Margaret Perry Movies

Let's Talk Film

Avenging Women

on 20 J0000005America/Chicago, 2011

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.

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.

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.


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