The constant implication in comic book movies, that women are inherently powerless with their destinies shaped by the actions of men, does not seem a particularly empowering narrative.
Since my last article on storytelling in film upset an entire Facebook group, caused one person to label me “disgusting”, various people to cast aspersions on my worth as a human being, users of Scribophile to speculate on my personal life, and resulted in some private messages from a handful of oddballs, I’m going to do another one. Because fuck it, I don’t care. Oh, I got a couple of script requests today too. Thanks, guys!
Don’t worry, though. I’m pretty sure everybody I am about to poke fun at is still alive because obviously, if they’re dead, I’d be seriously hurting their feelings… somehow.
What have I decided to poke the bear with today? Feminism! That’s always a wonderfully non-controversial subject that never results in anybody losing their shit or anything. Specifically, I want to look at a current trend in supposedly ‘feminist’ films and TV shows that I don’t really think is all that empowering.
Of course, I learned from last time that credentials are essential. What are my credentials to blabber away about the sometimes problematic representation of supposedly empowered women in visual media? Good question. First, I’m a woman. Second, I have been reliably informed that my fondness for both lesbian pornography and bedding other women is a bit gay. That latter point may not be that relevant, but I will probably bring up Batwoman at some point… probably.
Let’s talk about superheroes. They’re the biggest thing in film and TV right now, right? We’ve got the MCU, the DCEU, the Arrowverse, whatever Doom Patrol belongs to… I dunno. There is a lot of them. Let’s just agree on that, eh?
I want to start with two – Captain America and Captain Marvel. Why these two? Because they’re very similar in a way, and not just because of the ‘Captain’ moniker. Both characters have a similar origin story (at least in the MCU, I don’t read comic books). They were both people who wanted a military career but were regarded by others as unsuitable. In Steve Rogers’ case, it was because he kinda looked like he could be easily mauled to death by a two-legged blind poodle. In Carol Danvers’ case, she, unfortunately, joined the United States Air Force, which appears to have been largely staffed by ‘hur-dur’ Neanderthals.
Despite being told unceremoniously to ‘fuck off’ repeatedly, Steve Rogers demonstrated such determination that he caught the eye of a mad scientist needing a test subject for his mad science. Rogers demonstrated admirable and noble traits, such as bravery, intelligence, humbleness, and the willingness to die to protect other people. Surrounded by men bigger, bulkier, and tougher than himself, Rogers earned his right to be injected with the super-roids that would make him a superhero.
Rogers joins a long line of superheroes notable for more than whatever power, gadget, or skill they possess. Superman isn’t just Superman because he can fly, has heat vision, cold breath, and could pull your head off. He’s Superman because he doesn’t pull your head off. He uses his abilities not to harm others but to help the helpless, rescue the imperilled, and he stands for ‘truth, justice, and the American way’ (and we won’t comment on that last bit today).
Tony Stark isn’t a hero because of his suit, but because of his intelligence and willingness to put right his own mistakes. Confronted with what his weapons had wrought on the world, he resolved to use his smarts, ingenuity, and creativity to instead save it. He’s adaptable, thinks on his feet, and is also a bit of a prick – but y’know, a loveable one.
Batman isn’t a hero because he kicks the shit out of no-good-nicks with his utility belt of ‘ALL THE THINGS’. Instead, he’s a man who has every reason to go to the dark side, and instead uses his turmoil, anger, and bitterness and harnesses it to fight a potential lost cause against the freak show that seems to be Gotham City. Batman’s the one who steps up when everyone else has lost hope.
Then we get to Captain Marvel. Oh, dear…
One point I wish to make clear—I’m not one of these people who thinks Brie Larson is the devil. I actually agree with some of the things she’s caught flack for. What I’m about to say about Captain Marvel has absolutely nothing to do with Brie Larson as an actress or a person. I kinda like her. I just have a few issues with Captain Marvel.
Disney’s marketing for Captain Marvel was not shy about it being the MCU’s first female-led superhero movie. They brought that up a lot. It’s in some of the trailers, most of the press releases, the publicity tours, etc. I’m not going to lie, I’m a natural cynic, so when I see a company going all-in on any sort of diversity driven marketing, I tend to wonder how much of it is due to politics over substance?
First, let’s be fair to Carol Danvers. Like Steve Rogers, she did earn her power. She chose what she believed to be death over surrender, fired on the Tesseract-powered engine to prevent it from falling into enemy hands, and fortunately for her, absorbed some of its power rather than being obliterated. That is a selfless, heroic, and noble act that should immediately rank her alongside Rogers, and Stark, and Kent, and Wayne, and all the others I’m too lazy to list. But it doesn’t. Why?
Because that’s not what the film was about. Carol Danvers moment of unquestionable heroism comes after the movie’s midway point as a flashback and occupies a fleeting moment of screen time. Rather than focus on her heroism, Danvers’ backstory is framed around her experience with men. Time after time, we’re shown Danvers’ struggles through the lens of a woman living in a man’s world, and while there may be an element of relatability to that, it’s not that empowering.
When Danvers eventually pulls the gizmo out of her neck and proceeds to curb stomp everyone in sight, we’re shown a montage of Danvers getting back up after falling down. The truth is, that could be inspiring and powerful if every single one of those moments wasn’t linked to a man. Instead of standing on her own two feet as a strong and determined woman, Danvers is actually framed as somebody whose been almost entirely shaped by men. That’s… not that empowering.
(Sidenote for all the Snyder Acolytes who hate me right now – I do agree a movie needs stakes. Captain Marvel really never had any).
Captain Marvel isn’t the only one that plays to the idea of a woman’s most significant problem being men. Let’s talk about another Danvers – Kara Danvers, aka Kara Zor-El. Clark Kent’s cousin from Krypton and the lead character in the former-CBS, now-CW show, Supergirl. I’m going to be honest here, I actually quite like this show as a guilty pleasure. Sure, the writing is haphazard at times, and the effects are scarcely a level above The Midnight Meat Train. Still, Melissa Benoist and Chyler Leigh, in particular, are pretty darn good leads, and darn it all, if it doesn’t sometimes manage to punch me in the schmaltzy melodrama box.
But Supergirl has demonstrated the same problem. From the moment Kara reveals herself by saving a plane, there are “Can you believe it? A female superhero?” lines thrown about. Really? Is this what we’d be talking about? Is it so astounding that in a world with superheroes, one of them would be a woman? 49.6% of the population of the planet are female. We’re not elevating women with lines like this. Quite the opposite. We’re suggesting that it’s almost impossible to comprehend that any woman could be special.
When Kara comes up against her first major foe, it happens to be a male alien who tells her that women bow before men on his world and then promptly kicks the shit out of her. That’s empowering, isn’t it? Kara, the cousin of the “most powerful man in the universe” (spoken during the intro), just had her ass handed to her by a rampant misogynist. Great stuff.
All of this culminates in the most ridiculous dialogue exchange I’ve ever heard (and I’ve heard the “make it” line from Olympic Nightmare!).
Hank: She’s not strong enough.
Alex: Why? Because she’s just a girl? That’s exactly what we were counting on.
What the actual fuck does this mean?
Supergirl eventually defeats Misogynalien because Alex spots a weakness in his weapon that Supergirl is equipped to exploit. How exactly does Supergirl being a girl have any bearing on this? If anything, Alex should be taking the credit here for coming up with a plan that everybody else at the DEO evidently didn’t come up with.
This isn’t an example of empowering dialogue but forced and, frankly, weird dialogue. The writers feel they have to remind us that Supergirl is a girl rather than amplify her strength and bravery or Alex’s legitimate genius credentials.
In fairness, while the show did continue with such cringe-inducing exchanges for a time during season one, as the show progressed, more was made of both Kara and Alex’s hero status; albeit in the occasional hypocritical way – such as Kara vaporising a bunch of White Martians one day, only to later lecture Saturn Girl, who wants to kill a ‘worldkiller’. Are White Martians not people, Kara? Are you a bit of a space racist? Have you been talking to Ashley Williams from Mass Effect with her… views?
Let’s get to Batwoman – another show that makes far too much of its main character being both a woman and a lesbian, rather than highlighting her skills, strength, and bravery. I don’t know if this is still the case in Season 2, to be fair, but I did watch S1, and it’s hard to think of a time where her gender or sexuality wasn’t thrust to the forefront of an episode. Honestly, I got so fed up with this, I was rooting for Alice. She’s far more interesting!
This doesn’t just apply to superhero media, but any media where writers want to make a show of having a female lead, or having a gay lead, or any diverse lead, and it’s honestly patronising. Admittedly, I can’t speak to how patronising it might be for black or other minority ethnic leads, but perhaps we’d actually need to see a few more of them first, eh?
I’ve never seen a movie where a male character is marked out as unique because they’re male. I’m not saying none exist, but we don’t seem to do that because it’s the norm. Thus, when we do it with female characters, we’re effectively othering them by suggesting they’re kinda abnormal.
Some writers can’t resist the temptation to make a thing about the fact they have a female lead. Too much dialogue and too many situations centre around either the ‘surprising’ nature of a female taking the lead or the impact of the ‘haha, stoopid woo-man can’t do tings’ cavemen that have impacted their lives.
Why aren’t they focusing on more of the things that make an individual? We can choose to be brave. We can choose to be honourable. We can choose to educate ourselves and strengthen our intellects. We can choose to step up and do the right thing even when it nearly fucking kills us. We all have that power within us – male or female – and it’s not our gender that defines the type of person we are and what we can be – it’s us. As a woman, I want to see more women in leading roles. I want to see positive role models for the next generation of young women – role models that were few and far between when I was growing up. Those role models shouldn’t stand apart because they’re women. They should stand as an example of the type of person someone can aspire to be.
Before people start chiming in with Wonder Woman, or Lucy, or the various counterexamples, I’m aware of them, don’t worry. In fact, that brings me to the actual point of this diatribe. There is one genre of film that has more regularly portrayed women in a favourable light. A genre that doesn’t tend to overegg the fact their female lead is indeed female. A genre that is often regarded as somewhat misogynist.
The slasher movie.
It’s not just slasher movies, as we’ve got Ellen Ripley in Alien and Kirsty Cotton in Hellraiser as additional examples. Still, slasher movies have a consistent history of female leads that succeed because of their determination, their strength of will, their intelligence, their strength, or any of those other qualities that women would actually like to be recognised for. Yes, the films often double as soft porn, and the non-lead characters have the depth of a Petit Filous – I’m not saying they’re perfect, y’know?
Nancy Thompson defeated Freddy Kruger because she used her sleep-deprived brain to determine how to even the odds. That’s an Alex Danvers level of smarts right there. Laurie Strode may not have killed Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), but she damn sure survived, and that is a win. While Scream’s self-referential nature obviously highlighted the ‘final girl’ trope, Sidney Prescott still survived because of the person she is, not just because she’s a girl, and very little was made of that.
Characters like Jess Bradford (Black Christmas), Valerie Bates (Slumber Party Massacre), Tree Gelbman (Happy Death Day), and Beth Henkel (Sorority House Massacre) all overcome odds, survive or thrive because of who they are deep down. They’re not remarkable because they’re female, but because they became the immovable object to the irresistible force coming for them. Even characters who spend most of the movie screaming can still harness a certain something inside them that we could all feasibly possess.
And yes, I know, most of these slasher movies feature a male antagonist, so it might look like it contradicts my earlier complaint of the primary driver in ‘feminist’ movies too often being men, but these are films where men are temporary tormenters. The traits that empowered these women to turn the tables, escape their fates, or just spit in the face of death itself were forged somewhere else in their lives.
To me, at least, I think that’s far more empowering. I don’t want movies to tell me that I can be special even though I’m a woman. I enjoy movies that tell me that what I need to be special is already inside me. It shouldn’t be about overcoming the odds in a man’s world but taking the lead and moulding your own world.
Isn’t that what superheroes are supposed to be telling us? To be the change we want to see? Isn’t the moral of these tales that you don’t need to be able to punch through a wall to help the weak; you just need to step up? Or that if you can’t be the toughest person in the room, you can endeavour to be the smartest and change the fucking world? Or, perhaps most importantly, that inside all of us, there is the potential to overcome any obstacle, to fight with every fibre of our being against insurmountable odds, and come out the other side, damaged perhaps, but still standing tall?
Yes, some movies get that right, and I am certainly not criticising every female-led film here. I am knocking the ones that portray special women as something so abnormal, it needs a marketing machine, a heap of reinforcing dialogue, and a whole bunch of other stuff to ‘sell’ the idea that any particular woman could possibly be special.
We can all be fucking special, so how about more writers focus on women as people who are special, rather than just special women?
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