Commentary: Gender gap keeps female superheroes down

Akron Beacon JournalMay 9, 2013 


Jennifer Garner starred as Elektra in the widely panned 2005 film of the same name.


Maybe it's the hair.

Not too long ago, I was watching Elektra, the 2005 big-screen superhero adventure starring Jennifer Garner as the title character. During scenes where I was supposed to be admiring her villain-kicking skills, I was marveling instead at the makeup — and the lush mass of hair framing her face even after strenuous activity.

Unfortunately, it was also an absurd moment in a ridiculous movie. But it did provide a peek into reasons why there hasn't been a big, successful, live-action superhero movie with a female lead.

To be sure, superhero movies also can be found wanting on ethnic grounds. But the gender gap is even more glaring because the attempts to make female-superhero movies have been rare and mostly awful, even as male-centric movies have become more ambitious and character-driven.

This summer, your local cineplex will have not only the just-opened Iron Man 3 but new looks at Superman and Wolverine. Also, while this year marks the 75th anniversary of Superman, one comic books blogger noted that also makes it the 75th anniversary of Lois Lane.

So if, for example, Wolverine can be spun out of X-Men (with the second Hugh Jackman movie due in late July), why hasn't there been a feature starring one of X-Men's women?

Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow was more than a little impressive in Iron Man 2, returned for The Avengers super-gang and is part of the upcoming Captain America sequel. But while Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk and Captain America had their own movies before Avengers, where's the Black Widow's?

Wonder Woman has been talked about for movie treatment for years, but it might be more years before it happens. David Goyer, the screenwriter whose credits include the new Man of Steel and Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, said in one of Reddit's Ask Me Anything interviews that "Wonder Woman is a very difficult character to crack."

And should we be optimistic if those movies actually get made? On those infrequent occasions when female superheroes have taken center stage, the result is as disappointing as Elektra or the even worse Supergirl (1984).

The latter movie, attempting to match the success of the Christopher Reeve super-flicks, was reviled in its day and looks even worse on re-examination.

Then there's My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), whose title alone should tell that it's not taking superhero-ness seriously.

TV has not been much better. Its Wonder Woman? A live-action cartoon, and not in a good way. The Bionic Woman? Coolly acted by Lindsay Wagner but, as was often pointed out, somehow less strong than The Six Million Dollar Man even though both had bionics. The 2007 reboot Bionic Woman quickly went belly-up.

There have been more effective superhero women in prime-time shows including Birds of Prey and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But Birds lasted one season, and Buffy's powerful-women message takes place in a world that critic Christina Rowley once said is "dominated by patriarchal values." Another critic, Mary Magoulick, said Buffy and her TV contemporaries Xena and La Femme Nikita "present male fantasies and project the status quo more than they fulfill feminist hopes."

That begins to get at the problem facing female superheroes: In short, they're working in Boys' Town.

Men still dominate the studios. Men, especially young men, are the target audience for action movies, and super hero movies doubly ignore women because they spring from comic books, which also for the most part target men.

Sue, the one-name-only author of the DC Women Kicking Ass website, spoke for a lot of moviegoers when she lamented a couple of years ago that DC Comics' did more than just ignore its many female readers. It also perpetuated stereotypes with "artwork of female characters that regularly crosses the line from cheesecake to embarrassing," she said.

Which brings us to the hair. Even if male superheroes have been to varying degrees freshly sliced beefcake, they are still allowed to get mussed up. Women are expected to be beautiful, well-coiffed and garbed in ways that accentuate what the horndogs in the audience consider their positives. So you get tight or revealing costumes, and carefully groomed looks — all of which make any kind of fight scene seem less credible, even silly.

So what is the solution to all this?

1. Get a studio to make a movie starring a female superhero. A big studio that will provide the budget to make this movie look like all the male projects, and the marketing clout to let the audience know it is out there.

2. Make sure the movie does not suck. Tell Goyer to get over himself and crack that Wonder Woman script. Or find a writer who understands women and can give the character the layers male superheroes now have. After all, male superheroes in movies have gone through grim creative periods — the mid- to late '90s Batman movies (post-Burton, pre-Nolan), Marvel efforts like Daredevil, Elektra and Fantastic Four. They found a way to move forward.

3. Remember that need for marketing clout? Sell the daylights out of this thing. Get people in the seats. Because, if audiences come, there will be sequels. And imitations.

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