Where will you not see much of Rogue this summer? In the new X-Men movie, sadly.
Every time I type “superheroine” into Microsoft Word, it’s underlined with a red squiggle to tell me that there’s no such term. “Superheroine” is as made-up a concept as “asdfjlad,” and the computer’s all-knowing dictionary adds insult to injury by asking whether I really mean to type “superhero.”
I was a feminist before I was a geek. Unfortunately, this summer’s comic book blockbusters make it tricky to be both.
Since 2005’s Daredevil-spinoff Elektra and 2004’s Catwoman flopped, not one superheroine has had her own film. Despite a wealth of comic book heroines, characters like Black Widow from The Avengers and the many female X-Men have only been featured as sidekicks to the other characters. Summer 2014 is not about to change that, as the typical docket of superhero films continues to be male dominated.
This isn’t just about which characters big movie studios ordain as the ones that will sell the most tickets and popcorn in the coming year—superhero stories are major narratives in our society. They’re stories we all know. And women are not central to any of those recent stories.
“Girls need superheroes to look up to as much as boys do,” says Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, director of Wonder Women! The Untold Story of the American Superheroine. “They need these figures in order to believe themselves powerful and bold and to see themselves as able to battle their villains. Of course the superhero genre takes it to a fantastical level, but they’re heroes, and we need the heroes to reflect who we are.”
Anyone watching the last year of action genre success wouldn’t see a problem. March’s Divergent pulled in $56 million in its first weekend, and 2013 saw moneymakers like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Gravity. These three blockbusters center on women in tough roles and the box office data shows that 2013 blockbusters that passed the Bechdel test made significantly more money than films that failed the test. But superhero movies are still steering clear of female leads.
Summer brings the action genre front and center-row of the cineplex and this year, we’ll get a double dose of Michael Bay with Transformers: Age of Extinction in June and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in August, both of which focus on masculine characters, from men to aliens-turned-cars to, well, teenage mutant ninja turtles.
July’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes also features a male lead, as well as kid-centric sci-fi adventure Earth to Echo, also due in July. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For rounds out the macho summer blockbuster hopefuls, and if Frank Miller’s other work is any indication of what will happen in this new film, the female characters won’t fare well.
We’d be happy with just “a dame,” thanks.
The only mainstream action film that has promise for a female lead is the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending, starring Mila Kunis as the challenger to the Queen of the Universe. Of course, she may need Channing Tatum to save her first.
In April, Captain America: Winter Soldier featured Black Widow in her fourth appearance as a supporting character. Marvel has talked about developing a movie starring the spy-turned-Avenger herself, but there’s been no concrete action on it so far. But Marvel has gotten serious work done on the Guardians of the Galaxy series, which will begin in August and features one woman playing helper to two men, a male raccoon, and a male-voiced tree.
While it might be a stretch for Hollywood to place a woman at the center of a Captain America flick, there are several comic book superhero story lines that are full of female heroes. The first issue of Marvel’s all-women series of the X-Men comics was the country’s number one best-selling comic in America when it debuted in May 2013. But fast-forward one year and the female X-Men heroines are not getting their due at theaters. X-Men Days of Future Past will continue to feature male leads front-and-center while women fight in smaller roles slightly behind them—Storm, Shadow Cat and Mystique. Fan favorite Rogue was entirely edited out of the final product (and then added back in as just a cameo less than a month before the film’s release).
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Bryan Singer said there was only one scene featuring Rogue, but “like many things in the editing process, it was an embarrassment of riches, and it was just one of the things that had to go.” Judging from the film’s trailers, that “embarrassment of riches” left room for plenty of shots of Magneto, Wolverine, Professor X and other male characters flashing their mutant powers.
Spot the difference between the best-selling 2013 X-Men comic and a poster for this film X-Men: First Class.
But at least Rogue hasn’t died yet. The same can’t be said for Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker’s girlfriend in this spring’s The Amazing Spiderman 2. In the comics, Stacy died so her boyfriend could develop as a hero. In 1999 Gail Simone, now a writer for DC Comics, started Women In Refrigerators, a site that indexes every female character who dies for the good of the male hero. The name “women in refrigerators” came from Green Lantern Issue #54, when the hero comes home to find his girlfriend gruesomely murdered and shoved in the icebox. The whole idea of the list is to point out how male characters are complex and have long-running storylines, female characters in comics are often treated as two-dimensional sidekicks to the main narrative.
“That was kind of a go-to reaction to convey drama, and the cost of being a hero was to take out one of the supporting characters,” says Brian Joines, an indie comic writer who contributed to the site in its early days. “Who more to make the male hero suffer than the loss of his loved female character?”
Dr. Andrea Letamendi, a psychologist and geek culturist, says the lack of women in superhero films is more than a niche issue. Instead, it is an example of symbolic annihilation.
“We perpetuate this idea that these are our beliefs and attitudes,” she said. “The media represents our beliefs and attitudes, and this is how we’re valuing or rather undervaluing, these groups. That’s a social concern.”
There are several myths standing in the way of reversing Hollywood’s superheroine exclusion. The first is the fallacy that women can’t carry action films.
After Elektra and 2004’s Catwoman flopped, Hollywood shut out female action heroes despite the popularity of characters such as Ellen Ripley and Lara Croft. “It comes back to stereotypes. When women are leading characters, we always use them to explain the failure of the film. When it’s a male character, we blame the story or CGI,” says Dr. Letamendi.
Look, don’t blame this whole mess of a movie on Jennifer Garner.
Fear of femaleness isn’t limited to the screen. The perception that women don’t belong in geek culture is what led to many men to preach against “fake geek girls”—the Lex Luthors in skirts who supposedly pretend to be interested in superheroes in order to get male nerd attention.
Education has to go beyond the audience. Because men are the majority of filmmakers, Letamendi says they need to be aware of their female viewers. The lack of female superheroes on the screen likely has roots in how there is only one woman working in the film industry for every five men—all parts of film production in the United States are male dominated and that affects the kinds of stories we see studios backing.
“We have to open the doors to women as creators in order to see female characters that are more nuanced and diverse in terms of representation,” says Dr. Letamendi.
There is a glimmer of movie projector light at the end of the tunnel, however. In December, director Zac Snyder announced that Gal Gadot would play Wonder Woman in 2015’s Batman vs. Superman. Although she’ll be a side character, it will be the first time since the 1970s TV series that the Amazon warrior is seen on screen. Although this is potentially a path to making Wonder Woman a blockbuster character, it’s frustrating to start her post-millennium presence with a minor role.
“It’s not what women want,” says Trina Robbins, the legendary underground comic creator who drew Wonder Woman comics for DC in the 1980s. “We want to see her have her own movie, and we want to see it done well. They need to go back to the traditional, iconic Wonder Woman.”
That might even put “superheroine” in the dictionary.
Related Reading: For more on the the portrayal of Wonder Woman on-screen, check out the article “Out of Character: Why the latest transformation of Wonder Woman has fans concerned” from Bitch’s Tough issue.
Kate Everson is a Chicago journalist who loves good books, good movies, superheroes, feminism and any combination of the four.