When it comes to female superheroes, it’s quality, not quantity

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.

14 thoughts on “When it comes to female superheroes, it’s quality, not quantity

  1. Stephany

    Whatever. By the end of the year this movie will be left for dead at the side of the road by The Dark Knight Rises. The same way the Dark Knight destroyed Iron Man.

    1. dan

      This is probably true. Though as much as I bow before the alter of Nolan, his films are usually wanting for interesting/strong female characters.

  2. Mia

    I don’t hold out much hope for Black Widow. She was competent and kicked ass in Iron Man 2…and she was dull as hell. No personality, no motivation, no doubts, no faults, etc. Whedon will give her some moments no doubt, but…meh, there is no investment in her. At least she and Hawkeye are in the same boat! Yah for equality in “B” list superheroes!

    Marvel super hero movies are cotton candy. They will be fun, cute, and the stakes will be medium. That’s fine, I enjoy them for what they are. Nolan’s Dark Knight saga is the banquet though so let’s revisit this topic at the end of July. If Nolan can pull off Talia and Catwoman in a quality way, that could be stunning.

    1. Well, it’s not really Avengers vs. Batman, because one can take a lighter tone and still be effective with characterization. Batman will be interesting, though, because this is the first time Nolan is introducing female characters equitable to Batman. And Nolan’s biggest flaw as a filmmaker is handling female characters. He is kind of crap at it. I don’t think he’ll objectify them, so much as I worry about possible miscasting, crap dialogue, and weak characterization–all problems he’s had in the past. But he took extra time with TDKR and he’s aware that people are onto this as a weakness, so I’m hoping he put a little extra into it and we get something beyond amazing come July. The trailers have been promising on that score.

      But, again, it’s not a mutually exclusive concept. They can both contribute.

      1. Mia

        I absolutely see your point. I guess my trouble is Marvel has kind of set the bar low for me in terms of characters I am invested in. They are an amusement park ride, so quality is relative. I would like to see a female super hero have an impact. We’ve yet to have the female version of a Reeve-Superman or a Keaton or Bale-Batman. Where is the superhero “Katniss”? From what I have seen she won’t come from Marvel. I guess if I am honest with myself she probably won’t come from Hollywood! I saw enough of that Wonder Woman pilot episode *shudder* that I should know better than to have hope!

      2. Angela Harrington

        I did not care for the first Batman film at all. It was telegraphed and poorly acted (Bale, Holmes, etc.)

        The second is notable for Ledger’s performance, but the last 10 minutes were terrible.

        I admire Nolan as a film maker (Inception), but would like it if he made the women more than window dressing (Mal, Ariadne or whatever her name was).

  3. I’ve recently become obsessed (OBSESSED!) with the last two seasons of Doctor Who, and I’d like to take a moment to point to Dr. River Song as one fantastic, kick-ass lady superhero. She’s educated, sassy, sexual, and more than the Doctor’s equal. It feels so great to identify with someone who is more than just “the girlfriend.” (Props to Amy Pond for the occasional ass-kicking and name-taking, too.)

  4. Mitochon

    I completely agree Sarah, I never understood why female superheroes had to wear boiler suits and look like the back of a bus to be considered ‘feminist’ – the males never fall prey to that distinction.
    I for one enjoyed Widow in Iron Man 2 and have faith in Wheedon that she will be more than the token ‘chick’.
    As for the point you raised with Widows ‘sexy yet functional’ costume – this is my biggest problem with Nolan’s Catwoman. She. Looks. Awful. Where is the real world sensibility he brought to Batman? The functional armour etc… She is wearing stilleto heels and a halloween mask – there is no way she could realistically fight in that fetish get-up.

    1. Well, in defense of Nolan and Catwoman, she’s not meant to be fighting in it, she’s meant to be thieving. Also, superhero stuff tends to look rigoddamndiculous out of context (have you ever seen RDJ in the Iron Man suit behind the scenes? It’s awful). I’m hoping Catwoman is less “Party City” in the movie–it’s mainly the mask that throws me–but I don’t fault the suit for not being bulky. Batman is wearing armor, but she’s essentially wearing a shadow.

  5. I am actually really excited to see The Avengers. I’m sure Whedon is much more capable of handling strong female characters than many of the other directors of the previous super hero movies that were all meant to culminate into The Avengers. Good God, the unnecessary romance in Thor was reprehensible. Why couldn’t Natalie Portman just be a smart and pretty scientist without falling in love with zero build-up?

    I completely agree that in creating a kick-ass feminist super hero she need not be wearing a shapeless, skin-covering costume. That wouldn’t be functional (could you imagine the wind resistance in trying to run in a potato sack?). It’s not necessary to de-sexualize a woman in order for her to be powerful. She can be sexy and powerful; however, her power shouldn’t stem from her sexiness, but her own inherent strength.

    Have you seen the Femenist Frequency youtube videos? I think you’d quite enjoy them as they tackle a lot of pop culture’s tenedencies to render women as demeaning tropes.

  6. M.

    There’s a difference between a female comic book character being physically strong and being a strong character. Often times we think that seeing female characters who can pull a few punches is empowering, but it’s not really; and it’s not liberation eithern not if the character is poorly created or weak in character. The portrayals just become a patronizing pat on the head for the purpose of dimly satisfying women to keep them from realizing that the female character in question isn’t really that inspiring or well-drawn. I read a great article on this here:


    And female comics characters are oversexualized. Also, if framed in an exploitatvie way, a strong female character can be visually undermined.

    “You could have a character reciting feminist theory, but if you’ve shot them so they’re leaning over to give a cleavage shot and come-hither eyes up at the reader, it overrules anything else you could be trying to do.” –Kieron Gillen, Uncanny X-Men

    This article (in which comic book writers give their take) illuminates the subject of the visual objectification of female comic book characters better than I ever could: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/10/13/female-characters-superhero-comics/

    Particularly revealing is the part about Ms. Marvel towards the middle. Also, here’s another article that completely destroys the myth that it has always been like this and shoots down excuses:

    TL;DR I know, but if you want to be informed, these’ll clue you in. It’ll just take 15mins of your life to read. Boo hoo.

  7. I stumbled on a video today of a little preschool girl in a toy store bemoaning the lack of superhero dolls for girls, the apparent rejection of the concept that a girl might want a superhero doll and the contrasting over abundance of pink toys and princesses for girls.

    See the video: http://www.wimp.com/girlknows/

    It got me to thinking, and searching the web to learn what female superheroes existed. The first hits I viewed were the typical oversexed male discussion with artwork of female heroes with tiny waists, large to very large bulging breasts and, in some cases, thong-adorned bare butts. Honestly, that stereotype sickens me. I’d rather a girl didn’t have female superhero dolls if they were to just perpetuate the stereotype and poison her little mind with the idea of that as the role model.

    A little incensed I kept looking, thinking surely those hits weren’t necessarily the end of the story. I landed here and I have to admit I’m still a little angry, but your blog post made me feel somewhat better.

    I find nothing wrong with the traditional female role of loving wife, mother and community volunteer. It’s a good and decent role for a woman. I also find nothing wrong with a woman claiming a place in other spheres and being strong, independent, confident, intelligent and formidable in a non-sexist way in her own right in any arena she chooses for her life’s contribution. Wearisome indeed is the demoralizing and disrespectful default bent of the human male to a primarily sexual view of women.

    Wouldn’t it be great if women started and operated a toy company that offered girls who want them toys, games, story books, literature and entertainment that offer healthy, upbuilding role models from the many spheres women have made and are making a mark? Not overtly liberal or conservative, not sexualized, not wrapped in any cultural cloak — just great role models they can dream to emulate. If we leave it up to men or those with profit-hungry motives, we’ll surely regret it and wish for the days when princesses and pink dolls were the main fare for girls. I almost hesitate to campaign for it, but I’m tired of stereotypes and of the sexualization and pigeonholing of females in the many ways it goes on.

    I usually don’t have any desire to see a movie like the Avengers, but I might see this one.

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