The announcement of Sony’s recent Spiderman deal with Marvel came with several side effects, one of which is pretty substantial in terms of female representation in superhero films. Audiences now have to wait until 2nd November 2018 for a Marvel film which focuses on a female character, namely Captain Marvel. DC comic’s franchise is only a little better, with Wonder Woman being scheduled for 23rd June 2017. Since X-Men in 2000, twenty films have been made with a single male protagonist, eight films have featured female superheroes as part of a mixed gender team, and two have concentrated on a female protagonist, namely Halle Berry’s Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s spin off, Elektra. Marvel’s massive cinematic universe has yet to focus on a single female superhero, despite the presence of Scarlett Johansen’s impressively engaging Black Widow.
The problems with female representation in superhero films moves beyond just the lack of female driven films. There are substantial problems with the presence of women in superhero films in general. The Bechdel test, while not the be all and end all of female representation in film, is a useful marker for thinking about female representation, particularly in relation to the presence of women in superhero movies. The Bechdel test requires three seemingly simple things: 1) That there must be two named female characters, 2) That they must talk to one another, and crucially 3) they have to talk to one another about something other than a man. Of all of the superhero movies that have been made in the post 9/11 superhero boom, nineteen fail to pass the Bechdel test, whilst twelve do pass the test. Passing Bechdel doesn’t automatically mean that a superhero film has better female representation however.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the superhero films made in recent years which has really made its mark. It features three kick ass women who take the lead and are well written, and serves to demonstrate that just because a film doesn’t pass Bechdel, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t represent women well. However, even this film that features Black Widow, Maria Hill and Sharon Carter in roles which are substantial and interesting, there are problems, specifically in the character poster for Black Widow. The male posters for the film are full of aggressive stances, showing them actively involved in some sort of action. Black Widow’s poster however, presents something completely different. Placing it next to the character poster for Avengers Assemble demonstrates the overt sexualisation of the character, for the male gaze. Her chest is thrust forward, over exaggerating her waist and while she is holding weapons, the stance is curiously passive. This presentation of her character does not come close to representing the power that the character brings, and her importance to the film. She is not a piece of eye candy in the film, and it is frustrating to see the promotional images for the film demonstrate that.
No production company has a good track record. Sony has yet to make a single superhero movie with a female lead, Warner Brothers and DC have made two out of their eight films feature female superheroes. Fox’s X-Men Franchise is the most diverse with female superheroes featured, but rarely are they presented without some kind of romantic relationship. Marvel studios has only featured Black Widow, Maria Hill, Lady Sif and Gamora in their eleven films – and a film rarely features more than one female hero. What makes Marvel’s track record so frustrating is two fold. With Joss Whedon as the lead writer on the Marvel Avenger’s team ups, he has a lot of influence, and it seems that he is not using it. The man who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, River, Zoe and Inara in Serenity has certainly helped shape Black Widow into a nuanced and interesting female character in her on screen performance. This doesn’t come close to balancing the scales in terms of female/male representation, however. The second thing which is frustrating in relation to Marvel is the diversity of interesting characters they have in their comic book roster. The argument that these characters are not well known just doesn’t stand up. Before Robert Downey Jr’s turn as Iron Man in 2008, only the hardcore comic book fans could tell you about Iron Man. Now the character is a household name. With the substantial power that the studio now wields, the fact that they won’t back more than one female driven film is appalling.