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Female Superheroes and the Big Screen

Everyone seems to be talking about a solo female superhero movie lately. And sure, I think it has a lot of potential, but there is one sentiment that makes me cringe every time it gets mentioned. People keep saying how we, as a society, are finally ready for a solo female superhero film. Guess what! We aren’t finally ready for a solo female on the big screen. We’ve been ready for a good, long while now, and the reason we haven’t had a successful female superhero flick has nothing to do with the gender of the hero.         

Now, prepare yourselves. Take some deep breaths. Count to ten. Whatever you need...  Because we're going to look at some history. 

There is no doubt that women, both real and fictional, have not always been treated as well as they should have been. It’s been a long road to get society to where we are today, and we still have a ways to go, but we're better now than we've ever been! 

Now, of course, female superheroes are not as common as their male counterparts. The most famous superheroes are mostly male, so it is no wonder why we haven't seen as many female superheroes on the big-screen. There are, however, enough female superheroes with great backstories for us to have a solo outing with one on the big screen by now! The problem isn’t the disproportionate number of men, but the terrible depiction of women we’ve had forced into our skulls.  

There are two things we need to clear up before we can really look at this issue. First, there is a difference between being feminine and being sexual. This is difficult for people to grasp sometimes, but it's true. All too often we have women in movies solely to add a little something... if you know what I mean. And that just makes women out to be objects. Come on, we're better than that! Secondly, there is a difference between a strong female character and a strong female. Sure, we could have some woman that can pick up a building and slam it on a bad guy’s face, but that doesn’t make her a strong character.   

In The Avengers, there is that scene between Black Widow and Loki on the Helicarrier. I thoroughly enjoyed this scene because Black Widow was portrayed as being feminine. She wasn’t just a male character with boobs. Can you imagine Thor in the room being all vulnerable and getting slightly emotional about Loki being a “monster”?  Can you imagine Iron Man going into the room to discuss the life of one person (other than himself)? No. Black Widow is a femme fatale and uses the fact that she’s female to her advantage! She doesn’t have super-human strength. She doesn’t have mutant powers. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We have basically been force-fed the idea that superhero movies must have a damsel in distress. The man must be manly and muscly and save the woman and then they will be together forever because he saved her and that makes him mighty. Lois Lane (an amazing investigative journalist who can’t see past some glasses) died. She freaking died! Superman had to turn back time to save her. Jack Nicholson’s Joker from 1989’s Batman abducts Vicki Vale and takes her to a church. Rather than fighting back or doing anything, she flops around like a rag doll with loose joint stitches. In Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, Mary Jane (who was lacking all sass and awesomeness) just sort of screamed — I wonder if that’s how they used to cast women in these films, with the director sitting back in his chair and saying, “Okay, start screaming for the superhero to save you.” 

Over time we’ve started to see the emergence of women that actually DO stuff! In Batman ReturnsMichelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman blew everyone's mind and showed us just how awesome a woman could be in a superhero movie! She is still the iconic film version of Catwoman. The women of the X-Men movies kick trash on their own, let alone as a team (except Rogue who the director hired for her screaming ability – which is not her mutant ability… shame). Even X-Men 3, the worst of the films in my opinion, still had strong female characters, and who can doubt that Mystique is a strong character? Overly sexualized? Yes. But still a strong character. In Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane gets all mad and picks up a freaking pipe to take down Doc Ock. This made my heart race. The damsel in distress was about to save the superhero! HOW'S THAT FOR A FREAKING TWIST?! Then she got knocked down and Spider-Man had to save her. So close.

Christopher Nolan changed all superhero movies with Batman Begins. Every woman in the Dark Knight Trilogy is wonderful! They are strong, memorable, likable, and all-around awesome. FINALLY! Not only were Rachel Dawes, Selina Kyle, and Talia Al Ghul – I mean Miranda Tate – awesome characters, but the minor characters held their own as well.

In Iron Man, who took down Obadiah Stane? Oh, that’s right – Pepper Potts!  In Iron Man 3, who took down Aldrich Killian? Oh yeah – Pepper Freaking Potts!  I finally got my wish of a female saving the titular male character. Black Widow in Iron Man 2, Marvel's The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an excellent example of a woman who kicks butt and is still feminine without being ridiculous. I’d go into more detail, but I already gave an example of this. 

On the other hand, let's look at the solo female superhero movies on the big screen so far. Um, well…

There was Supergirl in 1984. This obscure movie had Razzie nominations for worst actor and worst actress. It also triples the campiness of the other films along with enough cheese to constipate an elephant. Halle Berry's Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra both completely flopped at the box office (And an argument can be made that both Catwoman and Elektra are more anti-heroes rather than superheroes…). I believe this wasn't because of the actresses. Both have shown they can handle physical roles while also being competent and believable actresses.  So the problem isn’t the actresses. It lies in the directing and writing of the films. These three movies on Rotten Tomatoes are rated 8% (the lowest of every superhero movie I know of), 9%, and 10%, respectively. No wonder we don’t trust female superhero films! 

Do we care about a female superhero? Yes. Are we okay with a female superhero movie? More than! With movies like Kill BillThe Hunger Games, and Frozen, we’ve shown that we will actually watch movies with a female lead.

So why haven't we had a solo outing with a female superhero that rocked the box office? Simply because we've been given crap so far. We’ve shown time and time again that gender doesn’t play a determining role. We want depth of character. We want femininity without over-the-top sexuality. We want a female superhero who is more than a male superhero with boobs.  Give us something awesome and we'll watch it!

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