Editor’s note: This post was written by Danika is a musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30-minute break from feminism to enjoy a TV show. You can follow her on Instagram. Views expressed do not necessarily match our own, but we thought a new perspective would elicit some discussion. Feel free to chime in!
Physical prowess, unrivaled intelligence and ingenuity, superior self-awareness and respect; each is a characteristic appointed to the modern female superhero, who is a single woman commanding the androcentric world. She is a force asserting her power over a weaker and often male counterpart.
We are beginning to see subtle changes in modern cinema as far as gender representation is concerned. We have moved beyond the age of the “Damsel in Distress” (for the most part), and we are seeing many women cast in protagonist roles that help ease prior discomfort of mismatched representation. Which should leave the viewer with the feeling that we’re finally gaining ground toward a more equally inclusive world, at least as far as the entertainment industry is concerned; but are we?
It’s a question I ask myself during movies with a “strong female lead” that spend a little too much time highlighting the heroine’s curves and cleavage, or the inclusion of highly gendered dialogue rather than actually focusing on her growth, development, or abilities that elevate her above the rest of us plebeians. All too often in these kinds of films, the message that the “Strong Female Lead” can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her “Power Male” counterpart is completely lost.
Three years ago, Hollywood declared that 2012 was “The Year of Women,” which was met with several eye-rolls and verbal backlash from several people in the film community. Sure, we have started seeing slightly more female characters overall, even female heroines, but how are those characters represented? Which women are we talking about?
Hollywood is frequently called out for its serious lack of speaking roles for women, and those given opportunity to be cast as the leading lady are frequently depicted in a highly gendered, if not completely sexist ways. Female characters who at first glance appear to be independent and self-sufficient often have character development that depicts them as hysterical women who must employ the help of others to solve abstract, and often highly feminine issues. They are unable to hurdle their emotional obstacles on their own, and often male aid is required to solve the issue at hand.
“For so long, female superheroes have been mistreated, and I think women’s roles in general are often oversimplified and generic and saccharine.” – Scarlett Johansson
Take Marvel’s latest release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, for example. Boring dialogue aside, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch was reduced to being a red-eyed millennial who forces migraines on men and then requires a pep talk from her male cohorts in order to get her shit together later.
Similarly, Natasha Romanoff has several scenes meant to explore her vulnerability, but ultimately puts her in the awkward place of bemoaning not being able to be a loving mother. Despite fans wanting her to take on a dominant role in the franchise, she is once again reduced to being “the girl character,” somehow unable to use her well-documented skillset to escape a convenient kidnapping. Instead sends a “Damsel in Distress” message in hopes of being saved.
Out of all the possible backstories and personal demons to wrestle, the most deadly and cunning assassin in the Marvel universe is reduced to a broken heart and “lady problems.”
These vulnerabilities are not problematic in and of themselves. And certainly vulnerability can be argued to be a part of a character’s growth on screen. The conflicts these women face are real. In many ways the complications they face combined with their ingenuity are what could define them and show strength.
But these vulnerabilities are hardly neutral in terms of gender. Do we see the men in the film going through these dilemmas? This kind of oversight in character development almost helps perpetuate that women are not faced with–and therefore cannot comprehend–anything other than emotional stressors.
Marvel recently announced after a drastic change in Thor’s character that the character would be called Thor, not “Lady Thor.” This could impact the kind of movies we see later on in the Marvel Universe.
Part of what hinders the film industry from making any distinctive progress moving forward is the very idea of the “female” superhero itself. Hollywood portrayals of these heroines are either assuming a “masculine” persona, in which they tone down their femininity in order to save the day, or a “hyper-feminine” persona, in which she is not taken seriously in her position of power.
For many of these Hollywood takes on female heroines, their gender is highlighted, and becomes a reflection of the character’s self-identity. Superheroes represent a modern, powerful image of what could be considered today’s gods and goddesses (and Thor is one, for crying out loud). Exalted as the pinnacle of society, superheroes are who younger generations look up to, and therefore they base a portion of their self-identification based on these portrayals.
So it’s worth noting a distinctive gap in gender representation as far as superhero films are concerned, and looking critically at the ways in which these women are portrayed, on screen and off. After all, merchandising is almost as important as the screen time these women receive. I mean, since the release of Avengers, we already see gendered differences in merchandising that help reinforce the difference between male and female superheroes.
It’s troubling that socially, we celebrate the “influx of female superheroes,” but are lax with our standards in which they appear. We, as a culture, seem to be embracing the term equality as “movie that casts women,” rather than examining the ways in which these women are portrayed on screen. Without a critical eye, we ignore the highly gendered ways these women are sexualized. We miss the fact that her body is used for more than its Olympic capacity.
I reject the idea of “sex selling.” Sex does not sell.
Objectification sells, and objectification isn’t inherently gender-specific. Male and female characters both are forced into tight, revealing clothing. However, the revealing nature of male superheroes’ costumes contrasts greatly with their female cohorts. Males’ costumes highlight their fitness while women’s costumes focus on their sexuality and their often unnatural proportions. If male super powers come from physical prowess, where does the female’s power come?
Furthermore, while many male superheroes powers are strictly physical, many female’s superpowers are based on emotion; often used in an environment where the control of her emotional volatility becomes her greatest strength. There’s nothing wrong with these kinds of powers. I myself would much rather have the telekinetic powers than to be able to physically overtake a person, but it is interesting that there is such a distinction between genders, in regard to these powers.
It is also interesting that these heroines, gifted with powers closely tied to emotion, often lose control of these powers at some point, in ways that their cohorts with physical powers do not (minus the Hulk, I mean, being uncontrollable is kind of his thing).
Again, the message of a hyper-feminized female lead is not inherently bad, however, the eroticization can influence viewers in a variety of ways. The intended meaning behind having a “strong” lead can be easily lost among the overt sexualization. Her strength and skill is lost to the visual stimulus. It’s certainly easy then, for viewers of all ages and across the gender spectrum to internalize this depiction, which helps to shape and reinforce our social environment, in which the objectification of women remains acceptable, and the pressure to conform to these projected, fictitious ideals helps reinforce a standard for women and girls everywhere.
Without a relatable, or even diverse combination of women to act as more realistic heroes, these falsified figures become a status quo for many women to adhere to.
It also perpetuates a similar idea to a male viewer. The value of a woman lies in her body, and implies that these exaggerated, falsified proportions are not only attainable for any woman, but it becomes a desirable trait, much more so than the human average.
The hypocrisy of the female superhero then becomes one that is hardly an argument of representation, but how women are represented. It is an issue of portraying women realistically, and having that representation being celebrated, rather than ‘othered.’ It requires both a change of viewer expectations, and an expectation that media companies will deliver more complex, diversified, realistic women on screen. Having women in movies is no longer enough. We need to expect more.
Conclusion: FG readers, what do you think of this perspective? Male and female, we want to hear from you!