This summer, audiences will watch Captain America battle the mysterious Winter Soldier, Spider-Man balance graduating high school with fighting Electro, and Star-Lord join a motley group of aliens to guard the galaxy.
Though these films include several women — the skilled assassin Black Widow helps Captain America, for example — there are no big-budget comic book movies featuring women in the lead role this summer.
That's a problem because young girls are not getting positive messages from classic, male-dominated superhero movies, said Mike Madrid, author of "The Supergirls." And those movies are often the biggest family films of the summer.
"The message that young viewers get from these traditional superhero movies is women aren't necessarily leaders or solving problems (and) that it’s more of a man’s world," Madrid said.
Risk and reward
Madrid believes filmmakers are reluctant to make movies of any kind based around women because they fear such films won't make money, something Cate Blanchett took issue with during her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech earlier this month.
But Madrid, like Blanchett, said this myth isn't really true. Movies like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" and "Gravity," which both feature women as the main protagonists, were two of the biggest films of 2013, bringing in approximately $424 million and $271 million, respectively. In fact, six of the top-grossing movies of 2012-2013 featured female protagonists — including the final installment of "Twilight," "Brave" and "Frozen." But Madrid said many filmmakers still believe making a female-led movie is risky.
"There’s this idea that you can’t take a really well-known character like Wonder Woman and put her as a headliner in a movie because no one will go to see it," said Madrid.
But there are other factors that have stopped filmmakers from creating a female-led superhero movie. The most obvious is that men dominate the film and comic book industry.
Dr. Edward Avery-Natale, a sociologist and comic book expert, said in an email that comic book producers (particularly producers from large comic outlets like DC Comics and Marvel) don't care about attracting female viewers because that audience is small for their products. He believes something similar is possibly happening with superhero films.
"If the viewers and makers of the films are as male-dominated as is the case for comic books, then there is little reason to expect that they would operate much differently," Avery-Natale said. "Perhaps the one advantage films have is that they at least have to concern themselves with female actors and some female viewers, but again, without a female-led superheroine film, it is hard to say what that will prove to look like." He added that since the film industry has often objectified women despite the presence of female actresses, filmmakers are probably as unconcerned with the "female gaze" as comic book producers.
Breaking out of the box
Madrid suggests the male-dominated film industry is also not producing more female-led superhero movies because they are afraid to try anything original. Therefore, they cast female characters in more traditional roles, such as the hero’s love interest.
"They (the filmmakers) are probably looking at something like Iron Man that did well and they say we’ll just use the same formula over and over rather than looking at something that might seem revolutionary like the 'Hunger Games' movies," said Madrid.
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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