Superheroes: The Most Frustrating Female Representation

Screenshot of Scarlet Johansson as Black Widow from the ‘Black Widow’ trailer. Copyright goes to Disney Studios and Marvel Entertainment.

Hi! It’s Annie!

I know this also isn’t a Christmas post, but I promise I’ll get back to those soon! My sister and I have recently been talking about female representation specifically because of a really good episode of ‘Inside Pixar’ on Disney + where a woman received an award for coming up with algorithm that tells her how many male lines of dialogue are spoken versus female. This really got me thinking about all the bad, or at least frustrating, female representation in media. I’ve talked a bit about the good when it come to things like ‘Little Women’ (2019), ‘Birds of Prey’, or ‘Wonder Woman’. Especially looking at those two superhero movies, which are absolutely amazing because I think we can all agree that action movies are where female representation has suffered the most historically. I could talk all day about the love interest factor in action or superhero movies and how female characters are often relegated to being useless in the plot for anything but romance. But more than that, I want to talk about female characters who are considered good and have some of the worst parts of their characters overlooked. I specifically chose two examples. I apologize if you like either of these characters, but I feel that this has to be said. So, let’s get into it!

Black Widow:

You probably guessed from the picture that I used that I would start here. I know a lot of you might be angry, but please just hear me out. I’m not doing this to destroy your favorite characters, I’m doing this to bring to light problems that continue to exist that we should work on. In recent years we’ve been given a lot of “strong women” in movies. And some of them are actually strong women. But some of these movies use the simple fact that their female characters kick ass as proof that their characters are strong and complex. That cannot be where the bar is. Yes, it’s nice to finally see women kicking ass in action films but we also need to see these women be complex and, most of all, be treated respectfully. I’m just going to come out and say now that Joss Whedon is one of the most sexist writers in Hollywood. Here’s what went wrong with Natasha Romanoff. At least in ‘Avengers’ and definitely upon her introduction in ‘Iron Man 2’ she’s written more to be desirable than anything. Yes, she kicks ass but none of her ass-kicking scenes seem to be complete without a shot of her chest. I think my sister said it best here, if the character’s signature move is to choke men out with her thighs, then personality is probably not what the writers were looking the most at. Not that that style of martial arts is bad, it’s that men use it in media to look desirable more than to be effective. It’s incredibly obvious that Natasha was written by men here. She gets better in ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier’, where the narrative actually tries to explain the complexities of her character. The issue is then she was put back into the hands of Whedon in ‘Age of Ultron’. We get his signature face in the chest joke with her and Bruce Banner, something that most people didn’t seem to notice until ‘Justice League’, and then he forced her character into a relationship. Did everyone just forget when he compared women not being able to have children to being a monster? Because that was basically that scene with her and Bruce at Clint’s house. And most recently, Natasha was fridged. For those of you who don’t know what that term means, it’s a call back to old superhero comics. Specifically one where a hero came back to find that the villain had killed his girlfriend and stuffed her body in the refrigerator. This term has come to mean, for the most part, any woman who is killed in the plot to further the storyline of a man rather than to emphasize her own storyline. Natasha is the only female original member of the Avengers, it is her death that pushed the other male Avengers to the peak of their revenge. Her death did absolutely nothing to serve her own plot. I call Natasha frustrating because she could have been good. There were hints of her being complex, like in Winter Soldier. Every time they were going somewhere with her character they used yet another female trope. And more importantly, every time I see women speaking up against her character or any wrongdoings done to her character, men pop up and tell us that we should just be happy that she kicked ass. Isn’t that enough? No. And it never will be. We’re looking for 50/50 representation, not the bare minimum. People only seemed to discover that Joss Whedon was sexist when male fans decided that we could put that onto the list of why ‘Justice League’ was so bad. After all, he did use that chest joke again and he purposely cut down the costumes of Wonder Woman and the warriors of Themyscira to make them look “sexy”. No joke, his words. But we’ve been telling you that he’s sexist for years and it kind of sucks that women are just now being listened to. I sincerely hope that the ‘Black Widow’ movie will do more for this character.

Padme Amidala:

Some of you might be looking at this one and thinking “No shit!” while others might be thinking “Oh no!”. Really, her character and likability has always been debated. We all know that she’s one of the strongest examples of women being relegated to love interests in action films. Once her storyline as the devoted love interest was over, they killed her off. After the love story was over they literally considered her so useless to the plot that they killed her off even though it contradicted the original trilogy. Way to go, Mr. Lucas. But Padme has some other scary bits of her storyline as well. Firstly, can we talk about how they thought it necessary for her to get injured in one of her main fight scenes expressly for the purpose of her showing more skin? Of course she had to get scratched in that specific area so that her shirt became more like a crop top. Once again, way to go Mr. Lucas. But that’s not the worst part. For years I’ve seen people, particularly men, talk about the black leather outfit she wore when she tried to break up with Anakin. This scene is a perfect example of Hollywood men telling other men that when a woman says “no”, she doesn’t really mean it. It’s funny that men actually think that’s true when other men tell them that. Never women. Speaking as a woman, if I tell you “no” you better take three steps back. Never once have I said something I don’t mean in a situation even close to that. Everyone should know this by now and it’s scary that the media has prevented this from being common sense. The other issue with this scene is that the conversations about this scene mostly revolve around Padme not really meaning what she says to Anakin because she “absolutely couldn’t when she’s wearing that outfit”. These people don’t seem to realize that this thought process is just the same as saying that a woman deserved some form of assault because of what she was wearing. This is not and never will be ok to say. Padme also could have been good with some female intervention. Because, yes, women should be 50/50 behind the scenes in Hollywood too. Padme is given what could arguably be the best line in the prequels; “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause”. That line hits home now more than ever and her position as a senator that could take care of herself was interesting. But they forgot to write a complex character and instead, just like Natasha Romanoff, stuffed her so full of tropes that you can tell she was written by a man who didn’t give a shit.

Not only do we need more female writers in Hollywood, we need male writers to actually consult women before doing things like this. For ages writers have written male characters to be relatable and female characters to be desirable, especially in action movies. All of this has to stop. We do not accept women kicking ass and doing virtually nothing else for women in media as successful representation. If you think that we’ve reached equality in media, please take a look at how recent these two characters are. And believe me, I have more recent examples. Men in Hollywood do not get to tell women what kind of female representation we should be grateful for. We have a long way to go, but things are getting better little by little. Thank god for female directors finally being hired! But don’t get settled, we have more work to do.

See you across the pond!

Sincerely, Annie

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