Black Widow and Captain Marvel: The Duality of Gender in the MCU
In her 1996 essay, ‘Feminist Perspectives on the Media’ Van Zoonen asks her readers a simple question; ‘What part does media play in the ongoing social construction of gender?’ For many, this answer may vary, but in the eyes of Van Zoonen there are five main roles, these include economic structures (e.g. commercial versus public media), specific characteristics (e.g. print versus broadcast), particular genres (e.g. news versus soap opera), the audiences they appeal to and the place they occupy in those audiences’ daily lives.
Within the past decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU for short has grown into one of the most significant film properties in existence. In 2018 alone, two of their three releases ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ grossed up to two billion dollars each, and their 2019 release ‘Avengers: Endgame’ has topped them by an extraordinary amount. One may be able to see how this franchise fits into Van Zoonen’s categories. Not only does the MCU have a sizeable economic structure as the conglomerate brand Disney currently owns Marvel, but the franchise is also film and television based and so it is easily accessible in this day and age. The genre of comic book based action films has always been a significant attraction within Hollywood, and the MCU appeals to mass audiences through its gradual build-up of cinematic storytelling that takes places yearly. However, even with the MCU being able to take over the cinematic landscape, it has still run into issues in regards to gender representation.
With only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters between 2007 and 2014 being female across the 700 top‐grossing films, we can see that it’s essential to have representation for minority groups within media but the MCU, unfortunately, was not able to provide that as well as it could have during its first phase. According to his 2017 book, ‘Avengers Assemble!: Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’, Mcsweeney calculated that not one film across the first or second phase of the MCU comes close to averaging 28–33% of speaking roles for women. That should not come as a shock when you consider the cast of the MCU, the majority during the first and second phases were, in fact, white Cishet men. They were the face of all the films, the merchandise, the advertising and the press tours. And as Yamato (2015) points out, ‘strong female co-leads only appeared in larger ensemble team-ups, primarily as lethal and emotionally impenetrable femme fatales who double as love interests’.
One prime example of an ‘impenetrable femme fatale who doubles as a love interest’ is Black Widow. Played by Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow was the lead female character within the MCU before her demise in ‘Avengers: Endgame’. For many fans, it felt as if Black Widow had been hypersexualised from the moment she entered the MCU and even at times by cast members; Chris Evans and Jeremy Renner during a press run called the character derogatory terms such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore’.
One of the main instances of the MCU undermining the character can be found in her storyline within ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ (AOU). The film narrows down her entire role to her inability to give birth as when Black Widow begins a ‘flirtationship’ with a fellow Avenger (Bruce Banner), and he asks her to run away with him to start a life together, she admits that she cannot have children as a way to rationalise him. Woerner & Trendacosta (2015) argue that this undermines her character because, ‘Instead of an assassin constantly struggling with finding moral lines she didn’t know existed, we got a woman who feels incomplete because she cannot have babies’.
For years Johansson was unable to get a titular role within the MCU whereas for her male co-stars it seemed to be automatically accepted that they would receive that chance. For many fans who viewed the character as a modern-day feminist icon, the idea that she wasn’t good enough for her own film hurt and they could not figure out why Marvel would waste her as they had. In 2015, however, it was exposed former Marvel CEO, Ike Perlmutter had suggested that female-led superhero movies would not be financially viable and that “girl” superhero products wouldn’t sell. In that same year, one former Marvel employee wrote an anonymous op-ed exposing the fact that female characters such as Black Widow had been sidelined purposefully from the merchandise. The employee suspected that Disney had bought Marvel, a company with a relatively substantial female audience to shift the focus onto a male audience and this was confirmed to her by her boss who stated, “That’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lockdown”.
In the summer of 2017 and only three films into their new cinematic universe, DC unveiled their first female-led superhero film, ‘Wonder Woman’. It would not be in good faith to ignore the impact that 2017’s ‘Wonder Woman’ had on the film industry. The film opened to huge success not only critically but financially with it raking in around 821 million dollars in its box office. For many, this film is more than just a superhero movie; it is a feminist statement and revitalisation for female action films. ‘Wonder Woman’ represented what a Black Widow film could have been for the cinematic landscape in the early 2010s and with the staggering political divide within the world due to the rise of authoritarian leaders it seemed to be put out at the perfect time. As argued by Bercuci (2016),’ historically superheroines have long had a history of functioning as feminist symbols that reveal issues and attitudes associated with feminism as a particular point in time’.
Two years later and twenty-one films down the line has Marvel finally released their first female-led film with 2019’s ‘Captain Marvel’. Box office wise ‘Captain Marvel’ has made over one billion dollars, skyrocketing past ‘Wonder Woman’ to become the highest grossing female-led film ever made but the discourse around the film was less favourable than that of ‘Wonder Woman’. Brie Larson, who stars as Captain Marvel, was the victim of online harassment when a speech of hers went viral. Larson had spoken at an event where she discussed the lack of representation within the not only film but as well as film media for Women of Colour and had stated that she was tired of white men being at the forefront.
This unapologetic opinion about the lack of diversity upset many as it seemed that Larson was attacking the core fanbase of the MCU. Massanari (2017) argues that critiques about the limited diversity of geek communities such as the MCU are viewed under a banner of choice — that the reason more women or people of colour do not participate is because they do not want to — rather than a recognition of the structural barriers that might make participation difficult or unappealing. Larson seems to be regarded as the anti-Johansson. She is seen as unbothered with attempting to win over the male audience of Marvel and how she performs feminism rings similar to third wave feminists. As defined by Mahoney (2016), ‘third-wave feminists have emphasised the importance of individuality and diverse personal experiences when defining their politics’. Larson understands that her place as a white woman within the MCU is not going to be the end all be all of the representation but instead wants to make sure she can diversify the entirety of the franchise, something that would have been unspeakable during the early years.
While both Johansson and Larson identify as feminists, how the public view their utilisation of their positions of power as white women differ. Johansson is not seen as divisive and seems to operate within the framework of pop feminism. Farhall (2015) defines pop feminism as, a ‘fun, flirty and feminine and actively placed in direct opposition to alternative iterations of feminism that are labelled as outdated and unattractive’. Johansson in the past has rarely attempted to critique the structures that limit women within the MCU or the film industry overall, and it may be due to this, that male geeks did not view Johansson as a threat to their position as they now do Larson. However, while Johansson is not new to controversy in regards to her ignorance on representation, it seems that her politics are now shifting due to the prominence of the #TimesUp movement.
Fast-forward to 2019 and Johansson is finally getting her film, although her character in the MCU has now been killed off. The reveal of her death split audiences; some supported the choice citing the fact that many of the MCU alums want to move on from the decade long franchise, but others felt as if this was an undeserving end to a character who had long been mistreated. There is nothing inherently wrong with killing off female characters but what seems to be the main gripe here is the fact Black Widow had finally reached a ‘positive’ place within her arc, and it was thrown away to save Hawkeye simply because he had a family and she did not. As Kent (2019) writes, “her value as a character and person evaporated the moment she was deemed childless and thereby monstrous in Age of Ultron.”
It can be argued that none of this matters, that the story should outweigh the need for representation but with the MCU being the powerhouse it is, can we honestly pretend as if these films don’t make an impact? Yes, it may merely all be fantasy, but as Fiske (2009) argues, the use of fantasy helps to provide an explanation of reality. It’s not to escape the truth, but instead, it’s a direct response to the dominant ideology and its embodiment in social relations.
In layman’s terms, films such as ‘Wonder Woman’, ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ shape the world around them. The more we get the representation that’s given more than a nanosecond of thought, the more we can change how minority groups are viewed within the film industry. Even if the MCU doesn’t wholly fix this imbalance shouldn’t they at least try?
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