Holding Out for a Heroine

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Art Credit: via Image Comics

Glance at this summer’s selection of superhero movies (or even look ahead to next year’s slated blockbusters): Captain America: The Winter SoliderThe Amazing Spiderman 2X-Men: Days of Future Past. You’d never guess that comic book fandom is in the midst of a modern-day feminist revolution.

But walk into a comic book store and you’ll notice the shelves chock-full of more female-centric titles than ever before. Independent labels like Image Comics are increasingly embracing female protagonists, with smash hits like SagaRat Queens, and Pretty Deadly selling out multiple print runs—and in some cases, out-selling mainstream titles by the “big two,” Marvel and DC. And it didn’t take long for those at the top to begin capitalizing on the trend: This year, Marvel released a slew of titles centered around female heroes, including reboots of Ms. MarvelShe-Hulk, and Elektra, and DC’s stand alone Harley Quinn gives The Joker’s main squeeze her own book. The result has been a breakout hit.

Or take a stroll across the floor of a comic book convention (shows in San Diego, New York, and Toronto draw in excess of 100,000 fans per event) and you’ll see a relatively even split between men and women—a statistic that would have been completely unheard of less than a decade ago.

Flip on your television and, yet again, women are being represented in comic book adaptations like never before. The most-watched show on cable television, for example, is The Walking Dead—based on the Image Comics title of the same name—and it features a surprising number of heroines. Men and women equally share the burden of smashing zombies in post-apocalyptic Georgia, and the result is a more diverse audience than you might expect; Brett Schenker’s 2013 Facebook report indicates that female viewership of the hit television series is at a whopping 42 percent.

Hollywood, however, has been slow to roll out the welcome mat. When it comes to putting ladies in the spotlight, the big screen has become the final frontier, and it’s one that studios haven’t been willing to explore to any significant degree.

Since 2008 superhero films have been turning ridiculous profits, defying critics and delighting fans. Every spring, pundits predict the demise of the superhero genre due to over-saturation. The cries were particularly shrill this year, though in recent weeks they’ve quieted substantially—likely due to the fact that Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider Man 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past were all international smash hits.

Oddly, the fact that male-dominated superhero films have been so successful has been detrimental to emergence of female characters. With billions of dollars at stake, and a seemingly neverending supply of fans thirsting for more of same at the box office, there’s no sense of urgency for studios to fix something that isn’t broken.

Financially, this tactic makes sense. Women have been the perfect accessory in superhero films. The most successful comic book film of all time, 2012’s The Avengers, features a team of six superheroes—five men and one woman—and no one seemed to mind. To be fair, The Avengers' Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) had her fair share of screen time and was more than just eye candy. And that alone was a monumental step toward equality praised by many. But despite her popularity, it will be a cold day in Asgard before we see Johansson’s super spy as the titular character in a stand-alone film.

One could argue there simply aren’t that many female protagonists in the source material, which naturally leads to more screen time for men. In some cases this is true. But what about comics that have historically been more or less gender neutral in their appeal? The X-Men, which has typically used men and women equally in their comics, have utilized their female characters very sparingly in film adaptations. X-Men: Days of Future Past was a story about Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) traveling back in time to confront a young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), with some help from two other dudes, Quicksilver and Beast.

While comic books are crashing though stereotypes, movies seem to be continually falling back on clichés—though they’re using subtle adjustments to modernize them. In Spider Man, Gwen Stacy isn’t a damsel in distress, she’s a clever damsel in distress. In X-Men, Mystique isn’t just a token female character—she occasionally kicks some ass!

I know studios are apprehensive when it comes to shining the spotlight on female superheroes, and in some ways, who can blame them? A decade ago we suffered through Halle Berry’s Catwoman (an unmitigated disaster both at the box office and with critics) and cringed at Jennifer Garner’s Elektra (again, a train wreck on all counts).

But a lot has changed in ten years. Unfortunately, looking forward, it seems that it will be a while before we see even the most iconic heroines starring in their own films. Although Wonder Woman will appear in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman film, there are no immediate plans (at least none that the studio has confirmed) for a stand-alone Wonder Woman movie. Yet in August we’ll see Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy—a sci-fi comic book adaptation featuring a talking raccoon. Let that sink in for a moment: Studios don’t think audiences are ready to see the most well-known comic book heroine of all time in her own cinematic adventure, yet they’re confident in the box office appeal of an overgrown CGI raccoon brandishing a machine gun.

This is a new era in which there is a diverse group of moviegoers ready to consume comic book-inspired content. As girls of all ages continue to engage in fandom like never before, I’m hoping that movie studios start to realize that portraying women positively (and a little more equally) is not only financially advantageous, but it’s somewhat of a moral responsibility as well.

Girls are seeing these movies; the comedic trope of unwashed, all-male audiences populating the crowds of superhero films is a dated caricature that simply does not exist in 2014. Women make up nearly half of all ticket sales for the genre, and they deserve better. They deserve an X-Men film that actually makes use of their female team members. They deserve more than one female lead for every five or six men. And moreover, they deserve to see heroines get an equal opportunity to shine in leading roles.

Forget about the casting of incredibly gorgeous women with impossibly perfect figures, often wearing far less clothing than would be suitable for engaging in armed combat (why the X-Men cinematic version of Mystique is naked half the time still baffles me). It’s Hollywood—that’s never going to change.

But putting all that aside, the primary issue is this: When a little girl attends a superhero film and sees a woman—usually the only one who’s been given any significant screen time—pushed aside so the men can take over and save the day, it sends the wrong message. It tells her that she’s not important, or valued, or even allowed to engage in the same whimsical power fantasy that the boys are. After all, in the world of superheroes, shouldn’t we all get the chance to live vicariously through these larger-than-life heroes in equal measure? Size, strength, financial status, and yes, even gender—none of these factors should preclude someone from getting to imagine themselves as the master of their own destiny, and overcoming insurmountable odds. Allowing the girls to share in this experience will lead to a healthier, more loyal moviegoing audience.

I’m not asking for miracles. Like any significant change in perception, the shift will happen incrementally. I’m just asking for studios to look at other mediums and see that this shift is not theoretical, and it’s not coming in the distant future—it’s already in motion, and Hollywood is years behind the curve.

Art via Image Comics