Women and Superhero films: An essay

Recently I submitted this piece as my final essay for A2 Level media and recieved an A for it. Although it is not to do with video games, I felt I needed to share it. This still has a lot to be edited and there are large portions missing (due to the fact that footnotes have been erased – I will put up an updated and expanded essay in the future).

Please enjoy!

How far do you agree with the representation of women in superhero films, and are these outdated concepts in 2012?
Women and cinema have had a turbulent relationship from the outset; within cinema women are objectified, stereotypes abound and they are often reduced to token roles. However, in the 1980s, the release of Alien paved the way for more female protagonists. Despite this the presence of women in cinema has a long way to go.
Feminism came to power in the early 1940s, and evolved to become what is commonly known as modern feminism. A large part of feminist critique involves media, and its skewed representation of women; women in media are often portrayed as skinny, white and beautiful and are demeaned for a presumed male audience. Although examples of female heroines who buck the trend exist, the overwhelming consensus is that women are objects for gratification; many aspects of media cater to a male gaze. The comic-book industry is also guilty of this, although in recent years an influx of heroines such as Tank Girl has, again, helped to buck the trend.
Examples of strong women within society are rare and women are arguably relegated to minor roles; we wait for the first female president, although the CEO of Yahoo was appointed whilst pregnant. Additionally, whilst there are women who are well represented, such as Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, these roles hold very little power in society. Whilst Beyoncé and Lady Gaga frequently top rich and influential lists, their photo-shoots still cater to the male gaze.
With 2012 came films containing positively represented women, such as The Hunger Games. The superhero films released were The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers, is known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer which featured a strong female cast. Whedon is famous for having strong female characters, as well as being supportive of equal rights. Nolan, the director of the Batman franchise, is known for his tributes to noir and use of psychological themes. Several of his films contain all-male casts, with women relegated to minor roles, such as the presence of Ariadne in Inception.
The superhero genre is full of stereotypes about women; audience reception theory would suggest this is because the genre is dominated by men, and so the representation of women is imbalanced. There are three main archetypes, those being the caregiver, the temptress and the damsel in distress. Male audience members would consume these texts for entertainment and are presumed to not want women in their texts. This fact is reiterated by female comic book writers: “[…] no one seemed to have a really good guess as to what the female percentage of the readership is. […] So, I have to assume that we’re statistically only of marginal importance.” (Simone, G, Women in Refrigerators, 1999). Even in films where the main character is female, she is presented for a male audience and so is demeaned.
The first superhero film to be released was Batman in the 1960s, and these swiftly lead to global demand of superheroes. One of the very first female superheroes was Barbarella. Although not a feminist film by modern standards, the film included a female hero but this was undermined by sexualisation. At the time it was unheard of to include a woman in such prominence, and the film was well-received by male critics. In these modern times, surely we should be seeing more female heroes as the roles of women in society change? This is not the case, and, despite the existence of many female superheroes, very few take centre stage.
In The Dark Knight Rises it could be argued that there are two leads of this film – Wayne and Selina Kyle. Kyle’s characterisation is unconventional – she subverts stereotypes and uses them to her advantage and is portrayed as strong and self-sufficient. However she also lives up to gendered stereotypes such as being manipulative, and is clad in a tight costume. With this in mind, she also seduces Wayne, which could be seen as empowerment of female sexuality. This inclusion is different to conventions wherein the male lead ensnares the female; often included as many audiences can identify with the male character and his sexuality.
Talia al Ghul also seduces Wayne, a nod to the Femme Fatale – justifiable because the Femme Fatale is a staple of noir films. But the diversity of women within this film is sparse, and they do not have the same depth of character – to have female characters both attempt to seduce Wayne could be seen as outdated. Additionally, Talia al Ghul lives up to the archetype of temptress within the film, which portrays women as sexually predatory – despite this Talia al Ghul has standing in plotline, so she also could be seen as a powerful villainess.
Kyle is portrayed as strong throughout the film but in the end it could be construed that she elopes with Wayne, fulfilling the role of caregiver within the film. In The Avengers, the role of caregiver is fulfilled by several characters who are given minimal screen time.
Whilst The Dark Knight Rises has several scenarios that could be seen as sexist, the film is an improvement upon past instalments. For example in The Dark Knight, Wayne’s primary love interest is killed off purely to forward his plotline. Her character was effectively a plot device used to motivate male characters; this is known as “women in refrigerators”. In this sense, the woman is treated as no more than a vessel for a plot, and is often abused within the text. This trope is seen in comics, too. In Killing Joke, Batgirl is crippled and forced to retire. In a later instalment, Batman is also crippled, but overcomes his injury. The author later expressed regret –: “I asked DC if they had any problem with me crippling Barbara Gordon […] I spoke to Len Wein, who was our editor […] He said, ‘Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.’ It was probably one of the areas where they should’ve reined me in, but they didn’t.” (Moore Reflects on his Accomplishments,Wizard, Cotton M. 2006).
The Avengers features a similar balance of power, although there is only one female character featured throughout. Her strength is further backed up by how the audience views her in relation to other characters – the members of the team treat her equally and thus she is seen as such by the audience. With this in mind, it could also be said that her clothing is tailored to appeal to her male fanbase.
Black Widow’s characterisation within The Avengers is still an improvement upon previous depictions. In Iron Man 2, there were sexualised shots of her, and her characterisation was not focused upon. Whedon creates a depth of character rarely seen within the genre – she is given emotional depth, but also shown to be strong. Overall, Black Widow’s characterisation within The Avengers was more relevant, reflecting in the changing audience attitudes towards strong women in media texts.
Mulvey theorized about the male gaze in relation to cinema. This theory focuses upon how men in the film view women; the audience members can relate to the sexualisation of female characters by putting themselves in the position of the male lead. The main ideal behind this is that “looking” is generally seen as a male role, whilst the passive role of being looked at is adopted as a female characteristic. Several other factors attest to this, including how a camera will pan across a woman’s body. A shot in The Dark Knight Rises mimics this, in which Selina Kyle sits atop a motorbike and the camera pans across her from behind. Despite Kyle’s prominence throughout the film as a strong character, this reduces her to an object for the audience once more.
The idea that this feeds into sexism is under debate, although Mulvey argues that the portrayal of women is “coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Mulvey L., 1975). Ergo, the female character is sexualised, and has no standing in the main outcome of the plot. Neither The Dark Knight Rises nor The Avengers reinforces this, as both women are portrayed well within the overall narrative.
Another signifier of a well-written female character comes from the Bechdel Test which is qualified by three variables. Generally racial diversity and a story that adapts with a female character are also included. The Avengers, despite its feminist director, does not pass the Bechdel test. Although there are three women within the film none of these women integrate with one another, indeed, Pepper is reduced to the role of a caregiver. The Dark Knight Rises passes the test, as several female characters interact throughout the narrative but it is debatable as to whether the test can accurately portray a well-written woman. A film may pass the Bechdel test and still be sexist.
An argument for sexism in relation to the genre could be established, as sexism prevalent within the genre can also be witnessed in life; during interviews for The Avengers, male actors were asked about getting into character. Scarlett Johansson was asked invasive questions, such as “were you able to wear undergarments in this role?” and whether she had dieted. Sexism is prevalent within geek culture, so the superhero genre could be seen to reinforce sexism. Many examples have been reported in the press, especially when talking of conventions -“I’ve seen reports of everything from inappropriate comments to rape. I’ve seen women groped by strangers because they were in costume,” (Plummer J., The Guardian, 2012). So as is clear, the portrayal of women in the superhero genre clearly affects perceptions of women in real life.
The fact that 40% of the demographic on the opening weekend for The Avengers were female, and 50% of the total demographic was under 25 should prove that the target audience of superhero films, young teenage boys, is outdated. If an audience consists of women, they want to be able to relate to the film, and with the inclusion of female characters the female demographic may increase. Several news outlets have published articles in the wake of these blockbusters to call for similar female roles. If audience demographics are shifting and people are calling for more female leads there could be shift towards more superhero films with a balanced target audience. The Avengers is the highest grossing superhero film of all time, being a hit with audiences and critics alike – the demand for similar films may be on the rise, as could the inclusion of superheroines.
The conventions surrounding the superhero genre have become outdated, filled with stereotypes that are no longer relevant in society. If media is seen to reflect life, then superhero films should be more inclusive. Women are designated one of three roles and this allows for emphasis upon the male lead, as a way of engaging what is presumed to be a male audience. In order for the genre to adapt, screenwriters must look to superheroes that buck the trend of men in tights; despite the existence of many superheroines, the genre remains dominated by men. Importantly, the debate surrounding sexism in the genre, which often reflects negatively back in real life, is still ongoing. Institutions should begin to look at different ways to present women. Considering that the demographic for these films are shifting, perhaps screenwriters should look to the plethora of superheroines within comics for their next blockbuster.