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How far do you agree with the representation of women in superhero films, and are these outdated concepts in 2012?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.

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The representation of women in video games

First of all, before starting off this blog post I would like to make several things clear, to abolish the primary “backlash” arguments against what is, admittedly, a controversial topic amongst the gaming community.

One can be a fan of things and then go on to criticise their problematic elements – enjoying something is not mutually exclusive of realising a media product has issues, and problems. Indeed, I enjoy many television shows that have problematic elements (but seen as this is primarily a video game blog I shall not go into those). I can, and do, consider myself a gamer. However there is no denying that the gaming community, and games themselves, have significant aspects that are problematic. Be it sexism, racism, or other such bigotries, the majority of video games do not, in fact, cater to an equal audience.

Secondly there is a well-worn out stereotype amongst many gamers, who leap to the defence of their favourite games, that there are no female gamers. This is incredibly inaccurate – it is not that there are no female gamers; it is that nobody pays attention to them. In the online world female gamers are chastised and sexually harassed so it is not a case of there being no female gamers, it is more that they are demeaned, and called “fake fans” if they do speak out in favour of games. (See here for more).  Similarly, the demographic of female gamers is on the rise and many women do in fact play video games.

Thirdly, I would pose to you a question: would you, as a gamer, play a game where your gender was constantly at the folly of horny gamers, clad in a bikini whilst also expected to fight off hoards of evil? How about almost always being killed off to forward another character’s plotline? My guess is no. So apply that to female gamers. (I would also add that large, muscle-bound men in video games are part of a male power fantasy, and it is not sexist. After all, you play and enjoy these games as a gamer).

Now, to the bulk of my argument, or rather, maybe, a breaking down of a controversial topic. Sexism in video games. Yes, it exists. Yes I enjoy games. I am, however, tired of the stale stereotypes that abound about women in video games and, what’s more, their outdated representation. Women in video games are generally, as a rule of thumb, killed, raped, abused, or there to be rescued by the male heroes. This is incredibly outdated, especially as the role of women in society is constantly in flux, and changing- they have more standing than they did, say, ten years ago yet the representation stays the same. If media is seen to reflect real life then why the outdated stereotypes? Come on, people!

For as long as anyone can remember there has been a significant neglect for women in video games – just as there is in cinema, and comics, and indeed geek culture as a whole. Women in video games tend to be typecast as pretty, busty and over and above all, sexualised – in other words, women in video games exist rarely as anything but the means to provide “fan service” for what is presumed to be a male audience, and what’s more, they rarely do anything within the games but look pretty. Here, I am going to go into detail about several of the issues implicit within video games.Image[Source]

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One of the major flaws within video games is a lack of equal representation – if you look into promotional images surrounding games you will almost always see a man in a position of power, clutching a weapon or generally looking cool, suave, and in control. Now switch to a woman. She is indeed clutching a weapon, if, er, we can call that clutching. No, my mistaken, she is seductively leaning against a weapon, in a pose that fully shows off her assets, staring directly at the audience (essentially telling them she’s fair game) – whereas Dante is seen in control of both his weapon, and as a hero, she is seen as submissive, passive, and her strength is undermined both by how submissive she looks next to the weapon, and her attire. Furthermore, Dante’s positioning and the positioning of the camera underneath him in a low-angle shot affirms his dominance and strength over both the game and the audience themselves. The female character in this case is Lady and she is not granted equal standing, despite her strength within the video game – she doesn’t even get a name, she is labelled literally as her gender. Lady. Because of this she is dehumanised and thus, easier to objectify and make into an identifiable fantasy for the audience.

Of course this would, perhaps, be considered harmless but unfortunately that isn’t how sexism works. If that were a one-off example. No, therein lies the issue of representation of women in video games, the representation of that character is almost exactly the same as the representation of many other characters within video game franchises. A simple Google  will show you not only that women in video games are sexually available to their audience (as fantasies) but also, that; their role within the game is little but to add a little eye candy. There is a running pattern here: thin, busty, pouty, clad in pseudo-BDSM gear. Now, if you Google the same, but for men, the results are quite different. Bar the BDSM gear. Maybe game designers like leather? Anyway, that’s beside the point- here you see men clutching weapons, with shades and capes and muscles, looking cool, domineering and in control, a stark contrast to the simpering women shown.

And, what’s more this isn’t just a trend amongst adult gamers. One of the most prolific game series’ to come out of the noughties was Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter, a game with the target demographic of younger children – their first game was aimed at those 7 and up. Gamers are exposed to harmful, and damaging, representations of women from a very early age,( through this they are taught that woman are all sexual objects) – all of the women in this game are scantily clad, busty babes. They all have simpering, “come hither” expressions and, bluntly put, are there purely as fantasy for anyone that way inclined. In themselves, the women are incredibly well-written and shirk stereotypes – Keira is a mechanic, and is incredibly good at working with machinery; Ashelin is an accomplished fighter and finally, Tess is another suitably well-written character. Yet, despite this, the general consensus amongst script-writers seems to be that we cannot have strong female characters without the sexualisation. In other words, in order for a woman to be strong in a video game, she must also function as eye candy. This not only means that very few gamers will take her seriously (as detailed below) but it completely demeans what little power she may have held, as she can easily be projected as nothing but a fantasy.

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Now, what, you may say, is so bad about having a little eye candy in my video games? Well, for starters, a quick browse of top-ten characters lists shows a few eye-opening things. First of all, female characters are almost always judged by their physical appeal to gamers, in other words they may well be a well-rounded, well-written character but to gamers that doesn’t matter, as long as they’re hot and available as sexual objects.
Take Yuna, from FFX, for example. She is a well-written character, arguably the hero of the story, and a strong female character – she holds her own in the game, even rescues herself (which is incredibly rare for video games). What did reviewers have to say about her?
“[…] the star heroine whose soft features, kindness, and her unique story makes her one of the better beauties to love.” [Source]
“The graceful demeanour can only mean one thing, inside is a wild, bad girl just waiting to summon some type of beast of horniness on the poor sap of her choosing.” [Source] (This entire article features one man on a mission to demean and turn every female character into a sexual object. Truly inspirational.)
“Fine eye-candy” (The IGN article this quote was featured in has since been taken down. Quote taken from this Wiki)
As you can see despite her standing as a good example of a female character, reviewers don’t care because she’s sexually attractive, and to them, that is all that matters; there are numerous mentions of her beauty, her sex appeal, and how attractive she is and yet very little about her character development, or strength. This is a direct side-effect of objectification within video games, and if you thought relatively “harmless” comments were where that ended, you’d be sorely mistaken. The representation of female characters in video games directly overlaps with sexism in real life, the audiences’ attitudes to female gamers, and gamers themselves are incredibly vitriolic towards female gamers or those seeking to criticise games from a feminist perspective (the author would like to note that anyone acting in such a way shall be blocked).

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This sexualisation isn’t limited to humans, either. Numerous examples of sexualised non-human creatures in video games exist. And, when it comes to it, would it be viable for an alien species such as the Asari to have secondary sexual characteristic of human features? Why do alien women need boobs? Especially when male aliens will be suitably inhuman, such as Garrus who is grotesque and inhuman in every sense of the word. As a side point, would it make sense for females of non-human species to genuinely have the secondary sexual characteristics of human women? Probably not. This isn’t limited to Mass Effect either – Ratchet and Clank has Angela the Lombax, another curvaceous alien and Final Fantasy has numerous dubiously-clad, and non-human summons, such as Shiva and Siren. Similarly, whilst male characters will have entirely viable armour to protect them with, their female counterparts will often be clad in what is commonly called an “iron bikini”, which would offer them no protection in the slightest.

Of course, there are examples of strong women in video games: Ada Wong, Rynn, Heather Mason, Lara Croft and numerous women in Final Fantasy. However, as previously touched upon, these women are not without their flaws. And, nine times out of ten they are nothing but sexualised, despite their strength – we need to be able to write female characters, without objectification.

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Lara Croft was a character specifically designed to be strong, and female, as displayed in the quote “He also claimed a desire to counter stereotypical female characters, which he has characterized as “bimbos” or “dominatrix” types.” Of course she succeeds at being strong, and is a well-written character in her own right- she is independent, rarely a damsel in distress, and can more than hold her own. Having said that, gamers were far too swift to relegate her to sex symbol status, because of her portrayal in video games, and the obvious anatomical issues that come with that. The writer may have intended her to be a counterbalance to the rampant sexualisation, but she was just another dominatrix to many gamers.

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Similarly, Rynn from Drakan is another strong female character – her storyline in the first game subverts traditional “damsel in distress” tropes, and she infact has to rescue her brother. She is another example of a lone female within video games who can hold her own, but she suffers from similar pitfalls to that of Ms Croft. She is curvaceous, sexualised, and her armor is less-than practical, to put it lightly (all those gaps around her navel sure look good, but they’re an adequate target for mortal blows). She also falls prey to the weary trope of having a strong female character who is only strong because of a tortured past – many female characters are only as strong as they are because they are emotionally distant, due to past traumas. There are few strong and emotional female characters.

Those are just two examples of female in video games, who are well-written. As previously mentioned, it seems that script-writers cannot write a strong female character without then making her busty, curvaceous, and clad in little more than a bikini. There are numerous women in video games, such as Trish from the first DMC, and Aerith in FFVII, who are present within the game literally only to be killed off. And, as seen, sexism in games negatively effects perceptions of women in real life, transforming the gaming community into one rife with sexism.