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Categories: Features

Kate Harveston takes a look at Hollywood’s comic book craze in relation to the Bechdel Test and asks if all the back-patting isn’t just a little premature.

Avengers: Infinity War had the best opening weekend of all time and holds the new record for pre-sale box office sales. Starring seventy-six superheroes and supporting characters from the Marvel universe, everyone felt excited to see their favourite characters get together for an epic battle.

However, all of those characters featured in a movie meant many of their stories ended up on the sidelines. Can you guess who those characters were? It probably isn’t that surprising to hear that those characters were the female ones.   

The Bechdel Test and Female Representation

Since the 1980s, movie critics and feminists have used the Bechdel Test as a standard way to examine a film’s representation of women. To pass the test, a movie must meet three fairly simple criteria:

1. There are two female characters with names.

2. These characters have at least one conversation during the movie.

3. The conversation is about something other than a man.

There are currently over 7,500 movies in the database, and just over half the movies pass the Bechdel Test. The ones that pass are often barely able to do so, and there is usually only one conversation — in a two-hour long movie — that is not about a man. How sad is that? To think that so many movies do not deliver this is unbelievable.

Additionally, what does it say about society when no one is even taking notice? It causes women and young girls to believe their self-worth is about obtaining a man. Similarly, it teaches men and young boys about social dominance and male-based benefits. These power differences between men and women can begin to become clear to kids at an alarmingly young age when they’re being taught through movies, toys and books.

Most superhero movies fail the Bechdel Test, which isn’t surprising since slightly under half of all movies fail. “Thor: The Dark World” is one of the only superhero movies to meet all three criteria. It passes due to the independent and intelligent female character of Jane Foster. Even though she is lost in a world of gods, she remains strong and capable, helping Thor along the way.

Heroines in Marvel Movies — Overshadowed by Men

Compared to DC, Marvel has the most female heroes in its movies. In addition to Foster, Thor also introduced Lady Sif, a warrior from Asgard, who can hold her ground in battles. Although Lady Sif is a fierce fighter, men still usually tend to overshadow her, like most female characters in superhero movies.

The Iron Man movies feature Pepper Potts, who saves Tony Stark’s life in the third movie. Black Widow is another character that frequently shows up in Marvel movies, including the Iron Man films. Although the movie sprinkle in other female characters as well, it fails to meet the Bechdel Test. For example, in the first movie, Pepper has a conversation with a reporter named Christine Everhart, but their conversation revolves around Tony.

Peggy Carter is a strong female character in the Captain America movies, and it led to her spinoff TV show, Agent Carter — however, the show was canceled after only two seasons.

Overall, women are more capable characters in the team-based Marvel movies. Guardians of the Galaxy introduces sisters Nebula and Gamora who join the Guardians. Although the Black Widow is the only female superhero in The Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D agent Maria Hill is very qualified to face the movie’s villains. Lastly, Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced Scarlet Witch, no doubt the most powerful of the Marvel universe.

Like Iron Man, though, so many Marvel movies fail the Bechdel Test because females are often sidekicks to the primary male characters. Since the films revolve around men, women are usually talking about them in their conversations, making women nothing more than characters thrown into the mix to drive the plot back to the male hero.

Most female characters do not get developed outside of what they mean to male narratives. For example, the most recent Avenger’s film Infinity War features most of the female characters central to Marvel. The film brought many female characters to the big screen, but unfortunately, those characters added little meaning to the story. Gamora is the only woman in the movie with a story arc, yet it revolves around a man as she reunites with her stepfather Thanos.

On the other hand, Scarlet Witch is a character with much less depth than Gamora. Since 2015, Scarlet Witch appeared in Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War and Infinity War and we don’t know much about her as a person. The character feels defined by male narratives, and in Infinity War, her character is mostly only seen when it concerns her love interest, Vision.

Aside from Vision’s love interest, Scarlet Witch was Ultron’s weapon, Pietro’s sister and Iron Man’s captive. Why can’t she stand alone outside of a male narrative and be Scarlet Witch, a powerful woman? She may be the most talented Avenger there is — however she remains fearful of her powers.

She should be learning to embrace her powers and grow on her journey, just as the Hulk and other male characters have been allowed to. Instead, Marvel portrays her as a stereotypical weak female who is afraid, and defined by her romantic relationship.

Heroines in DC Movies — Wonder Woman Steals the Show

Female representation in the DC Universe includes such characters as Catwoman, Supergirl and Lois Lane. Suicide Squad also features a notable female-to-male character ratio with four main female characters — Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller, Katana and the Enchantress.

DC movies that fail the Bechdel Test include Green Lantern, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Dark Knight Rises. The second, third and fourth Superman movies all pass and, of course, so does Wonder Woman, which obviously steals the show as far as female representation is concerned.

Wonder Woman is the first and only superhero film with a female as the main character. This is a step in the right direction and audiences must remember that most superhero characters sprung up in the 40s and 50s. In this era, a strong white man was considered the ideal hero, and there was no concern for diversity with race or gender then. Wonder Woman shatters that stereotype and shows us what female superheroes can do.

Wonder Woman Is Still a Stereotype, Though

While Wonder Woman is a win for female representation, the movie played heavy into female stereotypes, such as sex appeal. Wonder Woman — who goes by Diana in the film — is often referred to as “the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen”. She is usually wearing her provocative armoured leotard, and her hair flows perfectly. Even when she wears a plain grey suit and hat, the men she passes stop, stare and end up speechless.

Diana’s male companions drool behind her back at the idea of an island full of women who look as striking as her and zero men to get in the way of their conquests. When it’s all said and done, men view Diana as a sexual object, and the “prize” of the male gaze ends up reinforced for audience members.

In battle, Diana is strong and brave — qualities typically associated with men — but she lacks knowledge of life outside of her island, and the movie portrays her as innocent and naïve. She is unfamiliar with basic facts of life and tells her love interest, Steve Trevor, that she learned men are an integral part of reproduction.

It seems she does not grasp a full understanding of sex, so how exactly can she consent when Steve shuts himself in her hotel room? If sex is a grey area for Diana so is her ability to consent, which sends the wrong message to young girls who may watch the movie.

Ultimately, many of the scenarios in this film don’t actually scream female empowerment. Aside from the opening scenes when Diana is on her home island controlled by women, Wonder Woman barely passes the Bechdel Test. If we’re being honest here, she spends the majority of the movie surrounded by horny men. Additionally, the movie has been heavily criticised as being lacking in intersectionality as far as racial representation goes.

Is There Meaning Behind the Hairstyles?

Another thing female superheroes such as Wonder Woman, Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Gamora have in common is their hair — they never wear hair ties. It’s kind of ridiculous to think that these women wear their hair down to go into battle where they complete flips and stunts. The hair would, no doubt, get in the way of fighting for their lives and obstruct their vision when they fly through the air.

Comics are a visual medium, which is why artists draw most of the superheroes with their hair down. Flowing beautiful hair that is in constant motion when they are in action is attractive to the eye. Heroines usually feature exaggerated characteristics, so they look like sexy female athletes at best and porn stars at worst.

It may sound ridiculous to complain about their looks and hair when superheroes are fantasy, but these things do hold meaning. Red or black hair seems to represent strength and a loud personality in these movies — think Wonder Woman, Red Sonja and Phoenix. Blondes tend to play the stereotypical “dumb blonde,” even if that woman has powers, such as Super Girl.

Additionally, the shorter the hair, the less traditionally feminine the character tends to be. A shaved head can symbolize supernatural mental abilities — think Eleven in Stranger Things — or even suggest sexuality. Tank Girl — who has a mostly shaved head — inspired lesbian Tank Girl nights in London.

Fortunately, in the past twenty years, comics and graphic novels have started to step outside of these stereotypes. They are more willing to experiment with hair colour and length, which is a win for female representation in movies. We all know the bald women warriors in Black Panther were badass and inspiring. Black Panther also receives props for styling women in natural hair based on their tribes and positions in Wakanda, a fictional African country.

The Future for Heroines

After the impact Black Panther had on race, many women wish for a similar movie with a large impact on gender equality. Wonder Woman did not do justice for women. Yes, Wonder Woman must be acknowledged as progress with a female lead, but it was too rooted in stereotypes. Maybe Captain Marvel — the next movie with a female lead — will deliver what women want when released in 2019.

A solo movie for Black Widow is also in progress, with Jac Schaeffer writing the script. In addition to a female screenwriter, Marvel Studios is looking for a female director for the film.

The search is ongoing, but Marvel has met with several promising prospects including Deniz Gamze Erguven known for Mustang and Chloe Zhao, the mastermind behind The Rider. Hiring female directors is a new priority for studios, and could turn the tides when it comes to superhero movies. With more women in the superhero film industry, female representation should increase and become less stereotypical.

Additionally, a rumored all-female Avengers movie is in discussion. After Marvel’s ten-year anniversary photo shoot in November, a photo showed up on Instagram of a group of female Marvel stars, which was the fire behind the rumor. Social media users began speaking out and insisting on an all-female film.

On The Ellen DeGeneres Show, actress Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye in the Marvel franchise, spoke about all-female film gossip. While she thinks it is just a rumour, for now, it’s important because it proves there’s a desire for more female representation.

Audiences want to see independent women with their own storylines, so Hollywood should give the crowd what they want. With Captain Marvel and Black Widow in the works, an all-female team movie might not be too far off.

When it comes to superhero movies, we hope the future is female.

Kate Harveston

Kate writes about culture, politics and just about anything else that piques her fiercely feminist interests! If you enjoy her writing, you can find her here at The Spread or on her blog, Only Slightly Biased.

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Posted on May 21, 2018

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