Tuesday 16 July 2019

Cara's right - superheroes are sexist

Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Scarlett Johansson in Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Cara Delevingne
Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV show
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Rising actress Cara Delevingne might be pondering the wisdom of biting the hand that feeds her this week, after dismissing superhero movies as "totally sexist". The supercool London model is currently working on a new blockbuster called Suicide Squad, which will be released in 2016.

It's based on a DC Comic, and stars Ms Delevingne, Will Smith, Margot Robbie and Joel Kinnaman as members of a gang of mercenary super-villains who fight crime for ulterior motives. Their aesthetic is grungy rather than glam, and in full costume Cara Delevingne looks a drowned refugee from a colony of goths.

In a refreshingly frank interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she maintained that the women in Suicide Squad have "the best roles", and are an empowered exception to the sad conveyor belt of dolled-up super ladies.

"Female superheroes are normally naked or in bikinis," she continued, arguing not unreasonably that "no one would be able to fight like that. Wonder Woman - how the hell does she fight? She would be dead in a minute."

Bold words from an actor who may yet cross swords with Wonder Woman in a planned DC Comics sequel, but has Cara Delevingne got a point? As a matter of fact, she does.

Over the next five years or so we are scheduled, Lord help us, to be bombarded with upwards of 30 big budget Hollywood superhero movies, yet only a few will be led by a female protagonist. And even in those, depictions of women look certain to remain stubbornly un-evolved.

Israeli actress Gal Gadot, for instance, will star as Wonder Woman in a 2017 blockbuster, and the character's look has been redesigned for the postmodern age.

Gone is the heroic stars and stripes bustier worn by Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show, but Gadot will still appear in thigh-high boots and a figure-hugging breastplate that makes her look more like a sex worker than a fearless warrior.

And in case there was any doubt that Gadot's Wonder Woman will be anything more than yet another objectified female, the actress's casting was met with a storm of tweets from 'fans' of the character claiming that her breasts were too small for the role.

Scarlett Johansson's high-kicking heroine Black Widow in the Avengers films has been acclaimed as one of the more evolved female characters, but things went sour after the release of this year's box office monster Avengers: Age of Ultron. Writer and director Joss Whedon has always described himself as a feminist, which is fair enough considering he created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but in May he was forced to deactivate his Twitter account after being deluged by complaints about Black Widow's role in his film.

She had, angry feminists claimed, been domesticated, excluded from most of the fight sequences and reduced to Bruce Banner's simpering romantic foil. Critics of the Marvel franchise also wondered why, when Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man have all enjoyed spin-off solo films, there'd be no Black Widow movie.

Things got worse when Ms. Johansson's co-stars, Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner, jokingly called Black Widow a "slut" and a "whore" during an interview with Digital Spy. Scarlett's response to all of this was imperious: shortly afterwards, she appeared in a hilarious Saturday Night Live spoof that imagined how Marvel might attempt to mount a Black Widow movie.

In the SNL skit a girlish Black Widow was thrilled to bits when she got an internship at a New York fashion magazine, then fell in love with the villainous robot Ultron and took the fact that his penis was electronic gamely in her stride.

The satire was blunt, but to the point: women in superhero films are often passive, rarely if ever the equal of men and must always be glamorous, idealised and distractingly beautiful.

When studios like Disney/Marvel and Warners are asked why they so seldom attempt to make female superhero movies, they invariably shrug their shoulders and point to the marketplace. In one of the emails leaked in the cyber attack on Sony late last year, Marvel boss Ike Perlmutter explained to Sony CEO Michael Lynton why female superhero movies just don't work, referencing flops like Elektra ("very, very bad"), Catwoman ("a disaster") and Supergirl ("another disaster").

But those were just terrible films, misguided and clumsy projects that exposed Hollywood's unease about the depiction of powerful females. And a long list of bad male superhero films, like Daredevil, Batman & Robin and The Green Lantern, could just as easily be assembled.

The studios' attitudes are shaped in large part by the fact that their superhero franchises are aimed at teenage boys and young men, whom they rightly or wrongly assume want female characters to look good and stay out of the way while the supermen - their virtual avatars - save the world.

Hollywood seems convinced that their legion of fan boys grant women super powers grudgingly, and prefer their girls to be voluptuous, available and preferably in need of rescuing.

It has ever been thus. From the earliest days of superhero stories, screaming females were tied to chairs to patiently await the arrival of their caped saviours. The classic superhero stooge, Lois Lane, is an arrogant, ditsy chatterbox who, for all her professional drive, cannot survive for very long without the assistance of Superman.

Even in Richard Donner's excellent 1978 film Superman, you know that Margot Kidder's feisty, go-getter Lois will sooner or later swoon and part her lips.

Though Batman is essentially a sexless character, he has sometimes been given romantic foils in his movies for the purposes of entertainment. In Tim Burton's Batman (1989), Kim Basinger played the spectacularly drippy superhero moll Vicki Vale, who's given a feeble back-story in photojournalism but exists merely to become a pawn in the caped crusader's battle with his depraved nemesis, Joker.

Though superb films in other respects, Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy adopt a similarly dismissive approach to women overall. In Batman Begins (2005), Katie Holmes (remember her?) played Bruce Wayne's rather sulky and hectoring childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes, whose involvement in the drama was merely peripheral. Maggie Gyllenhaal took over the role of Rachel in The Dark Knight (2008), and was killed off altogether halfway through, leaving the stage to a gallery of grunting, pummelling, primordial men.

Catwoman is the only female who ever seems to set Batman's pulse racing. Characters like her and Elektra seem to play on deep-seated geek fears of empowered and unpredictable females.

Bryan Singer's X-Men franchise has done slightly better, giving characters like Storm (Halle Berry), Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) rounded stories and proper dramatic arcs, so that they seemed more like women, and less like blow-up dolls.

But in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), it was hard not be distracted by the decorative interference of Ms Lawrence's skin-tight, bright blue body suit, and her sex appeal seemed a vital component in the film's success.

Things, then, are unlikely to improve. The public appetite for superhero movies seems unquenchable, and for the foreseeable future Hollywood will keep on building action franchises aimed at the boys and young men they believe are their one true market.

But perhaps that's a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because as long as superhero blockbusters continue to depict females as passive, peripheral and inferior, not many women are going to want to see them.

Irish Independent

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