By KC Moore, Staff Writer
HOWARD STARK: I always thought you should be in pictures, Peg. What do you say? Arlene French called in drunk. You want to play a sassy beer wench?
PEGGY CARTER: I’d rather be the cowboy.
HOWARD STARK: Oh, I like it. I don’t know if the audience is ready yet.
PEGGY CARTER: But they’re ready for a movie based on a comic book. Sounds like a dreadful idea.
– Jose Melina, Marvel’s “Agent Carter”
Marvel took a stab at itself in its period drama “Agent Carter” and really hit the nail on the head. It’s 1947 and Howard Stark is directing a movie. He doesn’t think the audience is ready for a female lead. Agent Peggy Carter thinks that’s ridiculous, especially since the audience will be watching a movie based on a comic book.This episode aired only two months ago.
With the rise of geek culture, superhero movies, and most recently the sub-genre of raunchy superhero movies, (i.e. “Deadpool’s” smashing success and others that are soon to follow) Peggy’s comment is more than apt.
The Marvel vs. DC debate will be saved for another article, so let’s just say I like my superhero movies when they embrace the juvenile. They’re based on comic books, after all, and flying hammers, talking raccoons, and ant-size-shrinking-super-suits don’t just hit puberty. Better that the superheroes hit one-liners on beat as they punch each other through buildings.
But you know what’s not funny?
The way Marvel treats its disappointingly -few female characters.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” and “The Avengers” are the highest-grossing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, as well as the only two featuring female superheroes as main characters. “Jessica Jones” was Marvel’s most successful TV show, at least until “Daredevil’s” second season was released on Netflix last week. Correlation not causation, maybe, but obviously, women like seeing themselves on screen. What a surprise.
The issue I want to discuss is not representation, but misrepresentation. I can name few female Marvel superheroes: Agent Natasha Romanoff (aka the Black Widow), Gamora from “Guardians,” Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch) from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and maybe Lady Sif from “Thor.” Maybe.
What do these women have in common with pretty much every other female character existing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
They function as Love Interests: from the script right down to their ridiculous, tight-fitting costumes.
Upon closer examination, the only two women with reasonable speaking parts, who are neither gazing starry-eyed after their costumed men nor related to their male counterpartr, are Darcy, Jane’s assistant from “Thor,” and Agent Maria Hill from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Avengers.” Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch) from “Avengers 2” is new to the MCU, a brainwashed villain turned good, and Pietro’s twin sister before he died. She is now my only hope for female superheroes.
Some love interest arcs make sense. Agent Carter from “Captain America,” defying the outright sexism and misogyny of her time, is so badass even I fell in love with her. Jane Foster is an accomplished astrophysicist, whose original interest in Thor is scientific. Except what’s science compared to Chris Hemsworth’s biceps, right? Gamora is a trained assassin with a perfectly valid reason to be fighting on Peter Quill’s side. She then falls prey to Quill’s “pelvic sorcery,” and it’s okay because by the end of the movie, they love each other. Pepper Potts from “Iron Man” is the only woman not repulsed by Tony Stark’s spectacular narcissism. She loves him because she sees the real him underneath all those layers of money. Too bad this doesn’t make him any less of a jerk. Betty Ross from “The Incredible Hulk” (yeah, remember that movie?) had no other purpose but to serve as an aspect of Bruce Banner’s character development. She was a pretty reminder that even though he’s an enormous green rage monster (wrong Hulk but still a great quote), his humanity remains intact and he is capable of attracting women. In “Ant-Man,” even though Hope is way more qualified than Scott Lang to be a hero, her father was just trying to protect her from dying like her mother. Except by the end of the movie, she’s fallen in love with Paul Rudd and donned The Wasp suit.
As you delve deeper into the characters of each strong, capable woman, you begin to realize they’ve all been cast as romantic subplots, or worse, complications. That’s their role.
Lady Sif is a prime example of this setback. She’s a warrior and a Norse deity, but the writers couldn’t leave her at that. As if being childhood friends with Thor wasn’t enough to validate her presence in the movie, they had to make her in love with him. She’s a literal goddess, she’s lived thousands of years and killed thousands of men, and she still has to cast longing looks at Chris Hemsworth and shoot Natalie Portman unfriendly, jealous glances.
It’s not just Lady Sif who was downgraded to a damsel in distress. It also happened to my beacon of light in the dark, Natasha Romanoff.
Black Widow is a trained KGB assassin with superpowers glossed over by movies. In “Iron Man,” she was an undercover SHIELD agent posing as Tony Stark’s secretary. The Powers That Be of the first “Avengers” hinted at a possible romance between her and Cliff Barton (aka Hawkeye). I held out hope that they would remain strictly best friends, partners, given that Hawkeye had been a zombie-eyed Loki-mutant for most of the movie. Then, in “Cap 2,” there she was. Finally, a female superhero who was just a friend. A female character in a movie whose skills, platonic relationships, and willingness to support a teammate merited her presence. She is an Avenger. What could possible be a better reason for her to be in the MCU?
My dreams were Hulk-smashed to pieces by a last-minute, front-row seat to the “Avengers 2” premiere. Granted, the movie was a hot mess, from the way Steve Rogers’ “language” was a bigger deal than Tony Stark almost single-handedly bringing down the world with his AI, to the way they tried to cut character development corners by firing subplots like bazookas.
The MCU threw Black Widow at the Hulk like Captain America’s shield at a target. Because when you review the arsenal of women in your life, how many of them are love interests?
Not every woman has to be in a relationship at every single point in her life.
Then Natasha got captured by Ultron, and she needed the men to come and rescue her. Might as well have sent every girl who saw the movie a handwritten letter saying that even if they aspired to be just as strong, competent, and talented as boys, they wouldn’t be. Because if female superheroes can’t do it, then who of us can?
And some people still think feminism isn’t a first-world problem.
A solution to Marvel’s issue: make a female superhero the lead, a la “Wonderwoman” or “Captain Marvel” (coming in the distant future to a theatre near you). Or how about a female villain? If she’s evil, you can bet she won’t be a love interest for very long. She might not make the best role model, but if there are male villains, there can be female villains too.
Marvel has to diversify their female roles – write more female superheroes, professionals, villains, friends, and teammates. The way they treat women right now is inexcusable. They need less leather, less love interests, and more independent women.