Talked up and left out: How Marvel mistreats its female characters

In its decade-spanning history Marvel has transferred some of its most beloved heroines to the big screen. Those female characters have cultivated a big fan following – countless Black Widows and Scarlett Witches populate comic con, the love for Peggy Carter gave her her own TV show and endless fanarts of Shuri, Nakia and the Dora Milaje circulate the internet. But still female characters inhabit a very weird space in the MCU. This essay looks specifically at the paradoxical way women are placed, used and portrayed in the Marvel movies of the last ten years.

Picture by deannamb on tumblr

At the end of July this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp finally came to theatres here in Germany and I was freaking excited. The reviews from the US sounded great, the trailers had me hyped and I had been longing to see Evangeline Lilly suit up since that scene back in 2015, which felt like a lifetime ago. Still, there was that nagging feeling in my gut that stopped me from rushing to the next cinema and gushing about the importance of strong female characters being shown on screen.

Something was holding me back. Something, a feeling, a question I’ve had in the wake of Avengers: Infinity War. The question isn’t if Marvel mistreats its female characters – I feel like we’ve all known that for a while. No, it is more concrete than that. The real question is, how important are these female characters actually to the narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

From Infinity Stones to Infinity War: Not herstory

In the run up to the release of Infinity War everyone and their mother made a summary of what had happened in the past decade. One of the most viewed videos is probably the one by nerd site IGN. It’s also what first gave me pause and eventually lead to me writing this essay. At fifteen minutes long, it’s neither the longest nor the shortest, but with over 4 million views on YouTube, as of November 2018, it’s definitely one of the most viewed timeline recaps. It starts before the inception of existence with the Infinity Stones and ends shortly before the beginning of Infinity War. It sums up all the movies and main plot lines and manages to give a shout-out to all of the OG Avengers, including Hawkeye.

Well, all of them except the Black Widow. Then again, who is Natasha Romanoff, aside, for a long time, the only female superhero we had? She’s only been in six of the MCU movies, which puts her on par with the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor. In the same video IGN manages to bypass Peggy Carter, Pepper Potts, Shuri, Nakia and the Ancient One. That includes some of the most iconic characters in Marvel history. Now to be fair Peggy, Pepper and Natasha are at least shown in the video, and with film being a visual medium you could argue, that is just as good as being named.

Especially considering that I did get all the information I needed to understand the plot of Infinity War or to get a refresher of all that’s happened, if it had been a while since I’d seen one of the movies.

And that’s exactly the problem. The overall lack of female representation in the script of this video shows a structural problem Marvel has had with its female characters: While most of the time we are told how great and important the female characters are, rarely does the narrative of the movie support this. We are told, not shown.

Know your place: female characters’ positions in the MCU

Let’s have a look at the majority of larger female characters in the MCU. Most likely, the female lead of a Marvel movie is the love interest of the male hero. Pepper Potts, Peggy Carter, Jane Foster, Betty Ross, Christine Palmer and Hope van Dyne all fall into this category. All of them are portrayed as strong, independent, knowledgeable people. They are doctors, scientists, spies and business women and can even hold their own in a fight. All of them are impressive women “who need no man”, but our heroes show themselves worthy of their affection through their actions and their character.

To further explain: there is a difference between relevance for the plot and relevance for a grand scale narrative. For example, Peggy serves as Steve’s love interest, she’s someone who believes in him and who provides him with the means to be heroic, like when she gets him a pilot to go save Bucky. She is also an emotional surrogate for the audience, to stress the tragedy of Steve’s “death” at the end of the movie. That’s her function to the plot. Still, the narrative of the movie is about a good man, making the hard choices and sacrificing himself to save others. Also to get the Tesseract into SHIELD’s hands. Point is, you can tell Steve Rogers’ story without mentioning Peggy.

So, these women might even serve as a  necessary part of the hero’s narrative, by furthering the plot. They challenge the hero, support him, help him and enable him to succeed in saving the day. In the end that also largely means that they have no own arc or character development, as they are only integral parts of the “hero’s journey”. They are never heroes of their own stories. That results in them being interchangeable and easily left out of the series they were established in. Therefore, they are no substitute for a movie that is actually female-centric.

Ever wondered what happened to Betty Ross after The Incredible Hulk? No one knows, no one cares. Her father is still around though. Remember when Thor and Tony argue about whose girlfriend is more badass in Avengers: Age of Ultron? Either way, Pepper doesn’t make an onscreen appearance between 2013 and 2017, while Jane and Thor’s tempestuous but adoring relationship culminates in an off-screen break up. The scene in Thor: Ragnarok, where their break-up is brought up as a side-note, is clearly meant to be comical, implying that Jane broke up with the Mighty God of Thunder and that “being dumped” is a sore topic for Thor. What a powerful woman she must be to just break up with that hunk! This surely isn’t just about explaining her character away.

And exactly that’s the point. The praise these female characters earn and the significance and power we are told they have, are only verbal and are not supported by the narrative place they are given in the MCU.

My most “favourite” of these is probably shoehorned character, Sharon Carter, or as a friend once referred to her: “The biggest moment of #nohomo in Marvel history.” Appearing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as well as its follow-up, she gets to be both a necessary ally to move the plot along and an awkward love interest, to keep the slash fans at bay. Other than most other love interests she isn’t constantly praised – because no one cares enough to talk about her – instead she’s a character of titles. She is a SHIELD alumni, a CIA agent and second in command to Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross. It is of course unsurprising that she did not make the cut by IGN. Then again, she barely made the cut in Captain America: Civil War. Which is sad because the niece of the Peggy Carter, an experienced agent with a rich comic book history deserved better than to tell all the Stucky fangirls to shove their queer hopes, where the sun don’t shine. Either way, Sharon Carter will remain a footnote in the Captain America movies, while her male boss became one of the few non-poc characters to have the honour of an appearance in this year’s Black Panther movie.

The “fridged” moms of the MCU

Anyway, another way for female characters to appear in the MCU is as mothers or mother figures. Thor, Tony Stark, Peter Quill, T’Challa, Peter Parker, even Steve Rogers, all of their mothers (or mother figures) are mentioned, shown via flashback or appear as characters in the story of the movies. There are actually also a lot of fathers. Talking about the importance of “Daddy Issues” for the MCU could probably fill a whole book. It’s all quite Shakespearean.

The issue with the mothers is a different one, though not less dramatic: they just won’t stop dying! Now a lot of you will probably have heard about the trope as old as time itself that is “fridging women”, for those who haven’t I will happily divulge. “Stuffed into the fridge” is a trope coined by comic book writer Gail Simone, who used it to refer to the tendency of authors to use female suffering and its shock value to elicit emotional reactions in the male protagonists and the (male) readers, instead of employing actual character development. The specific example used, comes from a storyline in (funnily enough) DC Comic Green Lantern, who gets home only to find his girlfriend murdered and stuffed into the fridge, promptly vying for revenge for the murder. Now the female character can also be in a different relation to the protagonist, as long as it’s an intimate or important one. She also doesn’t have to be murdered. Raped, abused, incapacitated, brainwashed or in any way physically or psychologically harmed does the trick, too. Just off the top of your head you can probably name five movies, TV-Shows, videogames, books or comics where you have encountered this trope. Just take the example I just told you about and all the Taken movies and you already have four.

Back to the Marvel mums though. I’ll tell you right of the bat: Marvel has an unhealthy tendency to kill the hero’s mother. In Thor: The Dark World, Frigga gets murdered to provide a reason for Loki and Thor to join forces and to re-humanise “former” villain Loki. Poor psychopath loves his adoptive mother! Meredith Quill dies at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1, leading to a traumatic moment for young Peter which he relives and overcomes at the end of the movie with Gamora, his love interest. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 it is then revealed that Meredith was actually killed by Quill’s father, leading to a rage fuelled outburst and the instant try to commit patricide. The reveal of who killed Maria Stark is what actually motivates Tony Stark to fight Bucky Barnes, and leads to splitting up the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War. At the same time even Sarah Rogers’ death has a function. The flashback to the aftermath of her funeral has Bucky saying the words that will help Cap break through the Winter Soldier’s conditioning. Thanks mum!

Fridging loved ones to entice the male hero’s journey is as pervasive in the MCU as it is in pop culture in general. It’s always an easy way to motivate the hero and to make him react emotionally in a way that is not deemed weak. Generally, it is accepted that the fitting reaction to having a female character torn away from you in this way is revenge and, most likely, violence. That is also the case for the MCU, where all of these deaths or revelations of murder are followed by emotional outbursts of violence against the culprit. Gamora is, even though not a mother, the latest of these fridged women, with an emotional revenge reaction by a man who loved her and all that. In a way, it is actually remarkable, that no girlfriend, except for Gamora, has so far shuffled off this mortal coil. Then again Marvel does not have a reputation for being dark and tends to like to end its movies with the mating duo intact and going off into the sunset. We can only hope that Aunt May and Queen Mother Ramonda survive their nephew’s/son’s next outings.

Front, center and looking for character depth

There are a handful of female characters though, who have established themselves as Marvel heroines, who are not support characters to any of the male heroes, at least not in the narrow sense of the word. Natasha Romanoff was the first of them. Wanda Maximoff, as the second female Avenger, as well as the Guardians Gamora and Mantis can also be put into this category. Maria Hill is her very own category, while characters like Okoye of the Dora Milaje, Tech-Princess Shuri or Dr. Strange’s Mentor the Ancient One, are franchise secondary characters who might classically have been roles reserved for men. Here we can also make a very important distinction of the place of characters in the MCU. While female superheroes à la Avengers and Guardians are entangled with the very fabric of the Universe, as is Maria Hill with SHIELD (and Fury), characters like Okoye, Shuri and The Ancient One are entangled with specific heroes in the Universe. That limits their possibility for appearing in larger storylines. This also explains why, while Infinity War had the most female heroes in one movie ever, it still had about ten times as many male characters. And again, due to that, interesting developments for characters get dropped. So if the next movie isn’t her hero’s next one, or if he is all out of movies, she will just disappear out of the MCU. Pepper kind of becoming a superheroine at the end of Iron Man 3 just went away, as did the character of Valkyrie. We mourn both of these potentially great and interesting developments.

Natasha Romanoff: Not one of the boys

Does appearance equal development though? Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow is a special case in terms of female characters in the MCU. Aside from those OG Avengers who have their own trilogy, she is the only original Avenger to star in six movies. She also does not get introduced as a love interest, though she does get heavily objectified.  However, she is also shown as a fighter and consequently an Avenger, holding her own alongside the Hulk, the God of Thunder and the rest of the merry misfits. Still she is plagued by many of the problems that other female characters share and some unique to her position as the most prominent and (till 2015) only female Avenger. Because apparently appearance does not equate development at all. Apparently, there needs to be an effort made on the writer/director side… I know… wild.

Unlike her colleagues, Natasha does not get much of an arc or room for development. She gets very little room to grow or change from where we meet her in 2010 to where we have last seen her in 2018. As she is relegated to a second tier Avenger and sidekick or background character in the movies she appears in, she is never the focus of the story and even villains like Loki get to develop more than she does. This might also be the reason why it was possible to leave her out of the IGN summary. While she has significance for the plot in the movies she’s in, she was not allowed to leave her mark as a character on the MCU in the way that Thor, Cap or Iron Man have done. This also shows the need for standalone female superhero movies and that it is way past time for them, because otherwise even interesting heroines are relegated to supporting roles and even in a two-hour movie do not have room to become their own characters.

Natasha being the only female hero for so long is also shown as problematic in Age of Ultron. It is the only movie where we get to see a bit more of her as a character. We get to know something about her past and about her romantic desire. But it also comes up short. To many, the romance with Bruce Banner felt unorganic, unfitting and out of character to have Nat’s storyline be about the possibility of motherhood and how that was taken from her. Not that these are uninteresting themes in themselves, but if all of female representation rests on the shoulders of one female character, any representation will feel flat, stereotypical and unnuanced just by virtue of not being able to represent the multitude of female experience in the world. At the same time, I feel it needs to be stressed that Nat is the only Avenger (until Infinity War) to have her love interest be another superhero, which means that, other than her male compatriots, her love story doesn’t tether her in the outside, non-super world and is of course due to her not having her standalone movie.

In the end, the single most important female character of the MCU is insignificant enough to not be mentioned in a fifteen-minute-long summary of said Universe and, while you might miss enjoyable details, it works perfectly without her and that is a loss for the MCU and a shame on its creators.

    The male fantasy: Two women walk into a room and talk about him

Now, let’s be clear here. I fault the creators of the MCU much more than I do IGN. The system enables this kind of sexism. So, bear with me and let’s get even more meta.

Of the twenty MCU movies premiered so far only the Guardian movies and Antman and the Wasp pass the Bechdel test unequivocally. A good deal of movies do not pass the test at all by virtue of two female characters not ever interacting and that’s just sad. Others pass the test if you close both of your eyes and put a blindfold on. That is due to most movies having only a female love interest or, even if there is more than one female character, in the end, the story revolves so heavily around the male hero, that there is no room for two women not talking about the man. And then of course these movies are also made by people. And by people, I of course mean men. Of twenty movies exactly none have been directed by women. Nearly as few have been written by women. Only Guardians Vol. 1 credits its script partly to a female writer.

So, the systematic problems of the female characters might very well stem from a structural problem with production. When we talk about entertainment being a male fantasy we don’t have to go further than: “Who imagined this? Who wrote this?” If it is a man, the outcome is a male fantasy, a male perspective, a male view of the world and of the people inhabiting it, male and female alike.

    Hope on the Horizon

Now Antman and the Wasp shook up some of the problems Marvel’s female characters have, giving her title credit and centring around her and her story just as much as around Antman’s. Still, it went way less far than people, men and women alike, had hoped. At the same time Captain Marvel, which hits theatres next February, will be co-written and co-directed by a man and a woman. The trailer that dropped recently promises much. Then again, we are desperate to finally get our MCU movie, to finally get the feeling from a Marvel movie that DC’s Wonder Woman gave us, and hopefully leave us even more content.

So, you could say there is Hope on the horizon. Still, a decade of systematically under-serving female characters and a male understanding of female empowerment, pared with an even greater lack of diversity behind the camera than before it, won’t be cured by two movies. I’d say it will take a couple for me to see a trend going into the right direction. To me personally, it will take at least another 20 movies and a decade worth of content to make up for all the opportunities missed between 2008 and now. Then again, the groundwork is there! Marvel has managed, despite themselves apparently, to create enticing female characters. Now just give them to someone who will show us how great they are, instead of just trying to convince us. We are done falling for empty compliments.

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