Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Quickpost: Why can’t women be superheroes?

Despite all the feelings I have about Wikileaks invading the privacy of Sony employees, ThinkProgress has uncovered an interesting discussion about why Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel, isn’t keen on funding a female superhero movie.  Ike notes three superhero movies with female leads — ElektraCatwoman, and Supergirl — for the purpose of demonstrating what a disastrous enterprise green lighting a female superhero movie would be.

As ThinkProgress notes, the logic is childish.  It’s easy enough to think of three male superhero films that were flops.  But TP‘s reasoning doesn’t hold up that well either: why is it so difficult to think of a female superhero movie that was great?

Hunger Games isn’t a superhero film but, even if it were, it has become less about the female lead and more about the cabal of people who use her as a marketing tool.  Her lack of agency in the last few films has been one of the major criticisms.

Divergent might be more of a superhero film (she is born with the ability to do clerical, agricultural, military, and legal work) but, again, her lack of agency was a problem with the film.

And Twilight is about a supergross relationship.

Where is the superhero movie about a woman who is just a superhero and doesn’t get pregnant, or have to find a man to love her, or who just punches the shit out of things until the credits roll?

Science fiction and fantasy are, in many ways, the most ultra-conservative of the fictional genres.  There’s a good reason for it: when you’re trying to introduce some quirk to your universe, you have to keep everything else as close to contemporary status quo as possible.  In the Harry Potter universe, boys are jocks, girls worry about being pretty at the ball, nerds get swirlies, politicians are somehow in control, and plus there’s magic.  In the Lord of the Rings universe, boys and token women are adventurers, women are wives, mothers, and daughters, kings and politicians are somehow in control, and plus there’s magic.  In the Star Wars universe, boys are adventurers, women need to be saved, politicians are somehow in control, and plus there’s aliens and spaceshit.

In science fiction and fantasy films, you’ll sometimes have the supercool female character, but the message is invariably: ‘This is only possible because we are in a fantasy world where animals can talk as well.  If the animals couldn’t talk, the women would be wives, daughters, and mothers.’

Despite the best efforts of a lot of people, stories about female superheroes are still stuck in the past.  She-Hulk is a successful female lawyer who’s also a Hulk and went on adventures with the Fantastic Four.  She looks like this:


If she wore green clothes, you’d swear she was naked.

She-Hulk is one of many She-versions of superheroes: the version that’s sort of like the ‘real’ hero, but they have ‘female’ plots like getting married, having babies, being raped, and sometimes all three at once.

Things aren’t much better for female villains.  Harley Quinn is a Batman character who was abused by the Joker and has always engaged with ideas about domestic violence.  This is what she looks like these days:


There’s nothing new in this critique.  Women in comics are subject to the male gaze that the creators think is desired by the target audience (heterosexual white men).  But it’s surprising that ThinkProgress didn’t link this problem to why female superhero movies flop: what stories are possible when the market keeps demanding soft core porn?  One recurring criticism of the Catwoman film was that Halle Berry didn’t look sexy enough.  When a Wonder Woman movie was on the cards, one of the criticisms that sunk the film was that the actress looked fat and stupid.

Would a thoughtful, sensible female superhero movie work?  Is it telling that we would be happy to watch nearly any old schlock with a male superhero, but demand something ‘better’ for a female superhero?  If you’re a studio executive, isn’t it just easier to avoid the whole question altogether?

Stories for women suck because we suck as a society.  We don’t have successful female superhero stories because movie executives don’t want to wade into complexity when they can print money with BatmanIron Man, and [Cough]man films.

One response to “Quickpost: Why can’t women be superheroes?”

  1. I was thinking about the exact same thing on Saturday. For once I agree with what you’ve written 100%. I see it slightly differently, in that heroism is most often associated with physical strength rather than being able to cook good and iron shirts.

    The reason I was thinking about it was that we don’t even have a “female” version of the word…I mean who says superheroine? And why does our F version of the word also have to be the same as a drug? I am not a fan of gendered versions of words, but, when someone says hero, people think man.

    Female characters are invariably expected to follow typical feminine pursuits (like we are in real life). Falling in love with some burly asshole, getting married, and then raising a mess of husky children seems to be the desired outcome. Anyone who deviates from these desires must be some sort of deranged anarchist or lesbian…and they’re not seen as desirable.

    The heavily sexualised nature of these films is something they don’t want to address. That women are so helpless and bend to the will of anyone who rescues them…the fantasy of the male viewers of these movies.

    I am sick of the cardboard heroes…I am equally sick of the dark and twisted heroes.

    It made me also think of Buffy. Joss Whedon (I think) is well intentioned, but there was always an inability to create storylines for Buffy that were following “normal” female pursuits. The only way she could have a BF was if he was equally powerful etc (Angel)…anyone less than that would seem like the “bitch” of the relationship and that wouldn’t work for the audience.

    No one wants strong women (physically or emotionally). They want to sleep with sexy women who are in danger, maybe a little feisty at first, and then turn into a typical little wifey.

    Oh, and then there’s the fact that the only female “superheroes” have use sex as a weapon or their defence. That’s an even scarier view of society. That we have to be so afraid that, if stuck, we have to get our way out of situations with sex.

    And people wonder why women feel unsafe in society? Assholes.

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