The Marvel Superheroes Cultural Phenomenon
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a lot to learn when it comes to equality. Every Marvel film is the story of a straight white man who usually has a female love interest and sometimes a woman sidekick. This is not diversity, it is tokenism. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has a diverse audience in terms of gender, race and sexuality; and yet all we see on the screen are men. Woman need better representation in film, it just seems like the women superheros have become sex objects with weapons. Superhero films have a long way to go before they reach equality.
Upon its birth in 1961, Marvel Comics transformed its industry by introducing realism, heros with more complex, flawed personalities-and politics into the mix. In 50 years since, Marvel has transformed the pop culture landscape, bringing forth iconic characters such as Spiderman, Iron Man, Captain America, The Avengers, X-man, and so many others. Notice how the major characters that started as comics and became Marvel films were all men.
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From inception of the funny pages until today, sexism in comics has been rampant. (Lent 2007) “Gender and sexuality have figured prominently in the development of comic books and comic strips, and women cartoonists—though relatively rare at times and in places—have been active from the earliest days of cartooning.” (p. 318) Portrayals are better for female characters than they have ever been, making the comic book stereotyping that’s still happening even more egregious. Even though female superheroes that grace the pages of these books are just as powerful and nuanced as their male counterparts they are still super sexualized in a way that male superheroes never will be. The best example of this is when the cover of Spider Woman came out. The art shows Jessica Drew in a costume that’s ridiculously skin tight, even by comic book standards. She’s also presenting herself like an animal as if the say “Hello boys, Don’t worry about a female superheros replacing the more popular male superheros, I am just a sex object.”
In a confusing grab for female readers, Marvel launched a 2010 fem-centric comic series called “Girl Comics” which was an anthology of “comics by girls for girls.” They were announced Her-Oes featuring younger versions of some of the woman of Marvel. The writers did a great job of spotlighting a great many women who did want to work in the superhero comics, and the wonderful range of perspectives and styles they’d bring to the table, but because it was a self-contained project, none of that made its way into the main Marvel universe.
Today, the Invisible Woman is one of the most powerful people in the Marvel universe. Sue Storm became Marvel’s first silver age superhero, but is apparently only good for one thing. Back in the 60’s when she was relegated to being the Fantastic Four’s cheerleader, and oftentimes their maid. Sue Storm was envisioned by Stan Lee as being Marvel’s answer to DC’s Wonder Woman (just without super strength) and though she made history as the company’s first superheroine, sexist writing is what kept her from reaching her full potential for years.
Most comics and comic based movies are very heavy handed in the male gaze. The idea of the male gaze has been around for hundreds of years. The idea of women in comics are introduced in a very “male gaze” way. They see the girls breasts first, her legs, her hands, everything except the face. The viewer then is only seeing these body parts as objects after because that’s how they were introduced. After the female is incorporated into the story, she then is placed as a sexual outlet for the viewer and the other male characters. The female characters were clothes that draw attention to the breasts, legs, or private areas. They are often bent in ways to show the assumed male audience a more pleasurable and sexual picture.
From the comic books to the big screen the assumed male audience needs to be abolished along with the male gaze to give female readers the comfortable viewing experience they deserve alongside their male counterparts. We need more confident, respectable, sexual female characters because it is not just female sexuality that is the problem. It is also how male writers, artists, and directors react to it. We need to look at the female characters like they are characters and not just objects to be viewed, but a well rounded out and well thought out person.
Marvel Studios is in the process of making the Marvel Cinematic Universe more diverse. Starting with Captain Marvel, the studio plans to have more than 50% of their heroes to be female. Montalvo (2019) Captain Marvel was a character created in the 1960’s, but he was called Mar-Vell and he was a male character. The film is based on Carol Danvers, also known as Ms. Marvel, before she took up the mantle of Captain Marvel when Mar-Vell dies. (p.1) They are also trying to create more diverse characters and have more female directors. The film industry has always been a male dominated field. It actually has its roots in stage productions where in the early days even the heroines were men. This type of patriarchy in film has been around since film began. Women were reluctantly admitted into cinema, initially for the purpose to be eye candy-but it has been found films sold better if the heroines were actually women. “Over the years, Marvel writers and editors have tried their hands at a number of series with female leads, but they rarely panned out, and in each case, the books were quietly canceled.” (Vulture 2015.)
What does the future hold for the women of Marvel? There has been a lot of progress where Marvel comics have been brought to life, and the writers are making a difference by showing diversity. However, looking to the female characters, any future opportunities will depend on Marvel’s willingness to acknowledge and not be limited by their own history. From the first MCU films, examples of pervasive, everyday sexism have been overlooked or dismissed in the name of history. A great example is when Tony Stark (Iron Man) meets an undercover Black Widow and stating “I want one” meaning he needed a women like her by his side. Even more recent films are occasionally marred with a sense of humor that tends towards displays of toxic masculinity and casual misogyny, denoting an air of sexism the films no longer can afford. From the way the women are spoken of, the way they are spoken to, and the way men undermine the female action heroes is changing.
In the case of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron a scene when the male Avengers each attempt to lift Thor’s hammer and Iron Man makes offhanded jokes that presents rape humor and it is offensive and damaging, especially in these times. The time is up for cheap efforts in entertainment of this nature. Female Avengers are still constrained by emotional or romantic responsibility to their male colleagues.
Black Widow has had her fair share of challenges as did Captain Marvel, she may catch the attention of her male counterparts and audience but on the toy shelves she is non-existent. There’s a noticeable absence in Marvel merchandising-one so glaringly obvious that it led to several outraged co-stars of Black Widow. Is it blatantly sexist or is it a reflection of toy realities? The reality of any market always hinges on the basic, on supply and demand. This problem does not only lie in the hands of the manufacturer, but society as well. The supply and demand would go up for female action hero toys if society showed a bigger interest in buying and supporting the need for the product. It is not sexist to admit that , as a demographic, girls are less likely to want Avengers toys in the first place.
Black Widow is a great character. She is morally complex. She is grappling with her femininity in a world of violence and masculinity. Marvel has continuously used Black Widow to balance out and tease her male co-stars, a task only she, with her sultry, feminine charms can do. “The female-genre fanbase is either growing, or getting more vocal, or both. When I go to comic book conventions or premieres and see people dressed up as characters, there are as many if not more women than men now. So women are very much a gigantic portion of the fanbase.” (The Straight TImes 2015).
Hollywood is changing-just look at recent calls for celebrity power to push for equal pay. Female action heroes have already successfully led other superhero films (DC Comics Wonder Woman was a hit in 2017) so it won’t be hard for Marvel to replicate this success-but they can’t rely on old formulas. One hopes that the MCU does not miss the mark in recognizing the power in these possibilities. Representations of female action heroes can be more than a reflection of our culture, they must be a vision of how we view each other and our place in the universe, cinematic or otherwise.
- How the Success of Marvel’s Female Superheroes Heralds a More Inclusive Age of Comics. (2015, May 21). Vulture. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2050/apps/doc/A507795958/GPS?u=wylrc_sheridanc&sid=GPS&xid=fb4e81f
- Carey Mulligan On Sexism, Feminism, Pay Gaps and Jennifer Lawrence. (2015, November 29). Vulture. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2050/apps/doc/A508410586/GPS?u=wylrc_sheridanc&sid=GPS&xid=bc5f5fbf
- Lent, J. A. (2007). Comics/Comic Strips. In F. Malti-Douglas (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender (Vol. 1, pp. 318-321). Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2050/apps/doc/CX2896200140/GVRL?u=wylrc_sheridanc&sid=GVRL&xid=f4dfa35b
- Young, T. J. (1993). Women as comic book superheroes: The “weaker sex” in the Marvel Universe. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 30(2), 49-50.
- Montalvo, M. J. (2019, Mar 18). Sexism at the root of captain marvel controversy.University Wire Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2048/docview/2193299602?accountid=44564
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- Chakraborty, D. (2019, Mar 12). Captain marvel’s success is A slap for every sexist troll who trashed it before watching it. Indian Express Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2048/docview/2190131113?accountid=44564
- Mallory, M. (2004, July 19). Patience pays off for Marvel films. Variety, 395(9), B4+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com.web.devproxy.sheridan.edu:2050/apps/doc/A119850193/PPOP?u=wylrc_sheridanc&sid=PPOP&xid=e7bf0b9e