Women in Super-Hero Movies:

We Still Have a Long Way to Go

I was watching Tomb Raider last night, and while I love Angelina Jolie and the movie, there is one scene that makes me absolutely crazy at the beginning: Angelina Jolie’s character, Lara Croft takes a shower, and then walks naked past her butler.

There is absolutely no reason why this scene is in the movie other than to objectify Angelina Jolie and emphasize her character’s role as a sex object. It got me thinking, especially with the online conversations, this past week about the misogyny of the UCSB shooter, and with #YesAllWomen trending on Twitter (which, by the way, has now been changed to #EachEveryWoman to protect the tag’s creator because she’s receiving death threats). This last week also saw some heated discussions over Kitty Pryde being replaced as the main character in the X-Men: Days of Future Past storyline.

I’ve never agreed with the argument that were someone to listen to Marilyn Manson, doing so would force him / her to go out and hurt people. However, I think we can all agree that multimedia is a reflection of our society, and that while it may be a “chicken-egg” discussion, there are some disturbing things that continue to be reflected in our popular culture and media. What do our films teach? See the below classifications:

Good Bad Indifferent
Blade Trinity (2004)
Hellboy (2004)
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Thor (2010)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Avengers (2012)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man of Steel (2012)
X-Men (2000)
X2: X-Men United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Catwoman (2004)
Fantastic Four (2005)
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
Watchmen (2009)
Daredevil (2002)
Blade II (2002)
Spider-Man (2002)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Hulk (2003)
Elektra (2004)
The Punisher (2004)
Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Superman Returns (2006)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 3 (2012)
Green Lantern (2011)
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
The Wolverine (2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

I defined “good” films as depicting female characters that were complete women, fully fleshed out, functioning on their own. “Indifferent” typifies women as either not included in the storyline at all, or pushed to the background.

Women in the “bad” category build on the issues presented in the indifferent category. There are gradations on the bad spectrum. At one end of the spectrum the female characters are often set dressing, there to prop up the male characters and plot. Jean in the X-Men franchise falls into this category because she quickly becomes the pawn between Logan and Scott, and any value she may have for herself becomes irrelevant. Storm likewise has her power severely diminished in the movies, and Rogue’s greatest concerns quickly become whether or not she’ll have a boyfriend. Here, women are characterized as always defining themselves by their relationships with men to their detriment.

Then there are the really bad examples. Let’s start with Halle Berry’s Catwoman, which most people will agree is just a bad movie. But that’s not why it’s on this list. Below are the top images in Google Search for “Halle Berry, Catwoman.” Notice anything?

There’s an emphasis on her cleavage, and the clothing she is wearing is skintight emphasizing her near nude form. But it’s not the costume that I think has the most telling lesson. Let’s compare two stills of the character, Patience Phillips, from before and after she embraces her power.



Before she has long hair, little makeup, and non-revealing clothes. After she has short hair, obviously styled, evident makeup, and a revealing top. The lesson learned: women can only become powerful once they conform to patriarchal norms of beauty. Until then, you won’t get a date, be recognized at work, or taken seriously, as evidenced by Patience Phillips.

Think of that lesson for young girls or women watching this movie: “success,” as defined, implies you wear makeup, style your hair and display your body. If, for some reason, you are uncomfortable doing any of those things, or prefer t-shirts or jeans as your wardrobe, or happen to think that there are better uses for your time than spending half an hour primping, then you are out of luck.

Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that Sue Storm, from Fantastic Four, is called Invisible Girl in the movies (they even make a joke of it) instead of Invisible Woman. In the movie, the only way to forward the plot in this scene on the Brooklyn Bridge is for Jessica Alba to be shown both naked and in lingerie.

And because this is the only way to illustrate Invisible Woman’s powers, they did it again in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

Despite the fact that Sue Storm is an accomplished scientist in her own right, on par with Reed Richards, the only way the production team could illustrate that her power was invisibility was to show her naked, ergo lesson learned:  it does not matter how smart you are, how accomplished, you will always be defined by your body.

I will admit that I am not a fan of the majority of Alan Moore’s work, particularly Watchmen and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the reason being strictly because of his portrayal of women. In the scene below, Sally Jupiter / Silk Spectre is changing clothes when Edward Blake / Comedian comes in and attempts to rape her, beating her in the process. When Sally asks him what he’s doing there (he knew she was changing), his response follows:

Comedian: Come on baby, you  know what you need. (Pause) You gotta have some kind of reason for dressing in an outfit like this.”

In case you missed it: the dialogue clearly states that whatever happens to her is her fault because of the way she is dressed. And later, after she has said “No” to his advances, he replies, “No, spelled Y-E-S.” Comedian is unsuccessful in his rape, but only because a male hero, Hooded Justice, intervenes. The scene communicates that, even if you’re a strong female hero you have no hope defending yourself against being raped and beaten. In fact, it can only be prevented, if you are lucky enough, by a man. The lesson is also that you’re asking for it, and your consent is not necessary and means nothing.

So what characterizes a “good” female portrayal? Surprisingly, it’s because they’re real, fully developed characters, and stand on their own. These depictions are powerful, and intelligent, none of which being dependent on male characters.

In Blade: Trinity, Jessica Biel plays Whistler’s daughter, the head of the anti-vampire resistance. She’s responsible for not only fighting alongside the foot soldiers, she is also discovered to be the supplier of all of Blade’s cool toy. She is strong, capable, and intelligent. And look at how she’s portrayed:

She’s so strong she can fight against superhuman vampires, and win. And she manages to do it without being objectified. She’s practically dressed (no highheels, no low cut top) in rugged clothing made for physical activity. Likewise, her motivation is fully fleshed out and she stands on her own. The film communicates that you can dress sensibly, act as a leader, and walk your own path.

Our next good portrayal is Liz Sherman from Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. She dresses like a real girl! Fully clothed, fit for whatever situation she’s in, whether it’s properly dressed for the cold, or ready for battle.

She also speaks her own mind, choosing initially not to be with Hellboy because it’s not in her own best interests. Unlike the other protagonists, she is the only one who can stand up to him as well. There is an inexplicable scene at the end of Hellboy, where she is naked as Rasputin’s sacrifice; despite this, however, she is always covered up, and her bare shoulders are pretty much the only skin shown. While her being naked does not seem necessary for the plot, her sacrifice is.

The lesson here? You can be strong, be in control of your own power, face off against strong men, and be a fighter.

Betty Ross in The Incredible Hulk is smart, manages to stay clothed through the whole movie, and when our title hero is incapacitated, she is the one that manages. She is shown as Bruce Banner’s equal in scientific knowledge, and she doesn’t allow herself to be kowtowed by her father the general. Great lessons all the way around.

It certainly seems as though scientific knowledge is one step towards being a “good” female character, as Jane Foster in Thor, and to a lesser extent in Thor: The Dark World shows. In the comics she’s a nurse. In these movies she’s a physicist who discovers an Einstein-Rosen bridge. She dresses as one does when working in the desert and her intellect is at the center of her characterization in the first movie. The second movie falls a little short, as the opening premise is that she has been pining for Thor (and not really working) for two years, but in the end she is once again the scientific mind at the heart of saving the world. The lesson? Take those science courses and save the planet.

Agent Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Marvel One-Shot “Agent Carter,” and the upcoming series Agent Carter is of particular note because of the time period she is set in, not particularly conducive to strong, female leads. She’s a leader in the super-soldier program, a great shot, not afraid to go into the field, and as we see in the One-Shot, more than capable of kicking ass and taking names. She’s also a founding member of S.H.I.E.L.D. The lesson here is clear — you are more than capable of not just participating, but thriving in a man’s world.

Black Widow makes the list for both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers, although more so for The Winter Soldier. In Avengers I’d put her mostly in the indifferent category, mainly because she’s human in a superhuman world, and both her and Hawkeye get a little buried in the plot. But in The Winter Soldier, she’s on equal footing with Cap, and is instrumental to making sure the good guys win in the end. She also has more depth in The Winter Soldier as we learn more about her through her interactions with Cap. She’s strong, smart, and a fighter. Again, great lessons all.

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is not a good person, she’s a thief. Still, she operates as her own person, focused on her own survival, and, in the end, she chooses the right guy. She is instrumental in freeing Gotham, taking possession of Batman’s bike, an operative symbol of the franchise. She stands on equal footing with both Batman and Bruce Wayne. The lesson here: be you own person, make your own path, and you too can snag a millionaire vigilante. (Okay, so that last one doesn’t really work).

By far the best characterization out of all of these movies is Lois Lane in Man of Steel. Amy Adams’s portrayal of Lois Lane resuscitates the character from the anti-feminist doldrums Lois has become enmeshed in. By determining within weeks / months (not years, not decades) exactly who Superman is is how she accomplishes this. My biggest beef with the character was always that she was supposed to be an award-winning journalist and yet she was too stupid to realize that Superman was just Clark Kent with no glasses? This revision not only shows her as intelligent and gutsy, but she’s tough (whether it’s chasing a story and facing off against the government, or standing up to figures of authority like Perry White and Zod). She’s the one Jor-El chooses to save Superman. She dresses sensibly and professionally. She has integrity. And, in the end, she’s the one who works equally with Superman to save the world. She’s also the one to comfort him. She’s a fully realized character. Her lesson? Go to school, work hard, chase your dreams, never give up, and save the planet.

Superhero movies are inherently flawed, so far as women are concerned. The women typically are secondary characters, only serving to support the stories of male, lead characters. There are plenty of great female characters that studios could build movies around, but they just aren’t doing it. That’s a different problem however.

Female characters in superhero narratives can be great role models for young girls and women. After all, these are human women who not only face off against superhuman men, but hold their own. That’s a great lesson to instill for a film. When these movies not only fail to present these women as complete characters, but actually reinforce negative stereotypes about women, that’s a serious problem. It’s even more of a problem when criticisms of these portrayals are dismissed. When female fans and scholars are attacked for pointing out where these portrayals fall short, it’s further evidence of how ingrained misogyny is in our culture. One of the great things about comics has always been that they can present better worlds. I hold out hope that they are capable of reflecting the world as it should be rather than reflecting the reality where we fall short.

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Dr. Karra Shimabukuro was always interested in where our idea of the presentation of the devil, death, fairies, angels, etc., seen in movies, television, and comics came from. So she went and got a doctorate to find out! Her interests include the medieval and early modern history of these figures, and how they are forwarded into popular culture. She regularly writes reviews for The Journal of Popular Culture and The Journal of Folklore Research Review, and she is also a regular presenter at the Popular Culture National Conference. She is a self-professed geek girl and can be found at scholarlymedievalmadness.blogspot.com.

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1 Comment

  1. ...J-R Cannarella says:

    This is an excellent excellent article. Thank you for sharing!

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