Friends, Readers, and Flu Retreaters (It is Winter, after all),
Welcome to another post. Sorry it’s been a while, it’s been a turbulent few weeks, with my return to proper schooling and an unfortunate and untimely passing of a close friend of mine, I fell quite behind on my intended schedule. As such, you may very well see an explosion of activity here in the next few days.
I’m aiming for lots of thematic posts here, and since I devoted a double entry to one of my new loves (go back and read the posts, if you wish), I thought I’d change it up for these next few entries. I also love to create collaborative environments, which is why I will frequently employ guest writers to contribute their thoughts, and boy do I have a doozy of a contributor today. But first…
I have a groundbreaking discovery to share with you all. Superheroes, like those seen in comic books, would probably do pretty well if adapted for the big screen. Not haphazardly, mind you, but with care and creativity and talented craftsman both in front of and (more importantly) behind the cameras. With great finance comes great responsibility (hmm, that’s a poignant line, given some tweaking…), and I feel these are stories worth telling. Some, like Superman, teach us that a man is only as great as his moral character, regardless of the size of his strength. Others, like much of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s output, act as fantastic modern myths, taking us into realms beyond the mundane. Others still, like the X-Men, and Spider-Man (my personal favorite) deal with very real issues, like racism, homophobia, and living the life of an average kid with extraordinary powers.
However, as much as I love some of the current work being done with these properties (I mean… just look at some of these…), I do notice a pretty glaring distinction. And it’s not necessarily a good one. Looking at the names above, does a trend emerge?
If you read the title of this entry, or are otherwise perceptive, you probably noted the lack of any female names listed. Why is this? Surely there are some female superheroes that can survive translation; hell, even people who don’t read comics know who Wonder Woman is.
I am obviously far from the first to address this, and I’m sure a veritable firestorm of feminist critique is out there for your reading pleasure. However, I do still like to work through these things. I also love outside opinions (NAILED that segue…)
And here I’d like to bring in Jessica Thurston. She’s fierce, intelligent, feminist, and, most importantly, interesting. She’s also a bit of a sorceress, except her magic is Black and White Wordcraft! I asked her if she would so kindly lend her magics to my cause, and she went above and beyond the call. Below is a transcription of a brief interview did on the subject of female characters in superhero film. We’ve taken the liberty of including pretty pictures so it’s not so monotonous for you loyal readers.
Rabbit: Hey Jess! Great to see you. Let’s talk superheroes, particularly of the double X persuasion. Do you have any theories as to why there hasn’t been a successful female fronted superhero film to date?
Jessica: One fatal flaw is that film producers seem to assume that the audience that loves superheroes and comics is almost exclusively male. This 1) inhibits them from putting energy into crafting well-developed female characters to whom an apparently non-existent female audience could relate and 2) encourages them to sexualize what female heroes they do choose to bring to life, therefore hugely over-simplifying and muddling them as characters. Essentially, designing female superheroes for male consumers will never result in a truly compelling story.
Ignoring Wonder Woman, Invisible Woman, and Bat Girl, do you think there are even any female heroes with enough history and complexity to warrant their own narrative?
Jessica: My initial reaction is that there are zero female heroes in comic book canon with as much history and complexity as their most well-known male counterparts–well, unless you include Wonder Woman’s background as it’s found in Greek mythology. On the other hand, why does this matter? The film incarnations of comic book heroes are rarely 100% canon. Each director, writer, and even actor brings his or her own flavor to the story to make the best film possible, even if this occasionally requires the suspension of canon.
Heath Ledger’s Joker, for example, completely changed the character’s origin story to include scars creating a fake smile rather than a vat of chemicals that actually forces his mouth into a smile–and this version of the Joker was amazing! If screenwriters can go to the trouble of redoing backstories of already well-developed characters for the sake of their own creative integrity, why can’t they do the same for female characters who might be a little lacking in backstory?
Natasha Irons, Jakita Wagner, and Black Canary (above, respectively) are some of the unique and involved characters who I think could use a little bit of the backstory bolstering treatment. I’ve always liked the pseudo-ninja Whisper, too. She’s so unorthodox. A film starring the mostly female super-troupe the Runaways was also shelved recently. Too bad. I would have loved to see that. I know you said no Batgirl, but I would love to see Oracle onscreen.
There are rumors that Ms. Marvel (recently renamed the gender-neutral and more commanding “Captain Marvel”) will be thrust into the film world either in her own film or in an Avengers or Thor sequel. This woman has almost as much history as Captain America, and would be a great addition to the Marvel movie universe. This character, Carol Danvers has a gritty past that involves struggling with alcoholism. Talk about complexity. Can you imagine a movie called Captain Marvel where Captain Marvel was a real-world woman and the fact that she was a woman was barely referenced? What a powerful statement about women in film and women in leadership in general.
Are there any themes exclusive to female heroes that we’re unable to take advantage of if we don’t develop projects for them?
Great question. I definitely think so. Kate Bishop’s Hawkeye comes to mind. The traumatizing rape that drove her to pursue combat training would force vital conversations about sexual harassment, abuse, and female issues of public safety & security that I doubt would come out in a male-driven narrative. These themes could also be touched on with virtually any female superhero–they’re that prevalent. Closely related are issues of prejudice in the “workplace.” What kind of backlash do these heroines get from male heroes who don’t necessarily think saving the world is a woman’s work? How do they cope with this? How do the males around them grow and change to accept them?
Also, as weird as it sounds, motherhood and the potential for motherhood is a very real thing for some female superheroes. While male superheroes’ love-children can be ignored (a la Damian Wayne or Wolverine’s spawn Daken,) a pregnant superhero is a serious thing. For example, the story of Nightcrawler’s conception and birth and the harrowing consequences it has for Mystique is an incredibly powerful tale. Selena Kyle also goes through quite a journey that leads her to conclude that she must give up her daughter Helena for adoption because of her dangerous lifestyle. Donna Troy has to relent her powers in order to be able to give birth to her son. There’s a lot to be said about comic super- (and not so super) moms.
On the other side of the coin, are there any great female supervillains, and should we include them in future films?
That depends what you mean by “great.” More powerful or evil than their male counterparts? I’m not sure. Complex, well-developed, love-to-hate and yet relatable villains? Heck yes!
Hollywood has actually done a decent job of giving comics’ best femme fatales a taste of the limelight, but that’s because Hollywood loves femme fatales . . . Mystique has been very well-developed as a character throughout the X-Men films, but she has definitely played a backseat role. Catwoman and Dark Phoenix have also had their moments, but never as primary villains. Viper stepped up as the primary villain of the latest Wolverine movie, which was very cool to see. I personally think Amora the Enchantress should totally have a go in the third Thor film or maybe even the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. Her lust for Thor combined with her lust for power makes her a dangerous and fascinating woman with the potential for a lot of damage.
Also, is there any better pop culture she-mance than that of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn? Get those gals a movie! Maybe Harley is devastated by the loss of the Joker who has died since or because of the ending of The Dark Knight? Maybe she emerges from the shadows to avenge him by destroying the Batman? Maybe Red is the only person she can trust and the two of them team up as a cunning team of charm, ingenuity, and criminal insanity? Would that not be awesome?
Isn’t there a danger of typecasting inherent to casting female heroes?
This question reminds me of Pixar’s claims that female characters are harder to animate because all women’s facial expressions look the same. Of course this is not true.
All female Pixar characters’ faces are designed to look the same (Well, all the human leads anyway). They are all conventionally beautiful with big eyes, smooth round faces, daintily pointed chins, and button noses much like all popular female superheroes are conventionally sexy with long legs, tiny waists, big busts, and long hair. I think this could explain why we tend to see more and more red-headed comic book ladies over time. When all of the gals around the comic book universe are equally sexy, red hair becomes the go-to indicator for a character who needs to be especially sexy or beautiful–until even this trait is no longer exceptional. But I digress.
The danger is manifested not at the casting level, but at the character creation level. When female characters are consistently written and drawn as knockout, feisty, mysterious temptresses who kick ass and take names brandishing bad attitudes about this “man’s world,” it’s hard to make ground-breaking casting choices. I think shying away from any casting considerations that focus on making sure a character’s personality or appearance is “sexy” is a great place to start. Personality-wise cast for depth. Get some classically trained Jessica Chastains up in there. Appearance-wise cast for athleticism. Not that she isn’t beautiful, but Jessica Biel is totally ripped and oozes less Hollywood sex appeal than some actresses. She would be a great Captain Marvel now that I think of it.
Is including a female member in every major team of heroes a good sign, or should more be done?
I suppose it’s better than nothing, but it feels patronizing in its current state. It reminds me of the character of Token Black from South Park. I don’t think I’m grabbing at straws when I suggest that his presence in the cast is not an honor but an insult–albeit a clever one with a lot of social commentary. I feel the same way about “Tokena McHotchick” on every superhero team, except she does not exist to be ironic and to make a comment on the state of gender relations in the modern world. She often exists just to “appease the feminists” and provide male viewers with a little diversion. She is not a commentary on sexism–she is a sexist creation.
If you’re not going to write her a good character, don’t write her in at all. The fact that she’s female is not enough.
Would it be alright, if necessary, to create new heroes for future projects, who are female, to broaden the demographic?
I can’t say it would be a colossal sin to create new heroines, but it would be lazy. There are literally hundreds of intriguing female characters in the Marvel and DC universes. (See my previous comment about backstory)
What is your reaction to this image? (http://25.media.tumblr.com/9164b59f48362a6371712abe52c254b7/tumblr_msv9hr1vrP1rf8rz8o1_500.jpg) If I told you that she’s dubbed “Miss America”?
I think it’s bogus, of course. She was so close to having a pound-for-pound equivalent of Chris Evan’s practical yet cool battle armor. The designer(s) even resisted the oh-so-present urge to bare her cleavage in the name of sexiness–only to turn around and make the completely unjustifiable decision to expose her whole abdomen. Because that totally makes tactical sense for a super soldier. She also doesn’t appear to have a helmet, which would, of course, inhibit the view of her pretty hair and face.
It’s no news that women in comics and even in the action movie genre don’t wear enough clothes to accommodate their dangerous and highly physical lifestyles. I guess the only reason this image bothers me so much is because they literally could have copied the armor worn by Captain America in the most recent films and just made room for boobs. But no. She has to be sexy and super-strong.
How do you propose marketing female fronted projects without “pandering” or “being sexist”?
Market them exactly as you would a male-fronted project. Making a big deal of the fact that a film has a feminine protagonist perpetuates the reality that feminine protagonists are not normal. As filmmakers, we have the power to change that unjust reality rather than continuing to reinforce it.
Is there an extent to which female presence in a superhero film can distract? Is that okay?
How many guys walked out of Iron Man 2 with no memories besides the shape of ScarJo’s ass and how well she pulled off red hair?
Of course there’s a potential for distraction. It’s really not okay that the very presence of an attractive female character often discredits her own contributions to the plot and reduces her to eye-candy, but I really don’t think this is a flaw of the superhero film genre as much as of our society as a whole. It’s not even exclusively a male problem. I will admit that little stuck out to me about Captain America besides Chris Evans running down the street in a wet t-shirt. We’re conditioned to objectify and derive pleasure from attractive people in the entertainment industry. It’s part of the consumerist problem. It’s a huge problem, but I don’t think it’s one that is completely in the hands of the makers of super hero movies to fix. The Hollywood powers that be can’t let the fact that some guys are bound to overlook Mystique’s extreme flexibility and speed in fight scenes and only notice her body-painted boobs keep them from crafting strong female characters. They need to transform the world instead of being transformed by it.
Let’s talk about romantic interests in superhero films. It seems most heroes have a female love interest (Jane Foster, Agent Carter, Pepper Potts, etc). Are these characters welcome, or do they end up fulfilling roles such as damsel in distress (or, in the case of roles like Gwen Stacy, pathos bait)?
I’ve never had a problem with the concept of “inter-super” relationships. A lot of compelling issues arise when two sets of powers come together in an intimate setting. I think of Gambit and Rogue, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, Storm and Black Panther, etc. However, the minute one of the persons in the relationship (and let’s face it, it’s usually the girl) is not a superhero, a whole new brand of delicacy is required to make the relationship believable and not cliché.
There are two types of “non-super” women that I find to be believable in the role of a superhero’s girlfriend. One is the wild child attracted to the exotic, rebellious, high-excitement aspect of the heroic life. This type of girl can keep up with a superhero’s energy level, but the constant concern is that the moment she stops being excited, she’ll be on the lookout for something or someone else. She doesn’t have a problem with his secret identity because she thinks it’s sexy, but she might have a hard time keeping it a secret because–well, she thinks it’s sexy.
The second type is the soul mate. She’s attracted not to a hero’s “superness,” but to his goodness. His flaws don’t deter her because she can see through them to his true self. Sometimes the pair share a painful past over which they can relate. Whatever the reason, she really knows him and wants what is best for him–something that’s hard to determine when your boyfriend also has to be conscious of what’s best for the whole city, or country, or world, or universe as the case may be. This woman usually has a harder time coming to grips with a super secret identity because she doesn’t want the one she loves to get hurt.
Peter Parker’s most significant love interests fall into these two categories–Mary Jane into the first and Gwen Stacy into the second. Of course, over time a wild child can grow into a soul mate as MJ ultimately did. There are even some non-super love interests who possess both sets of traits in putting up with their comic book boyfriends a la Pepper Potts with Iron Man. I find all of these combinations to be very real and often very compelling, but some iteration of the above qualities are definitely needed to make a romantic relationship between a hero and a “normal” woman work for me. If I can buy the relationship, it opens me up to explore a whole new vulnerable side of the hero that might not otherwise be exposed.
Then we have the completely worthless damsels in distress. These are introduced usually to make the hero in question seem more human. Oh look, he may be big and strong, but he melts at the sight of this dame’s baby blues . . . Unfortunately, what usually happens when the love interest is poorly written is that the hero ends up looking stupid instead. The girl doesn’t have any distinguishable personality to speak of and manages to constantly be in danger, distracting the hero from saving the world and stuff. Why does he love her again? Imagine just for a moment that the roles were reversed and Wonder Woman or Miss Marvel were dating a mortal “dude in distress.” See how ridiculous it seems now?
In my opinion, Jane Foster has been manifested as this form of dead weight in 1.5 of the Thor films. She was worthless screen fodder the first time around who did nothing but pine for Thor and geek out all starry-eyed about her Einstein-Rosen Bridge. I don’t care if she was smart! Smart, strong, and well-developed do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. For the first half of The Dark World she was even worse! She was essentially a combination of comedic relief and (as you say) pathos bait. She was cute and quirky as she had her little tantrum about Thor breaking her heart and as she realized how puny and pathetic she was as a physicist in the face of Odin, the brooding, one-eyed Lord of Asgard. She even needed saving from the Aether a matter of minutes into the film. Minutes! Talk about being in distress. Yes, she ultimately uses her smarts to help save the day, and she provides an interesting link between the worlds of science and magic, but all in all, I don’t think she had any place in the multi-dimensional ass-whooping that was the Thor universe.
Current Avengers helmer and Marvel creative consultant Joss Whedon is widely known for creating strong female roles. Do you feel that he’s doing a good job in his new position?
Joss Whedon is a prince among boys when it comes to the portrayal of women in media, but this doesn’t mean that he still might not have a way to go.
His portrayal of Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff) was absolutely refreshing. She was deep, nuanced, and unapologetic of her gender. One thing that I loved about her was that her sexuality wasn’t her only weapon. She could play with the boys’ big guns, MMA-style. But even her combat skills aren’t the end of her power as a character. Whedon actually arms her with traditionally “feminine” qualities and portrays them as advantages instead of weaknesses. Natasha is the only member of the Avengers who fights for their sense of teamwork and solidarity. She isn’t too proud to admit that they can only succeed together. The stereotypically female trait of valuing companionship is depicted as the key to the team’s success and survival. Awesome!
Sadly, there is still the fact that Natasha is the only female superhero in the film, and that she doesn’t even interact with the 2 (yes, there’s only 2) other strong female characters in the cast–Agent Hill and Pepper Potts. The Marvel universe, even as Whedon depicts it, is still very much a man’s world.
Tying to above question, are there other artists who could further the cause for gender equality in superhero film?
The short answer is that any artist could further the cause for gender equality in superhero films if they made up their minds to do so. Some creative types who I believe have already shown an aptitude for the necessary writing style as well as an understanding of strong, well-developed female roles in fiction are Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin. I personally don’t know how these two would do in the Hollywood blockbuster realm, but I know they have the necessary vision to make a difference in the portrayal of women in superhero films. They truly write well, and they write women well as a side effect.
Given the rise of television as a serious medium for complex and involved storytelling, would there be any female characters better suited to a miniseries/serialized format than a big screen picture?
Wonder Woman is definitely one such complex character, which is why I’m pretty delighted to see that the CW is making an effort to launch her onto the small screen again. I foresee it as being sort of a less gritty, more mythological version of the popular “Arrow.” I’m excited to see if my expectations are met.
That concludes our brief interview. I hope you enjoyed it. Til next time, friends, keep on, stay truthful, and make good art.
Jessica Thurston is a writer, photographer, and event planner based in Rochester, NY. She loves telling stories in any way possible, but film is a favorite medium. She has been happily married to a sexy nerd for almost four years. You can read more from her here.