Thursday, 11 September 2014
Guns and Goddesses: Women in Marvel
Action movies are known to be very male-dominated. Once in a while we get action movies that have strong female leads (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Salt) but it is still a pretty masculine genre, and it has something of a history in being such. Still, while it is often associated with men, and action heroines existed longer than you might think (D.W. Griffith's The Lonedale Operator had a woman who, while needing to be rescued, managed to use her own ingenuity to buy her rescuers time to get to her).
Still, a lot of the big action franchises are predominantly male-driven: Rambo, Indiana Jones, Star Wars (seriously, six movies and only two significant female characters who only appeared together for a few minutes?), James Bond (although there have been rumors of a female James Bond). There are a few exceptions, the biggest one arguably being The Terminator, or at least the first two installments (before anyone brings up Aliens, it's not really an action franchise, given that the first and third are both straight up horror films).
Let's shift gears a bit and look at something of a rarity, that while not perfect, may be one of the best representations of women in action we can get right now. Considering how popular it is at the moment, it stands to reason that this could make an impact on the future too. That is of course the Marvel Cinematic universe. By this point it has become hard to count how many films there are in the full franchise, considering we have multiple film series individually along with crossovers and new characters being introduced in each.
Now to be fair, one could still make a case that a lot of these films are predominantly male, some more justifiably so than others. We don't normally see more than two or three major female characters in a single movie. However, if you tall it all up, across all the movies currently released we have Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Jane Foster, Peggy Carter, Maria Hill, and that is just the human characters in the movies. If you include Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you get three more (Melinda May, Jemma Simmons, and Skye) in the regular cast plus guest stars and recurring roles (Victoria Hand), and if you include the non-human characters you also get Sif, Gamora, and Nebula. On top of all that they are adding in yet another female superhero, Scarlet Witch, to the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron.
That brings us to a total of 13 women (and there are others besides those), out of whom seven (Black Widow, Peggy Carter, Maria Hill, Melinda May, Sif, Gamora, Nebula, and presumably Scarlet Witch) are women of action who even get a few fight scenes to themselves. However, even the more passive characters like Jane Foster or Pepper Potts are hardly weak either. After all, Pepper may not have gotten her own suit (something I will admit disappointed me about the third Iron Man film) but she is a business woman who is half the time the only thing keeping Stark industries in order while Tony is busy upgrading all his suits and creating fancy gadgets.
If anything, the Marvel Cinematic Universe might have some of the best female characters we could hope for in an action movie at this point, considering how many great women it has over the whole franchise, but that does not mean there isn't room for improvement. While there are plenty of great female characters in total, there aren't usually more than two or three at a time in any individual movie. This is at the very least justified in Captain America: The First Avenger due to it being set during World War II, but many of the films made since then have been set in the present.
The one exception is of course Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which seems to have actively gone out of its way to balance out the gender distribution of the cast, as well as their skills. They might not all be action girls but each has their strengths and weaknesses, much like the men. Simmons isn't exactly a person of action, but neither is her male colleague Fitz, while there are both male and female members of the team who can hold their own in a fight.
There was even an episode when the three girls had to all rely on each other (along with Sif, who was guest starring) because all of the men (except Coulson) had been brainwashed by a psycho Asgadian seductress. The ratio is not perfect (four men and three women), but considering what happened to Ward and Fitz, it could be balanced out in the next season. It helps that Joss Whedon (who likes to put lots and lots of strong female characters in his TV shows) was behind this one.
The one other area where there could still be improvement would be the simple fact that we have yet to get a female protagonist in any of these films. While there are plenty of great female characters they have usually been supporting roles, love interests, or co-stars. There has never been any who have actually taken the lead and become the central focus themselves. Fortunately, such an occurrence is not out of the question, as there have been rumors persisting for ages about the possibility of Black Widow getting her own film. Maybe this one could finally break the curse that seems to notoriously plague female superhero movies.
Already Marvel is doing a great job of getting ahead so far as its treatment of women is concerned, and perhaps in a few years it could get even better. On top of that, the franchise is already making a huge pile of money, so perhaps it will finally convince studios that strong female characters do in fact sell and could help make way for improvements in other actions movies or franchises.