With Captain Marvel having just released, it’s a good time to take a look at how female action heroes have been portrayed heretofore, and more specifically, how they have been limited and undermined in the world’s most popular genre today: the action and superhero film. This is the first part of a small series of articles for Pisswife that will analyse the limitations placed on female heroes beginning with the most commonly known methods: objectification and the ‘damsel in distress.’ Check for updates later to read about tropes such as ‘tragic origins’, ‘the lone Smurfette’ and others!
The last couple of years have finally seen change come to Hollywood on the back of #MeToo, and we are seeing this in the form of upcoming titles like Birds of Prey (2020) (written and directed by women and starring a mostly female cast), Black Widow (2021) (also written and directed by women), and a sequel to 2017’s groundbreaking Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins. The future looks bright for female heroes, but complacency is not something that female representation in Hollywood can afford right now (or any form of representation, for that matter, especially for LGBTQ+ people). Studios such as Marvel and Warner Bros. may be leaning towards feminism (or commercialising it) by giving us exciting films to look forward to, but it is still important to know what the state of female representation is right now, and what it has been all these years.
Despite the heartening progress that female representation has made in the genre recently, it is equally disheartening to see how little some things have changed at a time when we all (read: studios) should know better. Much of this disheartening slowness in change comes from the fact that female heroes are always being undermined in one way or another: when they are not objectified they are subjected to abuse (eg Lisbeth Salander), when they are not abused they are ‘othered’ into non-human status (eg Wonder Woman), and even when they are none of those things they are undermined by having to carry the weight of being the sole representative of their sex (eg Princess Leia). Here, in a three-part read, are the six main ways in which female action heroes have been historically, and continue to be, undermined.
Arguably the most recognised method of limiting female characters across all media, objectification has been the primary method used to undermine female action heroes for decades. Objectification is when a woman is filmed exclusively through the male gaze, resulting in behaviour, movement and wardrobe that is strategically designed for maximum sexual appeal so that, in essence, her character value becomes defined by this sexual appeal. Scholar Jeffrey A. Brown attempts to explain this phenomenon by saying that “in their sexualised hyperfeminine depiction, [female superheroes] not only compensate for assuming traditionally masculine roles but also combine the symbolic “manliness” of toughness with the most basic symbols of “womanliness.”” In other words, women became hypersexualised to firmly remind audiences of the strict boundaries between genders, thus continuing to weaken female heroes by portraying their hypersexualised femininity as an inherent subjection to males and masculine traits. Carolyn Cocca further explains this by pointing out that with the empowerment of female superheroes during the Third Wave of Feminism, reactionary gender politics could not conceive of blurred gender boundaries and insisted on boxing certain traits as either feminine or masculine, as opposed to simply human. Thus, we have female heroes who are tough and intelligent (traditionally male traits), but whose femininity is hypersexualised to avoid threatening the fragile masculinity of male heroes (or more specifically, male audiences).
In many cases, this conservative binary view of gender has been used to subjugate strong and independent female action heroes that were not otherwise objectified. For example, in the original Star Wars trilogy, Princess Leia, one of the most groundbreaking female characters in Western cinematic history, is a no-nonsense character who is an active participant in the film’s action. She is competent and smart, and the audience is made to know it by the way she takes charge of her own rescue. She is also not dressed provocatively, and while her music theme and the soft fabrics of her clothes do draw attention to her femininity, her character is otherwise little gendered. That is, until we see her in Return of the Jedi, when she has been captured by Jabba the Hutt and transformed into “Slave Leia.” Perhaps it was too much to ask that a woman be written as a capable character and leave it at that, especially at the time of the film’s release, but it seems it’s impossible for Hollywood to give female heroes so-called “masculine” traits (such as general competence, apparently) without caving in to the urge to objectify her in order to remind us that she is a woman! With a sexy feminine body! Just in case anyone forgot that she is not, in fact, the hero of this story (because heroes don’t get sexually humiliated). The argument could be made that Leia is the hero of her own story because she fights back against those who objectified her, even killing Jabba with her own chains in hard-to-miss symbolism, but that would be an acceptable argument only if the objectification and sexual subjugation of women were not a decades-old pattern (or an argument male writers tend to make to justify putting women in those situations).
The same can be said for many, if not most of the female action heroes that followed, right up to the release of Justice League (2017), which undid all of the work Wonder Woman (2017) put in to highlighting the character traits that give Diana value, as opposed to her physical traits, by filming her exclusively through the male gaze. Wonder Woman’s costume does not change, yet somehow director Joss Whedon managed to disrespect the integrity her character represents by constantly drawing attention to her body through low-angle shots that focused on her butt and making her wear revealing clothing that highlighted her breasts. Everything Diana wears in Justice League is low-cut and skin-tight, whereas Patty Jenkins dressed her in a way that highlights her character traits such as elegance, confidence, grace and power without hypersexualising her body. This is evidenced by the fact that none of her outfits (aside from her armour) are at all revealing in Wonder Woman, whereas all of her Justice League ones are. Even the Amazons went from wearing full-body armour to “bikini armour” in Justice League. This was taken further by classic Whedon “bro-humour” that ultimately served no other purpose (because it was not even funny) than to remind both characters and audiences that Diana is a sexy lady surrounded by men (and therefore exists to be ogled). Marvel did no better by Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Iron Man 2, The Avengers (2012) or Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Coincidentally, Joss Whedon wrote/directed both of the Avengers films as well as Justice League, in which his objectification of female characters has been so scorned that many DC fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when he stepped down from helming Batgirl.
- The Damsel In Distress
The Damsel in Distress, otherwise known as the traditional role of a woman in the action/adventure flick. Princess Leia was revolutionary, you see, because she was a damsel in distress who saved herself. Most other ladies of her time were not so lucky, but we still thought this was a trope that had finally been buried years ago. Not so. One could say that instead of dying out, the ‘Damsel in Distress’ evolved into a more subtle form of characterisation. It’s important to emphasise that the new trope relies heavily on the failure of writers to ‘show, don’t tell’; nowadays, instead of having women waiting to be rescued by men, such as Indiana Jones’ companions, we have women who we are told are smart and strong by the narrative, but still fail to show it. The new Damsel in Distress is a woman who is said to be powerful, maybe even the most powerful character in the story, but is still ultimately either saved by men or becomes victim to them. Often, her own power is also the source of her ‘distress,’ as if powerful women were unstable women by default (otherwise known as women who need to be controlled by men).
For example, Star Wars may have taken a step back on multiple levels with its prequel trilogy, but in this case our issue lies with the characterisation of Padme Amidala. Where Leia was given both smarts and agency, Padme was reduced to a mere figurehead, a one-dimensional love-interest. We are told she is powerful, talented and vastly intelligent but ultimately her character is passive in terms of the plot. In Revenge of the Sith (2005), she becomes the classic damsel in distress when her own husband is trying to kill her, but is then saved by another man (Obi-Wan Kenobi). While we could have had thrilling scenes showing off Padme’s political prowess and her keen insights into the situation with Palpatine, which would have added great depth to the trilogy’s plot, all we got were scenes of her standing around looking pretty and waiting for Anakin to come home. The origins of Darth Vader were always meant to be a tragedy, but ultimately, Padme’s wasted potential as a character is infinitely more tragic than Anakin Skywalker’s temper tantrums ever were, as is the ridiculous “fridging”of her character. Interestingly, Padme fulfills this new Damsel in Distress trope by both falling victim to and being saved by a man, as well as giving us the perfect example of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope.
The X-Men films took the trope a step further with the character of Jean Grey, aka Dark Phoenix (which is also an upcoming film). Ostensibly the most powerful character in the X-Men universe, in X2: X-Men United (2003), both of Jean Grey’s love interests comment about how worried they are over her growing power before she sacrifices herself to save them (and further develop their arcs). The third film, The Last Stand (2006), takes away any form of heroism Jean’s sacrifice may have had by informing us that Professor X, a man, has been telepathically controlling and manipulating her since her childhood in order to save her from the “beast,” which is what he calls her alternate, more powerful personality (which is predictably also the more sexually liberated one). At the end of the film, Jean Grey, having grown more powerful and violent than ever, having given in to this “beast,” ultimately begs Wolverine to kill her so that her pain may end. Essentially, Jean Grey is so powerful that she needed a man to control her since she was a child. And when that did not work, she needed a man to save her by killing her, because women, even phenomenally powerful women, are still damsels in distress. They are still the victims, even of their own power.
In all fairness, there is a lot more to the story and aspects of Jean’s powers, but the problem comes into play when this limiting of female superheroes’ power, their ability to handle it, and their victimisation becomes a pattern in film culture. One would think that this is a dated kind of story arc, that female heroes are no longer victimised and undermined this way, but has anyone seen Raven in 2018’s Titans? Or Mako Mori in Pacific Rim (2013), a woman who is professedly the most eligible candidate to pilot the Jaeger, yet is somehow still unable to handle it without a man holding her hand (or a man’s permission)? Or Scarlet Witch, whose inability to control her powers formed the basis of the conflict in Captain America: Civil War (2016), even though Thor seemed to have no problem coping with his newfound lightning powers the second he got them in Thor: Ragnarok (2017)? Or even Gamorra, who is murdered in Avengers: Infinity War (2018) at the hands of the ‘man’ who abused her and her sister their whole lives, but whose sacrifice serves as character development only for that particular man? And more recently, Vanya from The Umbrella Academy (2019), who, much like Jean Grey, appears to be so powerful that she is unable to handle it and succumbs to her ‘lower nature’ (read: confident and liberated), while her sister Allison literally has her power stripped from her and is left to be rescued by the male heroes?
Wonder Woman has been the first glimmer of hope we’ve had to defeat this trope. Diana is a powerful woman who is in control of herself and victim to no-one, and her solo film was the first time we were given a story where this power did not need to be justified by previous trauma, corrupted or taken from her. While Captain Marvel did not follow precisely on those footsteps, fortunately the film did manage to avoid the character’s worrying history with rape and abuse and made a determined, if obvious, attempt at portraying female empowerment.
The discussion of toxic tropes continues with Part Two, which will cover the issues with the ‘tragic origins’ and ‘demonisation’ tropes.
Text: Sofia Jordan
Image: Tessel ten Zweege