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.


  1. I didn't stick with Agents of SHIELD beyond the first eight or nine episodes, but I am considering getting back into it. Everything I hear about it says that it kicks into gear towards the finale.

    In terms of Marvel female characters, this is a really great post :) I'd argue that Jane Foster is possibly the weakest from the set you mentioned. She's just very bland and in The Dark World wasn't anywhere near as pivotal or important as the male characters. Maybe it's because she is 'human' whilst being surrounded by badass Asgardian women like Frigga and Sif.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing Scarlet Witch in action, and would love it if Black Widow got her own film. Also one to look out for - Evangelline Lily is (hopefully) going to be playing the role of Wasp at some point if Ant-Man is successful, which would be beyond brilliant.

    Anyway, long comment over ;) Great column John, very good read.

    1. You should. The first few episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. might seem weak but it really does get good once it gets going. They find a whole bunch of creative situations and they also find an interesting plot thread from the films to expand on eventually.

      I can see why some might consider Jane Foster to be comparatively weaker. I enjoyed her but, especially in Thor: The Dark World she is surrounded by a bunch of tougher Asgardian women.

      I didn't even know about Wasp. It would be great to add another female superhero to the cast.

  2. Great post - and I lol'd at your "before you bring up Aliens" bullet because I was totally like "but..but...Ripley!!" I do agree that Marvel does a good job with their female characters. I can't wait to see Scarlet Witch in Avengers 2.

    1. I had a feeling someone would bring up Ripley, so I figured it was worth addressing why I didn't include her. Aliens might have been an action movie in part but the franchise is horror underneath all that.

      Scarlet Witch should be an interesting addition to the Avengers. I don't know much about her beyond the name (I never really got into comics) but it would be pretty awesome to see two action girls in one movie (assuming Black Widow is still there as well).

  3. OK you might think I am out there and these are TV shows that have a high degree of camp (that's an understatement) but Wonder Woman and Xenia were 2 kick ass women. It seems Linda Carter's Wonder Woman had to keep helping out her dashing co-star (Lee???-he was on Carol Burnett as well). Xenia was one bad ass gal who turned good and was just as strong, if not strionger than most of the males on that show. You are right that more women need to be in the foreground and I think they are making headway

    1. Of course, Xena was awesome. Not to mention she had a pretty good relationship going with Gabrielle (who might not have been as tough but was able to hold her own while still having believable weaknesses) and there was also the intimidating villain in the form of Callisto (though to be fair I wasn't entirely sure about the way she was finally redeemed, since it seemed like she was brainwashed into being good instead of realizing the error of her ways).