Female Representation in the Superhero Film Genre

Partners: Zach Balles and Michael Saenz

The 2000s marked the rise of the Superhero action-packed blockbusters featuring some of our favorites such as Spider Man, Batman and Thor, among many others. Each film is marked with conflict, unique storylines, fight sequences as well as a female supporting character. A character that we argue is more often than not extremely objectified, hypersexualized, undynamic, and subject to the male gaze. The female characters and superheroines that we will be analyzing all painfully share these similarities as well as other tropes that promote emphasized femininity through a discourse that identifies superhero films as a prime example of  hegemonic masculinity.

Black Widow (Natalia Romanova) as depicted by Scarlett Johansson

Featured in: Marvel’s Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.

black widow
Black Widow (Natalia Romanova)

Black Widow is currently the single prominent female cast member in the Avengers films, alongside superhero counterparts such as The Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and more. In Avengers: Age of Ultron the latest Avengers installment, audience finally gets a glimpse at her backstory only for it to be used as a way to connect to Bruce Banner (Hulk), her love interest in the film.

This photo depicts Black Widow as expressing the femme fatale trope, where the woman is depicted as attractive and seductive and as one who will bring disaster to her male counterpart. Unlike other female characters in superhero movies Black Widow’s superheroine status grants her a three dimensional character, albeit one that is highly underdeveloped, but we still know some her goals and background. Yet, this three dimensionality is masked by her objectification and hypersexualization as seen here and throughout the other films. Yes she’s a dangerous badass, but one in a tight spandex costume that reveals her features, who wears high heels, heavy makeup and has her hair done.

Black Widow and other female actresses in superhero genre films are subject to the male gaze, or more accurately known as the heterosexual, masculine gaze. Where Andy Simmons (2016) defines it as “ woman that are visually positioned as an “object” of heterosexual male desire,”  where her feelings, thoughts, and drive are less important than her being framed by male desire. Black Widow’s presence, storyline/character dynamic and visual representation in the Avengers movies are a clear example of the male gaze’s presence in the genre’s films.

 

Jane Foster as depicted by Natalie Portman

Featured in: Marvel’s Thor films

Jane foster
Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)

Doctor Jane Foster is the female lead and supporting actress in the Thor series films. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe she is a leading astrophysicist and astronomer. Although her character arc grows through the two Thor films she is still undynamic and two dimensional. She is Thor’s love interest and her storyline almost completely revolves around the hero. During the films she is either talking about him, trying to forget him, or longing for him. Foster’s character emphasizes the ideals of hegemonic masculinity as diminishing the woman’s professional role in society, as well as revolving around the heterosexual masculine male.

We can easily come to similar conclusions just by analyzing the Thor The Dark World movie poster. Here Thor is literally acting as a shield for Natalie Portman, who although is dressed in Asgardian armor of her own, she does not the emulate strength and power that Thor does. Instead she falls under emphasized femininity, or the ideal hetero female, characterized as being passive and emotional. Her fragility is also enhanced by their contrasting facial expressions and Thor’s physique overshadowing hers.

 

Wonder Woman as depicted by Gal Gadot

Featured in: Wonder Woman

 

wonderwoman
Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)

 

Unlike other female characters who are supporting actresses this superheroine is the main character of her own film. She is dynamic with goals and desires, as well not sharing the traditional role of a woman that falls under the homogenized masculine culture, where the woman is seen as passive and domestic. Yet, in her film Wonder Woman is still hypersexualized and subject to the male gaze. As well as falling under the trope Pop Culture Detective calls Born Sexy Yesterday. The DC executives found a clever way to place a highly skilled and intelligent warrior into a situation where she becomes the attractive and naive character that in this film must rely on her supporting male actor to accomplish her goals.

In the photo, Wonder Woman resembles the physical attributes associated with idealized femininity. To put it simply, she is thin, white, and attractive. And is posing in a way that doesn’t correlate with strength but more so the seduction that is synonymous with the femme fatale trope. Cindi Mae (2015) notes that superheroines are often unrealistic and sexualized representations of female figures with large chests, curvaceous backsides and unattainable hourglass dimensions. She also states how the positive affect you would think a superheroine character would have on young women by challenging gender conventions  is actually reinforcing them due to the dissatisfaction women feel with their own physical appearance after viewing a film with a superheroine (2015).

 

Virginia “Pepper” Potts as depicted by Gwyneth Paltrow

Featured in: The Iron Man films, The Avengers

 

pepper pots (2)
Virginia “Pepper” Potts

 

Pepper Potts was originally Tony Stark’s personal assistant but then she becomes head of Stark Industries and Tony Stark’s live in girlfriend. This character development has contrasting angles, one that defies homogenic masculinity by having Pepper Potts be in charge of Tony’s own company as well as complies by Pepper’s story in the cinematic universe to revolve around Tony Stark. She represents the classic film trope of damsel in distress where she gets kidnapped in one of the Iron Man movies. This trope is a representation of homogenic masculinity in film and very common in the superhero genre, the trope is characterized by  the female character getting placed in a harmful/dangerous situation where she must rely on the superhero for her safety. It represents a false belief that a women needs a man, and is unfit for her own survival/safety.

In the photo Pepper is holding onto Tony Stark’s helmet, tying her to him. We get a sense that she is nothing if she can’t identify with Iron Man himself in some way. Pepper, just like many other female characters in the superhero genre has characteristics of the idealized femininity. She is white, thin, attractive, and her character is sensitive and nurturing.

 

Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes and Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Featured in: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

rachel dawes (1)
Katie Holmes

 

rachel dawes (2)
Maggie Gyllenhall

The character Rachel Dawes serves as Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend who eventually becomes his love interest as they mature into adulthood. She is a perfect example of a female character that doesn’t begin as a love interest, but eventually becomes the main character’s love interest. In both movies, Rachel is the only girl that has a significant amount of screen time and actually cares about the main character. Every other actor with a significant role in both movies is a male, such as Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the Joker ( Heath ledger), Jim Gordon ( Gary Oldman), Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), etc. Even though there is a gender imbalance in the Batman movies, something positive is that Rachel isn’t overly sexualized whatsoever. She tends to appear as the good, smart, and down to earth girl who doesn’t show off her body for any of the male characters. However, because the lead female character doesn’t come off as a sexy character, the Batman movies make sure to make up for that as Bruce Wayne is seen with many other women who he is hooking up with.  

rachel dawes wayne with girls
Bruce Wayne with 2 European dates

Although Rachel isn’t hyper sexualized, she does play the role of  damsel in distress in both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. In Batman Begins, Batman has to save her and a young boy from a group of thugs that are affected by scarecrow’s gas. It is here that he reveals his identity to Rachel. In The Dark Knight rises, Rachel is captured by the Joker and is needed to be rescued before she is killed by a bomb. The interesting thing about this movie is that for once, the superhero doesn’t save the damsel in distress. Rachel dies in the explosion as batman chooses to save Harvey Dent instead.

Another stereo-typical female character trait is the ability to be “nurturing and motherly” (Pennell and Behm-Morawitz). Rachel falls under this category as she reminds Bruce Wayne in both movies of morals and life lessons. This role is typically filled by an older woman, usually a mother or old wise woman, but I believe Rachel takes responsibility for this role as Bruce’s parents died when he was a young boy.

 

Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst)

Featured in: Spiderman, Spiderman 2, Spiderman 3

Mary Jane Watson
Kirsten Dunst

Mary Jane Watson is introduced to the audience as the main protagonist’s, Peter Parker’s (Spiderman),  love interest within the first five seconds of her first appearance on screen. She is a great example of how a female character starts out as a love interest, and not having any other significant role to play. Peter does a monologue of how he has been in love with her for years but has never gotten anywhere with her during her first appearance. As the first Spiderman’s story continues, the audience later learns that Harry Osborn, Peter’s best friend, also has a love interest in Mary Jane. Not many superhero movies have this love triangle going on, which makes it unique to the Spiderman movies. However, having one out of the two female leads being the love interest of two major male roles really makes it seem like Mary Jane is only in the movie to serve that love interest.
Since Mary Jane is the love interest of two guys, the film makes sure that she is an attractive woman. Pennell and Behm- Morawits explain it perfectly, as she is “expected to be youthful, beautiful, soft, and voluptuous (large chest and round buttocks) but thin.” There is also a scene that highlights her “voluptuous large chest” in the first Spiderman where Mary Jane is seen wearing a see-through t-shirt while it is pouring down rain. In this scene she is seen kissing Spiderman who is upside-down, this is where the famous upside-down Spiderman kiss comes from, right after being saved from a group of thugs. This one scene plays out the damsel in distress and hyper-sexualizes Mary Jane Watson within five minutes or less. This goes to show that Mary Jane falls victim to the stereotypical female roles as well.

Mary Jane Watson nips
Mary Jane Watson wet from pouring down rain in a practically see-through shirt. 
Mary Jane Watson kiss
Mary Jane Watson kissing Spiderman after being saved from attacking thugs.

 

Gamora (Zoe Saldana)

Featured in: Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy 2

 

gamora tight suit
Gamora (Zoe Saldana)

Gamora, unlike most female superheros, plays a very interesting unique role. In the movie, she starts off as a villain fighting against Star-Lord (Chris pratt), the main protagonist, but she eventually teams up with him and they become great friends. This is rare to see in movies, but this is really intriguing as it adds depth to Gamora’s character, and the audience also learns about her background and who her father is. Although Gamora is the rare exception to the female role, as she actually has character depth, she is still sexualized due to her wearing a tight suit that highlights her feminine features. This suit makes sure to exaggerate her waist curves and cleavage to attract the male gaze, as she is one of the only female characters in the first Guardians of the Galaxy. However, since she can protect herself as she is skillful in combat, she falls more into the category of “sexualized and empowered” (Pennell and Behm-Morawitz).

Although she doesn’t start off being a love interest, as she is hated by Star-Lord for attacking him, she later starts to become somewhat of a love interest. This is seen especially in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 when the main protagonist’s affection for Gamora is revealed to every main character in the film by a mind-reading alien. From this moment on in the film, she is seen as a love interest, but she isn’t only in the film for that reason (like Mary Jane Watson is) since she is part of the team and beats up a lot of bad guys.

gamora finds out about peters love.png
All members of Guardians of the Galaxy find out Peter has feelings for Gamora by this mind-reading alien. 

Due to these examples of Gamora, she does still fall into the stereotypical female role, but she fills this role with a certain style that makes her seem more appealing and less boring than other female leads in superhero movies.

 

Vanessa (Copycat) played by Morena Baccarin

Featured in: Deadpool

vanessa.jpg
Vanessa aka Copycat (Morena Baccarin)

As soon as Vanessa is introduced in the film, Wade, the main protagonist, hits on her as he finds her very attractive. Just like Mary Jane Watson, she is seen as a love interest within the first five minutes of her first appearance of screen time. Starting out as a love interest, the relationship quickly advances as the two characters have sex on screen. Being the female, she is overly sexualized in this scene, as she has the body of a typical female role; white, thin, and beautiful. During some point in the movie, Wade also asks Vanessa to marry him, as she is a girl that he really clicks with. This is due to her character being not only sexy to males, but also having a nice, caring personality.

On top of being sexualized, Vanessa also acts as the damsel in distress as she falls victim to the antagonist in the final battle scene towards the end of the movie. Deadpool comes to her rescue, with the help of some friends, as he beats up the bad guy and saves her. By doing this, Deadpool takes on hegemonic masculinity while vanessa submits to his rescue.

With Vanessa being very sexualized and being put in a damsel in distress situation, she falls into the standard female role in superhero movies. However, she also turns into Copycat, a superhero in the marvel comics, so she may be able to defend herself in the future and not depend on Deadpool for her safety.

 

After analyzing eight female lead roles in superhero movies from both the Marvel Universe and DC Comics, this blog will hopefully prove that lead female characters are hypersexualized, lack character depth with a few rare exceptions, need rescuing to give the male hegemonic masculinity, and usually serve as a love interest. It’s no surprise that Marvel studios and DC Comics continue making these movies with similar female characters since they know it will be successful in terms of ticket sales. As for achieving gender equality in superhero films, fans and viewers around the world need to step in to let Marvel and DC Comics know how they feel about female roles in these superhero movies. Only then may people see a change in these characters, and hopefully it will be a change that will make female characters more interesting along with their male counterparts.

Citations

Mae, C. (2015). The Problem with Female Superheroes. Retrieved from

             https://http://www.thescientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-female                               superheroes/

 

Simmons, A. (2016). Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a

            female gaze? Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/explainer-what-does

           -the-male-gaze-mean-and-what-about-a-female-gaze-52486

 

Pennel, H. and Behm-Morawitz. (2015). The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects

            of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women. Retrieved from

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3

 

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