Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Avenging Women

"If I don't get pants, nobody gets pants!"
My roommate found this infographic online and showed it to me and she and I had a good laugh about it. But then it struck me that it would actually be funnier if it were more true. The top pie chart says women won't like The Avengers because it has a sexy woman in it, while the bottom chart illustrates how women will like the movie because it has a lot of hot guys in it. Both paint a rather limited, and inaccurate, view of how women view movies.

I saw The Avengers with a group of girl friends and we really enjoyed the movie. We thought it was hilarious, had a deep, meaningful story, and we loved the running, jumping, blowing things up. Sure, we noticed the hot biceps and chiseled features of the super-heroes, but it certainly wasn't the reason we enjoyed the film as a whole. If the men had been ugly, but all the other elements were in place, we probably would have still liked the film. Conversely, if the men had been hot but the movie crap, we would have walked out of the theatre. We cannot have a double standard, expecting men to stop being turned on by objectified female characters while we simultaneously swoon over the male physique on screen. It isn't fair for either gender.

Cobie Smulders as
Agent Maria Hill
That said, let us take a look at how women were portrayed in The Avengers. First of all, it does not pass the Bechdel Test. There are two women in the movie and I don't remember them ever speaking to each other. The first is Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders of How I Met Your Mother). Apparently she actually used to be head of S.H.I.E.L.D. but in this movies she's basically Captain Fury's second. Then there's the only female super-hero, the Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson. Although neither woman fills a sexually objectified role in the film, neither woman is in a position of leadership either. They both wear tight-fitting black uniforms which show off their curves, but I must admit it could me so much worse. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Johansson described the traditional female superhero when she said, "They're always fighting in a bra, so while it might be exciting for a still photo, it's ridiculous. I do think superheroine movies are normally corny and bad. They're always, like, fighting in four-inch heels with their [thrusting out her chest] like a two-gun salute." While The Avengers certainly doesn't portray the Black Widow like that, there is still an echo of the old male-gaze voyeurism in the way the camera follows her, always positioning the viewer to get a great look at her backside.
Scarlett Johansson as
The Black Widow

In the same Entertainment Weekly interview, Samuel L. Jackson expresses the chauvinist attitude that is still present in Hollywood today:

     Jackson: They got to get The Pro to the screen! I love that book!
     Johansson: What's The Pro?
     Jackson: It's [a comic book] about a hooker who gets superpowers!
     Johansson: That is exactly the problem right there!
     Jackson: It's a totally dope book, though.
     Johansson: I'd have to wear pasties to greenlight any of these movies.

Director Joss Whedon gives a nod to The Hunger Games for taking a great step in changing how the film industry approaches woman as action heroes: "Studios will tell you: A woman cannot headline an action movie. After The Hunger Games they might stop telling you that a little bit. Whatever you think of the movie, it's done a great service."

It is clear that there is still a lot of progress to be made in promoting strong women on the screen. The Avengers does not regress into many of the failings of past superhero movies in how it presents its female characters, but it is limited by comic book characterizations that were developed in a time when women were not expected to take on more powerful roles. If Joss Whedon is correct in thinking The Hunger Games has paved the way for a more progressive female protagonist, I look forward to the superheroine movies to come.


  1. I really loved how she was the only one that didn't have a real superpower. She was just a badass. She used her brains to manipulate people and was fearless. Loved it.

  2. Margaret! I am so excited to finally read your thoughts on the movie from a woman's point of view...
    I was truly excited by how the Black Widow was portrayed. Here are some highlights for me:

    1. Yes, there was some boobage at first. But I found it difficult (both times I saw it over the weekend) to see any cleavage! That, I thought, was significant. Yes, tight body suit, but at least no heels.
    2. She was BA. And when it came to a one-on-one fight with a guy who is basically supposed to be her fighting partner, she dominated him.
    3. About her fighting--from a martial arts perspective, I could see a lot more into her character. Aside from the chair scene, her fighting was truly designed to be effective, and and not showy. That is, in general, unusual to see and it is especially peculiar for a female action character. Furthermore, in her one-on-one fight with Hawkeye, she had the upper hand for basically the whole fight. And, when she got in a choke hold with a knife, you (as the viewer) did not have a sense that she was about to lose. You were confident in her ability to win and overcome her male counterpart's physical abilities. There were no sexual undertones during her fighting with Hawkeye, either. Which I also noticed because due to their close relationship, I almost expected there to be! Says something about how I've been socialized...
    4. She was the *only* person to actually attempt to extract information from Loki! She totally had me at first during that dialogue, I thought she was actually upset at Loki's horrible was refreshing to see that she was using Loki's perception (and the men earlier in Russia) of her as a woman (saving one man, weakness, blah blah) to produce the information she and the team needed. To display this kind of intelligence as a female operative, and to juxtapose her ability to demonstrate this intelligence against a backdrop of highly intelligent men, was pretty awesome!
    5. She played a critical role in the battle at the end. I had read an interview with the actor who played Hawkeye months ago, and the gist of his interview was that he and the Black Widow were more in the background and not as important as Captain America and Iron Man, especially. Her participation in the battle at the end of the movie countered the expectation I had formed when reading that interview. She was not only killing the aliens left and right, just as much as Hawkeye and Captain America, but she didn't hesitate to jump onto an alien cruiser, with the goal in mind of shutting down the portal. Without shutting down the portal, there would be no end to the fighting--so Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye and Thor could smash all day, and make no progress, and possibly fail due to the overwhelming number of the alien force. Having a critical role in the climactic battle--both in physical confrontations and in ending the source of the fighting--was phenomenal compared to previous superhero/action/scifi movies I've seen.

    Love you Margaret, these blogs are great!!

  3. Hear, hear, Margaret. Small amounts of progress with the lack of heels and with Black Widow 's BA fighting skills, but definitely progress to be made in the way the cameraman follows her and in the writing of her as a secondary character. Spot on analysis, in my opinion!