Like all of nerdom I’ve been excited about the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron. (2015). I’ve been watching super hero movies from the early 2000s –back when Raimi’s Spider-Man movies ruled the world- and a trend leapt out at me. I’m not sure what to do with it and, interestingly, it’s a trend that’s become a backbone of the MCU:
Marvel’s breakout female characters are ALL Sexy Spy/Assassins.
Sure, the Marvel-franchise movies and the MCU (The Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies specifically produced by Marvel to be part of a shared film continuity, for those who don’t know) have a wide variety of female characters, none more varied perhaps than in the X-Men franchise, but the high-profile characters? The ones that garner cult followings and become screen favorites? All Sexy Spy-Assassins.
-After the 2000s X-Men movies, Mystique, a shapeshifter known for infiltration, assassination, and sabotage, reached infamy and got her own comics series. She couldn’t do this in the movies without being nude, and for becoming other various sexualized women. This fan interest resurged after her appearance in X-Men: First Class (2011), when her portraying actress, Jennifer Lawrence came into the height of her popularity.
-With her Alias (2001- 2006) fame and Daredevil’s (2003) modest success at the box office, Jennifer Garner got to reprise her role as the unrequited lover and resurrected assassin Elektra in the 2004 movie of the same name. During the 2000s, she Marvel comics’ most popular female character. Daredevil (2003) kept her in a low-cut top and the theatrical version included her in a gratuitous sex scene.
-Black Widow got popular after her appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) as the titular character’s sexpot secretary and undercover secret agent. Her popularity reached a fever pitch after her role in Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) and only increased after her appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). She is set to be the core of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and now has a dedicated monthly comic series. She was introduced in Iron Man 2 as a sex object whose combat prowess was shocking and her first scene in Avengers featured her tied to a chair in lingerie.
-Agent Peggy Carter was the internet’s big takeaway from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), in which she served as Captain America’s tough as nails commanding officer and lover. Her popularity launched the spin-off miniseries Agent Carter (2015), where she worked for a homeland security agency, investigating a massive attack happening right under her noses. She was a ranking officer who wished to be taken serious. The pilot episode had her go undercover as a busty blonde bombshell and use the old knockout lipstick cliché.
While they’re far less popular, we should also mention…
–X-Men: First Class‘ Moira Taggart is a top CIA agent who finds herself entrenched in the secret world of mutantkind. Mere moments after her introduction, she strips down to her bra and panties to infiltrate a New Vegas Club.
-Sharon Carter is Captain America’s attractive blonde neighbor in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, who is revealed to be an agent of SHIELD tasked with monitoring and flirting with him.
-Mariah Hill, an agent of SHIELD, and appearing in The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and poised to appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron, is a prominent member of SHIELD from the comics, but an as-of-now minor character in the MCU. While she’s not been sexualized, the internet seems to like her, probably because her actress, Cobie Smulders, was big on How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014)
-Gamora is an assassin and primary team member of the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Despite apparently being among the most lethal assassins in the galaxy, the camera lingers on her ass during Star-Lord’s joke about his sexual exploits, and Drax calls her a whore. Strange, considering that Drax is a literalist and that Gamora’s shown no outward sexual tendencies around him. She’ll soon receive her own dedicated comic series.
-Agent May on Agents of SHIELD, team mom and stone cold assassin, was largely considered the best and most interesting character of the first season. She’s not been extensively sexualized.
-Dottie was the alias of one of Agent Carter‘s primary antagonist, who was a nameless Russian spy/assassin who used the guise of a naive, simple woman to complete her missions.
Being a sex-positive feminist, I’ve got absolutely no problem with empowerment in all the forms it can take, and that includes women kicking ass. As far as I’m considered, a person is allowed to identify in any manner they choose and to live the life they see fit.
Similarly, I’m not criticizing any of these female characters, nor the movies in which they appear. I recognize that in a few cases, their sexualization is intended to be deconstructive of preconceptions or to address the prevailing sexism of their generation (Looking right at you, Agent Peggy Carter).
In broad terms, there is NOTHING wrong with any of these characters. All I’m doing is identifying trends.
Sure, there are similar trends among the other Marvel movies. Female side characters tend to be Romantic Science-Savy Assistants (Jean Grey in the X-Men franchise; Karen in Blade; Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman in the Fantastic Four franchise; Betty Ross in the Hulk franchise; Pepper Potts in the Iron Man franchise; Jane Forester AND Darcy Lewis in the Thor franchise; and soon Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man). This is another form of limited representation. Sure, it can be empowering, but it’s an issue typical of a patriarchal-focused cinema. These women are meant only to aid in the man’s journey. To support the journey, not share in it.
Anyway, it’s just strange that in a host of movies by the same parent comic book company, all playing to different genre, scale, tone, structure, and with no limit to who could have what powers and abilities, there’s such a limited range of representation.
In the broadest possible terms, I think it boils down to the sexy/dangerous dichotomy dating back to the Femme Fatale trope in Noir fiction. The idea is that stalwart men can only be undone by their sexuality and that women with questionable morals knowingly exploit that. Regardless of the characterization, the codification is that sex is a weapon and that female sexuality is inherently dangerous and deceitful.
Contrast this with male spy/assassins. The key assets of a tropic female spy/assassin are sexuality and misdirection; for a male spy/assassin, violence and domination. James Bond is a whole ‘nother conversation about sexual politics.
The Femme Fatale is an old and storied trope throughout cinematic history, and seemingly a comfort zone for shorthanding powerful/villainous female characters.
It’s interesting to note that apart from Mystique, few of Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins aren’t villainous Femme Fatales. Either they’re ‘good guys’ or willing to side with the heroes to advance their own agenda (even Mystique, as the X-series continues!). There’s an argument to be made that this just makes them glorified support characters in a man’s story. You could counter by stating that the story’s not about them, but seriously, why can’t it be equally their story? The ‘buddy cop’ formula in films like Lethal Weapon (1987), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), etc. works WONDERS for dual protagonists.
BUT WHY IN MARVEL?
It’s an incredibly complicated question. Mystique gained popularity from X-franchise because she’s consistently been THE most interesting female character. Sure, Storm and Jean Grey are great characters, but their movie portrayals have been vanilla, especially juxtaposed to Mystique taunting opponents with their preconceptions, her struggle for equality, and weaponizing her sexuality. Unlike Rogue, who wishes to erase her identity, Mystique fights for her identity to be accepted.
Spider-Man’s (2002) Mary Jane was just “protagonist’s girlfriend,” allowing Elektra to take off in Daredevil. She wasn’t fantastically portrayed, but she didn’t need to be; she needed to be a “Kickass Female Character” (another interesting trope) for an audience dying to see their gender as more than side characters.
After that, it’s hard to say if the proliferation of these kinds of characters is coincidental, spurred by audience reactions, or because outside of teams, Marvel has few female heroes not based on male heroes.
BUT IS IT A PROBLEM?
Hard to say. Women are at least getting SOME representation by strong characters, but as sidekicks, lovers, victims, and sometimes outright objects.
Yes, Black Widow’s about-face in Iron Man 2 and in the Avengers is intended to be deconstructive of objectification and power dynamics, but both movies utilize it in a way that’s shocking for the audience and surrounding characters. Iron Man 2 flat objectifies her. It feels very “I can play with the boys too!” instead of her character just being capable in her environment like Peggy Carter in Captain America and in Agent Carter. It’s the difference of suggesting that superheroing is a boy’s stage where women may be allowed to enter and superheroing just being a stage.
Similarly, it’s weird that the idea of a female-led superhero movie is risky move. It’s like saying that 30-something white male is tabula rasa and that anything else is exotic. That’s an issue endemic to modern blockbuster cinema and to comic books and it IS deeply, DEEPLY problematic and limiting.
Ultimately, Marvel’s Sexy Spy/Assassins and their situations are constructed by their writing teams. None of these characters have to express their sexuality in such on-the-nose ways. Seriously, Mystique is nude throughout the X-movies. Hell, Winter Soldier was the first movie in three appearances to prove that Black Widow didn’t need skimpy outfits to be an unstoppable undercover agent.
Things like this can make it feel like the Sexy Spy-Assassin is a popular trope because it allows women to feel empowered in a way that gratifies and appeals to the heterosexual male ego. That because she’s a deliberately sexualized side-character, she doesn’t have to be taken as seriously. That in many ways, no matter how much she’s characterized… She’s still an object in the eyes of the audience.
SO WHAT WOULD I DO?
I applaud the X-Men franchise for showing a wide range of female characters and abilities and question why the MCU can’t match it. The widespread success of The Hunger Games, Maleficent, and Frozen shows that audiences are starving for relatable female characters. There’s no legitimate reason why a female-lead movie couldn’t have been made.
So how about some elevator pitches?
America would go nuts for Captain Marvel, a gutsy soldier from the Midwest, who learns to lead with her newfound cosmic powers –even when they make her the target of an alien assault.
Why not Ms. Marvel? A Muslim girl from Jersey struggles with her identity when becoming an Inhuman and fighting monstrous bad guys makes that even harder. She’s so popular, that images of her are being used to counter Islamophobia.
Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver could’ve had a great story about rival siblings on the run from superpowered mad scientists.
How about a Thunderbolts movie, about a pack of criminals masquerading as Avengers-ripoffs superheroes and lead by the cunning Songbird, who’s out of her element when she has to lead them in a death-defying mission to save the country?
Ant-Man could’ve been The Wasp, about a plucky size-changing thief and her misadventure to redemption and greatness!
Guardians of the Galaxy has a myriad of fascinating female characters like Mantis, a martial artist who can predict the future; Phyla-Vell, Space Grim Reaper; Starhawk, a transsexual Superman; Moondragon, a psychic were-dragon; and more! What, are we saving all the cool characters for the sequel?
Hell, I STILL think that Black Widow should’ve gotten a METAL GEAR SOLID-inspired movie.
I just don’t buy Marvel’s line that there’s a “perfect time” to release X kind of movie. Sure, we as a culture like to see certain kinds of movies at certain times of the year, and things wax and wane in popularity all the time in the cultural zeitgeist, but if you ONLY ascribe to that philosophy, you’re not creating culture; you’re following.
The movies that blow our minds? The ones we pile into the theater to see? More often than not, it’s because they were expertly-crafted stories with fantastic characters who made us feel something real, not because they happened at the precise moment in time. Those are the movies that create culture. The ones that ignite trends, fads, and imitations. They are the Star Warses, the Lords of the Rings, the Batmans, the Iron Mans, and the Avengers…
Marvel is one of, if not THE foremost creator of culture in America as of 2015. Hell, they were that in 2012 when the Avengers hit theaters. They could’ve released anything and pushed any protagonist with any race or gender, any set of skills, any set of powers, and with any worldview. I’ll never say they did wrong… but perhaps they could’ve done more.
ALMOST DONE, I PROMISE
As I’ve said before, I’ve got nothing against the Sexy Spy/Assassin trope, sex-positive lifestyles, or assuming whatever identity you choose. Even calling out the Sex Spy/Assassin trend, I wouldn’t say that any of these characters are, on their own, regressive, or that sympathizing with them, reading their comics, or cosplaying them is wrong. If a character gives you comfort, good for them and good for you for finding them!
It just doesn’t seem fair to me that as a straight white male, I have a variety of protagonists to identify with -a super soldier, a space Viking, a rage monster, an archer, a guy in a robot suit, and countless others- while women have to settle for the Sexy Spy/Assassin or the Romantic Science-Savy Assistant.
Our world is becoming ever more aware of its diversity. It’s about time we start making movies to reflect that. I hope that Scarlet Witch’s modern-day sorcery will capture the imaginations of Age of Ultron audiences. I’m crossing my fingers that the MCU Spider-Man will be cast black, both for what nuance that could bring to the character and so black audiences will have greater representation than “BFF of White Hero.”
Progress is good. It makes us better, and it makes society better. We need to start asking more of our entertainment.