By Shawn Stjean
Alternate reality. Imagine this: you’re in a movie theater, and the feature film stars 5-25 named women characters, and one male. You’re a pretty sharp viewer, so it’s not long before you realize the male seems primarily there, in the first hour of run time, to confirm the heterosexuality of the women (he’s the boyfriend of one, but a second makes a suggestive remark to him, and a third checks out his ass–with help from the POV of the panning camera, held by a female as the credits will show, and directed by a female). So we can all be comfortable knowing our heroes are “normal.”
In the second half, the male gets sent home, while the women go out and accomplish their epic mission. That’s okay, he can make supper and take care of their motherless child while he waits. Oh, sorry, I spoke too soon. The bad guys break in and kidnap him, to use as leverage against the team.
As all this drama unfolds, you glance around to see if the rest of the audience is buying it. You notice something: like you, 52% of the audience is male. Yet, this lack of interest by the filmmakers in your gender seems “normal.” How? It’s always been that way.
Back onscreen, something odd happens. Your male character looks as if he’s about to display power somehow: by interrupting, or grabbing a gun, or possibly even out-thinking the bad guys. Well, he’s quickly de-powered. How? Well, it looks as if someone just slapped him across the face and sent him sprawling. But the real work is done with the word that directly precedes the act: a slur that you’ve heard in dozens of films and never thought much of. Yet, today, you realize that it comes always at moments when males threaten to display true free agency. In some other reality, the word is B—H. Here, it’s unpronounceable. You first remember hearing it onscreen in 1986, when rare male hero Ripley had to fight the Alien King for custody of his adopted son, Newt, and challenged: “Get away from him, you —–!”
For those familiar with the Bechdel Test *1 for films, you recognize I’m furthering its project of offering an inverted perspective, a (regrettably) ridiculous fantasy to create empathy with female viewers. No, the test isn’t sophisticated enough to tell a good movie from a bad one, based on gender representation alone. It wasn’t meant to: it simply points to an area of our culture with a big, gaping hole: why doesn’t the film industry, which creates products for consumption by roughly equal numbers of men and women, fairly represent and employ both?
Let’s tweak the scenario just a bit, and in a more realistic direction. Let’s say you haven’t come alone to the theater. Your young child is sitting next to you. A son, in my alternate reality. A daughter, in our own. That matter to you?
It ought to. You, as an adult, can process a certain level of critical thinking about all this. He can, too, of course–perhaps more than most adults realize–however, there’s quite a lot of subconscious imitative behavior left in him. At some level, he’s digesting all this gender inequity as normal.
Which brings me, as a major example, to Marvel Studios. Not because they do so poorly, but because they do so well. And because they produce big-budget blockbusters that are suitable and attractive to children.
Here’s a statement most parents would agree with: when you regularly leave your child with Grandma, or Uncle Joe, then in effect Grandma or Uncle Joe are helping you raise your child, for better or worse. Now, here’s a more controversial statement: When you leave your child in daycare, then the babysitters there are helping you raise your child. Does the fact that these providers are not blood-related, or that they accept payment, change the dynamic, from the child’s perspective? I doubt it. Finally, try this one: when you sit your child in front of a video game, television, or book, then those media are helping to raise your child. The stories they tell are as influential, if not more so, than Grandma’s. Marvel, in all its forms, and like it or not, is helping America raise its children.
Back to our own reality. Where, to put it succinctly, boys rule.
Here’s a great little moment from Captain America: The Winter Soldier:
Black Widow: Where did Captain America learn to steal a car?
Cap: Nazi Germany. And we’re borrowing–take your feet off the dash[board].
And she does. So, do you think Marvel Studios doesn’t believe it’s influencing kids? Now, besides that, if we look a little closer at the extended scene, we can see that the woman is bowing to the man’s [superior moral] authority. The conversation continues as the Widow defends the notion of secrecy and deception as a survival mechanism, and Cap argues that friendship and honesty are what’s needed. She seems to win the local debate: “You might be in the wrong business, Rogers.” But he’s able to turn that line back on her, later, and in fact thematically the whole film endorses his point of view: SHIELD’s addiction to stealth technology, and secrecy in general, has brought the world to the brink of Armageddon by genocide. So at both the subtextual and metatextual levels, we’re learning that, as much as males may screw things up, females can help, but ultimate freedom and justice must be brought about by males (by extension, this argument would also carry a racial dimension, since both the Falcon, Cap’s sidekick, and Nick Fury, his wrongheaded boss, are black). An eight-year-old is not too young to hear and see this message. It’s not really a more difficult message to decode than the perennial one (that violence is the proper way to solve problems,) that so many Hollywood films endorse. Because, in his mind, somewhere, the question is raised: what is this story finally telling me?
Studio Head Kevin Feige, *2 in light of most-recent successes of Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy (both of which have women characters in important roles,) lately finds Marvel functioning as a lightning-rod for renewed demand for gender equity in our culture.*3 Because you have to understand something very clearly: movies, music, TV programs and sports, even grafitti, may all seem like “make-believe,” but: THEY MIRROR REALITY. It may be a distorting, funhouse mirror, true. But the fundamental facts remain the same. We see gender inequity in films because that’s what we perceive as we walk through the world. What we also perceive is that women (like all human beings, after all) have unlimited, heroic potential. But, for all but a few, extra difficulties must be faced in realizing that potential.
You don’t have to be a rabid feminist to see how problematic this is. There are practical consequences. No women leads, no women directors: Where will our young women get their role models from? From greedy racists, classists, and sexists, or from people who not only pay lip service to, but actually live as if they acknowledge human rights? I personally grew up reading Marvel Comics, and they had a profound effect on who I am today, no doubt of that. And if Marvel had been making more films then, I certainly would have been influenced by them. Eventually, I taught an upper level film studies course at the university level called Women and Film. So let’s just say, with regard to gender politics, my views have come a long way in forty years.
One dimension that Marvel characters seem to possess, more than in many other mythologies (I would include Tolkien, Twilight, and DC Comics*4 in that) is that both the heroes and villains, however deeply flawed, are on a slow trajectory of growth, or decay–just like people we know. No, I don’t dress in primary colors–but I do try to live more like Captain America than Dr. Doom.
As “pop” culture–with all its connotations of popcorn, soda pop, and instant-microwave gratification–slowly and inevitably replaces the (traditionally patriarchal) high culture of reading, drama, museums, galleries, and the symphony, the “pop” still seems to signify rule by the father. But if we lose all those nutrients, then our popcorn better get sprinkled with some protein powder. Actually, infused. Like Marvel Gummie vitamins.
The Modern Marvel Age, as Stan Lee sometimes referred to it, was built upon some important precepts, like: WITH GREAT POWER, COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY. As Spider-Man himself often finds, that’s a tremendously challenging ethical code to live up to. On TV, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD already has racial and gender diversity well-covered. The next step is Hollywood: With its infestation of suits, bean counters, and formulaic, often exploitative junk. Does Marvel still have the courage to grow and take real risks (they used to–remember Blade, a movie made before vampires got popular again, with a black male lead)? Can the people who hold custody of this mythology of heroes, that both reflects and helps create our culture, do any less than the fictional characters whose adventures they chronicle? The better they do, the better they have to do. Or is it really all just “stories?”
*1 For non-geeks, my title alludes to Fantastic Four #49, “If This Be Doomsday!” The Bechdel Test requires that a film contain 1) two women characters, who 2) talk to each other, 3) about some other topic than a man. One can readily imagine that the majority of Hollywood films fail this test, often without progressing beyond the first requirement. However, the test is not really meant to be used as deductive reasoning, which explains why I’ve inductively inverted it in this essay. Rather, it’s really about raising our consciousnesses about a vital social issue, not for use as a litmus test for whether one should actually judge quality by limited, demographic criteria.
*2 Kevin Feige’s interview: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=54522
*3 For an example on the critical backlash Marvel is facing, try this at Slashfilm: http://www.slashfilm.com/kevin-feige-marvel-female-superhero-movie/ Essentially, many fans want Marvel Studios to quit stalling projects with women leads and directors, but, as always, money seems to be the deciding factor. What will people pay to see?
*4 Last year, I deconstructed the recent Batman franchise to expose its low-level economic class biases: https://clothosloom.wordpress.com/2013/03/15/the-con-of-the-coin-shouldnt-batman-go-independent/ Perhaps, for DC fans, more hope will come in the form of Wonder Woman’s character–who, in the comics at least, in recent years has become a lethal threat to patriarchy.