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The representation of superheroes in movies has been questioned by audiences and critics for a long time. The stereotypes, unattainable body standards, and use of certain characters have shaped the way moviegoers perceive these characters. Perhaps the biggest concern for people about these movies is the way female superheroes are represented, and the way these portrayals can affect children who consider them to be role models. The superhero genre is based on fictional storylines that have been modified from comic books into movies, but these stories typically have male protagonists and a male-to-female superhero ratio of 2:1. Due to the smaller number of female superhero representation in movies, it is important for studios to present these characters in a positive light to inspire young people everywhere.
According to U.S. cultural norms, the role of someone in need of protection is invariably female or feminized. The active roles of the protector are masculine or masculinized, presenting strength as the foundation of masculinity, while femininity is seen as vulnerable and weak. In the movie Suicide Squad, a team of criminals take down a villain. Harley Quinn’s entire storyline in this movie revolved around her relationship with the Joker. Director David Ayer later addressed in a tweet saying that her story arc was essentially eviscerated due to political reasons. Sharon Carter, a S.H.I.E.L.D agent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was introduced in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as an undercover agent whose main mission was to protect Steve Rogers. However, as the story goes on, Sharon turns into a fairly replaceable character whose whole storyline revolved around being a love interest to the protagonist.
One of the biggest concerns audiences display when it comes to female superheroes is their costumes. The hypersexualized images of the costumes in comic books play a large part in the making of these costumes in the movies. For example, the popular DC character Catwoman was often seen wearing a tight black latex suit. The 2014 film starring actress Halle Berry featured the protagonist in a latex bra, tight pants, long gloves, a mask, and two belt-like chains connecting the bra and pants. The costume looked ineffective, overly sexual, and highly uncomfortable to fight in.
Wonder Woman is the first female superhero ever to get her own comic book series. She was depicted wearing a golden tiara, blue star-covered shorts, and a red bustier with a golden eagle on the front. Despite her powers, it was her costume that allowed her to be recognizable as an icon in popular culture. Given that the primary consumers of Wonder Woman comics have been males, and that the skimpy clothing may act as a signal for sexual availability, evolutionary psychology predicts that covering Wonder Woman with more clothing should make her less popular, at least with males. For Wonder Woman scholar Mitra C. Emad, the superhero can be read as hypersexual based on representations of her clothed, physical figure, “marked by a larger amount of flowing hair” and “large breasts and a costume that barely covers her body”. The costume made a positive change when the movie Wonder Woman was released in 2017 with the character wearing a costume made of armor. An analysis by professional costume designer Amanda Weaver revealed that the design showed respect and that the intent behind the design was clearly to portray those women as warriors, first and foremost.
Some other examples include the modernization of Scarlet Witch’s comic costume in the MCU movies and the more structured version of Phoenix’s comic costume in the X-Men series.
An interesting comparison between costumes that can be made is of the same character in different movies. Progression of movies often show modifications made in certain costumes. This can be attributed to many different factors, such as the change in costume directors and current social issues. Harley Quinn’s costume in Suicide Squad features her wearing a top that says “Daddy’s Little Monster” which alludes to her being owned by the Joker. However, in her solo movie Birds of Prey, she wears a top that says “Harley Fucking Quinn”, which is her way of reclaiming herself as her own person.
Superheroes in comics are known to set unrealistic body standards for both men and women.
When it comes to female superheroes, they have been depicted with large breasts, a tiny waist, and long legs. Wonder Woman is an iconic figure in American popular culture and her body often brought oppositional views from audiences. She has been drawn by various artists in various types of bodies. The way her body was drawn depended on the time period in which the comics were released. Readership and authorship also played significant roles in constructing Wonder Woman’s bodily identity for women readers.
Artist John Byrne ushered in a period in which hypersexualized images of Wonder Woman’s body are used to reconcile the separate spheres of gender and nation. When John Byrne created his version of the character, he aimed for a more conventional comic book readership: young men for whom a superhero fights villains and does not eloquently agonize over whether to interfere in the politics of the “Man’s World”. Thus, this version of Wonder Woman also had a hypersexualized body with large breasts, hips jutted out most of the time, and a costume that barely fit her.
Another example includes Captain Marvel. Movies are more realistic in their approach to the description of the characters’ bodies. This may be due to the fact that the hypersexualized bodies in comics are simply unattainable, and thus, casting agents are not able to find actors with such bodies. Nowadays, it is evident that actors are more fixated on presenting a more muscular and realistic body type. However, it still remains that there is a certain body type that is being glorified in the media and by the audience when it comes to female superheroes.
More often than not, female superheroes are seen using their sex appeal to manipulate an enemy. Narratively, women are fetishized as sexual objects of desire rather than as independent characters. Writers in comics and movies often utilize the character’s sexuality more than their talents and skills. On top of that, if a woman defies the stereotype by being strong and aggressive, these qualities must be balanced by making her sexy. Catwoman’s image is often changed, but there is something constant that popularizes her among consumers — the answer appears to be her overt sexuality, which has remained a key and constant component to the character.
Posters offer the audience a brief look into what the story might be about and introduce the characters in the movie. Thus, the placement of characters in posters is crucial in presenting to the audience who and what roles they play. Characters who are higher, who appear larger, or who are positioned toward the front of a group often possess more agency via their position than characters who are lower, appear smaller, or are positioned toward the back of a group. The way a person stands in posters also affects the way audiences perceive their characters. The profile view presents a less strong pose than a more forward-facing pose. The profile view also emphasizes their curves and other features that encourage the audience to view the characters as attractive instead of powerful. Pepper Potts is Tony Stark’s personal assistant in Iron Man. In the movie, she is strong-headed and puts him in his place all the time. The poster, however, shows her in a tight dress, posing, as if she’s doing a photoshoot. This isn’t the Pepper Potts that is presented in the movie.
Another example is the placement of Black Widow in various posters. She plays a big role in The Avengers but is placed in the background of the poster, blending in with her surroundings. Although she is in the foreground in the poster of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, her pose doesn’t seem to suggest she is a serious S.H.I.E.L.D agent but rather someone on a fashion runway. While all the men in the poster of Iron Man 2 look determined and serious, Black Widow gives off a sexy mysterious aura with her back facing the audience and the light highlighting her curves.
With the rise of strong opinions from women about the way these characters were portrayed in movies, studios have altered these characters into powerful role models. In 2019, Marvel Studios released Captain Marvel, the first MCU movie that featured a female protagonist. With a budget ranging from $152-$175 million, it became a successful box office movie garnering about $1.128 billion. An article in Rolling Stone stated, “You see how she (Larson) had laid the foundation for a character who defies male objectification and becomes akin to what Joni Mitchell called ‘a woman of heart and mind.’”
Studios have made positive changes to the way they present and market their female superheroes. While it is empowering to see these changes, there is no doubt that we still have a long way to go.
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- Princesses, Princes, and Superheroes: Children’s Gender Cognitions and Fictional Characters: Daniella, Lisa M, Juliana M Claps, Gary W Lewandowski Jr.
- Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation: Emad, Mitra C.
- The Rigged Action Hero and His Sexy Love Interest: Gender in Popular Movie Posters: Gabriel, Brandyn Paige
- Heroes and Superheroes in Popular Culture: Insights from Evolutionary Psychology: Ingalls, Victoria
- Wonder Woman’s Costume as a Site for Feminist Debate: Marcus, Jaclyn
- The Empowering (Super) Heroine? The Effects of Sexualized Female Characters in Superhero Films on Women: Pennell, Hillary, and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz