The faux feminism problem in Marvel

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Mugdha Vasishth

The contagious anticipation of everyone in the cold movie theatres. The electrifying stunt sequences. Stark’s sardonic remarks. The joint feeling of hearty laughter, closely followed by hysteria and fear. The frantic search on Buzzfeed for Easter eggs after returning from the cinema. Marvel, for many of us, is an experience, not just a movie franchise, it is the pure, unadulterated thrill of seeing your favourite 2D characters come to life.

The Avengers are how most of us know of Marvel, especially those of us that aren’t comic geeks. Known as earth’s mightiest heroes, these few gifted and super-powered individuals’ sole mission is to protect the earth from threats, both human and synthezoid, earthly and extra terrestrial. But what made Marvel’s avengers stand out from their DC counterparts were their developmental journeys, they’re more than heroes- they have backstories, conflicts, and dimension. They aren’t infallible, they’re human, they make mistakes and that’s what makes them relatable. We’ve seen Wanda’s debilitating grief, the Winter Soldier’s confrontation with his dark past and Tony Stark’s impeccable arc. And these things matter, because they help us connect with these characters not just as sketches in a chromatic 80s comic, but as individuals with stories worth telling.

However despite this honest investment into its characters’s journeys and trailblazing role in redefining the superhero genre, Marvel is unable to achieve something quite basic: doing justice to its female characters.

Marvel’s feminism is shallow and the kind marketed as ‘girl power’ while continuing to reinforce harmful gender roles. Profiting off corporate-mandated female empowerment, they have consistently delivered female superhero storylines that are defined by the character’s mere status as a ‘woman who can throw a kick around in a tight suit’. Although Marvel does gain brownie points for the portrayal of Gamora and Nebula in the Guardians of galaxy franchise and the Women of Wakanda, the successes are outweighed by their half hearted attempts at female centric movies such as Captain Marvel.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that Marvel finally got a female-led superhero movie and I am filled to the brim with serotonin knowing so many young girls look up to Captain Marvel. However, as a 16 year teenage girl who’s exhausted of seeing the ‘female superhero who’s key personality trait is that she can fight like a man’ narrative, Captain Marvel was highly disappointing. That being said, a lot of slander hurled at Captain Marvel was unwarranted, with her being called ‘egoistic’, ’vain’ and full of hubris while no fingers are pointed at Tony Stark, who is the textbook definition of a narcissist (I didn’t say it, Marvel did), her character also received backlash for being ‘too powerful’.This is an absurd accusation considering that’s the point of being a superhero. It is almost as if the problem is not the actual qualities, but rather the idea of a woman having them.

I have a different problem and that is to do with Captain Marvel’s attitude towards femininity. Captain Marvel presents femininity as something that needs to be subdued to truly be ‘strong’. Many fans felt like she was deliberately masculinised to appear powerful, which explains why her character came across as inauthentic to many female viewers.

But this wasn’t the first time Marvel robbed their female characters of a meaningful storyline or character arc. Many fans have expressed their disappointment at Marvel’s neglect towards their first female avenger, Natasha Romanoff, better known as Black widow. In Avengers age of Ultron, dangerous parallels were drawn between Dr. Banner (Hulk) and Natasha’s back stories. As the two characters are having a chat about their incipient relationship, Banner verbalises his frustration at feeling like a ‘monster’, and a looming threat to the people around him due to his volatile nature as the Hulk. In response to this, Natasha reveals her deep dark secret: she was sterilised at her spy training camp. ‘You still think you’re the only monster on the team?’, she asks him after this intimate reveal. It is disporting to see a character as formidable as Black Widow, reduced to her reproductive abilities and labelled as a monster and compared to the Hulk due to her inability to conceive children. Natasha, as we hope to see in the Black Widow film coming this summer, has been through a lot. And to reduce her personality, her struggles at this camp to this is not only inaccurate according to the comics but also extremely poor and sexist character work. Natasha, despite being one of the founding Avenger members, also did not get a proper funeral scene in Endgame with little to no onscreen acknowledgment of her sacrifice at Vormir. I would say I’m furious, but that’s an understatement.

But wait, there’s hope! Or at least that’s what Marvel thought we’d feel like when viewing the cringe-inducing, ‘she’s got help’ scene in endgame where all the women in the marvel franchise come together for 15 seconds to help Captain Marvel safely transport the infinity gauntlet. This scene was a failed attempt at championing women. Vittoria from Grade 11, a marvel fan, said, ‘Although that scene can be considered to be empowering, which it might be for young children watching the movie, it is not enough. I’m sure many would agree with me that though we appreciate Marvel trying to promote feminism, they have a track record for doing just the opposite, and this does feel like a band-aid to calm the fans righteously asking for more power to the heroines’. She added, ‘ I think it was a step in the right direction, but these sort of scenes have to become more casual and common for it to become truly empowering for women’.

 

This deeply rooted sexism is also reflected in the stunt sequences and choreography for female characters, especially Black Widow. Intensively schooled in every aspect of espionage and assassination, and a literal superhero, Black widow’s main fight sequences almost always culminate in her squishing male heads using her thighs. Years of training in hand-to-hand combat yet her signature move is a classic between-my-legs takedown. I wanted to see real prowess and fast-paced throws, the moxie of a female MMA fighter, but instead, I got an eroticised, watered down version of the Black Widow from the comics. But these fight sequences are just one way in which marvel reduces its female characters to sexually passive objects.

Costumes of female characters are needlessly sexualised. While essentials for most superheroes are their weapons, for Marvel women, it’s revealing attire. I mean, in what way is a skintight PVC catsuit comfortable for anyone fighting a literal war? We have seen Thor with a beer belly, but ask yourself, could you ever imagine Natasha or Gamora in sweatpants or even just a non-figure-hugging costume. The unrealistic standards proposed for female superheroes have definitely made for several eye-roll worthy moments. I’m still trying to figure out how Natasha manages to maintain perfectly intact open curls and a spotless unzipped bodysuit after fighting literal space aliens, while Iron man, who wears a fully body suit made out of metal, ends up with scratches and scruffy hair. In many interviews, Elizabeth Olsen, playing the role of Wanda, said ‘‘I’m the only one who has cleavage’’, in comparison to other female characters whose costumes have been revamped after criticism. She talked about her discomfort in wearing salacious pieces like corsets in Endgame which also impeded her stunt sequences.

This problem also expands to the real world experiences of Marvel actresses. In fact, while at a press conference for her upcoming avenger film, Scarlet Johansson (Black Widow) vocalised her frustration at the blatantly sexist questions she receives during movie promotions. After being questioned about her diet, she joked, ‘how come you (Robert Downey Jr) get the really interesting existential questions and I get the rabbit food questions?’ She went on to answer the question, but she was visibly disappointed, and understandably so.

Although MCU has openly discussed their efforts to truly diversify their cast and do justice to their female characters, there is still a long way to go. But with the upcoming release of Black widow and Ms. Marvel, there is hope for better representation.