Girls on Film­­: Avenging the Divide Between Superheroes and Superheroines

Girls on Film­­: Avenging the Divide Between Superheroes and Superheroines

May 03, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

Superheroes are fun. They offer a duality most other genres can only dream of – escapist fantasy mixed with everyday life. Sometimes the players are entirely otherworldly, trying to fit their specialness into the confines of Earth (Superman). Sometimes they’re regular people who become extraordinary (Spider-Man). Regardless of the hero’s origin, their quest is always larger than life and relatable – they struggle with their power and their path in life, how to be comfortable in their own skin, how to live and love.

This is precisely because superheroes are bred from stories originally conceived to reflect contemporary ideology. At their inception, comics were as much political propaganda as they were fantasy-filled adventures. It was a time when patriotism helped the bottom line, and superheroes urged the masses to buy war bonds just as much as Captain America fought alongside regular soldiers or Wonder Woman kicked some Axis ass. Comics were directly influenced by feminist, liberal, and conservative movements. Wonder Woman was the introductory face of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine. Buffy helped usher in a Geek Girl whirlwind. (Yes, she’s a superhero. If Diana Prince can wear white pants and still hold the label “Wonder Woman,” Buffy Summers’ fashion sense is certainly superhero-applicable.)

Now superhero comic fare is the mainstream drive behind big-studio cinema. The comic book model of “do it over and over again” applies to the big screen as each comic hero boasts multiple incarnations and visions. But for every reimagining, every new creative twist, one thing stays the same: the reductive view of women that exists both on the screen and in superhero discourse. No matter what strides have been made for women in the geek world – no matter how many women talk cogently about comics or create geek empires like Felicia Day, the comics world has built a large wall between our world and the folks on the page and screen.

The rise of the Geek Girl hasn’t fostered a change in superhero culture. The notion of an eight-girl squad of superheroines is still a dream. Even worse, classic superheroines have been reimagined into objectified, pornographic ideals – busty babes who make Barbie look downright normal, with boob jobs and pasties supplanting muscles and spandex. The increased cup size seems proportional to the increasing voice of the geek and comics girl. Where Wonder Woman was once a voice for female empowerment, she’s now an object for masturbatory fantasies that ignores the will of the comics-loving girl.

Star Sapphire

The entire discourse surrounding superheroines is plagued. The most the geek fan can hope for is a well-reasoned request for female superheroes, and appreciative discussion about the few things a film gets right. We clap that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow’s uniform is only partially unzipped in The Avengers, that it’s not low enough to see her cleavage; hell, we clap that she’s even involved – one superheroine amongst five superheroes.  We’re happy for Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: First Class, and we try to ignore the ever-prevalent underwear scenes of the leading women. We’re birds looking for the slightest crumb. Slightly positive portrayals become the big talking points.

The fact that superheroines are drawn and portrayed as busty, sexualized lust bunnies not only fights against inclusion, but also informs how we talk about them. Mainstream discourse focuses on the body and the allure. The actress’ portrayal of a female superhero is always discussed in terms of sex, even when she’s crafted by Joss Whedon. In one interview, Scarlett Johansson fielded questions about her costume, her diet, her being seen as eye candy, her being seen as sexy, her character’s possible romance, and her thoughts about being on "sexy" lists. The interviewer’s recognition of sexism didn’t hide the fact that Johansson’s contribution to The Avengers was reduced to the most reductive points possible. In another piece, “How Scarlett Johansson Made ‘Boy Soup’ Out of The Avengers,” the actress is the tantalizing sex object each male cast member gushes about, especially Samuel L. Jackson, who states: “I want to be Scarlett. I just want to be that cute for like 15 minutes.” Even if the Black Widow kicks ass, she’s still a supporting player who doesn’t get her own film, and whose sexuality is the key part of every conversation.

In contrast, Whedon has very cleverly carved his niche in this geek world. Through the creation of Buffy, he has become a geek pseudo-messiah for strong women. It takes only the simplest of actions for Whedon to keep this position, even in the face of rising critiques. In a CBS interview, Johansson says: “Joss did not want the Black Widow to be the damsel in distress, or just another pretty face, or a woman that was incapable of holding her own, and she just throws down and sweeps the floor. And when I read it,” Johansson closes her eyes and throws her head back, “I was just like ‘Oh, thank you Joss!’”

Black Widow ComicBy merely voicing a desire for the Black Widow to be framed as the female superhero she is, Joss gains fervent respect. He isn’t suggesting anything revolutionary. He merely told Johansson that he wanted her to be a strong and capable superhero. That this invokes such relief speaks to the ridiculous imbalance in the geek world, let alone the cinematic world at large.

Traditionally, superhero filmmakers get away with presenting the lowest common denominator female characterizations. While Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, and Christopher Nolan reinvigorated the big-screen superhero world, they did so while creating female sources of ire, both as superheroines like Storm and Rogue, and everyday women like Mary Jane and Rachel. The characters' marginalization in the greater whole was a blessing because of the contempt they bred. Likewise, a lack of women like Ms. Marvel or She-Hulk becomes a blessing because no one wants another Catwoman or Elektra. As much as those films are chastised for the half-assed manner in which they were made, there’s still this lingering fear that this isn’t a matter of talent, but of the women themselves.

On his website, Todd Alcott talks about developing a series of girl-centric Young Adult novels into a feature trilogy. After an in-depth presentation he was asked: “is there some way to make the protagonist a boy?” The female studio executive who asked this explained that the head honchos had spoken: “No big-budget movies with female protagonists.”

It’s easy to rail against these pronouncements. They’re ridiculous. It was ridiculous when Josh Tyler claimed in 2009 that we don’t need female superheroes, that “men and women simply have different interests. Men are interested in action movies with heroes blowing things up and saving the girl. Men are interested in imagining themselves as ass-kicking heroes. Women are interested in movies about relationships and romance and love. Women are interested in imagining themselves finding the right guy and dancing till dawn. Little boys play with guns, little girls play with dolls.” Likewise, it was ridiculous when a female writer wrote a so-called “satire” about dumb girlfriends and their Avengers-loving boyfriends this week.

Superhero satire imageBut tendrils of these sexist, imbalanced sentiments stretch to all of us in different distinct and subtle ways. We perpetuate biases often without realizing it. John August was surprised how little his female characters spoke with each other when he discovered the Bechdel Rule. Fans of The Hunger Games had to stress that the film was still good, even with a female star and romantic triangle. Fans of Cougar Town are continually pushing friends to get past the title – the idea of older women sleeping around – and give the show a chance. We still use the word “chick flicks.” Women in drag, like Marlene Dietrich are seen as sexy, but men in drag are chastised. It’s unsettling to see Batman, Superman, Captain America, and Spider-Man done up like female superheroines, like Hur Dur Dur’s image to the right. It goes against what we’ve learned and absorbed.

For a second, however, forget all the particulars and all of the current problematic pieces. Today’s female superheroes don’t even have the power they possessed years ago – not only visually, but in how they are presented and perceived. The trajectory of Wonder Woman outlines it all.

Diana erupted as a feminist comic hero in the 1940s. Creator William Moulton Marston was striving not to defeat notions of femininity, but to imbue them with power: “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don't want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are. Women's strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

Wonder Woman in bondage gear

Wonder Woman had her problems. She wore a ridiculous boustier and miniskirt. She almost always found herself bound with something, once it was even chains, an iron choker, and a gimp mask before she was submerged in water like a sadistic piece of comic pornography.  But there was more to her than just the superheroine who could easily bite through a leather mask: “The French girls who wore this contraption must have had weak teeth – it’s easy to tear off!” Wonder Woman was the superhero who could never exist today. Diana was born and trained in an all-woman Eden, sent to the United States, to the “Man’s World” to save it from war and destruction with her stunning skills, knowledge, and power.

This was the Diana I was introduced to as a little girl. Her power wasn’t man-made or guided by the all-knowing father figure (like later incarnations). She was the little girl crafted in clay and brought to life by a goddess. As a little girl she could uproot the mightiest tree and could outrun the fastest deer. As a woman, she was a champion, she dominated every feat of strength and speed, a powerhouse who would save Steve Trevor time and time again.

Wonder Woman’s longevity is not solely because of the men who bought her comics and lusted after her.  She inspired feminists like Steinem who were fighting for freedom, little girls who picked up her comics, folks who watched Linda Carter on television, or like me, girls who just continually revisited their old Fisher Price audio book starring a little girl who could rip a gigantic tree out of the ground single-handedly. Since then, however, Wonder Woman has had a crisis of identity, one that even Joss Whedon has failed to fix. Even self-described feminist and Sassy-subscribing Whedon didn’t focus on her strength, but her mixture of power and naïve vulnerability.  

Sadly, the original Wonder Woman is more foreign and progressive today than she was seventy years ago. But she’s also a reminder of the real power behind comics. The men and women who crafted our beloved superhero worlds weren’t afraid of female power and strength, and we shouldn’t be either.


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