Sersi in Eternals is a New Look at the Female Gaze
Having Sersi be the central force in Eternals is unprecedented in its viewpoint and focus, from demonstrating a gentle type of leadership, to being overlooked in a group setting but succeeding in the goal at hand anyways, to having romantic options, to strength and integrity, and majority screen time - for a group that's given less screentime than aliens.
Eternals is Marvel’s newest movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featuring 10 mighty and colorful Eternals, each with their own unique superpower and traits. Some of the movie posters and promotional material show Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Ajak (Selma Hayek) centered, which can come to surprise the audience, as the central protagonist of the story actually turns out to be Sersi (Gemma Chan).
Having Sersi be the central force in Eternals is unprecedented in so many ways, from demonstrating a gentle type of leadership, to being overlooked in a group setting but succeeding in the goal at hand anyways, to having romantic options, to strength and integrity, and majority screen time – for an identity that’s shown on-screen less than aliens are. “Oh, you are more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood film than an Asian woman.” – noted by Gemma Chan herself in 2015. (ironically three of Gemma Chan’s most major roles depict her as non-human. Luckily she still does get to look like herself in Eternals and Humans, and herself but with blue skin in Captain Marvel). There’s a review of each Eternals character and a 2.5-minute tiktok of each Eternal’s god origin and strength, but this article focuses exclusively on the role of Sersi.
Being Centered Romantically
The viewpoint of Eternals is an interesting contrast to the male gaze. This isn’t James Bond with multiple women to dazzle. Sersi herself is beautiful, and she has two attractive men to balance. That’s Ikaris and Dane (Kit Harington). She doesn’t play their accessory or supporting role. Sersi is the main event – the main hero, and they serve to support and contrast her in the plot! Gemma Chan as Sersi is graceful in her mannerisms and admirable in her actions. Ikaris leaves her? No problem. She’s sad and hurt for a while, but she moves on. Ikaris betrays her and their Eternals family. Again, it’s sad and painful. When he apologizes – tearful and remorseful for killing his family members – she says “I know” with tears in her eyes. No forgiveness or sugarcoating. It’ll be interesting to see where Dane’s character takes things going forward in the MCU, with the end credits hinting that he’s the Black Knight. I love how Chloe Zhao gives Sersi two attractive men, and has Sersi 1) have the first-ever Marvel sex scene with one, 2) say “see ya, bye” when he abandons her, 3) say “I mean, I don’t know what to tell you” when he betrays her and the group, and 4) “sorry, I don’t want to hurt you” to the other one in order to protect his emotions. Is this the female lens? I mean I can’t speak for all women, but as one woman, I think this is kind of fun.
Introverted Leadership Style
Sersi is definitely not a loud, boisterous type of leader. However, she does possess a quiet charisma and gentle leadership style. She displays all the true signs of a great leader – prioritization of the goal, love for her team, sincerity, and selflessness. She leaves the family brunch at Gilgamesh and Thena’s to contemplate how to communicate with the Celestial Arishem using her new gem (i.e., she focuses on her new role and how to solve the problem at hand). When Phastos says he needs the gem from her in order to create the unimind, without skipping a beat, she agrees and gives up her new “leadership power”. Sersi doubts herself and questions why she was chosen to be the next leader of the Eternals. Well, that’s awkward – it’s because she was the one sitting next to poor Ajak after she died. Just kidding. Although it did cross my mind, there are clearly real reasons. Thena gives Sersi a pep talk, assuring Sersi that she is the best fit to be the leader because she is the one who’s had a genuine love for humanity all throughout the millenia, and therefore the most dedicated to protecting them — I mean us. Yay team humans.
Being Overlooked in Leadership
I was talking to someone about the film who mentioned that Sersi doubted herself too much. Although too much self-doubt can be debilitating, a healthy amount of introspection can be the key to doing a good job. In addition, it may not be easy to trust yourself to lead if others don’t initially turn towards you for leadership. On the mothership, the Eternals turn towards Ikaris as “boss”. I don’t know why they kept calling Ikaris “boss”, even when fighting against him later. Seems a bit awkward. Anyways, no one calls Sersi “boss”. They only turn towards her when 1) Ikaris reminds the rest of the Eternals that Sersi is the leader, and 2) when she proves her determination and that she’s the only one who can actually get the job done. Although Sersi receives help from the rest of the Eternals, she is the one who ultimately saves the day. She transmutates the birthing Celestial into ice, stopping it from destroying Earth. Each of the Eternals has their own unique power which potentially could’ve stopped the Celestial’s birth, but Sersi is the only one who came through and conjured the magnitude of power needed to do so. I think anyone who is a dedicated leader or parent knows the extent they would go to in order to save their baby. “No one else can or wants to do it? Alright, it’s on me.”
Strength, Integrity, and Magnanimity
An admirable use of strength involves magnanimity. Sprite literally stabs Sersi in the back with a knife. What does Sersi do? Well after Druig knocks Sprite out, Sersi cleverly heals herself by turning the weapon into water (safety first!). Then she continues right back on her mission to save the world, running towards the emerging Celestial. After saving the world, when pitiful Sprite rejoins the Eternals group after stabbing Sersi in the back, does Sersi take vengeance? Of course not. The beautiful Gemma Chan as Sersi is incredibly understanding and magnanimous. She 1) helps Sprite become human, thus fulfilling Sprite’s millennia-old desire to become an adult, and 2) this has the added effect of removing Sprite as an Eternal, since she isn’t really a trustworthy team member anymore. This was all done in the spirit of kindness and understanding — and to a lesser extent, logic and doing what’s best for the team going forward.
Real World Significance and Impact
In a time where anti-Asian sentiment and bias have escalated – with hate crimes soaring and anti-Asian discrimination in hiring and workplace settings, having an Asian woman star in a big blockbuster franchise like Marvel was indeed powerful. Having Chloe Zhao determine the tone and direction of the movie is something unique and unprecedented. Many published movie critics disapproved of the movie. But then again Eternals is the most diverse Marvel movie yet, and most movie critics are white men who think any type of diversity in a film feels “forced”. That’s one point anyways. I am truly astounded and grateful for Kevin Feige for greenlighting this film and appointing Chloe Zhao to make this. He has clearly proved himself to be an ally, from my perspective. I am impressed and thankful for Chloe Zhao, the writing team, and the other movie creators. From having seen Asian women invisible, sidelined, and dismissed in most American films, to seeing this instance of a strong Asian character being centered and humanized (especially in a diverse cast that’s not all Asian) – is extremely validating and morale-boosting for myself and many.
I truly believe that no one else could’ve done a better job with centering Sersi than Chloe Zhao. It’s hard to know how else it could’ve turned out with only this view of the multiverse, but Chloe Zhao’s skills plus her identity and personality are what really brought this movie together and turned Eternals into one of the best Marvel films of all time.