Girl Power? A Look at Summer Blockbusters & Lady Superheroes

A SYTYCB entry

The summer blockbuster season is almost over, a time where (mostly white male) directors make epic films for teenage boys.  From this target audience emerges the consistent over-sexualization of women. But has this summer been different? With female superheroes in films like the Avengers and the Dark Knight Rises, are things changing? Can ladies have power too?

The Avengers’ director Joss Whedon is the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, both awesome female driven shows; he is also famous for the quote “Why do I write strong female characters? Because you’re still asking me that question.” So when I went to see the Avengers, I expected a pretty feminist film. While the gender dynamics were an improvement from other blockbusters (read: Transformers), I found the portrayal of Black Widow sexist in a dangerously subtle way; it was the sort of sexism that people tend to mask as “female empowerment” to avoid any challenging discussion.

My problem with the beautiful, white female superheroes of 2012 is that sexuality becomes their main source of power and a tool of manipulation. We meet Black Widow as she is tied down in a chair being slapped in the face by a man. The threat of rape is very present. Then, a twist! It becomes clear that she is interrogating him and has complete control of the situation. She is choosing to portray herself as weak to maintain power. She is using her sexuality to achieve a goal by accepting submissiveness and inviting sexual violence. Black Widow then attacks the men in the room and escapes with grace, convincing us for a moment that what we just saw was okay.

Despite whatever strength and resilience we see in Black Widow, she has no superpower. She embodies stereotypical female traits like manipulation and obedience. Hidden in the portrayal of a strong female character we find an emblem of traditional sexism. In fact, I worry that the mask is too well crafted. A 16-year-old version of myself watching Megan Fox bend over the trunk of a car would probably say, “That’s weird, I never stand behind cars like that!” But seeing the Avengers, my younger self might think, “What a cool woman, tricking those men and then beating them up.” That portrayal of sexuality misconstrues the very difficult issues of power and gender that most young people (and certainly a younger version of myself) struggle to understand. It ignores the reality of rape as a very real threat, as well as the questions of why she needs to find power in sexuality and why she chooses to – or feels like she must- present herself as submissive, obedient and distant.

Catwoman is also constructed as an emotionally cold and sexually manipulative woman. Honestly, I liked Catwoman a lot. I thought she was the best part of the Dark Knight Rises; she was funny and smart and strong. She fought hard. But unlike Batman, with a clear sense of integrity and morality, Catwoman is willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to achieve her goals. She is a “damaged woman,” unable to believe in herself anything. She needs Batman to lead her on the right path, encourage her and tame her.

Does all of this gender analysis matter? If everybody in the nation sees a woman fighting on-screen, should we care about subtle gender implications? I think we need to. Equating sexuality with power can be problematic. It suggests that a woman’s only source of power is her ability to attract men. It ignores the reality of rape. Additionally, the lack of empathy in both Catwoman and Black Widow implies that women with power are unloving and unlovable. The only other powerful lady in the Dark Knight Rises (Marion Cotillard’s character) also uses her sexuality to get close to Batman, only to hurt him. When these are the only representations of women in a film, we begin internalizing females as manipulative, cruel or untrustworthy. Women as dependent on men and emotionally weak is reinforced as a norm.

I know many conclude that these are summer blockbusters, and thus sexism is inevitable. At least there are fully clothed female characters defending themselves, they might argue. But why should we settle for that? These characters are a good start, but let’s demand better. We need female characters with power and independence that is unique from their sexuality. We need strong women who love. Let’s challenge films that mask female stereotypes behind physical agility or a modest outfit. All I want is a cool, powerful superhero, who also happens to be a lady. Could somebody write that for me?


Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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