With this year’s summer superhero blockbusters already out (such as Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame), 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 second part of a small series of articles for Pisswife that will analyse the limitations placed on female heroes. Read about tropes such as ‘tragic origins’, ‘the lone Smurfette’ and others! If you haven’t read the first part yet, click here.
- The Tragic Backstory
The Tragic Backstory trope. Or in other words, the staple origin of the superhero: Batman’s parents were murdered in an alley, Superman’s planet was destroyed, Black Panther’s father was killed and so was Spiderman’s uncle. The difference between male and female superheroes’ tragic origins often lies in whom the violence was committed against, as well as the form of violence perpetrated. In other words, looking at the origins of most superheroes on film the majority of male heroes appear to have experienced trauma by witnessing violence against their loved ones as the heroes listed above did, with Netflix’s The Punisher (2017) being the most solid example of this trope; Frank Castle turns into the mass-murdering vigilante The Punisher to avenge the death of his wife and children before eventually becoming an anti-hero of sorts. Meanwhile, female heroes’ origins are usually centered around violence they have suffered themselves. For example, fellow Netflix-Marvel show Jessica Jones (2015) portrays Jessica’s origins as the result of horrifying experiments conducted on her as a child and without her consent (while superhero boyfriend Luke Cage chooses to be experimented on in his show). Then, Jessica’s turn into vigilantism is fuelled by her rage against the man who systematically controlled, manipulated, abused and raped her (while Daredevil’s is fuelled by his rage at his father’s death). Similarly elsewhere in the MCU, Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk through an experiment he conducted on himself, while Black Widow is apparently driven by her fear of being a monster because when she was a young trainee-assassin, she was forcibly sterilised. In Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Peter Quill’s sense of heroism is defined by the moment in which he watched his mother die, while Gamorra’s, like Black Widow’s, comes from self-demonisation over the abuse she endured at the hands of Thanos as a child.
There is a worrying pattern in superhero stories of gendered violence. Too often, we have failed to recognise that when a woman is the hero of the story, she can be a hero or vigilante or someone who performs acts of violence, such as engaging in combat or taking political power, without having been the victim of abuse or physical violation. It seems as if the only explanation that we can think of in our story narratives for women becoming powerful is that the pain of being violated or assaulted is the only possible motive that could lead a woman to violence or power. Batman witnessed violence as a child, but he was not the victim of it himself, and neither were most male heroes. Women, on the other hand, seem to be determined entirely as heroes or anti-heroes by what happens to their bodies.
So yes, there is some gendering of violence here because even when the tragic origins in question are accidents, the accident is too often followed by some form of physical violation that happens without the woman’s consent. Daredevil went blind due to an accident, but no one ever did anything to him. Jessica almost died in an accident, but was then experimented on without her knowledge (and later raped and psychologically abused). Bruce Banner was turned into the Hulk, but he did it to himself while “experimenting with gamma radiation.” Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, Doctor Strange was in a car accident and The Flash was struck by lightning, yet everything that happened afterwards were decisions those characters made for themselves, decisions that female characters are too often denied by the narrative. For example, Alita: Battle Angel, one of 2019’s female superhero offerings, treads dangerously far into this pattern wherein her origins and the source of her power are the direct result of a violation of her bodily autonomy; in this case, Alita’s strength and power come from the cyborg body that a man built for her without her awareness (she is unconscious and amnesiac at the beginning of the film), while her motivation as a hero later on comes from her romance with (yup, you guessed it!) a generic white heterosexual male. Alita has no memories from before she woke up in her new cyborg body and is in fact discovered in a junkyard by her adoptive father. So in other words, Alita as a character does not really seem to exist outside of male acknowledgment, male interference and male perspective.
It comes as no surprise to anyone that Game of Thrones would take this to a whole other level, but the fetishisation of female suffering in the show is still somewhat shocking when put into context. What is particularly striking about women’s suffering in GoT is that it is usually and explicitly sexual in nature. Comic films tend to steer clear of such topics due to the age of their target audience, so the removal of the option to consent from their female heroes becomes enough of a metaphor for female victimhood to subliminally communicate in and of itself. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, makes no such pretences. George R R Martin is famously a fan of English history and is known to have drawn his inspiration from the Hundred Years’ War. But in telling us this, Martin is communicating that his is a work to be taken seriously because of its “realism,” and “social commentary,” and that therefore the things his female characters have to go through may be heartbreaking, but they are ‘realistic’ (as in, “that’s just how it was in medieval times; raping and pillaging”). This gives the viewer license not only to enjoy the violence of the show but to actively justify it in the name of accuracy and social commentary.
Whether or not Game of Thrones is realistic is a different debate, however. (Though how does one even begin to define ‘realism’ in the fantasy genre, anyway? It’s just not a thing. Fantasy is exactly that: the author’s fantasies). The problem is that Martin has persuaded himself (and so many of his followers) that because he calls himself a feminist, his writing must therefore also respect women. This is not to say that it doesn’t, or that Martin isn’t a feminist. He may very well be, as it’s true that Game of Thrones is one of the few stories to have developed truly layered, complex and three-dimensional female characters in the history of media. But it is also true that it has subjected most of its female characters to a staggering degree of sexual violence. And to what purpose? It is understandable that the show and the books are known for not shying away from gratuitous violence, but how many of those rapes can be truly justified? How many of them were actually necessary for the plot? For example, in what way does Khal Drogo’s rape of Daenerys on their wedding night further the narrative? What nuance did Sansa’s rape give any of the characters involved? That Ramsay was a sadistic bastard? We knew that already.
Martin’s “feminism” in this regard, and the Game of Thrones showrunners’, comes from the well-intentioned, though misguided belief that by putting them through all this horror they are, in fact, strengthening these women. At the end of season 6, after all, Daenerys is “burning Dothraki rapists to the ground, Sansa [is] feeding her rapist to the dogs, and Cersei [is] flambé-ing everyone who stripped her down and humiliated her.” And at the end of season 7, Sansa and Arya have executed Little Finger, Cersei has tightened her hold over the Iron Throne and Daenerys has won multiple battles and saved the lives of Jon Snow’s team. (Although let’s not get into season 8, however…)
The question is: speaking within the narrative, did this strength they are exhibiting come from their experience being raped? Because that is what the narrative would have us believe, it being the only possible in-narrative justification for having the rapes happen in the first place. Because if they did not happen simply to contribute to the graphic violence, and if they did not happen to further develop the male characters, then they must have happened to further develop the female characters, right? The last point is the only one the showrunners would admit to, but then they would still be missing the point, which is that showing graphic scenes of rape is not only insensitive and usually unnecessary, but is also simply evidence of toxic fantasies and male projection. If a (male) writer who considers himself respectful towards women believes that writing an explicit rape scene is justified, it is probably because he truly believes that female characters have to endure some such experience in order to obtain strength. Before she was raped, Sansa was widely considered to be the most “annoying and useless” character (because she did not display masculine traits such as being badass) and now, “post-rape,” she is said to have “matured” and “grown into a competent leader.” What does this say about how the writers view her? Is it really so hard to believe that she could have matured, or grown into her natural place as a leader, without having been raped? Or that Daenerys could have accomplished everything she did without being raped? Or Cersei? If the answer is no, then we would have to admit that the only reason they happened is for entertainment value. But since the answer is most likely yes, then we will have to admit that our storytelling views the rape and suffering of women as their only path to strength and power, and thus not only undermines the female hero but also trivialises rape and abuse by turning them into plot devices instead of approaching them with the nuance and careful consideration that they deserve.
To no-one’s surprise, Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air in this regard: Diana has a happy childhood and grows into a strong warrior and compassionate person, into someone that she and all the women around her are proud of. She has known no trauma and no abuse. Her body is her own, and every single character (and even the camera in her solo film) respects this. In fact, her body, though clearly beautiful, is conspicuously absent from the narrative because of two things: she is not objectified by the camera or the characters around her, and she is not objectified by some rape or abuse plot. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman has no tragic origin story, and coincidentally also has no physical violation perpetrated upon her either by other characters or by the plot itself, as do Captain Marvel, Black Widow, Gamorra, Harley Quinn, Jessica Jones, and the ladies of Game of Thrones (as well as so many others).
And yet, as if Wonder Woman hadn’t proven that non-traumatic origins are possible for female heroes, Mr Joss Whedon went on to provoke Batgirl fans by musing on the kind of “damage” his cinematic Batgirl would have to go through in order to don her cowl (before being promptly removed from the project to fans’ collective relief). Because of course, just as George R R Martin and his showrunners, as well as so many authors and screenwriters before, Whedon (also a self-professed feminist) is under the delusion that female power and female strength can only come from a place of suffering and abuse. Not like Batman’s or The Punisher’s trauma, which was the witnessing of violence against their loved ones, but from being the victims of physical trauma and violation themselves. Is it not time for our storytelling to portray powerful and badass women who have not been violated in some form? The success of Wonder Woman suggests it is.
As mentioned in the Damsel In Distress section, oftentimes when a woman is characterised as powerful or ‘badass,’ the narrative feels compelled to undermine her by making her a victim of her own power, yet villainising her at the same time. So far, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are just about the only female heroes in film who have had no difficulty managing their immense power. Yet, Jean Grey, Scarlet Witch, Vanya Hargreeves and even Cara Delevingne’s Enchantress are all fantastically powerful characters, all of whom play the villain in their stories. In other words, it seems that when a female character is granted power, she is also demonised by the narrative; she is either literally the villain, or she “feels like a monster” and demonises herself.
In those cases in which she is turned into the villain, she becomes a femme fatale who usually wears tight or revealing clothing and who slips sexual innuendo into every interaction she has with the male hero (or performs a most peculiar and seemingly pointless gyrating dance, in the case of Delevigne’s Enchantress in Suicide Squad (2016)). Characters such as Catwoman may immediately come to mind, or Black Widow. A lot of this is, of course, due to objectification, but there is more to the demonisation trope than the denial of powerful non-sexualised women; the objectification of tough women may be there to insist that they exist for male pleasure, but the demonisation of them implies at a not-so-deep level that women with power are bad girls. Bad girls who embrace their sexuality and take what they want, yes, who are desirable and powerful, but who are ultimately not the “good girl” that the hero must end up with. They may exist in the morally grey area (Catwoman, Black Widow), they may even be the victims of their more powerful evil alter ego (Enchantress, Jean Grey, Vanya), but at the end of the day they are evil temptresses who must be stopped. Catwoman has been given more dimension as a character more recently but the fact remains that there are few female Batman characters who are not either femme fatales (the villainesses), or good girls and abuse victims (the Batgirls). Netflix’s film Polar (2019) is a good illustration of this concept; all the women in the film fall into exactly two categories, the tough women (the sexy and objectified femme fatales) and the innocent girl (the weak and innocent rape survivor who must be rescued). What this shows is simple: that women with power and who are sexually liberated are bad, and women with no power at all are good. How is that for the demonisation of powerful women?
Now, in the cases in which the woman is not a villain but rather remains a hero, she often practices self-demonisation; as in, “I cannot have children, I a monster,” or “he did this to me, and turned me into a monster.” Sound familiar? Of course, morally conflicted superheroes are nothing new. In fact, it’s probably the most boring trope at this point, essentially becoming a rite of passage for the action hero. But the key difference between male and female heroes is the source of this internal conflict: where male heroes are generally burdened by guilt for their actions, or survivor’s guilt, women often demonise themselves over trauma they have suffered. And in many cases, this trauma is often gendered in that it revolves in some way around motherhood. Take Black Widow, who in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) was revealed to “feel like a monster” not because of the horrible things she has done in her past, but because she had been sterilised. She believes she is not worthy of calling herself a hero because someone else took away her ability to have children, rather than say, the murderous crimes she has committed. Ultimately, her death in Avengers: Endgame (2019) subtly reinforces this idea in that Natasha, the woman with no children, died in place of the man who has a family.
Similarly, in The Umbrella Academy (2019), Allison is weighed down by guilt over having used her powers of persuasion on her daughter. In fact, her husband divorces her over it, and she struggles with that guilt so much during the first season that we get the sense that she feels like she deserves it when her voice is taken from her and her powers along with it, as if her child were safe from her now. Gamorra, however, finds redemption in Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017) for having been raised as Thanos’ best assassin by being a mother figure to a young Groot. Alien’s Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, also finds some form of atonement for her masculine characterisation by protecting a child, as does The Terminator’s Sarah Connor. Meanwhile in Game of Thrones, Daenerys unknowingly sacrifices the life of her unborn son which eventually leads to her taking power, as do the deaths of Cersei’s children for Cersei. Yet, despite what it took them, the show continues to imply that both women are going mad with power, as if the trauma they experienced with the deaths of their children had tipped them over the edge.
This pattern seems to suggest that the narrative of these stories is equating power, a traditionally “masculine” trait, with non-femininity, and therefore the woman’s inability to be a mother. Many of these women regret how powerful they’ve become because they relate that power directly to their inability to bear or raise children, and consequently see themselves as monsters simply because they have power but no ability to be a mother.
The demonisation of powerful women is one of the most toxic tropes in media, yet unfortunately one of the most inconspicuous. It lies so well hidden in almost everything we read and watch, that we do not realise that when we demonise our female leaders in real life, we are replicating what we’ve learned to be the norm in our stories. If more female heroes were licensed to be unapologetically powerful, perhaps the world would have an easier time accepting women into positions of power. And perhaps women would no longer be forced to choose between having a career or being a mother, because power would no longer be a gendered trait. It’s time for our stories to make female power a strength, not a weakness, and to accept that power and motherhood/femininity are by no means mutually exclusive.
The discussion of toxic tropes continues with Part Three, which will cover the issues with the ‘The Smurfette’ and ‘Othering’ tropes.
Text: Sofia Jordan