview:

If motherhood is Wanda's goal in the new Doctor Strange movie, it's also her downfall. What kind of message is that?!

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Like any good nerd, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was at the top of my watchlist. And while it was an okay enough superhero film, the gender politics of it—especially given the current climate—were incredibly off-putting.

You’ve been warned: Spoiler alerts ahead.

Within minutes of the movie’s start, I whispered to my viewing partner: “Did I miss something? I haven’t watched all the Marvel TV shows that have come out since Wandavision…did I miss one where it explains why Wanda has turned evil?”

No, it wasn’t just me feeling confused. This simply didn’t get shown. As one blogger observes:

All of this means that the really important bit, how and why the Darkhold got its claws into Wanda, happens offscreen. Simply put, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) took one of its best characters and gave her the same treatment as their worst villains.

Of course, Wanda has long had a conflicted history in the MCU. I’m not quite comics-savvy enough to know every facet of it, but luckily some friends pointed me towards a summary of Wanda’s history on The Mary Sue. In brief, the competing visions of different creators who wrote Wanda led to her having agency, then being punished for it, stripped of her family, and finally, being given massive trauma instead. So if the film feels a bit schizophrenic in its depiction of her, that’s because it reflects a long history of the comics doing just that.

This is problematic for many reasons. As Mary Sue writer Princess Weekes points out, the makers of Doctor Strange 2 made some decisions with negative consequences for how Wanda looks and acts:

They fast-tracked the downfall of a very complex character, without really learning anything. Still possessed by some force that increases her power. Depicted as “crazy” and “unhinged.” Defined only by loss and not by all the things she could create with her power.

Not only does the film feel weird and unbalanced to me as a result, despite some fun Sam Raimi-esque moments, but it also sends a pretty horrid message about motherhood, gender roles, and agency in the current cultural climate.

When you are put in a bind or double bind, that means you’re occupying a position with competing demands that are impossible to fulfill. Double binds especially impact women in the workplace, where acting in ways that are perceived as powerful, competent, and in charge can cause women to be perceived as bitchy or overly aggressive.

I applied this concept to teaching during a pandemic: teachers are expected to simultaneously be wells of endless giving and compassion and accommodation for our students, but we also are expected to set some boundaries so we don’t burn out and become useless to our employers. That is a difficult, if not impossible, balance to walk.

The double bind of motherhood in contemporary American society is that women are expected to become mothers, to yearn for the role with our entire hearts and souls. But we mustn’t lean into it too much and let it define us, or else we’ve become too far and will be mocked as wine mommies, pathetic shadows of our former selves, or whatever.

What I see in the second Doctor Strange film is this precise bind applied to Wanda: she wishes to resume the role of motherhood (generally laudable) but goes to extreme lengths to get it (tangling with dark magic, crossing dimensional boundaries, and even killing).

In other words, I see double binds enacted as: “You should do XYZ… but oh god, not like that you freak/bitch/witch/monster!”, except in the film, the cry of “not like that!” is the death gurgle of however many people Wanda kills while on the path to motherhood.

It’s the judgmental glare of Doctor Strange as he sets the world right, though he’s a rulebreaker himself—something Wanda snidely observes early in the film.

In the film, as in life, women just can’t win, which again, is the definition of a double bind. Women are pushed to become mothers, to enjoy every moment of it without fail, without complaint, because otherwise you are a bad mother and there are few worse things you can call a woman. But any deviation from the role? Any sense of overdoing it? Going too far? That’s also “psycho.”

This message is especially awful to send during the overturning of Roe v Wade, when women are conscripted into motherhood by force, and pregnant people are stripped of bodily autonomy.

Yes, now’s a great time to show a mother’s love being warped into evil.

The film’s message of “Be a mother, it’s the best thing you can do with your life as a woman, but not like that!” tells potentially pregnant people to walk a knife’s blade of a balance, trying to fulfill impossibly competing roles.

The movie is telling us that motherhood is desirable, and for some, inevitable, thanks to states stripping bodily agency away, but if you do it wrong, you’re a monster.

Please do better, Marvel. Especially now.

Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...