Batman v Superman v Misogyny: The Antifeminism of “Dawn of Justice”

By now, you’ve heard the news from film critics of all stripes: Batman v Superman, the cinematic linchpin to DC Comics’ planned Avengers-smasher, Justice League, is not good. It’s a cynical, confusing, washed-out trainwreck of a movie. If Batman v Superman were a person, it would resemble an arrogant white frat boy carrying an assault rifle in one hand and the CliffsNotes for Thus Spake Zarathustra in the other. It exists merely for Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) to flex their muscles threateningly at each other and commit increasingly ludicrous acts of violence on the mere mortals around them. Let’s not make any bones about it—on any scale, Dawn of Justice is painful to watch.

But though director Zack Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer have produced a truly wretched film, I was surprised at how few reviews mentioned anything about its rampant misogyny. Lesley Coffin, at feminist geek mainstay The Mary Sue, referenced “the trans-misogynistic, trying-to-be-a ‘joke’ of the film,” but only in passing. Zoe Williams in The Guardian called it “the least feminist updating of anything ever.” Aside from these, critics have found enough aspects of the film to pan without focusing on its treatment of femininity. But the film’s insidious antifeminist subtext should not be overlooked, because while the American comics industry as a whole has been slowly moving in a progressive direction with regards to gender parity and positive representation, Snyder & Co.’s work is bafflingly retrograde.

Unsurprisingly, much of this old-school rhetoric is brought to us through Lois Lane, played again by the regrettably underutilized Amy Adams. In Snyder’s 2013 Superman film, Man of Steel, Lois was frustratingly helpless. In this new film, she’s even worse. Lois shows up to kick off the film’s conflict by investigating a militant terrorist group. The group’s decision to capture and threaten her doesn’t sit well with Superman. That’s right—within mere minutes of her appearance, Lois is captured, becoming simply The Love Interest whose requisite rescue destabilizes the world just enough for Snyder’s ensemble to begin debating whether Superman is really a good guy for the next 2.5 hours.

Make no mistake: Lois is, without a doubt, the Hollywood action flick love interest. When we join her immediately upon her return to Metropolis, it’s so we can peek in on her whilst she’s nude in the bathtub. (Cavill, now in his Clark Kent gear, playfully climbs in with her—fully clothed.) Her subplot—investigating a suspicious bullet she got in the desert—is so obviously stripped down by edits that render it pointless. Lois’s skills as a journalist (her primary character trait for decades) barely matter in any measurable way, no matter how hard  Adams tries to squeeze the dregs of agency from her script.

Leaving out Lois’s first scene, there are still three more “damsel-in-distress” sequences that are of prime importance to Dawn of Justice’s plot: one for Superman’s mom (whose captors scrawl “Witch” on her forehead) and a further two for Lois. That girl just can’t stop succumbing to mortal peril!

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When they’re not frivolously endangering female characters so men can  rescue them, the film’s writers like to dabble in some recreational transmisogyny. Early on, during Lois’s investigation, she visits General Swanwick (Harry Lennix, who we last saw in Man of Steel being irritated at a young female captain who thinks Superman is “kind of hot.” For the record: yeah, kinda). Lois ventures into the men’s room and surprises Swanwick, whose initial reaction is to say “you’re in the wrong bathroom, miss.” Although Swanwick is not caught off guard enough to answer her questions, Lois’s tenacious line of questioning leads him to smirk and say, “With balls like that, maybe you’re in the right bathroom after all.”

Wow. If the transmisogyny isn’t evident to you, let’s break it down: Swanwick’s joke is predicated on the idea that on a fundamental level, the idea of women with testicles is worthy of laughter and ridicule. Moreover, his subtextual assertion is that if such a woman were to exist (again, it is to laugh), she would not be a woman at all, but a man. Given the vicious rhetoric currently laid upon transgender women, whose struggle for equality has been met with discriminatory “bathroom bills” across the country, making a joke about a woman who’s “really a man” because she displays masculine-coded behavior isn’t just bigoted—it’s appallingly tone-deaf for its time.

Gal Gadot’s turn as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman contributes a smidgen towards making Dawn of Justice less blatantly misogynistic. As both a mysterious spy figure who snatches Bruce Wayne’s Bat-tech from under his Bat-nose and a functionally immortal warrior princess whose valor during the final battle saves both titular heroes from certain death thrice over, Wonder Woman’s presence here is practically that of a feminist saint. No wonder her first in-costume appearance drew the loudest applause of any “hell yeah” moment at the Dawn of Justice premiere I attended two weeks ago. But her fifteen minutes of screen time can’t compete against two hours of film actively spent talking down to women and aggrandizing toxic masculinity.

Given DC’s recent attempts to rehabilitate their image with regards to female characters, that’s a real shame. Books like Batgirl, Gotham Academy, and Black Canary—all starring nuanced female characters with agency—have been happily embraced by readers young and old. One would think DC would have gotten the hint by now: keeping girls around just to throw them off of skyscrapers is so 20th century. The fact that they haven’t, and have instead allowed Snyder and his writers to make a movie as blatantly antifeminist as Dawn of Justice, is one more painful strike against this colossal waste of time, money, and creativity.

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by Samantha Riedel
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Samantha Riedel is a freelance writer and editor living in Massachusetts. A former editor at The Mary Sue, her work has also appeared on Them, The Establishment, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, among others. Samantha subsists on a balanced diet of estrogen, pro wrestling, and comic books. Prolonged contact may cause irritation. Follow her on Twitter @SamusMcQueen.

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