The Evolving Representation of Women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

By: Manya Gupta & Tabitha Tran

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a franchise of film and television that brings the stories of superhero comic book characters to life.   All of the plot lines are intertwined, and Marvel is known especially for the Avengers, a crossover team of countless different heroes and stories.  Historically, this superhero action genre has been male dominated, as men have been assumed to be the primary audience. However, recent trends indicate that the audience of superhero content is actually much more diverse than the industry initially believed. To align with these trends, Marvel has begun to diversify its roster of superheroes.  They initially fell short of effective female representation, but recent MCU films have demonstrated enormous steps towards positive change while simultaneously highlighting a persisting need to grow.  

Falling Short of Effective Female Representation

The MCU has divided their movies into phases to help organize release dates and plot lines.  Phase I of the MCU consists of 6 movies: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), and ending with The Avengers (2012).  Throughout these films, Marvel does incorporate strong female characters.  In Iron Man, Pepper Potts is a recurring character and eventually becomes CEO of Stark Industries. In Thor, Jane Foster is a highly accomplished and brilliant scientist, though her presence is limited to only 2 films so far. Captain America: The First Avenger also introduces Peggy Carter, a skilled agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who even had her own television series, Agent Carter, which ran for two seasons.  However, although these women independently have strong personalities and character traits, their roles are in support of male main characters.  They function primarily as love interests and plot devices to help other characters grow, rather than experiencing growth and development themselves.  

In Phase I, the only prevalent female characters operating outside of a solely romantic interest are Maria Hill and Black Widow. However, Maria receives enormously limited screen time and Black Widow is consistently portrayed through the male gaze. Despite being a highly trained agent, she is reduced to misogynistic stereotypes, such as the “sexy agent” in Iron Man 2.  She is also presented as a romantic threat to Pepper Potts, the only other female in the film. Though Black Widow’s character develops throughout the movies, the male gaze hypersexualizes her with tight clothing and angles that especially highlight her body in “sexy” poses.

Image: IMBD

In Phase II of the MCU, the trend of strong female characters continues with Black Widow in Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014), Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and the introduction of Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  However, these women continue to be supporting characters, heavily outnumbered by male leads, and portrayed in problematic ways. For instance, Gamora is a strong fighter but still primarily a romantic interest to the film’s lead, Peter Quill.  MCU’s portrayal of Scarlet Witch has also been criticized as she is insecure and fearful of her own powers, despite the monumental power she possesses. She is also a romantic interest to Vision, who feels the need to “protect” her in later films. Meanwhile, Black Widow does not escape the male gaze, especially in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where she becomes a romantic interest to another Avenger. 

Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3 is a prime example of a woman who is still subject to mythical norms and the “damsel in distress” trope.  Her character is strong and independent, yet still very feminine.  Throughout the Iron Man movies, she is heavily used as a plot device and romantic interest for Tony Stark rather than as a main character with her own development and growth.  Specifically in Iron Man 3, Pepper is kidnapped by the enemy and used as leverage against Tony.  She is injected with the Extremis virus, and Tony must save her from the enemy and develop a cure for Extremis.  While posters and trailer clips of Iron Man 3 showed Pepper in the Iron Man suit and asserted that she would play a larger role in the film, Pepper’s “need” for Tony to love, cure, and save her reflects the classic “damsel in distress” trope.  The article “Feminine Purity and Masculine Revenge-Seeking In Taken (2008)” discusses how “blockbuster Hollywood films structure adherence to popular myths and ideological assumptions about race and gender hierarchies” (Kelly, 2012, p. 414).  Iron Man 3 demonstrates this trend by asserting that women are in need of strong, masculine men to save them, and the film showcases Marvel’s shortcomings in terms of effective female representation.

Image: MTV

Steps Towards Positive Change

However, recent years have highlighted Marvel’s deliberate steps towards positive change.  Phase III films showcase a larger roster of strong female characters, in addition to the first female leads that forgo a romantic subplot. This phase includes the films Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Black Panther (2017), and Captain Marvel (2019), all of which also introduce more diverse directors into the MCU. With this, there is a rejection of emphasized femininity and a deviance from the male gaze. Women are given significantly more screen time with these installments as well. Though many of the other films within this phase fall prey to the shortcomings of their predecessors, examining these three, specifically, can point to a more inclusive MCU in the future. 

A fantastic example of a strong supporting female character with significant screen time is Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok. The Valkyrie are actually a class of female warriors meant to protect Asgard, but Valkyrie from the film is the last of her kind. She rejects emphasized femininity and adopts masculine traits such as drinking alcohol, having strong fighting and leadership skills, as well as projecting a “blunt” but humorous personality. Though a supporting character to Thor and Loki, she is essential in their success in defeating Hela, the story’s antagonist. Notably, she lacks a romantic subplot, which at the time of the film’s release was a first for prominent female characters. 

It is important to note that despite the advancements in representation that Valkyrie presents, many fans found it disappointing that her canon bisexuality is not explicitly mentioned in the film.  She had the potential to offer LGBTQ+ representation, but Marvel may have decided the intersectionality of a bisexual woman of color would have been “too different” to “get into” (Lorde, 1980, p. 3).  Lorde (1980) describes the specific struggles and stereotypes associated with queer women of color, which are often projected by society as “too ‘alien’ to comprehend.”  This projection is evident in Marvel’s portrayal of Valkyrie because while she adds non-stereotyped representation to the MCU, her character exists in a universe where she does not experience racism or sexism, and her bisexuality is completely ignored.  A universe where these aspects of identity are so openly accepted is ideal, but it is unrealistic, and “refusing to recognize difference makes it impossible to see the different problems and pitfalls” facing characters or audiences with diverse intersectionalities (Lorde, 1980, p. 3). 

Image: PinkNews

Meanwhile, a paramount example of increased representation in film is Black Panther. Though the main character and villain of the film are male, Black Panther might be one of the best films of the MCU to date to include female representation. The characters Nakia, Okoye, and Shuri are all presented as strong, intelligent fighters.  They are truly superhero role models themselves. Each one of them is able to make significant contributions to the plot, operate independently of men, and reject emphasized femininity. Additionally, Wakanda (the fictional country the film takes place in) has an all female group of warriors similar to the Valkyrie, the Dora Milaje (pictured) whose purpose is to protect the throne. In the final fight sequence, their participation is highlighted just as much as the male warriors. Though Nakia is a romantic interest of the male lead T’Challa, this aspect of their relationship is relatively minimal. She is able to develop her own character and storyline independent of T’Challa. This divergence from an overemphasized reliance of female characters on their male counterparts is taken a step further with Okoye. While she does have a romantic relationship in the film with W’Kabi, a leader of a different clan, she must fight against him in the final battle. Here, W’Kabi asks, “Would you kill me, my love?”, to which Okoye responds, “For Wakanda…no question.” Such an interaction emphasizes Okoye’s role as a patriot and a warrior over her role as a love interest. This distinction is lacking from other female characters in previous phases of MCU. 

Image: MCU Fandom

Additionally, liberation from men within the MCU is best presented by Captain Marvel (2019), the first film to have a solo female lead and a female co-director. This installment in the franchise has sparked much discourse amongst fans, with criticisms ranging from the movie being overtly feminist to not being feminist “enough”. It is possible that these criticisms are a result of how the film capitalizes on popular feminism. Much of the film’s advertising referred to Carol Danvers, or Captain Marvel, as “a HERo”, putting an emphasis on the feminine pronoun. The film itself shares a message of empowerment, especially with the “I’m Only Human” scene (pictured below) where Danvers gets access to her full powers. It includes a montage of times she had been pushed down by life, including systems of patriarchy, and how every time, she stood back up. However, while sentiments of individual empowerment are important, the movie does little to address any structural changes. The movie does not push an explicit “feminist agenda”, and instead illustrates the white, cis, female experience. The film also challenges tired and misogynistic tropes. For example, in Captain Marvel’s fight against her former mentor, Yon-Rogg, he asks her to “prove herself” without using her powers, to which she responds, “I don’t have to prove anything to you”. Carol Danvers fully embraces that she is the one of the most powerful beings in the universe, and the most powerful superhero in the MCU, furthering the message of individual empowerment.  Ultimately, though Captain Marvel has experienced shortcomings and criticism, the film was a huge step in the right direction for Marvel

Image: We Got This Covered

Marvel’s steps towards positive change continues with upcoming Phase IV movies.  For instance, Thor: Love & Thunder (2022) is rumored to diverge from past films where Thor was the sole main character.  Fans are eager for the shift and Marvel has expressed their commitment to exploring other female characters like Valkyrie and Jane Foster.  Meanwhile, Eternals (2021) introduces new female characters to the MCU in addition to a female director, Chloé Zhao.  The film features an equal split of five male Eternals and five female Eternals.  Three characters (Sprite, Makkari, and Ajak) were actually men in the original comics, but Eternals creators gender-swapped to include more female representation in MCU films.

Phase IV also includes Marvel’s second film with a solo female lead: Black Widow (2021).  While Black Widow has been featured in 8 MCU films since Iron Man 2 (2010) was released, it took 11 years for her to receive her own solo movie.  The trailer has effectively set the stage, and while most action films have a male lead that emphasize hegemonic masculinity and uphold gender inequalities, the Black Widow film appears to reject these trends.  This is evident in many ways, including Black Widow’s appearance.  In previous movies, Black Widow wore her hair down with low cut clothing to show off her bust.  In the new movie, the male gaze is absent as her appearance is much more practical with her hair tied up as she wears sturdy, armor-like clothing.  Behind the scenes, the film also features Marvel’s first solo female director, Cate Shortland, who expresses her commitment to showcasing Black Widow’s grit, determination, and character. 

Image: Tom’s Guide

Room to Grow Persists

However, despite the positive steps towards change in past and upcoming movies, room to grow persists.  The release of Black Widow next year will be especially vital.  While the new movie may redeem Marvel, Black Widow’s character is an important example of how Marvel needs to continue working to grow and improve.  

Throughout her features in eight MCU films already, Black Widow demonstrates enormous intersectionality and dimensionality.  She is a complex character, and audiences get to witness her easy-going relationship with Steve Rogers (Captain America), her deeply loyal friendship with Clint Barton (Hawkeye), and her romantic relationship with Bruce Banner (Hulk).  Especially in early movies, she acts integral to the forming of the Avengers and yet lies heavily under the male gaze.  She is deadly and strong and yet has no superpowers of her own.  She is portrayed as equal to her romantic counterparts and yet her relationships are often used for other characters’ growth instead of her own.  The article “Black Widow: Female Representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” effectively summarizes these points by explaining how Black Widow is “ultimately not liberated” and “characterized in ways that uphold male dominant social structures” (Gerard and Poepsel, 2018, p. 50).  Thus, while Black Widow has paved the way for other female characters in the MCU, her character is a prime example of how Marvel needs to continue to improve.  According to Gerard and Poepsel, her “true liberation has yet to come,” and hopefully, fans will get to witness this liberation in Black Widow, the film, and beyond.

Image: YouTube

Avengers: Endgame (2019) is another film highlighting Marvel’s need for continued growth and representation.  The film had the potential to deliver on increased diversity and representation with its roster of nine female superheroes total, but ultimately fell short. Few women had much relevance to the overarching plot when compared to their male counterparts. Of these women, the most notable to the plot are Gamora and Black Widow, but their value to defeat Thanos stems from their role as sacrifices, rather than their role as intelligent and deadly fighters.  Further, despite the importance of many of the women in this film, the “big three” of Marvel – Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor – are most essential in defeating Thanos.  All three of these characters strongly demonstrate hegemonic masculinity, but since this installment functions to retire these characters, Marvel now has the opportunity to grow and more greatly deviate from mythical norms in the future.  

Meanwhile, The “A-Team” scene (pictured below) was meant to invoke the solidarity of the female Avengers. However, the scene received criticism due to its lack of substance. While it may feel empowering on the surface, failures of past films to emphasize these characters made it somewhat awkward to see the women, specifically, team up in this fashion, as most of them have had little to no interaction previously. Pepper Potts showed up in the Iron Man suit with no establishment of her character’s decision to do so, and this is especially confusing because she has been opposed to the suit itself in previous films. The shot was almost forced in an attempt to appease popular feminism, since its context does not make sense either. The characters are meant to rally behind Captain Marvel, but she is the most powerful superhero in the universe and did not exactly need their help to accomplish her goal. If the film had a greater emphasis on her importance to the cinematic universe, or at least allowed more interaction and friendship between the female characters, the scene may have been better received. Instead, Marvel’s need to further develop and lay strong foundations for their female characters is emphasized.

Image: Nuruberry Media

Ultimately, Phases I and II of the MCU did a poor job of adequately and effectively representing women, but throughout Phase III and the upcoming Phase IV, Marvel has taken enormous strides towards change.  They have introduced more strong female characters, increased screen time dedicated to developing these characters, showcased a rejection of emphasized femininity, and included movies with a solo female lead for the first time.  However, despite these positive steps, Marvel still has enormous room to grow and improve, and audiences are eager to see how the MCU will continue to transform for the better.

References

Kelly, C. R. (2014). Feminine Purity and Masculine Revenge-Seeking In Taken (2008).  Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 403-408. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2012.740062 

Gerard, M., & Poepsel, M. (2018). Black Widow: Female Representation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Polymath: An Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences Journal, 8(2), 27-53. https://ojcs.siue.edu/ojs/index.php/polymath/article/view/3314 

Lorde, A. (1980). Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference. 

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