(The) Avengers (Assemble) – Doing Women in Superhero Movies (Very Nearly) Right

The last film I saw in the cinema with Robert Downey Jr in had me hissing with irritation at its treatment of women most particularly The Woman. Yesterday we saw the Avengers movie and oh, what a cheering contrast. Not only with the second Sherlock Holmes but with so many of the other recent superhero movies, most notably, Green Lantern.

Let me explain, as far as I can without hideous spoilers. Because you don’t want this movie spoiled, trust me. You want to go and see it at your earliest convenience.

There’s Scarlett Johansson/Black Widow, a full member of the team, treated as a fellow professional, respected by her boss and useful in a fight. But definitely not because she’s essentially another bloke who happens to have boobs. Just to make that clear, she uses her femininity very effectively against someone who can’t see beyond the fact she’s a woman and therefore assumes he naturally has the upper hand. She contributes actively and continuously to the team’s fighting – and thinking – skills as they tackle successive challenges.

Yes, okay, the zip on her black leather superhero jumpsuit is defective, permanently stuck mid-cleavage but I did say the film gets it ‘very nearly’ right. And actually, when it comes to aesthetically pleasing visuals, I would say the female viewers get their fair share of entertainment, certainly those of us whose tastes run to muscular physiques.

So far so good but it gets better because Samuel L Jackson/Nick Fury’s second in command is Agent Maria Hill/Cobie Smulders, another significant female role wherein a woman is professional, trusted and effective. In a role where there is no intrinsic need for that character to be a woman – Marvel Universe continuity aside which the majority of cinema goers will know nothing about. But once you realise that’s noteworthy because the Boss’s Sidekick is so usually a man, you also see there’s no absolutely reason why that character cannot be a woman in this day and age. And that’s really worth thinking about. (Agent Hill also has a more functional zip on her jumpsuit and a vest underneath it.)

Let’s also consider what these two women don’t do. They don’t get captured. They don’t get rescued. Yes, they get into dangerous and difficult situations – and they get themselves out of them. They don’t, alas, get any interaction or conversation which would enable the film to really nail the Bechdel Test but their respective roles, and particularly the pace and plot don’t really offer any natural opportunity for that to arise.

All this is in such sharp contrast with Whatshername in Green Lantern, whose supposed power and influence running an aerospace firm is rendered utterly meaningless because we never see her actually being powerful or influential on screen before she is reduced to Damsel in Distress (who will naturally then spread her legs with gratitude for her rescuer).

Back to the Avengers, Black Widow and Agent Hill most especially don’t get casually killed just to motivate the Alpha Males. Indeed, we see a good-hearted man in the role of innocent suffering an undeserved fate – and well, I can’t say more about the way that movie theme/cliché is handled without spoilers. Suffice it to say, I can’t recall when I saw that particular plot element done better.

Possibly in an episode of Buffy or Angel? Maybe Dollhouse? I’d have to give that some thought. Because of course, we have Joss Whedon to thank for this awesome script. The man who when asked ‘why do you write these strong women characters?’ famously replied ‘because you’re still asking me that question’.

And before that, he said “Because—equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women. And the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who is confronted with it.”

Yes, as a woman, I expect and warrant equality for myself. I also want my teenage sons and their pals and their pals’ younger brothers to see equality in action, especially as a naturally accepted element of a superhero action movie. So they don’t see Black Widow or Agent Hill as in any way remarkable. I want the upcoming generation to be baffled by the notion that women couldn’t be in a story like this on equal terms with the men.

Edit: and as I have been reminded, let’s not forget Pepper Potts on the film’s roster of capable women treated with due respect.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

9 thoughts on “(The) Avengers (Assemble) – Doing Women in Superhero Movies (Very Nearly) Right

  1. The first we see of Black Widow in the movie, however, is her currently being held hostage by some unsavory characters, in her lingerie no less. Granted she does manage to escape without a man needing to come in and rescue her, it could have been handled easier. That was the only cringeworthy moment in an otherwise excellent movie. And, while I love Gwenyth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, she just felt like “the hero’s girlfriend” in this movie.

    1. For every woman I’ve talked to, the whole point of introducing Black Widow like that was to subvert the stereotype/expectation. Yes, I take your point about Pepper Potts – but I can’t see how there could have been more screentime/plot presence for her character in the overall scheme of things. So I saw her appearance as a nod to Iron Man (film) continuity – and appreciated her being shown as an equal partner, assertive in discussing projects with Tony. The default setting could so easily have been some variant on biddable, compliant spouse.

    1. This is a really interesting response to my piece – particularly given some of the feedback I’ve had about a central female character in my Hadrumal Crisis trilogy – she is widowed and left appallingly vulnerable because she has absolutely none of the assertiveness and coping skills she needs, having been raised in a overtly patriarchal system (benevolent in her personal case).

      Some readers really like to see this sideways look at the ‘damsel in distress, rises to the challenge’ fantasy stereotype/cliche. Others find her intensely irritating. Most are somewhere in between.

  2. As so often, the term equality is used here to disguise a wish for female superiority here, I think. These women aren’t rescued? May I remind you that as Thor hadn’t come to the rescue when Black Widow was hunted down and cornered by the Hulk, she would have been a splat on the wall? And there is nothing wrong with that: later on Thor comes to the rescue of Captain America too, when he has been knocked down. So this is my point: if you were vouching for real equality, why should we be in a universe where women shouldn’t in any case have to be rescued ?
    And on the ‘nearly right’ issue: I have read the nuances you wrote about women getting there fair share; kudo’s for that.
    But nevertheless: it’s fine that Mark Ruffalo is portraited completely naked (however decent), but a zipper ten centimeters down still counts as a deplorable fact?

    1. No, I don’t look for female superiority. I look for genuine equality – and not being patronised with passive voice constructions would also be nice. I’m not disguising anything, deliberately or unconsciously. I’m saying what I think.

      As to what you think, men and women should have equal rights to be rescued? Fair comment, absolutely. My central point here is the women aren’t *only* there to be rescued while the men are *only* there to be Alpha Heroes.

      As to zippers, I still think there’s a qualitative difference to cleavage on continual display versus a single shot of a carefully ‘figleaved’ male nude. That said, cleavage on continual display is much less of an issue in the wider context of a film which does so much better than most in its portrayal of women – and where those of us who appreciate the unclothed male form do get the aforesaid naked Mark Ruffalo to admire.

      1. Thank you for your answer. First of all, as you will have guessed, English isn’t my first language; could you explain what you mean by ‘passive voice constructions’? (I’m not being ironic: I really don’t understand).
        You wrote that you meant that the women were not there ONLY there to be rescued, and that is something nobody could protest to.
        But what you wrote was: They don’t get rescued. And you completely chose to ignore the Thor rescue scene. I thought this was cherry picking, and that’s why I thought you might have a different agenda.
        Also, I think your approach the of zipper issue not quite fair. We can agree to disagree about the quality/quantity theme.
        But when talking about the widow, you remind the readers you said they ‘almost got it right’ So, this was the wrong choice.
        But when you turn to the ‘leverage’ there for the women, your not refering to that as ‘almost right’ or wrong. Than you’re talking about ‘get their fair share of entertainment’ or ‘get the naked Mark Rufallo to admire’ I still say, you are working with double standards.
        A final thought: reading your comments, it seems as if we are still in the sixties. We live in Lara Croft-Aeonflux-Phoenix era! Women in cinema and TV are ‘kicking butt’ all over the place. Again, what do you choose to focus on?
        I am looking forward to your answer, and a chance, maybe, to broaden the subject.

        1. Actually, I hadn’t guessed English isn’t your first language – your skills are excellent. To explain then, I’m referring to your observation “the term equality is used here to disguise a wish for female superiority”. This is a passive construction. An active construction would be ‘what you’re really saying is you wish for female superiority’. However, either way, telling me that my words actually mean something different to what I’m saying is patronising. As is trying to discover my ‘real agenda’.

          You are correct in that I didn’t analyse every scene in the film; I had only just watched it at the cinema when I wrote this piece, rather than say, on DVD where I could have reviewed and checked every detail. But I wasn’t aiming for an exhaustive analysis. My point that the women are not only there to be rescued still stands. That they, and others, are rescued at some points in the film doesn’t invalidate that observation. All too often, a woman’s only role in a plot is to be ‘damsel in distress’.

          As to the zipper remark, that was a light-hearted way of addressing a serious point. Perhaps you missed that nuance.

          Things have certainly improved for women since the 60’s – which incidentally, I can just about remember. I definitely remember the prevalence of casual sexism in the 70’s and 80’s, which would never be tolerated today.

          However we still have a good way to go in popular culture. Lara Croft may indeed be a female action hero but she is still portrayed in figure-hugging and revealing clothes and her figure itself is more likely to be seen in adolescent male fantasies than in any gathering of real, live women. The physical distortions and sexual objectification of women in comics continues to range from the absurd to the obscene, and to offer just one example of strong female characters on TV, consider the way Fiona in Burn Notice is so frequently seen in bikinis or other revealing clothes standing next to fully dressed men. This expectation that women will naturally serve as ‘eye-candy’ persists. If their role is only to be ‘eye-candy’ I find that tiresome.

          I have no absolute objection to ‘eye-candy’ on the screen as long as the playing field for men and women is more equal, along with more equality when it comes active male and female roles in a story.

          Please do me the courtesy of taking my words as written, rather than trying to find hidden meanings.

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