Tuesday, April 14, 2020

We’re Holding Out for a Hero(ine): A Look at Leading Women

Both Marvel and DC have highly anticipated female-led superhero films on the horizon. So far, the advantage goes to DC.  ♦ 
Here is something I thought I would never utter: I now find myself having a deeper appreciation for the DC cinematic universe.

As a young girl I was surrounded by male superheroes. I grew up loving Spider-Man and Thor, and I remember loving the upside-down kiss between Mary Jane and Peter Parker, but for some reason, I never wondered why I wasn’t seeing a woman save the world. Now, after seeing over a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I am woefully underwhelmed by their lack of female leads. Though I was happy to see powerful women as secondary characters throughout the first four phases of the MCU, they were still secondary characters. I have lived through a lifetime of male superheroes getting their own trilogies while female characters serve as love interests or helping hands. This is not to discredit these characters I have seen; the female characters in Black Panther were particularly inspiring. Shuri is funny and smart as hell. Okoye is a fierce warrior. Yet, they do not get their own films.

In 2019 Marvel came out with its first female-led superhero origin film, Captain Marvel (something DC had already done two years prior with Wonder Woman). It took Marvel eleven years after the start of the MCU, with 2008's Iron Man, to release their first female-led film, and even with a 152-million-dollar budget, a number of collaborating writers, and Marvel Studios’ resources at their disposal, the movie still dropped the ball in creating a well-rounded female character. Much of the failure of Captain Marvel lies in what seems to be the pressure of (finally) addressing societal/gender issues in their cinematic lineup. How can one woman be expected to bear the weight of over a decade’s worth of no representation?

The writers didn’t give the character much of a head start, as we begin the movie with a woman who has no idea who she is. Stuck on an alien planet with no concept of her identity, her

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel
personality is very slow to form, making her a boring one-dimensional character. Ironically, men and women alike in this film constantly comment that she is “too emotional,” though she is often about as emotional as a piece of wood.

I see what the filmmakers are trying to say . . . and many other women do, too. This is a part of our narrative. (“You’re too emotional”; “Are you on your period?”; “Women aren’t fit for this job, they’re too sensitive”; and so on.) This would be warranted, if Carol Danvers actually acted like a human being, but instead we’re given a leading woman with no memory, no identity, no sense of self, and ultimately no personality.

Carol is only given some semblance of self through flashbacks, but the memories that define her are not diverse. We see her getting beaten in a race by a boy, yelled at by her father, heckled by men in her squad, and insulted by a gross man asking her, “You know why they call it a cockpit, right?” She is dominated by a narrative of “You can never succeed because you’re in the world of men.” Again, this is a righteous narrative, though it’s not fleshed out well because she is so drowned in these ideas that the writers forgot to give her a personality. Carol even says herself, three quarters of the way into the film, “I don’t even know who I am!” I’m not sure who she is, either.

Carol is less of a person than a cypher through which to address gender issues. And while the toxic commentary from random male characters in the film (like, “You should smile more”) are issues that women unfortunately have experienced, myself included, they feel haphazardly forced into the film and undermine the feminist hope of a fun, kickass female superhero. What the film lacks is balance between addressing this realistic narrative while also creating a strong, personable heroine.


When I picture an ideal female superhero, I envision something more like Wonder Woman, or even Harley Quinn.

Yes, DC does it better.

Wonder Woman, coming out two years before Captain Marvel, set a good precedent that women can be strong, smart, caring, and handle a love interest without it letting consume her storyline. Wonder Woman comes from an entire island of beautiful Amazonian goddesses who possess unimaginable strength and a great female bond that connects them all. She falls in love with Steve Trevor, the very handsome Chris Pine, but this love interest, like all superhero love interests, does not dominate the main plot or Wonder Woman’s goals. Diana represents a real hero: offering hope when there is no one else, making a path for others, and standing for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Diana is inspiring and empowering, and the camera gives her agency rather than lingering on or sexualizing her character, as it has done previously to Black Widow, Gamora, or even the version of Diana presented in Justice League (no thanks to a different director).

The scene in which Diana crosses “No Man’s Land” is exactly the kind of heroic moment I know my younger self would love to see:

Harley Quinn, first introduced back in 2016’s Suicide Squad, landed her own film this year in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn. Though this film does similar work to Captain Marvel in addressing issues like abuse and sexual assault, it’s more successful as a film precisely because Harley Quinn is a more exciting and dynamic female superhero to watch. In fact, it’s important to make a distinction between the Harley Quinn of Birds of Prey and Suicide Squad. In the previous film, Harley Quinn is often sexualized by the camera, and she’s presented as subservient to the Joker. After the movie’s release, unfortunately, some even romanticized their relationship, though it’s clearly presented as highly toxic and abusive.

But Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey gets revamped. The film acknowledges her relationship with the Joker, but Harley is able to grow from this experience, and it’s this growth that’s important and empowering. Harley Quinn realizes that she is not boxed in by the harlequin metaphor, a mute jester for someone else’s entertainment. She has her own agency and self-worth outside of her relationships. She proves, too, that female superheroes can be funny, just like their male counterparts. While Carol Danvers feels the need to be stoic, silent, almost masculine in representation, Harley Quinn is chaotic, fun, comedic, and a diversified feminist character. (As an added bonus, the film’s soundtrack is done by all female artists.)

Was the movie amazing? Is Birds of Prey perfect? No. Granted, it had a relatively modest budget (for a superhero film) of 84 million dollars, and there were certainly some cringy moments and things I didn’t like about the film. But the character of Harley Quinn was not one of them. Marvel still seems to have a better handle on their cinematic universe and overall storytelling, but when it comes to writing leading women, DC has the upper hand . . . so far. Marvel’s Black Widow comes out soon (though its release date has been pushed back in response to the coronavirus pandemic), and I’m excited to see her origin story and how it can help her character develop, given that, ten years after her character was introduced in Iron Man 2, we still know very little about her, other than she was a Russian spy. Hopefully, Marvel can take this opportunity to inspire young women and help them feel represented . . . and maybe, down the road, Marvel will put its billions of dollars to good use in creating even more female superhero origin stories.

I think back to what I would have been inspired by as a young woman. A superheroine is not simply someone with otherworldly powers; she’s a strong woman who is simultaneously relatable and inspiring. She is multidimensional and, like all people, she is layered. She has fears and desires, she gets up when she is beaten down. She is someone we could hope to turn to in a time of panic. She can be strong without sacrificing femininity. I hope that we can have more leading women we can look up to who are not solely defined by the politics of gender but are able to battle these ongoing issues in a way that does not undermine their own stories and personhood. I hope we can continue to refine and redefine what it means to be a heroic woman.

  • About the Author
    Katie King is a graduating senior at Miami University of Ohio, where she studies creative writing and film. In her free time she loves to read and write fiction, play guitar, and snuggle with her very chonky cat Teddy.

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