By Serena Zhang
There’s something irresistible about superhero movies — they’re fun, jam-packed with action and all-around pretty light-hearted. They’re box-office hits, having perfected the recipe to keeping audiences engaged time and time again, even when it’s a story they know they’ve heard before.
There is, however, one big, ugly blemish on that otherwise spotless veneer: how superhero movies (and Hollywood in general) portray women.
Take Jane Foster, for instance. A brilliant astrophysicist and Thor’s love interest in the first two “Thor” films, she had the potential to become a prominent force in the franchise. Alas, her character often wavers between damsel in distress (see: suddenly turning into a lovesick teen when reuniting with Thor) and Manic Pixie Dream Girl (see also: her teaching rugged man-dude Thor to appreciate humanity).
And here we have our first trope! “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a supporting character used to further the storyline of the male hero,” Feminist Frequency explains. “She really has no life of her own, she has no family or interests or much of job that we ever see.”
MPDG’s only purpose is to help the depressed male character “find himself,” and she does so by being too quirky to function, usually equipped with pink hair or a song that will most definitely change your life. On a deeper level, “[the] Manic Pixie perpetuates the myth of women as caregivers at our very core, that we can go ‘fix’ these lonely sad men, so that they can go ‘fix the world.’”
Okay, so the writers messed up a little on Jane Foster. They can just do better next time, right?
Nope, because Jane isn’t in the new “Thor” movie, and probably won’t be in any future ones. The reason? She and Thor “broke up.” Man, if only male characters were that expendable! Can you imagine Iron Man just being like, “Yeah, sorry Thor, this bromance isn’t working out, we’re gonna have to kick you off the team. Guess it’s back to Asgard for you, buddy. Sad face.”
It’s not like this happens a lot. I mean, it’d just be plain lazy to use the excuse of a romantic spat in order to dispose of poorly-written female characters. Hold on a sec, I just got a phone call. Hello? Pepper Potts? You’re saying that you suddenly disappeared after the third “Iron Man” movie due to vague “relationship issues”? And that Christine Palmer also dropped off the face of the earth after separating from Doctor Strange? Listen, that’s all very interesting, but I gotta go.
Sheesh, women right? Always so chatty. Blah blah blah. Let’s get back to talking about the real star of the show, Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth, whose biceps could one day eclipse the sun, says of Thor’s new bachelor-dom, “He’s off exploring the universe, still trying to police it and control the mayhem. But he’s certainly enjoying being a drifter, being a solo cowboy out there.”
Well yee-haw to that, Chris.
His statement reminds me of an anecdote in Carolyn See’s “Making a Literary Life.” See was at a publishing house witnessing a bunch of writers (mostly male) pitching their novel ideas, and noticed that in every single one, the male protagonist is able to pursue his dream and reach self-actualization only after his wife/girlfriend/sister/mother dies.
This idea that women are the obstacles to men achieving freedom and success is ridiculously prevalent in our social narrative. I cannot emphasize how distressingly harmful it is to diminish a woman’s entire purpose to stepping aside and letting the man tell the story.
Which leads us to yet another movie trope. Please give a warm welcome to … Women in Refrigerators!
This trope originated in the Green Lantern comics, in which the superhero finds his girlfriend dead and stuffed into a fridge. Comic book fan Gail Simone began noticing a disturbing trend of “superheroines who have been either depowered, raped or cut up and stuck in the refrigerator.” She later made a list of over 90 female superheroes who had “suffered a loss of superpowers, brutal violation or an untimely, gruesome death, most often as a plot point for the male hero to seek revenge or further his heroic journey.”
When you contrast this with how male comic book heroes tend to die, things get even more problematic. Comic fan John Bartol explains, “In cases where males heroes have been altered or appear to die, they usually come back even better than before, either power-wise or in terms of character development/relevancy to the reader.”
Furthermore, female characters even seem to die differently. Not only are their deaths often highly sexualized but, as Simone says, “[Male heroes] tended to die heroically, to go down fighting. Whereas in many cases, the superLADIES were simply found on the kitchen table already carved up.”
But the most widespread trope by far is the Smurfette Principle, in which an entirely male cast has exactly one female character. You have the superhero version, which includes Black Widow (pre-“Age of Ultron”), Gamora (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Wonder Woman (“Justice League”), but you also have Princess Leia and Miss Piggy and Eleven from “Stranger Things.”
You’ll notice that Smurfette is not named after a personality trait, like Brainy, Grouchy or Jokey, but is instead defined solely by her gender.
Katha Pollitt, who coined the trope in a 1991 New York Times article, writes, “The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”
More often than not, female roles in movies operate as token minorities, excuses for male directors and writers to pat themselves on the back for being “inclusive.”
In fact, I have a bone to pick with the way Black Widow is treated in the “Avengers” films. As Jen Yamato from The Daily Beast points out, Marvel has continuously used Black Widow to balance out and tease her male co-stars, a task only she, with her sultry, feminine charms can do.
The issue came to a head when Jeremy Renner, the actor who plays Hawkeye, called Black Widow “a slut” while appearing on a television show. He attempted to brush off his remark as a joke after the public backlash, but the message was clear. Black Widow, despite being one of the world’s greatest spies, still cannot transcend her gender. She is still singled out as an Other, simply by being a Her.
We need to stop treating women in films like they are the exception, and not the rule.
We need to humanize them, give them names, stories and legacies — character arcs that are complicated and profound and lasting. We need to create a space for them that is their own, in which they exist solely for themselves and not as a hinge for a man to pivot from, in which they are allowed to be ambitious, vulnerable, mischievous, alive.
Most importantly, we must give them other women. Equally vibrant female counterparts to look up to, to talk to and to butt heads with. We must remove the stigma around femininity.
At an Equality Now! Conference in 2006, Joss Whedon, writer and director of the first two “Avengers” films (although in 2006 he had not yet set foot in the Marvel universe), addresses a crowd of people with this speech, detailing his response to questions on why he writes “strong woman characters.” He finishes by saying, “Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity.”
In her Smurfette essay, Pollitt recalls a line from “The Little Mermaid” when she watched it with her then-3-year-old daughter: “‘On land it’s much preferred for ladies not to say a word,’ sings the cynical sea witch, ‘and she who holds her tongue will get her man.’”
Adds Pollitt, “Since she’s the villain, we’re not meant to notice that events prove her correct.”
Contact Serena Zhang at xiaosez ‘at’ stanford.edu.