My text application refuses to recognise the word ‘Superheroine’ – such is the impermeability of the gender status quo in the comic universe. In three months, the world has witnessed two epic battles between former superhero friends – Batman vs Superman in DC Comics’ Dawn of Justice and Captain America vs Iron Man in Marvel’s Civil War. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman in the former and Black Widow in the latter remain blips in the backdrop. But with a solo Wonder Woman release in the near future and chatter about a possible Black Widow film, are the superhero films ready to shed their bias? Perhaps not.
With the gross commercialisation of the superhero genre, the world of comic books stopped being a geek haven a long time ago. After a massive creative lull with some horrible Superman, Batman and Fantastic Four movies, the introduction of Christopher Nolan to the Batman universe and the revival of Marvel’s ambitions have resulted in brilliantly crafted superhero adventures. But the resurgence of the genre has done little for the powerful superheroine. She remains a temptress with limited visibility and poor storylines.
When the comic book genre peaked in the early 1940s, women remained relegated to specified character outlines. They were supporting characters in male-led superhero books. The first heroine to break the module somewhat was Fantomah, created by Fletcher Hanks – a forever-young ancient Egyptian princess who could turn into a skull-faced creature to fight evil and protect the jungle.
Then came Sheena, the first female character to have a comic book named after her. Never mind that Sheena’s personality was accentuated by overt sexiness.
But it was Wonder Woman’s appearance in 1941 that gave the comic world its first mainstream superheroine.
Sure, Wonder Woman was known for her beauty and her bust. But during WWII, the Wonder Woman comics managed to reverse the gender roles somewhat. The plot: the Amazonian princess Diana falls in love with an injured officer from the United States Army, Colonel Trevor. She fights the Nazis in Trevor’s place as part of the American army.
Wonder Woman was a superheroine with powers rivalling Superman’s God-like strength, and Trevor was the male Lois Lane. Despite that, she remained at heart a nurturing woman. The message was loud and clear. Women could be vigilantes but they had to fit their feminine stereotypes first. William Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, defended this anomaly by saying that, “give [men] an alluring woman stronger than themselves to submit to, and they’ll be proud to become her willing slaves”.
Over the years, several powerful women have been part of the superhero canon, but each has had her femininity intact. If Supergirl had strengths like her cousin Superman, she was still a teenager. Black Widow finally found a cinematic representation, but her character was not only slut-shamed by the male actors of the movie, but she also spent the majority of her part in Age of Ultron dealing with her sterilisation and her inability to be a mother. In addition to the unnecessary feminine baggage, there was the absence of Black Widow from Age of Ultron merchandising, a fact called out by cast member Mark Ruffalo who plays Hulk.
And then, there are the posters.
As pointed out by graphic designer Jermaine Dickerson on Twitter, some of the DVD and Blu-ray covers of Age of Ultron featured neither of the two female superheroes in the movie, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, choosing instead to concentrate on the four male heroes and Ultron. Mic.com pointed out last year that the posters of movies featuring female heroes have them turned towards the camera in sexy, inviting poses as opposed to the men who seem ready to take on some action. Rewind to the poster of Captain America The Winter Soldier, featuring the men Chris Evans and Samuel Jackson in believable postures, while Scarlett Johansson’s Black Witch has her hair flying and her curves doubly emphasised.
And we haven’t even come to the absence of women of colour in superhero movies. The two instantly recognisable such superheroines are Storm from the X-Men movies and Catwoman, both played by the biracial actress Halle Berry. Frank Miller, the comic book writer credited with having revitalised the Batman stories with the darkness we associate with the hero today (and a lot of sexism too, if we’re being honest), wrote Catwoman as an African-American prostitute-turned vigilante. While the prostitute arc stuck, the colour of her skin was done away with.
Apologists will argue that Wonder Woman, an Amazonian princess, is not technically a white superheroine. Yet, a character that fits male fantasies – voluptuous, long and black hair, and jutting curves – is hardly a breakthrough. While the new Aquaman movies took a leap by casting the brown-skinned Jason Momoa as the blonde underwater superhero, his heroine, Mera, will be played by the blond and white actress Amber Heard.
With the critical appreciation for television shows about superheroines, such as Agent Carter, Supergirl and Jessica Jones, and with the new Wonder Woman movie in production, it appears as though filmmakers and comic book creators are finally willing to do away with their prejudice. Jessica Jones, especially, featuring a complex, irreverent and emotionally detached central heroine created by Melissa Rosenberg, took brave strides by trashing common superheroine tropes. But the changes are still being seen mostly on television.
The reluctance among Hollywood studios to greenlight projects led by women has been extended to the female vigilante universe. During the Sony email leaks, Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter cited the failure of comic book movies featuring the characters of Elektra, Catwoman and Supergirl as a good reason to avoid superheroine productions all together. But these were poorly written and directed movies. The success of Jessica Jones and Agent Carter, and the positive reception to Wonder Woman’s scenes in Dawn of Justice and Black Widow in the Captain America films, are proof that well-written female superheroines will be accepted just as gladly. It isn’t up to an audience to determine how the creators can repair the skewed gender status. But for the vast hordes of female fans, it’s time the studios pushed women to the forefront of the action, rather than relegate them to the sidelines.