Where are the heroines with superpowers? Where is the female superhero? How is she portrayed in comics? How do you think she will be portrayed in movies? If you are thinking about Natasha Romanoff (the Black Widow) in Iron Man, the Avengers and Captain America: the Winter Soldier, you must but forget her. She is a normal woman with no super powers. She is strong, she is not involved romantically with any of the characters, but her image is, still, highly sexualized and too close to the “Mata Hari” idea. In superhero movies, women are still behind men: they have no superpowers, though their overall image has improved even still being highly sexualized.
Black Widow is a very skilled sexy assassin. She knows how to use her strength and she is very intelligent. However she has no superpowers like the rest of superheroes she is with. She is not her equal. And that makes it hard to really find in her a female counterpart. The message that is being sent with this inequality is that of the status of strong women is second to strong men. Another message strong message sent is that of having superheroes, but whatever the women do, they will never be female superheroes. And this is a strong statement for the subconscious to be picked up. Even though other films have challenged the roles of male and female in our society, like the Hunger Games with Katniss, reality is that we still need the figure of a female superhero. But, how would she be received by female and male audiences?
To make a movie with a female superhero as a main character and not as a supporting role for a male superhero would be a huge leap in gender equality (at least, in superhero movies). We are used to see male superhero and male super villains on screen, with support female roles without super powers. However, how would we react with a female superhero?
Lucy, though highly sexualized in the trailer, could pave the road to finally see on the big screen a female superhero. Though Lucy is not defined as a female superhero, we can deduce that from the trailer: the trauma and plot with the drug makes her have super powers. Her brain can use more and more its whole capabilities enabling Lucy to have great superpowers. I like the plot, and I like that she derives her superpowers from intelligence. Lucy is challenging the idea of a beautiful blonde being not smart. An idea which is deeply rooted in society: beautiful women, specially blonde, are dumb. Though she gets her superintelligence through a drug, even if she is not really blonde (we can see that she has dyed her hair easily) she also gets her superpowers from it. Thus, her portrayal, even though still highly sexualized, is challenging cultural stereotypes that are doing nothing but mainting the inequality of women and men in our society. We are too used to see the superhero on screen, and now is time for the female superhero. But, how are we going to react to it?
Female audiences and male audiences react in different ways. Producers might know this, and in presenting Lucy both hot (sexualized) and powerful might accommodate both a male audience and a female audience. While males can be more centered on her looks, females can be more centered on her intelligence and strength. We don’t know for sure if this recipe will work, but the cultural challenge to an old stereotype is there to be broken by the portrayal of the movie, or so I really hope. However, there are still some issues on the table to take into account.
During years media has fed and promoted stereotypes existing in society: traditionally all related to a male-centered vision. In the geek/nerd world of comics, in its origins born to appeal kids, specially boys, superheroes were mostly men, and when heroines were presented they were, and still are, highly sexualized women. This happens because they accommodate the main target of the market: males. Superhero movies are just translating the pages of the comics onto the big screen, trying to accommodate their stories for almost all type of audiences, targeting specially their secured audience: fanboys. Marketing that which works, or triggering an audience you know how it works, or has worked during a long time, is a way to secure cash. Despite this, it has been only recently when we’ve started to find strong women on screen, but not real female superheroes. While female superheroes still target male audiences, strong women portrayed in recent films are starting to target women in our society.
Geeks and nerds have been forcefully fed the idea that they have to lust after women far out from their league. Girls presented are far too unreachable, unable to understand the geeks/nerds and have no interest whatsoever in science fiction, comic books or superhero movies. Women tend not to understand these men, and even reject them, till they realize that the guy is a good one because he has been there all along. This is the idea that is fed in shows like the Big Bang Theory with the case of Leonard and Penny, for example. The idea behind is that the male gets interested from afar and refuses to give up on her, and this attitude will end up in success (according to the show), and badly (according to reality).
The idea of extremely sexualized women is reinforced by comics in which female superheroes and supporting female roles portray exuberant women that are going to be admired from afar, more like the celebrities who play them. The same idea hidden in Geek/Nerd TV shows in which the main characters admire from afar a beautiful woman, female superheroes are there to be admired from very far away, almost as impossible dreams. Let’s think about examples on the big screen, even if they do not have real super powers: Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson and Gamora played by Zoe Saldana. These celebrities are extremely sexualized women who play a role in the narrative as supporting characters (I am not sure what will happen with Gamora since Guardians of the Galaxy won’t be in cinemas till this summer). They are the beautiful women to be admired from afar by their male audiences.
To use extremely beautiful women for the female superhero has its advantages and also its disadvantages. If you think about the male audiences you are just triggering the same ideas presented in the comics: super beautiful women, with highly sexualized bodies and super powers, who are admired from far, far away. However, I am not so sure these characters will have a huge effect on the psyche of women. A good character is successful if it’s able to make the audience empathize with him/her. The audience will feel closer to the character if their cultural background is similar, or their experiences in life are similar. Into this equation we have to add how males and females react to the same character depending on their basic instincts.
We must not forget how the subconscious and instincts play a huge role on how we get more attracted or repelled by certain images. In the case of Black Widow’s photoshoped promotional poster by Marvel, we can see her portrayal at odds with that of her mates. She has been highly modified, and the center of the image is not her face, but her torso. She has been highly sexualized, but why? Who is trying to accommodate the poster? Women? Certainly not! First of all, superhero movie fans are used to see explosive women, thus the need to portray her image as such to attract what it might be the majority of audience: males. A good sexualized poster translates in more sales, more male purchasers. A poster like her mates would have had a different response in males. While women might have been more happy with the poster, male would have not, and sale numbers might have been different. The illusion of a super attractive woman would have faded. The illusion of staring to an astonishing woman from afar would not be there. The sexual appeal would have entirely gone. She would be less appealing for the male audience, and a little more appealing for the female audience. But still, not entirely. In trying to secure sales coming from the male audience, they are disregarding what would come from the female audience.
Men and women react in a different way when presented with a successful celebrity around. While men would like to be like the male celebrity, or be happy to have a picture with their heroes, women might turn to be more competitive with their counterparts. Feeling less attractive when next to the female celebrity could undermine their self-esteem, or make them invisible to male eyes. This is not due to mere jealousy, but how society has fed the roles of men and women in society, ideas of beauty and how successful male have paved road plenty of beautiful women to choose from. These are cultural constructs based on animal instincts. In this regard, females compete one another trying to attract the attention of the male who shows up the best capabilities for survival, thus the one who shows up the best genes. So a successful male could be the one with the muscle, or the one with the brains, or the one who holds both, depending on the situation and other multiple factors. This successful male would be surrounded by females trying to get his attention just using as an attention device their bodies. This triggers further the way our brains like to work: while male brains are more visual and need visual stimulus, females might only need a mixture of visual and non visual. However, this is forgetting that how we understand sex, beauty and success are cultural constructs.
Makeup was born to fool male brains and think that women were still young, thus in the age of reproduction. Our brains, thus, are wired to search for the survival of the species. Hence, the need to use makeup to fool male brains. In the same way, marketing uses visual sexualized images of beautiful women to fool male brains in to do something specific. Because the technique works, it has been widely abused by media. The problem with this equation is the status of women within society and what is expected from them. Hence, the double standards applied to women. Sexualization means objectivization. Thus, objectivization of women makes their status as the support role in society, and not the superhero one. To challenge this views also means to challenge how our brains are used to be fed with certain ideas, as well as how they are fooled using the subconscious and the female/male brain wiring.
Thus, posters of movies of strong women and comic-book covers of female superheroes are highly sexualized to appeal male audiences, not to appeal female audiences. Traditionally the realm of males, superhero movies and comics have portrayed and continue to portray women as sex symbols, sex objects. Even though Black Widow has represented a step forward, we cannot say that there is a huge fan mass of females empathizing with her. Instead, we are more focused on how sexualized she has been portrayed, and we might even get “jealous” when our sweethearts talk too much about her. This “jealousy” appears because the cultural ideas of what a woman should do or react in certain occasions get triggered when a man says out loud his opinions towards someone who is more able than you to get his attention. What she can or cannot do, how intelligent she might be is lost for the female audience as well as for the male audience, just because of the way she is portrayed. Females might feel “attacked” precisely by this extreme sexualization of the female body, making it difficult or impossible for the vast majority to comply with unrealistic social cues of what a female should look like. Males might feel “attracted” to the character sexually but missing her point entirely if her portrayal is too sexualized. She is not seen as an equal but as a sexual object.
What will happen with Lucy, Gamora and Wonder Woman (if rumors are real and she will be joining Superman and Batman) is key to finally watch a female superhero on her own on the big screen. Since sexuality is a social construction or a product of a particular socio-cultural environment (Hatton), it means that we can change our attitudes. Thus, we need to see a female superhero, equal to her male counterparts, not as a second in the narrative but as a main strong character. We need to watch on screen a beautiful intelligent woman, one that challenges the idea of beautiful women are dumb and do not understand what men do while not being sexualized, but presented as any other superhero would. We need to be confronted with challenging ideas, shocking ones for our subconscious minds which expect conformity with the ideas and ideals that have been fed for so long. We need to be confronted with a reversal of male and female roles into superhero narratives, and also we need to see on the big screen the average woman and the average men enter the superhero stories.
- Even female superheroes are unable to break the glass ceiling in Hollywood.
- Fans cry sexism over Black Widow’s Photoshop makeover.
- Your Princess is in another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.
- Researchers measure increasing sexualization of images in magazines.
- Why Men Want Sex and Women Need Love: Solving the Mystery of Attraction.
Copyright: Images on this post (C) Lucy (the movie) (C) Marvel