Opinion Comment

Friday 15 November 2019

James Dempsey: Comic-book females deadlier than the male as Marvel director apologises for sex slurs

James Gunn
James Gunn

NOT since Hugo Weaving pulled off his facemask have faces been so red over at Marvel. After pulling off what many thought impossible – building a multi-billion-dollar franchise around a sprawling and detailed comic-book cosmos, not to mention getting the Hulk to actually work – last week saw the next wave of Marvel’s development under fire courtesy of a loaded Gunn.

Writer-director James Gunn originally proved a popular choice when he was hired by Disney, owners of Marvel, to write and direct the Guardians of the Galaxy, the project regarded by movie and comic book insiders as the next stage in Marvel’s onscreen development.

Guardians is the great white hope of Marvel’s plans for global box-office domination, because if a comic-book movie with more fantastical characters than we’ve previously seen, namely a laser-gun-wielding space racoon and a walking/talking tree, can prove a mainstream hit with large audiences, it opens the door to Marvel’s rich history of bizarre backstories and esoteric characters known only to the more die-hard fans.

Unfortunately for Gunn, however, a blog posted to his website in February 2011 resurfaced last week, and not gone down well. “The 50 Superheroes You Most Want To Have Sex With”, in fact the second annual poll thereof, has been lambasted by The Mary Sue, a website dedicated to girl geek culture, for Gunn’s unsavoury language and comments towards the characters who made the list.

Take, for instance, number 32, Batwoman. In 2006, Kate Kane was reintroduced as the female caped crusader, but given a new origins’ story about her being discharged from the military as part of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” initiative regarding gay servicemen and women in the US military. Seen as a breakthrough character for LGBT representation in the DC Universe, Gunn’s comment that Iron-Man could “turn” her given half the chance, was jumped upon as the director making, at best, a darkly comic joke about the very real practice of corrective rape.

Now removed from his website, but still available as a Google Cache, the poll is dividing geek cultural commentators. On the one hand, disgusted articles and essays on the demeaning use of slut-shaming (Batgirl, “Being a teen mom and all, you know she’s easy”) and homophobic language (Gambit, “My girlfriend voted for this Cajun fruit’) chastise Gunn for his lewd commentary and have resulted in a now growing online petition to have him removed from the Guardians project.

On the other hand, countless bloggers have come, if not to the defence of the director, but to the conclusion that the Mary Sue and others have entirely jumped the Gunn, that his post was weak satire at the pervasive nature of sexism and objectification in the wider comic community.

Nobody is accusing the poll itself as being overtly sexist; it was open to male and female comic fans, and is made up of male and female superheroes. But what cannot be denied is the shameless sexualisation of the female cohort. A mere glace at the selection of images chosen by Gunn to accompany the poll reveals curvaceous and buxom heroines (Power Girl must be 33pc breasts), poised suggestively in the scant uniforms that barely cover, their faces coquettish or lustful. While these drawings may well be superheroines, battling the forces of evil, being woman, hearing them roar, an underlying message is to also hear them moan in carnal pleasure while they’re at it.

In the past, Gunn, whose credits include Scooby Doo and Super (a darkly subversive vigilante film), has spoken at length about LGBT issues, and got the thumbs-up from Joss Whedon, Avengers’ director and a writer much-lauded for his empowered female characters. Over the weekend, and a couple of days of incensed Internet chatter later, Gunn took full responsibility for his blog post, in a refreshing Mea Culpa that was greeted warmly over at The Mary Sue.

But some damage may still have been done to the Marvel brand, particularly when it comes to its female fans. A common critique of Marvel thus far has been its failure to include any of its super-powered females as part of the Avengers team, and it is widely believed that Guardians will introduce Carol Danvers/Miss Marvel into the fold, a character whose mostly-unnoticed rape in 1980s Avengers #200 is considered a benchmark in the sexist history of Stan Lee’s ladies.

Add to this Gunn’s blundering faux-pas and sexist jibes, as well as Marvel’s decision to fire Patty Jenkins, their proposed first female director, during pre-production of Thor 2 and when it comes to tarnishing their reputation, the females of the countless Marvel species are even deadlier than the male.

Follow James on Twitter: @jim_on_a_whim

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