EDITORIAL: The Exploited Avenger - Sexualization Within Modern Comic-Books Movies
It seems to be, no, is a rising trend in the contemporary film industry to strip down female characters until their plotlines are simplistic and bodies bare. A small sliver of the issues women face in film; Comic-Book films in particular, in my opinion.
Sexualisation is an issue that is becoming exponentially apparent and our beloved genre of comic-book movies are not exempt; They could be considered leading the charge in fact. The female characters of the films we so passionately debate, follow and view are, are becoming irrelevant, written into the screenplay only to raise stakes for the protagonist or to lure male viewers into the cinema.
Marvel Studios in particular are culprits here, females in their films of late serving little to no purpose within the context of the story, there only for their aesthetic value, But let’s just jump back a few years, to 2010, where this issue was still in its formative years for Marvel.
Black Widow is one of the sexiest characters in comics, there’s no denying that, so when she finally made her debut in the MCU, fans, male and female alike squirmed in their seats - 2010’s Iron Man 2 gave us our first glimpse at the femme fatale, in all her catsuit and ass-kicking glory. Scarlett Johansson fit the role like a glove I thought, the production team hit that nail square on the head. Her character also had purpose in context of the story; One of Fury’s top agents sent to observe and effectively, infiltrate Stark Industries fit well, then when it came to her suiting-up and finally showing us the Black Widow we so desperately wanted, it felt justified and necessary. Visually, her look was excellent - her hair and catsuit harked wonderfully back to the comics. Her suit wasn’t particularly revealing; not a ridiculous amount of cleavage or emphasis on Miss Johansson’s breasts (ignoring the disasters that were the posters for the film). It was practical, the flat boots she wore exemplify this - they made sense in modern media and the context of her character in the MCU. Form followed function primarily, in terms of costume design. I considered this to be a success for Marvel - They managed to introduce a character who had purpose, did justice to the source material and wasn’t overly sexualised - within the film at least.
Then came The Avengers…
The Avengers proved to be 2012’s biggest blockbuster, and the third-highest grossing of all time, which put a massive spotlight on Black Widow’s second visual appearance in the MCU. Here’s where the trouble started for Marvel. With this enlarged audience came several revisions to the infamous catsuit and Black Widow’s look, some good, some not so. Most notably was the change of her hair - now she sported a new colour and style - a brighter, more reddy colour, and significantly shortened locks - losing the more traditional look seen in IM2. This, to me, seemed off. The colour change did not bother me, her hair has changed colour wildy (within the raven/redhead boundary) in the comics, but there aren’t many iterations of Black Widow I have come across that have shoulder-cropped hair, especially in the wavy way it was presented in The Avengers. What the purpose of this change was I don’t know, I would have preferred a sustained look from IM2 personally, but Mr. Whedon had his reasons I’m sure.
I suspect that this was in an attempt to beautify her further, ignoring the heritage and making her appeal and relate to a widespread audience, aesthetically. Another change that puzzled me was the addition of heels into her catsuit. Gone was the practical, sensical flat-padded footwear, in came the more feminine, typical, raised boots. Again, why? What practical reason does this addition have? I’m not a female, I don’t wear heels, but I can’t imagine they’d be more comfortable than the flat predecessors. Sure, they give her more height, hey, maybe she just wanted to impress Hawkeye or Cap?
The lining on the front of her suit now contoured her figure far more obviously, only highlighting Scarlett Johansson’s large breasts further. The zip down the middle was now more overt too, directing viewers eyes’ straight at the deep V leading down into the aforementioned breasts. The only possible reason I can conceive for this is pretty obvious: Complete and utter sexualisation. Marvel knew that this film would be a success, seen by millions across the globe, so why not jazz up Widow a bit? The upgraded suit makes sense in a continuity sense, she’s upgrading her suit just as Tony Stark upgrades his, but the specific changes alter the context; Their sole female Avenger was used to rope in male viewers and the money they had waiting in their wallets - her feminine traits were completely exploited, and for me, this takes away from her part in the film.
Gone was the stealth (I know The Battle of New York wasn’t exactly a stealth operation, but still), gone was the finesse and the ruthless demeanour, in came the girl in the tight suit whining to Hawkeye and suddenly joking everywhere. Where was the mysterious, confident, sexy and somewhat devious attitude we first saw? It had been replaced, solely so that she could fill the more traditional role of ‘emotionally-compromised-but-still-gorgeous-woman’, who has a few impressive fight scenes sure, but didn’t seem much like the Black Widow we previously saw.
Her character, in that instance became somewhat of a sex symbol to the mainstream media. Perhaps 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier can right some of these wrongs, where Black Widow plays a key role. Despite yet another new look for the Widow, this one looks to be an improvement and early reports seem to suggest she is back to stealthy ways, but perhaps the attitude is still off, only time will tell how successful outing number three is.
I know and understand that Black Widow’s costume is risqué in the comics, the large breasts, high heels and accessories all accentuated to the point of ridiculousness - but that’s the comics, the whole world is ridiculous, the MCU is grounded in our world, and although that is starting to lift, there has to be some realistic practicality in the costume sense. Wouldn’t fit if Hawkeye was strutting around in this bright purple Earth-616 get-up would it? I understand the argument of her costume was more closely following the comics, it is only my personal opinion that Marvel went too far and made the changes for the wrong reasons.
Post Avengers, the issue didn’t seem to disappear. Iron Man 3’s Maya Hansen served no real purpose to the story, she came along, didn’t do much, then died unspectacularly, seemingly there as a reference to the Extremis comic arc on which the film was based, and for Rebecca Hall’s rather pretty face. Pepper did a little more than usual, actually getting in an Iron Man suit this time, gaining extremis-based powers (that seemingly enable her to activate and use severed sections of Iron Man armours - but that’s for another article), actually killing the antagonist, then getting said powers removed again. She didn’t manage to get into the RESCUE suit, which fans desperately hoped for and expected somewhat (especially given the final act), but no, she just was just yet again placed in the damsel-in-distress role, only this time as a super soldier. The film tries to compensate by having Pepper finishing off Killian (it seems), an action which seemed out of character and by means which shouldn’t have been possible in the first place. Iron Man 3’s thousands of problems are beside the point though; I digress.
It doesn’t end with the film alone though, the posters for Marvel’s Phase Two MCU efforts have not helped their case either. In both theatrical posters for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, the male heroes are seen heroically clutching their female partners, protecting them from the dangers that be. This only further implies the females’ weakness, why not have Jane Foster holding a beaten Thor? Or Pepper Potts protecting a battered Tony Stark?
Imagine how powerful that would be.
We’re likely never to see this, obviously nobody wants to see their hero fallen, but what’s wrong with having their female love interest do something more than just be that?
The image from DC’s Man of Steel of Superman crying into Lois Lane’s chest is still ingrained in my mind - I think that it one of the most powerful images in recent film, and exemplifies the point I'm making. To see our most popular heroes, symbols of hope, strength and justice physically broken or better yet emotionally, held together by a woman would only be a testament to what women are capable of, and not just that of an emotional cushion, a shoulder to cry on or a sexual release of the studio; females are capable of being heroes too. I’m not saying that heroines aren’t important or prevalent, they are, but with Black Widow’s most recent portrayal, and the Wonder Woman TV effort Amazon seemingly on hold, female heroes of any decent depth are few and far between in mainstream media - except perhaps for Arrow’s Felicity (despite her sidekick role, is still somewhat of a role model.)
Given the commercialisation and consumerism the film industry is subject to, especially billion-dollar-films like Marvel’s, sexualisation is an issue unlikely to go away, but I just wanted to throw my humble raindrop of an opinion out into the ocean that is the internet. Also, I’m not a feminist, I’m actually a dude.
This is my opinion, I acknowledge and respect the fact that people have other opinions, so let me know what you think. I’m only young, if I have the wrong idea, which is what I may well have, let me know! Politely, no need to be rude! This is my first piece too, so any tips or suggestions on what I can do better would be appreciated!
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