When it was first revealed that Natalie Portman would be cast as “Female Thor” in Marvel’s latest superhero installment, Thor: Love and Thunder, fans were quick to condemn the decision on the social networks.
Portman was lambasted as not being “swole enough”, too small, and generally not what people imagined the character to be. Ten months of hard training and a high-protein diet later, and Portman is being applauded for weapons that “could actually throw giant hammers at bad guys’ heads.”
Still, this early reaction to Portman’s casting attests to how difficult portraying female superheroes can be for filmmakers when established audiences are often perceived as young, white, cisgender, and male.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the number of women consuming superhero content has increased. Offering feminist portrayals of characters who might challenge gender-defining masculinity remains a problem.
What does this mean for Portman and the female superheroes who came before (and will follow) her? The answer seems to be that creators of superhero movies inevitably overturn some gender stereotypes while retaining others.
In short, they offer symbolic female representation so as not to ostracize the public. So while she might now be more muscular, Portman is still subordinate to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor by emphasizing that she is his love interest first and foremost.
Too few female superheroes
Granted, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise has at least attempted to cast female roles and champion women’s issues. For example, the standalone Black Widow film was partly intended to contribute to the dialogue around the #Timesup and #MeToo movements.
And Thor’s latest offering explores the value of female friendships, with co-star Tessa Thompson attesting that her character Valkyrie is “happy to have found a new sister”.
There’s no doubt that female viewers can relate to these powerful women and their stories and, as a result, form positive attitudes towards the superhero genre in general. But that means more superhero movies need to be made with the female viewer in mind.
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However, such offers are rare. Let’s not forget that it took Marvel ten years to give Black Widow her own movie after her original introduction to the franchise (in 2010’s Iron Man 2).
In many ways, Marvel films continue to portray women as helpers – damsels in distress, love interests, or subordinate in some way to their male counterparts. In fact, actress Scarlett Johansson has criticized her Black Widow character’s earlier “hyper-sexualization.”
Likewise, Scarlet Witch, one of the most powerful Avengers characters, is often defined by the male relationships in her life. In the recent Dr. Strange: The Multiverse of Madness, she typifies many unfavorable female tropes, including the “hysterical woman” and the “monstrous mother.”
The hypersexualized stereotype
Treating even powerful female characters as subordinates or dependents might reassure male fans that superheroines aren’t a threat to the masculine undertones of the genre, but that does female audiences a disservice.
When asked to rate superhero graphic novels and movies, most women in one study said they disliked and avoided the DC Comics character of Catwoman because she was portrayed as manipulative and emotional.
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Other research has shown that exposure to messages of powerlessness can lead girls to feel demoralized and dissatisfied with their own identity, and the overly sexualized portrayal of female superheroes can lead to lower body esteem. in women.
On the other hand, some also rebel against stereotypes. The Hawkeye Initiative, for example, parodies the male gaze in the comic book genre by depicting men in the same absurd costumes and poses normally reserved for female characters.
Male backlash and box office risk
The real question, however, is whether women should even have to challenge such representations. If more movies and comics were made by women for women, there might be less token representation to begin with.
Marvel has dismissed criticism of its female characters, with its president saying the studio has always “gone for the powerful woman over the damsel in distress” and pointing to the recent release of female-led superhero movies and TV shows such as than She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel.
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The problem is that it is difficult to please everyone. Marvel has felt the backlash from diehard male fans towards a supposed feminist agenda that underpins the studio’s leadership. 2019’s Captain Marvel, for example, was touted as bringing feminism to the Marvel Universe, but lackluster reviews and ratings were attributed in part to perceived political correctness and an agency-driven narrative. feminine.
Researchers such as Stephanie Orme have claimed that male dominance in the superhero genre leaves many female fans feeling alienated and unable to change gender stereotypes precisely because they are not seen as the target audience. .
It seems that without more and better movie and comic book superheroines telling women’s stories, these male-centric genres will continue to alienate female audiences – and fall short of their creative and commercial potential.