Feminism and superhero movies have been a hot topic for the last few years, with both fans and cultural commentators drawing attention to the lack of heroic women in a genre which is by now a staple of the blockbuster seasons. Since the beginning of the superhero boom in the early 2000s, filmmakers have sussed out a formula which more often than not makes a large profit. This alone is testament to the cultural significance of superhero movies, paving the way for media analysts such as myself to contemplate what is at stake in the portrayals of people found within.
I am currently undertaking a PhD project which focuses on representations of women in films based on Marvel comic books. I chose Marvel movies because, at least until very recently, these films have been at the forefront of comic book adaptations—in other words, there are an awful lot of them. Through detailed textual analysis, I study portrayals of women in films such as Blade (1998), X-Men (2000) and Elektra (2005), all the way to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I then make connections between these representations of women and broader ideas about gender that are present in contemporary Western society. This raises questions about how women are thought of within a particular cultural moment—what is considered admirable in a heroic woman, for instance?
In over thirty films based on Marvel comics to have been released since 1989, the year of The Punisher, only twenty-eight percent of superheroic characters have been women. These numbers alone are bound to make an impact, since they tell us that certain characteristics are considered heroic in the dominant ideals of Western culture, and a crucial characteristic of heroism appears to be (white, heterosexual) masculinity. But going beyond numbers, it is important to consider the specific portrayals of women whereby no role is too small to be significant.
The main means by which I make sense of these portrayals is the elusive but oft cited phenomenon of postfeminism. Postfeminist sentiments have proliferated since the 1990s and Marvel adaptations fall concretely within its confines. Western media culture is keen to incorporate discourses of women’s empowerment but reluctant to adopt explicitly feminist goals, instead rejecting the term and characterizing feminism in monolithic, unflattering ways. Instead, a palatable form of postfeminist girl power is appropriated and commodified. These sensibilities form the foundations of the sexy kickass heroines we see in superhero films today.
But not all women in superhero movies are superheroines. The girlfriends of male superheroes received some attention within comics when Gail Simone coined the term “women in refrigerators” to refer to the frequently used plot device in which the villain attacks the male hero by going after his girlfriend. This narrative device has been transferred to the screen in plenty of Marvel films, most conspicuously Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man series (2002-2007), in which Peter Parker’s love interest Mary Jane Watson is relentlessly victimized by villains. Other films such as Iron Man 3 (2013) seem to be interested in overturning the trope, which may have positive results but still highlights the endurance of a limiting narrative device.
Superhero girlfriends occupy an interesting place in these narratives due to their relation to the active/male and passive/female dichotomy which Hollywood cinema was famously considered to rely on by Laura Mulvey. For all intents and purposes, these women are indeed passive objects, frequently objectified and considered “things” to be saved. However, without them, the narrative would fall apart. If Mary Jane hadn’t been kidnapped all those times, what motivation would Spider-Man have had to face his foes? Put it down to lazy writing, but however it is considered, superhero girlfriends have been an integral cog in the mechanics of Marvel movies. The superhero girlfriend is passive, but essentially she drives the narrative, embodying what I refer to as “active passivity.” Such representations are perhaps unsurprising considering postfeminism’s interest in maintaining traditional gender roles, through which a resurgent interest in old-fashioned ideas about what men do and what women do is promoted. Here, it becomes clear that the ancient masculine pastime of chivalry (frequently pronounced dead by certain media outlets) is heralded and normalized.
What about the heroic women? With a Captain Marvel film finally being on the table, it is worth looking at how films featuring Marvel heroines have handled these kinds of characters. When considered alongside male heroes, it is clear that there are certain demands placed on superheroines which relate to broader gender issues (of course portrayals of male heroes also raise particular issues regarding the state of masculinity in wider cultural discourses, but this is a topic for another time). Superheroines must be smart and sassy. They must also be fit, but not too muscular; strong, but not too strong; sexy but not slutty (more about this later). Indeed, from looking at some of these representations, it is clear that a considerable amount of anxiety accompanies the concept of the superheroic woman. Through frustration tactics, many films ensure that superheroines are allowed to have their screen time and kick butts, but their strength is then reigned in and limited. For example, some heroines are unable to control their powers and are presented as a danger to themselves and to others. X-Men’s Rogue and Jean Grey are such examples, as is Susan Storm in Fantastic Four (2005). While Rogue is capable of accidentally killing her loved ones with her uncontrollable energy-absorbing powers, Jean’s inability to control her telekinetic and telepathic powers resulted in many deaths in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). In Fantastic Four, Sue Storm appears feeble and is prevented from realizing her heroic potential. The narratives of these films ensure that heroic women do not overstep their boundaries. Elsewhere, in Elektra, the titular heroine is decorporialized in a big fight scene which takes place almost entirely in the dark. This way we do not explicitly witness her fighting prowess, even though the film tries its hardest to convince the viewer of her lethal abilities.
Other characteristics which both male and female superheroes must incorporate are whiteness and heterosexuality. Needless to say, we are yet to witness a queer Marvel superhero who is coded as such (while a character such as Mystique is bisexual in the comics, the films have only ever suggested that she is interested in men). As mentioned, postfeminist culture is invested in maintaining a rigid, binaristic gender structure. But extension this also entails maintaining traditional heterosexual pairings.
Similarly, whiteness is considered most desirable for Marvel’s cinematic superheroines. This is where postfeminism collides with postracialism, in the sense that racial issues are rarely, if ever referred to explicitly. Meanwhile, multiculturalism facilitates the idea that wider audiences can be reached through an incorporation of non-white characters, but this should not undercut Hollywood’s white supremacist foundations. The result is racially ambiguous characters, such as Angel Salvadore in X-Men: First Class (2011), or even Storm in the X-Men franchise. Light-skinned women of color have more of a chance at being portrayed as heroic, whereas traditional racial coding has resulted in people of color being cast as villains, as in X-Men: The Last Stand.
The overarching sentiment of postfeminism/postracialism in these films therefore is that essentially, we are all the same, that there is no racism, or indeed sexism (at least narratively). This is in contrast to bigger social issues evoked by films such as those in the X-Men series, which are keen to present a minority metaphor through its central characters: superpowered mutants who are socially oppressed.
This brings us to the villainous characters found in Marvel adaptations. On the whole, there are fewer female villainesses than male villains in these films. Then again, there are fewer women than men portrayed in general. Alarmingly, the evil women in Marvel films tend to draw from similar discourses. Since femininity has so often been associated with evil throughout history, these portrayals are interesting. Consider the way in which menstruation is dubbed “the curse” in many cultures. Women’s bodies have been considered inherently evil, but specifically toxic. It was said that an evil woman could infect a man with her bodily toxins through touch alone. Thus, we get evil poisonous women in Marvel films, such as Typhoid in Elektra and the snake-like Viper in The Wolverine (2013). Toxicity, likewise, was associated with witches, who were both physically repulsive and poisonous. When Jean Grey becomes evil in X-Men: The Last Stand, the parallels between her representation and the traditional image of the witch are not hard to see, with her sickly complexion, blackened eyes, unkempt hair and billowing cloak, not to mention her powers. These villainesses are also portrayed as aggressively sexual, illustrating the fine line between an empowered postfeminist sexuality and the devaluing of women who are considered too sexual.
I have been painting in broad strokes throughout this post, as is characteristic of summary. However, it is important to stress that the women, heroic or not, in Marvel adaptations remain multifaceted and insightful, shedding light on the dominant discourses of gender in a postfeminist culture. One would hope that future Marvel films would move beyond limiting or oppressive portrayals, but the adaptability of postfeminism may make this challenging. While it is still possible for viewers to gain a sense of empowerment through the characters we have seen thus far, a more sensitive and inclusive approach to portraying feminine subjectivities would enable more inspiring ideas of what it means to be a superhero.
Miriam Kent is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. Her thesis focuses on representations of women in films based on Marvel comics. Her research combines the theoretical approaches of feminist film theory, comics studies, gender studies, queer theory and postcolonial studies. You can follow her on twitter on @msmrkent and follow her blog on medium.com/becomingdrmarvel