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Missing heroines: Why Hollywood believes only men can save the world

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 10:35 a.m. MDT

Some studios are granting women more prominent roles in superhero films, but pop culture historian and author Jennifer Stuller believes it is important to examine how female characters are portrayed in these films if one wants to understand whether the female characters are truly empowered. Empowered female characters must be well-rounded rather than one-dimensional individuals, Stuller said.

"Generally, what we see in superhero films in terms of female characters is black and white," Stuller said. She said that these characters are usually portrayed as "the good girl love interest," "the bad girl love interest/temptress," evil or deferential to more-powerful men.

She explained that in good superhero films that present women as heroes, females "are generally a combination of empowered in the narrative and physically presented as sexually attractive" in stereotypically ways that reinforce society's views about bodies, beauty or gender roles.

Stuller believes the Black Widow is a good example of a multidimensional character.

"The Avenger's Black Widow was a complex character because director and writer Joss Whedon wrote her that way. Scarlett Johansson played her as complex. "Her catsuit was fitted, but not gratuitous," Stuller said.

Stuller is waiting to see whether Wonder Woman, who is a side character in the second "Man of Steel" movie (Warner Bros. will reportedly release the film in 2016), will be portrayed "as agent or eye candy, as someone with her own story or in relation to men."

She is excited about Wonder Woman’s first big-screen appearance, but is disappointed that "the character is essentially being market-tested in a film about superdudes" because filmmakers are still unwilling to give her a solo role in 2014.

Madrid is reserving judgement about Wonder Woman’s appearance alongside Spider-Man and Batman, but he is also displeased that Wonder Woman is not obtaining a solo role yet.

"There is a huge following for a movie of her own, (but) she’s being slipped into a man’s movie," Madrid stated.

Characters who inspire

Stuller said young girls need to see more female superheroes on the big screen who do not depict women in relation to men.

"They need to see characters they can identify with and that inspire. I feel lucky to have had inspiration in Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman as a child. She was more than just a babe in a swimsuit. She was just, kind, smart, physically and emotionally strong, compassionate — a great role model for any age or gender."

If viewers want to see more female superhero movies (and more multidimensional female characters) Hollywood needs more powerful women in the filmmaking industry, said Avery-Natale.

"Like in comic books, I suspect that when more women have a say in how the medium presents women and who it presents at all, we will see better representations of women and more representations of superheroines as strong leaders," Avery-Natale added.

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