When It Comes to Female Superheros, Being Strong Is Not Enough


Films espouse ideology. They may also provide entertainment and wish-fulfillment, but the lens that delivers these elements always does so through a socio-political filter. Sometimes, that filter is intentional and conspicuous. More often, though, a movie’s production team has no intention of delivering a politicized film, but this does not mean the film has no politics. In American cinema in particular, vigilantism, gun violence, racial stereotypes, and religious prejudice often undergird the narratives of popular, big-budget movies. Especially during the summer, as Hollywood blockbusters attempt to reach the widest possible audience, most films offer no overt challenge to America’s accepted hierarchies. In other words, minority characters die first in horror films, white saviors resolve the conflicts of other countries, and strong female characters remain largely absent from the cinema during the summer blockbuster season. This latter element – Hollywood’s blatant reinforcement of patriarchal roles and stereotypes – reveals how American cinema fails to reflect our current social and cultural milieu.

One doesn’t have to spend much time perusing PolicyMic or social media to realize that feminism is defining the zeitgeist of summer 2013. Whether the discussion focuses on #solidarityisforwhitewomen, FEMEN, or Facebook’s tacit approval of misogynistic violence, women’s issues and the struggle for gender equality have, of late, benefited from increased exposure. In addition, recent statistics about women’s higher college graduation rates, growing earning power, and improving presence in managerial positions have also helped shelve essentialist claims that women are simply less capable than men. Of course, feminists and their pro-feminist allies have known for a while that women can kick at least as much, if not more, proverbial ass than men. So why does Hollywood still fail to grasp this concept?

This summer, like every summer blockbuster season before it, has been the usual boys’ club: boys wearing the capes, boys firing the guns, boys telling the jokes, and above all, boys rescuing the sexualized girl-object. Of the top-10 domestic earning films this summer, only three truly pass the Bechdel test without controversy: Despicable Me 2, The Heat, and The Conjuring. The Bechdel test is a rubric meant to highlight the subordinate status of women in mainstream film, and there are only three criteria for a movie to pass: First, the film must feature at least two named women; second, those two women must talk to each other; third, that conversation cannot focus on a man. Despite the relatively modest requisites, not many films – and even fewer big-budget summer movies – get the Bechdel seal of approval.

However, as useful as the Bechdel test is for showing how often Hollywood either disregards female characters completely or creates them as subsidiaries to their male counterparts, Bechdel's criteria are not nuanced enough to diagnose whether a film revels in misogyny, or challenges gender stereotypes. For instance, the recent film Kick-Ass 2 certainly passes the Bechdel test, but still remains highly problematic. If you’ve seen the first Kick-Ass, you know that Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz) actually kicks all the ass, offering an admirable hero to equal all the other boys in spandex. This continues in Kick-Ass 2, but when Hit Girl is forced to give up her crusading and attend high school as Mindy, lazy stereotypes about treacherous, petty teenage girls creep into the plot. Of course, the titular Kick Ass (Aaron Taylor Johnson) has his cadre of supportive male friends because director and screenwriter Jeff Wadlow (with help from Mark Millar) want to remind you that teenage boys are always loyal and teenage girls are always jerks. Add to that sexism yet another female hero sporting a highly sexualized, impractical costume and an odious rape-as-a-weapon plot point, and Kick-Ass 2 still passes the Bechdel test, but hardly qualifies as a feminist, or even pro-woman, film.

Other films, like The Wolverine, have given audiences self-possessed women that measure up to the male protagonist, but that itself is a problem: because the main protagonists are always men, the women must "measure up." They begin in a subordinate position to the male hero by virtue of the cast's billing. We’ve been caught in the throes of Hollywood’s love affair with the superhero for more than a decade now, but in that same period, we’ve only had two studio films featuring a female superhero carrying a film alone: Catwoman and Elektra. Indeed, those films were both considered commercial failures, but they’re also both at the distant end of my decade demarcation. Our culture now seems more willing to accept challenges to traditional gender roles.  

Certainly, there is cause for hope in Hollywood. Katniss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander have proven that women can save their hapless male counterparts and sell movie tickets.  Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, two of the unexpected hits of the summer, The Conjuring and The Heat (along with past summer surprise successes like Snow White and the Huntsman and Bridesmaids), feature women in strong roles normally reserved for men.  These celluloid victories demonstrate a growing demand for movies that not only invite women into that old boys’ club of the summer blockbuster, but also give them the freedom to kick around the stuffy trappings until those movies feel fresh, open, and distinct. Despite the studios’ reticence, audiences are indeed ready for Wonder Woman. They are ready for She-Hulk, Batwoman, and Ms. Marvel. Audiences are ready for the next generation of resilient, self-assured, and intelligent female heroes that reflect the courage and tenacity of real-world heroes.   

In other words, movie audiences are ready for women.