The Representation of Female Superheroes in Film
In recent years there has been a surge in popularity for superheroes with Marvel and DC leading the way. These films are all based on comic books and adapted to the screen for our pleasure. For years women have been portrayed in a certain way across film. They become the love interest or in superhero films, they are always the one in need of saving. When you look across all superhero films, the hero is mainly male. Women make up half of the world’s population and yet “they are greatly underrepresented in positions of power as well as underrepresented and stereotyped across fiction, particularly in books, television and film” (Cocca, 2016, p.4). This essay aims to explore how female superheroes are represented in film.
There are a range of superheroes to talk about and “although superheroes today are more ethnically and racially diverse than in the past, gender remains the third rail of superhero narratives” (Stabile, 2009, p.87). We do see more male superheroes than female. Marvel and DC are both known for leading the way in superhero films. Yet only a small proportion of these films contain female superheroes. Many scholars and fans have questioned why there is this imbalance when “the central premise of superhero lore is that someone out there needs to be protected” (Stabile, 2009, p.87). It has been installed into us, due to past traditions that this protector will be a man. While the person who is in need of protection is female.
Superheroes are “a character in a cartoon or film who has special powers and fights against evil” (COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary). The have the role of protecting people, places and generally the world from evil. For a long time, a superhero was seen as male because men were “understood to be protectors in US culture” (Stabile, 2009, p.87). This keeps with traditions that men were portrayed as strong and the protector, while women were seen as weak. This can still be seen in films today, where the woman is “the love interest of the hero and function as a spectacle, typically playing victims being rescued by the hero” (Behm-Morawitz and Pennell, 2015, p.212).
For a long time, Superhero’s were male, but now we are seeing more female superheroes emerge such as Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Captain Marvel and X-Men’s Storm and Mystique. All these characters “represent a departure from the traditional role of the damsel in distress” (Behm-Morawitz and Pennell, 2015, p.212). Instead, they get to be the ones saving the day, and showing that women can be strong and confident. Although it has taken a while for them to be represented in the right way so it is appealing for a male and female audience. Most of these characters were created by men and have been “sexualized through their appearance” ((Behm-Morawitz and Pennell, 2015, p.215). Actors that have been chosen and the costumes they are made to wear highlight their body. They all have thin or athletic bodies and wear tight/revealing costumes. The choice of costumes then makes the character come across in a certain way on screen. By having a tight and/or revealing costume this attracts the male gaze and makes the character come across as sexy. When the focus should be on what the character is doing and not what they are wearing.
More female superheroes are being introduced yet they all look quite similar. We watch “mostly white, able-bodied, and heterosexual” female superheroes who “are conventionally attractive, strong, and capable” (Cocca, 2016, p.215). The female superheroes we have aren’t very diverse. As diversity is gaining more notice, in the years to come we should expect to see more black and disabled female superheroes on screen. Male superheroes have the same issue, there are generally more white superheroes in film than those from other backgrounds. However, it is more common to see a male superhero than a female one.
Wonder Women is known as the first female superhero. Yet when she was first introduced, she didn’t have it easy. Created by William Moulton Marston, she is seen as “representing female power, and by implication, female equality with males” (Cocca, 2016, p.25). She was an Amazon princess who challenged the notions of what a woman could and couldn’t do. In the past couple of years, Wonder Woman finally got her own films in 2017 and 2020. There weren’t many female heroes led films when they were realised. Hence there were high expectation for it to do well compared to male hero films. These films met good and bad reviews but it paved the way for more female hero led films to come.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are dominating the superhero films recently. They too have been trying to find the balance in representing female superheroes in their own films. The two most notable cases are Black Widow and Captain Marvel. It could have been very easy to make the female heroes, eye candy for all the male superheroes they deal with but instead they are seen as equals. Captain America in The Avengers (2012), treats Black Widow like everyone else, he doesn’t treat “her as if she were a sex object or a potential sex partner” (Ginn, 2017, p.5). This example shows how Marvel are trying to push away from the stereotypes that we have seen before. Captain Marvel, Black Widow and even Wanda have costumes that cover all of their body. However, they are still skin tight. Marvel are trying to find the balance of representing these characters in the right light but they still want to make them attractive to the audience watching. Scarlett Johansson has even mentioned in interviews how she finds it strange that she always gets questions about her costume. Compared to her male co-stars who don’t get the same treatment.
We are entering a new phase where female superheroes are getting more notice and fans want to see more of them. Female led superhero films are breaking box office records, as fans want to see these kinds of films. Superhero audience ratio has changed in recent years, with a more even ratio between men and women. There is talk of more female superheroes being introduced, which could result in more female led superhero films such as She-hulk and a female Thor. It appears that new female superheroes might be the way forward, especially as more woman are getting involved behind the scenes in comics and film. Yet we are still seeing the same type of female superheroes, it may be time for some more diverse female heroes to be chosen.
Women have always been represented a certain way in film especially in “US blockbuster superhero films, they often hold on to traditional gender stereotypes in their presentation of women and men” (Behm-Morawitz and Pennell, 2015, p.213). We are getting more female superheroes not just Wonder Woman, but more recently Black Widow who isn’t just around for the men. A lot of work has been done to “make the female superhero more multi-faceted as opposed to cardboard cut-out characters that simply exist to be drooled over” (Ndalianis, 2020, p.318). We are slowly seeing more female superheroes who can take charge and aren’t around just for eye candy. Their costumes leave little to imagination. There are slow changes happening and female superheroes are starting to represented better in film. Although it has to be said there needs to be more diversity with the actors that are chosen to become these great characters.
Behm-Morawitz, E. and Pennell, H. (2015) ‘The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women’, in Sex Roles. 72(5-6). pp.211-220. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-015-0455-3.
Cocca, C. (2016) Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.
COBUILD Advanced English Dictionary. (No Date) Superhero. Available at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/superhero. (Accessed: 6th October 2021).
Ginn, S. (ed.) (2017) Marvel’s Black Widow from Spy to Superhero: Essays on an Avenger with a Very Specific Skill Set. North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc Publishers.
Ndalianis, A. (2020) ‘Female fans, female creators, and female superheroes: The Semiotics of changing gender dynamics’, in The Routledge Companion to Gender and Sexuality in Comic Book Studies. Aldama, F. (ed). London: Routledge. pp. 310-328.
Stabile, C. (2009) ‘Sweetheart, This Ain’t Gender Studies: Sexism and Superheroes’, in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies. 6(1). pp.86-92. DOI: 10.1080/14791420802663686.
The Avengers. (2012) Directed by Joss Whedon. Produced by Kevin Feige.