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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We have a long way to go in portraying women fairly and accurately in film and TV, but I don’t think Captain Marvel is a good example for the point you are trying to make. All those scenes of her getting back up as a child were very powerful and telling. “I enjoy movies that tell me that what I need to be special is already inside me.” this is exactly what that montage was doing. The strength was in her all along. And her being female had nothing to do with it. She wasn’t just tough for a girl, she was tough period. True, in the montage it appears to be mostly male characters telling she can’t do whatever it was that she was trying to do, but as you mentioned, that adds to her relatability.
The most important factor for me is that she awakened herself. What would have been awful is a scene of a man telling her, you can do it! This is what makes the horror films you mentioned so much better at representing a female protagonists. The female leads usually find a way to survive on their own. Occasionally, there is a male character that sacrifices himself in order for the female to survive. But those scenes usually occur a bit earlier, before the full threat of the situation is revealed. Most female horror film protagonist aren’t reliant on a male to save them. Similarly, Captain Marvel, didn’t need a man to tell her she was powerful in order for her to awaken her powers. She just had to believe in herself.
You could argue that it wasn’t belief in herself that awakened her powers, but rather the pressure applied by the Supreme Intelligence and any other similar pressure would have resulted in the same. Such as when she inadvertently tapped into her powers while sparring. She could just as easily have realized her full potential if she was trapped in a collapsing building. But is that so bad? How does anyone really know how strong they are until they pushed to their limits? Isn’t that also the message of the montage? Not that a girl can race go-carts, but rather you don’t know what you are capable of until you try it.
I think once people get used to female-led movies, the idea of them being abnormal will fade. I actually think it already has, just not across all genres equally. I’m thinking of films like Salt (2010), Atomic Blonde (2017), Proud Mary (2018), and The Hunt 2020. Earlier versions of the female protagonist were usually weaker characters who have to find the strength in order to rise up and defeat the threat. One notable exception was Ripley in the Alien movies. She was tough and confident from the start. The new female protagonists aren’t like that. They tend to be strong from the onset, even if they themselves don’t know their full potential. I think Captain Marvel falls into this category. When she pursued the Skrulls on earth, she wasn’t trying to prove herself. She was confidently going about what she thought was her just mission.
I’m looking forward to next wave female-led movies.
While you might find power in that montage, I can’t shake the issue that every single instance of Danvers getting back up is related to men. Captain Marvel is hardly subtle in the way it approaches male figures in Carol’s life, even down to the prat on the bike who tells her to “smile”. The entire backstory we are told is effectively a procession of dickheaded men belittling her, knocking her, and telling she can’t do things because she’s just a girl – which feeds the No Doubt curb stomping scene that follows her gaining all of her powers.
However, that’s problematic to me because it implicitly suggests that men have played a crucial role in her own development. That without these men to figuratively flip the bird at, she wouldn’t be a hero. You argue it shows her inner strength, but it comes across as a ‘fuck you’ moment to men – both from a character perspective, and a writing perspective, and that’s not the right message to send. Why frame a moment of female empowerment around that? And why spend all that time focusing on a bunch of male wankers, than on the selflessness that got her the powers in the first place? The latter is the more empowering moment, but is a but a footnote in her character’s development as depicted in the film.
It’s off. That movie isn’t telling me that what’s special is inside me. It’s telling me that I need to suck it up, deal with a bunch of dickhead men, and go out of my way to spite them or prove them wrong. That’s far from empowering.
And it was such an easy fix. It was as simple as not relating every single negative moment in her life to some arsehole bloke. Sure, have some arsehole men in her life. Throw in a couple of arsehole women too. Throw in some moments where she just fails at something without the input or impact of any arsehole, and resolves to learn and grow from the experience.
A story of female empowerment should not make men the primary driver of that empowerment. We don’t do everything because some man tells us we can’t, nor should we pursue anything because some bloke tells us we can’t.
“You argue it shows her inner strength, but it comes across as a ‘fuck you’ moment to men”. I think this is a matter of perspective. Isn’t it possible that the men in these scenes were nothing more than background noise to her? That she was intensely focused on the challenge at hand not on whatever they happened to be saying to her?
That’s how I view those scenes. She was focused and determined to accomplish a goal and her naysayers were nothing more than static noise. She never once addressed them. She gave them nothing more than a passing glance. Her focus was on her task. Each of those scenes, from the beach to the parking lot, to the race track, to the obstacle course to the crash site, she had a look of sheer determination, focus, courage and resilience. Aren’t you the one taking something away her by saying she only was doing those things to show-up the men?
What brought her to the track that day? Was that angry father yelling at her in the days and weeks leading up the race? Where were those cadets at the obstacle course in the days, weeks, months and years she spent training and preparing for that day? They weren’t there. They weren’t part of her life. They were just the people she encountered in that moment. But everything she had to accomplish to get to those moments is who she is.
You don’t just wake up one morning and say I’m going to train to become a pilot and an officer in the United States military. It takes years of preparation and planning to reach that moment. She was who she was long before that challenge. Long before those men told her she couldn’t do it or to go home.
There was only a single line of dialogue to suggest otherwise in that montage. When she said, “You let them race”. That one line ruins what would otherwise have been a perfect montage to summarize her character. I choose to focus on the rest of the montage and ignore that one line.
I’d suggest you’ve made Kath’s point nicely with several of the films you mentioned. Both Alien and Salt were written with the assumption of a male protagonist, with minimal changes made when a female lead was cast. Atomic Blonde was based on a comic book which, with the exposion of smaller publishers in the 90’s, became a place that was far more interested in experimenting with characters outside the norm than any other industry. I can’t think of any other medium at that point that would have had a black, HIV positive superhero (Shadowhawk).
As for The Hunt,the justification they gave for the female baddies actions are a very male thing from my experience of the internet, but I can’t help wondering if they would’ve used it if the characters had been male.
Hi, Michael. If these men are supposed to be background noise, then why does the movie focus on them at all? It doesn’t use any of the usual cinematic tricks to indicate they’re background noise. It allows us to hear their words loud and clear – even using an ‘echoey’ audio effect at times which is often used for emphasis – and shows us their faces. It makes them characters, albeit unnamed ones, instead of presenting them as meaningless.
Our attention shouldn’t be drawn to something that isn’t important, particularly when we’re dealing with material that informs a character’s psyche. That Captain Marvel does draw attention to these men on multiple occasions, while also framing her present-day narrative on the impact of men, from the irritating (“smile” bloke) to the gaslighting and manipulating (Yon-Rogg) to the man who helps her see the light (Talos), is an odd choice if the intention isn’t to say “Stupid men, I’ll show them!”.
I’m not disputing that Carol Danvers had it in her to begin with; I’m arguing that the film frames her journey in a less-than-empowering way by putting the focus on these men. You mention what she must have gone through to get into the USAF, but the film doesn’t ever really explain why she did that. The best it offers is that she wanted to fly. Great. Plenty of jobs a woman in the 90s could get that would allow her to fly, so why choose the USAF which according to the movie at least (I haven’t looked into the actual history) had women pilots but grounded them? Determination? Maybe. Stubbornness? Perhaps. A ‘fuck you’ to men? Could be.
And that is the problem. By framing Danvers journey so much around these angry, belittling men, we’re left speculating and scraping to find the supposedly empowering message that doesn’t involve men – which I’d argue, with all due respect, is kinda what you’re doing right now by posing hypotheticals which the movie does nothing to answer.
You ask good questions, but the closest answer in the material is that she wanted to prove some men wrong. Great, she did that, but she basically judged fridged herself in the process.
All they needed to do to fix this rather glaring oversight is to show things from her backstory that didn’t involve men. It’s not just men who tell women they can’t do stuff. Other women are bloody awful for this as well at times. You wouldn’t believe how often women try to police what other women can or should be doing – it’s the reason why ‘feminism’ as a catch-all term utterly fails. RadFems would argue I’m not a real feminist because I don’t worship at the Altar of Julie Bindel and all her bizarre ideas.
But do you know who the biggest critic of women so often is? Ourselves. That’s why I said there should have been examples of Carol Danvers trying and failing and resolving to try again without some muppet yelling at her because, in this woman’s opinion, that alone would not only be infinitely more relatable, but validate the argument you’re making to the point I’d have probably never written this article in the first place.
Okay, I see your point more clearly now. Thank you clarifying. Perhaps it’s of little consolation, but it is getting better. And it seems to be getting better pretty fast. It was only 6-years-ago that Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter questioned the profitability of female-led superhero films. And since then, female-led movies have earned over a billion dollars at the box office, despite Covid. The times they are a changin.
Feminism is just another form of sexism
Feminism is just the belief that men and women should be treated equally. Nothing more, nothing less. What people do to achieve said equality is an entirely different matter. We can debate the methods until the cows come home, but it won’t help to gain an understanding. There are simply too many different views on how to achieve equality and what it means to be treated equally.
For me it’s very simple. Women ought to be able to do whatever a man does, period. That doesn’t mean just anyone can be a soldier or a fire fighter. Anyone, male or female would still need to meet the physical, mental and educational requires for the position they are applying. Gender shouldn’t be a factor. It ought be known by now that there are ample women that can kick the stuffing out of the “average” guy and plenty enough above average. Why then should the average guy get automatically accepted when applying to whatever? And it’s not just physically. I’ve seen women in a crisis stay calm and collected and I’ve seen men fold like a cheap suit.
You should have seen some of the guys who went to bootcamp with me. Which is why out of 73 recruits we graduated less than 50 of us by the end of bootcamp. They’ll send anyone (male) to bootcamp and let bootcamp sort it out. And again, it wasn’t exclusively the physical requirements. Plenty of them couldn’t handle the stress. We had a couple of nervous breakdowns and one recruit went AWOL. He tried to escape though the swamp. Now I know things have improved. The role of women in the military has changed a lot since I went in, but those are recent developments. By recent I mean the last 20-years or so.
The mindset needs to change. We need to assess individuals by their character and capabilities and not their sex chromosomes.
the thing is i see a lot of people making the point you’ve made (which i assume is write female characters as characters not “look here’s a woman”, please correct me if i’m wrong) and they get branded as misogynist’s which if you look at the context isn’t true.
the interesting thing is there are examples years ago where it was done better, star trek voyager being a great example, i listen/watch a podcast hosted by the actors who played tom and harry on voyager and they had one of the writers on who explained when they wrote janeway they wrote her as having a female captain was just a normal thing, however kate mulgrew played the role with the serious feeling of being the first female captain, and the weird thing about it is is voyager was actually written the way mulgrew was playing it janeway would have been a really annoying character and voyager would have been a bad series.
if you want another film that did female leads right then watch alita battle angel, none of that was promoted on having a female lead it was promoted on her being a badass character. all i’m saying is, go watch alita battle angel it’s amassing and didn’t nearly get the recognition it deserved and was so accurate to the original manga as well.
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