The past few years have provided us with a multitude of superhero films and television shows. While comic book lovers and pop culture enthusiasts unite and rejoice in song, these adaptations and their characters never escape the critical eye.
One criticism, in particular, is that female superheroes never seem to have enough screen time. People clamor for their beloved heroines to be given more action scenes, dialogue, and character development, and producers are only starting to heed their call, with rumors floating around that solo films could be in store for our favorite female superheroes in the near future.
Incidents such as companies leaving out key female characters in sets of merchandise show how deep down, Hollywood has yet to adapt to the times. Still, with feminism and the fight for equality becoming more mainstream issues, major players in the movie industry are now scrambling to get back into the good graces of the people.
Female representation in media
Addressing issues of underrepresentation, traditionally male-dominated TV shows and movies are seeing an uptick in the appearances of female characters. In the Marvel movie franchise, the presence of Scarlet Witch and Black Widow gives the Avengers some much needed female representation. Over at DC, Wonder Woman makes an appearance in Batman v Superman, and is confirmed to be getting her own solo movie, much to the delight of female viewers.
And it’s not only superhero movies that are doing this. Star Wars, for example, has a new female lead for their franchise, while the new Ghostbusters movie has a brand-new all-female cast. By all accounts, it seems like Hollywood is beginning to realize the potential of females as protagonists and lead characters.
However, even with the added representation, one cannot help but notice the lack of diversity in these characters, regardless of which universe they come from. Most of the female leads we see are Caucasian, with actresses of color mostly given supporting roles—Jubilee in X-Men: Apocalypse is never even given a chance to show her powers.
Furthermore, they always seem more like accessories to male characters than anything else. “[Female superheroes] always need to have a romantic relationship with a male character… Somehow there is always a need to push for the romantic relationship,” comic book fan Aina (I, BS-IT) comments. “They are shown to just be lovers or love interests as a way of developing the male hero,” fellow enthusiast Stan (II, BS-MGT) agrees. While they’re taking steps in the right direction, Hollywood still has a long way to go before it can fully, and properly, represent all types and races of women.
The Bechdel test
With the cinematic aspect in mind, however, people are also concerned about whether or not the existing superhero films and shows even pass the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test was created in 1985 by American cartoonist Alison Bechdel as a basic test for female representation. For any media to pass, it must feature at least two named women who converse with each other about something other than a man.
Based on an illustration made by The Daily Dot in 2014, all Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Hulk, and Captain America movies failed, while both Thor movies, Iron Man 2 and 3, and four out of the six X-Men movies passed. On the other hand, according to Comics Beat’s website, the superhero television shows that pass the Bechdel test are Supergirl, Arrow, Marvel’s Agent Carter, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, with only The Flash failing. While it is only a basic litmus test, the fact that so much of superhero media do not pass the Bechdel test is disconcerting, to say the least.
A lack of faith
Some critics have said that the increased focus on the fairer sex makes it harder for Hollywood to relate to their audiences, claiming that their target market of young male comic book fans do not want female leads. Even the CEO of Marvel Studios has said that he didn’t believe in the success of female superheroes.
Meanwhile, the only two female-led films of the 21st century, Elektra and Catwoman, were doomed to fail from the very start, with directors and scriptwriters putting more focus on the sex appeal of the titular character than the plot. “These films were marketed by using women’s bodies and attractiveness,” Aina laments. Stan adds, “It is evident that the industry has yet to fully respect what a female lead is capable of and still tries to throw in a bit of eye candy and fan service as a safety measure.”
“[Studios] should know that by banking on female superheroes, they won’t lose anything especially since these female superheroes are icons and models of women empowerment… [It’s] obvious that the world is ready for female-centered movies [and] TV shows,” Aina remarks. Ultimately, it lies within Hollywood’s willingness to toss aside its presumptions and learn to have faith in the woman’s ability to carry a story. When they stop making these films with the idea that they will fail, only then will Hollywood be able to give them justice.
Hollywood, (wo)man up!
The question of whether female superheroes are sticking around or not is one of profit. Studios making films like the upcoming Wonder Woman are gambling millions on the public’s interest in a female-led film. A risk, but one with a potentially massive payoff that just might kick off a new wave of much needed representation and diversity to a primarily male-dominated genre. Women who are fans of comic books, who have literally waited years for a film that depicts a female superhero protagonist, will finally get what they are looking for. And studios, who have written off female superhero films for a long time, may finally get the evidence that these films can become blockbusters.
The plight of female superheroes stems from the fact that their reputation precedes them. Cultural and societal expectations of women prevent them from becoming an integral part of “geek culture,” which has always traditionally pandered to men. It is difficult to erase the expectations in place, but in the modern world, where barriers are broken and traditions shattered, is having a female lead in a comic book film truly infeasible? Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for Hollywood to (wo)man up and give us the female superhero film we all deserve.