Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Ari: Female Superheroes in Film

Hello! Ari here, resident comic book geek, here to talk about female characters in films and TV programmes. "Why is this an important thing? At least there are female characters in the things you watch. That should be good enough." To which I respectfully reply, while having female characters in there is enough, oftentimes it is simply not good enough. The point of feminism and ultimately the point of this post is equality. The same for both genders, and for people who identify as either gender. What goes for one, goes for the other. This really isn't a hard concept to understand, even for the most unscholarly of us.  So, in this context, for every one male character/superhero I see in a comic book film, I want to see one superheroine. In the last thirteen years, there have been 48 comic book adaptation to the big screen (accounting for series from Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. For the sake of my argument, original scripts such as Super (2010), Chronicle (2012) and Hancock (2008) have been omitted) and I'll cheerfully (or cheerlessly if we're talking about Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) admit to having watched nearly all of them. However, out of those 48 films, only two of them, which is less than 5% have female characters as the lead. Frankly, that's an awful number and a rather dire representation of women in film and superhero fiction, and I for one want it to change. 
Let me preface this mini-rant by saying I LOVE COMIC  BOOK FILMS. I cannot get enough of them. Every time I get the news that another of my beloved characters is making the transition to the big screen, I shriek with glee and hunt down every single piece of information about the potential film that I can. Also, like a lot of other straight girls, I especially love watching attractive actors taking my characters and making them into something new, and I have absolutely no complaints about the gratuitous topless scenes featuring the aforementioned actors (Watch the TV series Arrow and you'll see what I mean!) or anything else, and view it as an interesting view on the 'female gaze' as opposed to the male gaze. 

Referring back to the 48 superhero films and the characters contained within them, the female characters tend to be one of of two extremes: powerful warrior women or weak little girls in need of being rescued. If we look at Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) we can see the two extremes almost straight away. Storm/Ororo Munroe, played by Halle Berry is a powerful warrior woman. Jean Grey, played by Famke Janssen, is a powerful warrior woman. Then, we have Rogue, one of the most powerful mutants in the world reduced to be being a weak little girl who then goes onto be rescued by Marvel's fucking poster boy, Wolverine. Of course, we can't blame 100% of this on Wolverine, but the story itself shouldn't need such a cheap writing device to get the point across. At it's heart, X-Men is about social injustices and prejudices, a fascinating subject in itself, especially when you transfer the message to the attitudes for/against the gay community. However, all this said, the female characters in this film are successful and powerful and fairly positive representations of the characters that they're portraying. While it does (only just) fail the Bechdel Test (like many superhero films tend to) it's not one of the worst offenders within this group. 

Like many superhero films, the narrative is often derailed and deviates (in some cases very,
very far) from the original source material, and one of the worst offenders of this is Fantastic Four (2005) and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). Funnily enough, it was these films that got me hooked on reading Marvel comics in the first place, but now I can wholeheartedly say that I hate them. Whether they were intended to be loose adaptations of the Ultimate universe Fantastic Four or whether they just lost track of the story somewhere down the line, I don't know. However, one problem I've always had with the film is the way Susan Storm is represented. I understand catering to a larger audience by using eye-candy or whatever reason they found for having Sue act/dress the way she did, but it just sat very uncomfortably with me. In the comics, Susan Storm/Richards is an intelligent, deadly, and modest woman who developed the use of her powers without a humiliating and unnecessary scene that left her wandering the streets of New York in her underwear. Call it humour, call it allowing for the male gaze, call it whatever you like, but I know the original Sue Storm would never be in that situation. Frankly, I could talk about how the Fantastic Four films have annoyed the crap out of me with their terrible character representations, weak narrative and ridiculous script, but for the sake of brevity, I won't. 

Fortunately for those who are supremely annoyed by this shit, there's slowly but surely been a difference in the way women are shown in superhero films. In Superman: Man of Steel (2013) Lois Lane (a character I talked about in my previous post, which you can read here) is a strong, female character who didn't fall prey to being damselled or otherwise incapacitated for whatever reason. While her romance with Superman did feel rather tacky and awkward at the end, her character still came out on top, which was an absolute delight to witness. Not only that, but in the promotional shots did an unspeakable justice to the characters, and instead of featuring Lois in either the stereotypical damsel pose (see here for an amusing parody) or any other ridiculousness, but Lois was at the forefront of the picture, and Superman was stood behind her, mirroring her pose. Here, we see a strong, confident woman who doesn't need to be saved by Superman. Here, we see a damn change. 

Credit to Kate Leth of Kate or Die. Taken from
Another example of a female character who was surprisingly awesome was Catwoman/Selena Kyle, as played by Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (2012). One of many big complaints about Catwoman (aside from the film from 2004) is the sheer impracticality of her outfit, as illustrated in the strip by Kate Leth of Kate or Die! comics. Kyle's outfit/catsuit/whatever-the-hell-it-is remains zipped up and covered throughout the whole film, and the film itself doesn't rely on her cleavage as (if you'll forgive the pun) cheap titillation for the audiences. Admittedly, the fact she's wearing high heels to fight crime is rather redundant, but her characterisation and representation were certainly satisfactory. Again, like X-Men (2000) its passing of the Bechdel test is rather rocky. Lastly, we can't consider women in superhero films without considering one of the biggest superhero ensemble films of the decade- Avengers (Assemble) (2012) directed by Joss Whedon. While I (and many others) have problems with the way in which Whedon creates sympathy for female characters by frequently placing them in peril (see this post over on the Mary Sue for more details, and read the post on the Geek Feminism wiki for more information) it doesn't seem to happen in Avengers, prompting a celebration from this blogger. Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff, played by Scarlet Johansson fights her way out of every situation she finds herself in without any problems, and ultimately, if it wasn't for her, the Avengers wouldn't have been able to save New York, as Romanoff was responsible for closing the portal that the Chitauri were pouring out of. Not only that, but Maria Hill, played by Cobie Smulders, member of S.H.I.E.L.D. was similarly kickass, and basically beat the crap out of anyone that dared to get in her way. If you wish to read more about Feminist readings of Avengers, read this article by the Opinioness of the World. 

So with all that said, why are there so few female-led superhero films? As I mentioned in my previous post, there are absolutely no shortage of awesome female characters who could easily hold a successful film. Sure, Elektra (2005) and Catwoman (2004) were absolutely dire. But not because of the characters in the film. Because of a series of creative decisions, directorial decisions, and generally bad writing. However, you can't place the success/failure of female-led superhero films on bad creative decisions, and with the correct writers, directors cast and so on, a female-led superhero film will be brilliant. Not even a film in necessary in this juncture; even just a TV series would be a start, such as the Birds of Prey series that shakily made its way onto screen and then off again after one paltry series several years ago. The last female-led superhero TV show that wasn't animated was Wonder Woman, from back in 1975-1979, so we're certainly due for a new one! Returning back to Joss Whedon for a moment, his newest series (premiering this autumn) Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. already features a strong, equal cast, but we'll ultimately have to wait for it to air before we can make assumptions or readings on it.  

A strong point I'm trying to make here is that in the original texts (the comics books) there is a never-ending, wonderful smorgasbord of strong, female characters, and yet they have little to no equal representation within the world of film and TV. You know what? That is awful. Why is there such a small fraction of female characters in the big screen adaptation? Because people haven't realised how flippin' awesome the ladies in comic books are, and this is wrong. 

"Now," I hear you say. "Ari, you've been waffling about female characters in superhero films for
a very long time. Why do you want them so badly?" Well it boils down to simply wanting an equal representation in the fiction and media I love. I want to see my favourite characters on screen. I want to see Carol Danvers on the big screen being sassy and beating the crap out of people that deserve it. "But it's not always that simple!" You say. Well sadly, I'm aware of that. Not everyone likes to see strong female characters (for whatever reason) and not everyone is interested in making films like that. I don't know why, but it is damn frustrating. All that I (and many others around the world) want is for both genders to be equally and fairly represented, and it really isn't a big ask. However, unless these films or TV programmes are to be made by the right people, there is that horrible possibility that the characters will fall into one of two camos: They'll be either hyper-sexualised, or frequently put into damsel-in-distress situations, both of which are boring, overused concepts and ultimately lazy writing. 

In conclusion, I'd like to say that this isn't a losing battle. It's an uphill battle. There is a distinct possibility of there being more comic book films featuring female characters in the starring role. As the DC cinematic universe looks to be following in Marvel's footsteps by making an ensemble film (Justice League) it would be extremely hard to do it the correct justice (haha!) without having a standalone film featuring Wonder Woman, exactly in the way of Captain America or Thor. Furthermore, it is frequently rumoured that such a film will exist featuring everyone's favourite Amazon, so again, we'll have to wait and see. On the Marvel side of things,  there are two currently unnamed films coming in 2016, and there is the distinct possibility that one or both of these could have female characters in the lead, and there has been enough support from the Marvel cinematic and comic universe fandoms to make individual films starring Black Widow and/or Peggy Carter, which is a wonderful idea. With Black Widow, you could do a film about her origins, and for Peggy Carter, you could look at her character development post-Captain America. 

So, to sum up: Wonder Woman film? Yes please. Captain/Miss Marvel films? Yes please. Black Widow film? Yes please. Peggy Carter film? Yes please. We want superhero films led by women, and they are absolutely capable of leading them. However, if we so much as get the slightest whiff of damsel in distress or hyper-sexualisation, we will fuck your shit up. 

All we want is a fair representation in the media. It's not difficult. 

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