Katrina Cornwell, played by Jayne Brook, has rapidly become one of my favourite Star Trek characters ever. I was sold in her second appearance, “Choose Your Pain,” when she was simultaneously charmed and disenchanted by her friend Gabriel Lorca (I have a very similar response to the Captain). I decided they were old friends who sometimes fell into bed together. In the next episode I was proven correct and I’ll never look back. I absolutely adore her twisted, wholly unhealthy, secretly adorable (watching meteors together!) relationship with Lorca. But she is so much more than that.
It’s no secret Hollywood has a problem with women aging. There are fewer leading roles for women over the age of 40, and the supporting ones tend to be underdeveloped and fall into the category of mother, wife, woman sad because she’s old, or villain (sad because she’s old). One study determined the average actress’s salary increases through her 20s, but drops after age 34 (!) while her male peers’ salaries increase until 51 and do not decrease with age at all. Men in their 40s and 50s are routinely paired with women in their 20s, and even the older actresses who do thrive are required to look as young as possible, wrinkle-free with no grey hair. And on top of all that, is what I call ‘The Captain Marvel Problem’.
I have been a huge fan of Carol Danvers starting with Brian Reed’s Ms. Marvel (2007-2010). In 2012, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel made Carol a much bigger star in the Marvel Universe, and in 2014, Disney announced a feature film (coming “soon” in 2019). I knew exactly who I wanted to play her: Naomi Watts, who in 2014 was 46 and therefore a contemporary of Robert Downey Jr.. Instead, they cast Brie Larson when she was 27. Brie Larson is incredibly talented and I have no doubt she will be an amazing Carol. But she won’t – can’t – be the Carol I admired all those years.
My Carol is Tony Stark’s peer. My Carol outranks Captain America. My Carol has been a fighter pilot, an astronaut, a spy, editor of a magazine, and author of multiple books. No twenty-seven year old can have accomplished all that. No twenty-seven year old should.
The movies aren’t the comics, and it is reasonable for the MCU to go a different route for Captain Marvel, but Downey first appeared as Iron Man when he was 43. Mark Ruffalo first appeared as the Hulk at 45. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye, 41. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, 26. Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch, 26. Excepting the deliberately teenage Spider-Man played by Tom Holland, the youngest actor to appear in a leading role in a Marvel film was Chris Hemsworth as Thor, aged 28 in 2011. The MCU’s oldest leading actress is a tie: Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts in Iron Man), Zoe Saldana (Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy), and Evangeline Lilly (Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man) were all 36 in their first appearance in a Marvel film. None are the star of their film or franchise.
With this context, choosing an actress under 30 to portray Carol Danvers does not appear to be driven by the storyline. Instead, by choosing an actress under 30, the storyline is required to change and the character’s accomplishments are by necessity diminished — or, as there could be time shenanigans and magic non-aging powers involved, the character will be portrayed by an actress 10 or more years younger than the character, which is not any better, and possibly worse.
And that’s why Vice Admiral Katrina Cornwell, and her peers, are so important to me.
I am fan of the Kelvin-verse films, the first and third appear in my top five Star Trek films. I love their take on Nyota Uhura, how she’s elevated into the command trio and integrated into the action, and Jaylah is an absolute gem of a character. But Commodore Paris is special. Commodore Paris is an age appropriate woman in command. Imagine the long and impressive Starfleet career she must have had to be put in charge of the Yorktown starbase. She has gravitas, she has Kirk’s respect, and she’s connected to a legacy family Voyager describes as Starfleet royalty. Shohreh Aghdashloo’s role was a late addition to the film, but her five minutes of screen time are a huge part of why Star Trek Beyond is one of my favourite films. She takes over Captain Pike’s role, as Kirk’s immediate superior and role model, and she’s a sixty-four year old woman of color. That deserves to be highlighted, and celebrated as loudly as the beats and shouting of the Beastie Boys.
In a reverse of my MCU casting dismay, practically every cast announcement for Star Trek: Discovery filled me with glee — but none so much as Michelle Yeoh, whom I’ve loved since 1993’s Hong Kong film The Heroic Trio. And Philippa Georgiou lived up to my expectations. Despite her reduced screen time, and even despite her death, she has a significant and lasting presence in the series. The Hero’s Dead Mother Trope is old and tired, but usually the Dead Mother’s are lucky to have a name, never mind a fully developed personality and hints of a backstory as Captain Georgiou is given. Philippa comes across as a real person, made of sunshine and steel, with an interesting history and a promising future we, the audience, feel robbed of. Discovery promises we’ve not seen the last of her and I hope that means more than merely a Mirror Universe copy. She deserves her own show.
Katrina Cornwell is a doctor, a psychiatrist, who worked her way up to the rank of Vice Admiral and a position in Starfleet Command. She’s capable, intelligent, and respected. She has ideals, desires, and flaws. She makes decisions, she makes mistakes, she does her job, she fights for her life. When a Klingon roars in her face she roars back.
She’s experienced and she’s accomplished, and she’s Lorca’s peer, and also his superior. She couldn’t be that at twenty-seven, or thirty-six. Moreover, she’s a woman over fifty, whose eye crinkles and grey hairs have not been erased, who is presented on screen as attractive and desirable. Admiral Cornwell is not beautiful despite her age, she’s beautiful and powerful because of it.
None of these women are in the main cast. Commodore Paris is unlikely to be seen again. Captain Georgiou is dead, though she is expected to be seen again. Admiral Cornwell has been in mortal danger three or four times, and frankly it’s been bad for my health. I want more screen time for all three, and I want more of the same in this series, and every series I watch. But wanting more is a better place to be than wanting any.
Georgiou and Cornwell are more than plot points. They are people, and they affect the plot. They matter. It’s been a hard year, from Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election through the current wave of stories detailing decades of sexual harassment and assault. In this climate it is very easy to feel that women, and especially women over 40, do not matter. I am very grateful to Star Trek: Discovery for giving me a reason to believe it’s not true. Now, when the real world Klingons roar in my face, I’ll roar back, too.