This is going to get very nerdy.
The L stop near my home in Chicago is plastered with Avengers posters in advance of the movie hitting theaters on May 4. As I was studying the display, I thought about how much Scarlett Johansson stands out, and no, not just because her little gun looks ridiculous next to Thor’s hammer and Iron Man and The Hulk. No, I was thinking about how, as the only woman featured in the marketing campaign, Johansson solely represents what women will be in Joss Whedon’s version of the Avengers universe (good thing Whedon has a history of creating intricate, strong female characters). What I get from Black Widow, the superhero Johansson plays, in the ads is “sexy but functional”. Her leather body suit, though tight and unzipped, doesn’t actually show any cleavage. It’s no more exploitative than Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye costume or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor getup, which leaves their awesome guns bare.
The other woman featured in The Avengers, though not in the advertising, is SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders, How I Met Your Mother)—you can see a clip of her here. And that’s pretty much it. Two women. I’m sure that Gwyneth Paltrow will make an appearance as Pepper Potts at some point, but she’s not featured throughout the film like Black Widow and Agent Hill. Then I started wondering if that was an issue, that there are only two women in The Avengers. Comic books are and always have been ripe with interesting, strong female characters. Having only two in the movie seems like tokenism—here you go boys, here are some hot chicks to look at. But then I thought about the five X-Men movies and realized that though they feature a plethora of female superheroes, most of them are useless. Storm is so awesome in the comics that I always wanted to be her when we played X-Men as kids, but in the movies she’s best known for Halle Berry’s series of increasingly awful wigs. The best we got from X-Men was Jean Grey and Mystique and that’s, well, two.
So it’s quality, then, not quantity when it comes to female superheroes in movies. I’ll take two great heroines over nine useless bimbos any day of the week. But why is it so important that we have “good” female superheroes? Well, empowerment, sure. Twenty years ago when I was a kid (OMG I’M OLD), no one ever challenged my right to run alongside the boys in the neighborhood, pretending to shoot lightning bolts out of my hands. But looking at it now, I think who we’re really empowering with female superheroes are little boys. They grow up reading comics featuring an array of strong, ass-kicking women who may be scantily clad, but they’re also shooting death lasers out of their eyes and sometimes they even save—or defeat—the heroes. Boys grow up accepting that women can be beautiful and badass, and that they are equal partners in whatever death-defying heroics you’re reading about that week.
And as for the “scantily clad” bit, yes, female superheroes are inherently sexual. For the most part, they’re drawn by men for the male gaze. But in the realm of the comic book, it doesn’t feel like objectification. If in The Avengers movie we’re treated to the sight of Johansson’s jiggling breasts, it comes simultaneously as she beats the shit out of a couple dudes (while she’s tied to a chair). It says, “Yes, boys, my boobs are bouncy, but I can choke you out so watch yourself.” It’s the unification of female power and female sexuality and it presents it in a way that does not scare boys, but subconsciously programs them to find strength and independence sexy and desirable. I might be reaching, but when I think of the comic geeks I know and the kind of women they’re attracted to, I think there’s something to it. They grew up reading about these incredibly self-determined women and now as adults, they’re to a one attracted to free-thinking, independent women. It’s not universal I’m sure—nothing ever is—but it can’t hurt that boys are exposed to a system in which female power and sexuality are treated as inherently the same.
The man directing The Avengers, Joss Whedon, is a comic geek from way back and he’s built his career on strong female characters like Buffy. Even though I’m not a huge Johansson fan, I’m interested to see how Whedon makes use of her in The Avengers, especially since she was little more than an eye-candy afterthought in Iron Man 2. It’s only 66 seconds, but the clip of Black Widow linked above made me happy. There’s some wry humor, sure, but the key to me is the reason she’s on the phone. Hawkeye (Renner) is in trouble and the Black Widow needs to go save him. This is exactly what I’m talking about. There’s Johansson with her boobs out, but she’s also being set up as the savior of an equally powerful male counterpart. It’s a very fine line to walk between celebration and exploitation but I feel like Whedon is managing it. And that’s why I’ll take The Avengers and its two female superheroes over anything starring a bunch of pointless dolls. At her best, the female superhero shows us that a woman can be beautiful, sexy, and desirable while simultaneously being independent, strong, and capable.