Women in Marvel Films answers the question “why aren’t there more superheroines on our screens?” Especially when a comics giant like Marvel has successfully churned out so many films featuring male heroes. And when we do get women characters, what kind of role do they play? What agency do they have? Readers aren’t going to like all the answers this book offers, but there is an upward trajectory that promises hope for the future.
Women in Marvel Films
Edinburgh University Press
April 1, 2021
As a lifelong fan of the superhero genre, I was excited to read the academic approach that Women in Marvel Films takes, and I was looking for validation for a lot of the feelings I have about superhero films. This book offered that validation and then some.
It’s important to note that this book explores films based on Marvel Comics from the 1980s onwards, and not just the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, both The Punisher films, Elektra, the Blade trilogy, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, the Amazing Spider-Man duology, and the X-Men films are examined here, along with MCU properties up until 2018.
Author Miriam Kent posits that the postfeminist world — which Kent describes as one that “promotes a sentiment in which feminism is regarded as no longer needed because (all) women have achieved gender equality” — that these films purportedly exist within have done the women characters few favours. These worlds also tend to be post-racial and post-queer — ones where racism and queerphobias have been overcome. The reason why this kind of world doesn’t work is because the audience viewing them does not exist in that postfeminist world (yet). As a result, the narrative signifiers of these women — sexualised clothing, overt femininity — as well as other characters’ reactions to them, chafe against the ways in which they are characterised diegetically and non-diegetically.
The moment I read Kent’s takedown of the postfeminist lens in her introduction for Women in Marvel Films, a lightbulb went off for me. I finally had concrete proof as to why the women characters, even the ones I love, have never quite clicked for or felt aspirational to me. They exist in a world that is so far removed from my own (as well as that of most audiences), and that removal has little to do with their powers or skills. But the postfeminist cinematic universe that these films exist in is also problematic in another sense. As many viewers have noticed, the women are still essentially treated as second-class citizens. Amongst the Marvel properties, Elektra and Captain Marvel are the only films to have a woman in the lead, and both films attempted to pacify their superheroines, though for different reasons.
Other ways that these films frustrate, or eliminate, their women characters are elucidated in the chapters of Women in Marvel Films. Kent tackles the disturbing trope of women in refrigerators in the first chapter, before moving on to the superhero girlfriend, a character with more agency but who still exists as a damsel in distress and a potential woman in a refrigerator. These first two chapters succinctly described what I had been feeling for years: that women characters aren’t written for women and that is why it has been so difficult to connect with them. They exist purely to further the plot of the male protagonist, to their own detriment, and are so often in danger that few real-life women would want to be a superhero’s girlfriend. Kent then tackles what happens to women when they do get to be superheroes. Usually, they are objectified, sexualised, and sometimes their powers are attributed to a male mentor. To see my grievances with such “strong female characters” in Kent’s words was a relief.
It was the fourth chapter about postfeminist masquerades that really got me excited because it was yet another lightbulb moment for me. As Kent shows through her breakdown of Black Widow’s scenes in The Avengers and Carol Danvers’s transformation in Captain Marvel, the women in superhero films, particularly the ones who are superheroes, are masquerading as feminine beings while actually embodying masculine characteristics in female bodies. By virtue of being action heroes, these women aren’t allowed to be women. Their femininity is a masquerade that is put on either for subterfuge within the story or to remind audiences that these women are different from the audience watching them. In essence, these filmic texts tell us that “female superheroes” are a paradox.
But another way that these films deconstruct the woman superhero is by pairing them with someone, either a child or a parent, as is explored in chapter five, where Women in Marvel Films looks at intergenerationality and what happens when superheroes and superheroines team up with characters who are essentially their younger selves.
The next chapter of Women in Marvel Films looked at female villains and demonstrated how the few women antagonists in these films had roots in men’s fear of witches. From Dark Phoenix’s blackened eyes to Hela’s pallor, as well as the powers displayed by Typhoid (from Elektra) and Viper (from The Wolverine, a film I honestly forgot existed), the villainesses are portrayed as poisonous witches both in looks and abilities, particularly when facing down heroic men. Additionally, there have been discussions of how overpowered women are always shown as unable to control their abilities, while the same treatment is never meted out to male characters. As Kent explains, nobody has a problem with Cyclops’s inability to control his optic blasts, but Jean Grey rocks the school after a nightmare and she’s suddenly a bad guy. Turns out all this stems from men’s fear of witches. The more you know!
I found chapter seven a novel approach to the films. It looks at gendered bodies, particularly Mystique and Nebula. There has never been a diegetic reason for Mystique being nude in the films, and Women in Marvel Films confirmed my suspicion about why she appeared so: to ensure that male audiences knew that they were looking at a woman, even if Mystique was shape-shifting into the body of a man. Coupled with the film universe removing any mention of Mystique’s bisexuality, it was obvious that Mystique was designed for sex appeal (for male audiences). Nebula, on the other hand, bucks the trend, by eschewing most of these overtly alluring physical aspects. Nebula is also one of the few women characters who has had an actual arc in the films, so there’s definitely cause to be hopeful for the future.
The final three chapters of the book examined otherness in the Marvel films — queerness, race, and diversity — and how women function when they are othered for reasons above and beyond their gender. In a way, I wish Kent had moved these chapters to the beginning of Women in Marvel Films because they were closest to my heart, and I feel like there was more room to study these phenomena as they appear (or don’t appear) in the Marvel films. That the women characters in these works enjoy white privilege is a non-sequitur. How that sets them apart and how it further marginalises women of colour made for a painful, albeit brief, read.
It was interesting to see how the X-Men, in the comics and films, becoming emblematic of the queer struggle actually ended up erasing how the group initially stood against racial oppression. Also interesting, and frustrating, Kent explains, is how the X-Men used to stand against racial discrimination, but rarely included racialized characters. I’ve noticed that this is still a problem in the recent X-Men comics and films. In essence, even though the X-Men are coded as marginalised within the realm of the comic book and film worlds, in the real world, they don’t incorporate the very people they purport to represent. When discussing queerness and possible queer readings of characters, I feel like this book could have hinted at how fanfiction is filling in the gaps left in the films. I see how that would have been beyond the scope of the book but the fact that fans (particularly women) feel the need to step in because of the lack of queer representation could have been worth a mention.
With every advancing chapter, the lack of representation gets worse and worse the longer you look at the films. I’d always wondered how properties as large as Marvel could continue to have all-white casts, and Women in Marvel Films explains it brilliantly. There are very few characters of colour, let alone women of colour because the “colours” that have been included in these properties are on mutant or alien skin. But blue, pink, and green people aren’t representing the real lived experiences of people of colour. As Kent clarifies, the Marvel films have got away with being colour-blind by adopting these myriad colours for their characters, but this isn’t meaningful representation for actual people of colour. Even films like Thor: Ragnarok, that had the first director of colour at the helm, Taika Waititi, and Black Panther, with its largely Black cast, still relied on colonial ideas of monarchy as a resolution for the film. Diegetically, this works because the films’ text exists in a post-colonial world, but as we all know, that isn’t a representation of real-world politics. A monarchy, no matter how benevolent, still creates an imbalance of power and resources.
Throughout Women in Marvel Films, Kent takes time to explore the comic book origins of the characters she is discussing. While this is a necessary device to contextualise the rendering of women characters on screen, I did feel like too much time was spent on their histories. I did also wonder what a reading of this book would feel like for a fan who was only familiar with the films but wasn’t inclined to turn to the comics. This isn’t a huge minus in terms of my experience with the book, but it was a thought that gave me pause. There were certain points that could have done with more elaboration, though.
I would have liked more of an understanding of why there is such forced heterosexuality in Marvel films. Kent describes the dysfunctional ways that heterosexuality exists within these films, but what’s the point of it? These relationships don’t come across as aspirational to viewers, and they do little to advance the women’s stories, so where are these films going to go in the future in terms of heterosexual relationships, if those continue to remain the norm?
While I found myself agreeing with most of what Women in Marvel Films argues, there were readings of the films and characters that differed from mine. It made for an interesting experience, especially with regards to Captain Marvel, which I consumed in a completely different environment than audiences in the USA. The American military setting of the film felt more like an aesthetic to me watching it in Canada. But the film was marketed in conjunction with the US military so that was a different experience for the US audience. Despite the differences in readings, I appreciated Kent’s point of view on the film and how Carol Danvers was portrayed in it.
Women in Marvel Films expertly put in words the feelings that I, and many women and marginalised viewers, have had while watching superhero properties. Reading in one concise book how women characters have been relegated to little more than plot devices for the aggrandisement of male characters wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was a necessary one. There’s a lot of work to be done because films are still making the same mistakes they were making 30, 20, or 10 years ago. There are bright spots but there aren’t nearly enough of those. What we need is more women from marginalized communities to be given opportunities behind the scenes for there to be actual change. I would love to see that happen in my lifetime.