It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ingrained gender roles


Zoë Haworth

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s ingrained gender roles

By Managing Editor

She is an Amazonian demigoddess with abilities to rival Superman’s, but Wonder Woman has always been a second-class citizen in the superhero world. Even when she made her comic book debut in the 1940s, she was only a secretary for the Justice Society of America.

While male DC Comics heroes received feature films over the years, Wonder Woman has been continually ignored to the dismay of female superhero fans—an audience that continues

to grow.

“I’ve been waiting for Wonder Woman to get a movie since I was in high school, and that was almost 20 years ago,” said Regine Sawyer, founder and coordinator of Women in Comics Collective, a group of women who work in various parts of the comics industry. 

To the delight of many DC superhero fans like Sawyer, “Wonder Woman”—starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins—is scheduled to open in theaters June 2017, 76 years after her comic book debut. With an action-packed trailer unveiled at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con, “Wonder Woman” already sets itself apart from previous superhero movies: It stars a woman. 

The movie’s budget of $150 million is about $100 million less than the “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” budget and $75 million less than “Man of Steel.” Still, it is better funded than most films featuring female superheroes, indicating Hollywood is making room for super ladies but very slowly. Nearly a year before it opens, the movie is already facing criticism. Jenkins took to Twitter to defend “Wonder Woman” from rumors started by someone claiming to be from Warner Bros who called the film “a mess.”

“Zero about the movie we are making has been called a mess by anyone in the know. Fact,” Jenkins said in one of her Aug. 12 tweets refuting the rumors.

Though Jenkins said the rumors were unfounded, if the highly anticipated and well-funded film ends up being a box-office flop, female superheroes may be kicked back to where they started: fighting even for small spots on Marvel and DC slates.

According to a study published in February by the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment at Annenberg titled “INCLUSION or  INVISIBILITY? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment,” female characters make up only 26.5 percent of leading  characters in TV and film. The superhero and action film industry falls far behind this, as the combined five previous and upcoming female-led titles make up only a small fraction of all superhero movies.

“The producers and studio heads—many of them are men, and they operate from fear, because as soon as you have a bomb that comes out, everyone’s worried for their lives,” said Seth Soulstein, a Cornell University instructor who has taught courses on superhero films. 

Out of a combined 25 confirmed upcoming movie projects from Marvel and DC Comics, the only females represented in titular roles are Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, whose movie has already been pushed from a summer 2018 release to spring 2019. Marvel’s 2018 movie “Ant-Man and The Wasp” will star a male-and-female duo.

The lack of female heroes is a striking part of film history. Between 1984 and present day, only three films featured a female lead superhero—“Supergirl,” “Catwoman” and “Elektra”—and all of them were underbudgeted, underdeveloped and seen as box-office failures.

The financial failure of these films has been used to excuse the lack of female-led superhero movies since then.

“[Studios] are hesitant because they don’t understand what it means for a girl to be sitting in a theater or sitting at home and to see herself represented as the hero of the film,” Soulstein said.

The Wikileaks Sony Pictures Hack in November 2014 indicated some studio heads do not think female heroes can draw audiences and make money. An email from Aug. 7, 2014, revealed that Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter spoke with Sony CEO Michael Lynton about those movies, citing them as reasons for not making more.

To get more movies with female leads, filmmakers have to be able to point to similar movies that have been successful and made money in the past, said Leslie Combemale, who created and moderated the panel “Women Rocking Hollywood” for 2016’s San Diego Comic-Con. The panel included official Marvel and DC representatives Victoria Alonso and Deborah Snyder. 

However, if no one puts faith in a woman’s ability to star in an action movie, there will never be successful examples to imitate.

“We [have to] start making conscious decisions to include women,” said Snyder, a producer for “Wonder Woman,” during the July 23 panel.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America’s Theatrical Market Statistics from 2015, 51 percent of moviegoers are female. Despite these demographics, studios and filmmakers continue to ignore what women want, according to Sawyer.

Lexi Chayer, a junior fashion studies major, said she loves superhero and action movies, but she does not want to spend money to see them if they lack  proper female representation in which the characters aren’t overly sexualized.

“The world isn’t all men—it doesn’t look like that,” Chayer said. 

Historically, people in Hollywood who fund expensive projects haven’t seen movies starring women as moneymaking opportunities, Combemale said.

“Over and over, [that idea] is proven wrong,” Combemale said, citing “The Hunger Games” franchise as an example with a female hero who was a difficult sell at first but ended up carrying a blockbuster series. While Katniss does not have superpowers like Wonder Woman, she uses the power she does have to help people and overthrow a dystopian government.

Jessica Jones is another female hero who gained a large fanbase and received critical praise. The series—which focuses on serious topics such as rape, murder, child abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and abusive relationships—has a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The show can thank its producer Netflix for the freedom to take risks for part of its success.

“It says everything that the advent of new platforms that aren’t as easily controlled by the white-male mentality are there,” said David Lavery, chair of the Graduate Program and professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University who taught “Special Topics in Film Studies:

Superhero Movies.” 

Unfortunately, not all female-led shows have as much luck as “Jessica Jones,” which was quickly renewed for a second season after its release.

Marvel’s “Agent Carter,” a British period-piece starring Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, one of the original S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, ran on ABC for two seasons. Members of the show’s fanbase created a petition to get the show picked up by Netflix after the cancellation and has gathered more than 125,000 signatures so far, though the cancellation was attributed to a drop in viewership between the two seasons.

“Supergirl,” a show about Superman’s cousin who grew up on Earth, was forced to jump from CBS to The CW after the first season to stay on the air. The show started out with great viewership, but interest tapered off after the first few episodes, and The CW has had success with multiple superhero dramas in the past. 

The cancellation of “Agent Carter” and the near-cancellation of “Supergirl” do not bode well for the creation of other female-driven hero shows.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, if given a choice, a studio is not going to choose to do anything new if they can just put out another thing that looks exactly like the other thing they just did,” said Arnold T. Blumberg, adjunct faculty at University of Baltimore and University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who taught “Media Genres: Media Marvels,” focusing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

The female heroes who are included in male-led movies and TV shows are usually oversimplified and oversexualized, according to Bren Ortega Murphy, Women’s Studies and Gender Studies professor at Loyola University.

“How about just being interested in her being a crusader for justice and fighting evil?” Blumberg said.

Suicide Squad member Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, Supergirl and many other female heroes have been made to fight crime and the forces of evil in outfits resembling bathing suits or skin-tight jumpsuits. The revealing costumes female heroes wear perpetuate the idea that no matter who a woman is or what she does, she also has to be sexually attractive, Ortega Murphy said.

“Until very recently, it’s just been assumed that women weren’t strong. The woman was the love interest, the woman was the comforter, the woman was the prize at the end,” Ortega Murphy said.

Even strong female characters wind up as the token female group member.

Introduced in “Iron Man 2” in 2010, Black Widow is a former Russian spy turned superhero-without-powers who, despite not being granted her own movie and only holding a secondary role, can hold her own next to the likes of Thor and The Hulk and is an incredibly popular character, according to Lavery.

A poll conducted by Fandango for USA Today before the release of “Captain America: Civil War” found that of all of the Avengers team members, 48 percent of fans most wanted to see Black Widow starring in a standalone movie.

“In the recent Avengers films, Black Widow is there, but she doesn’t add to the story as much as she does in the comic books, said Misha Woodward, a junior dance major who grew up reading comics and looking up to heroes like DC’s Batgirl. “All the other Avengers have their own movies, they have their own stories, they have so much more depth to them.”

Jessica Jones remains the best example of a female hero who has depth and character.

“One of the things that was so winning about Jessica Jones was her vulnerability,” Lavery said. “She was constantly compromised—constantly anything but all-powerful.” 

Jones spends the show’s first season making mistakes and showing her flaws and humanity despite her superpowers—something Sawyer said allows audience members to relate to and sympathize.

If “Wonder Woman,” “Supergirl” and the new season of “Jessica Jones” are successful, it could convince Hollywood to put out more female-led projects until the numbers are equal.

“Will it happen in our lifetime? I hope so,” Blumberg said.