So where are we with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s depiction of female heroes? – A Ripley Factor Special

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The Ripley Factor, the test by which this website measures the portrayal of women in films, draws together four questions from a range of feminist film theory:

  1. Do the female characters exist only to define or motivate men?
  2. Are the women in the film believable as real people or do they have unrealistic, often typically macho, fighting powers or abilities, relative to the story in which they feature?
  3. Are women objectified in a way that does not balance with the treatment of men in the film?
  4. Does the inclusion of the women in the film feel like tokenism?

After slow beginnings the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has a packed roster of female superheroes and generally their representation satisfies the above criteria appropriately. It wasn’t the best start though; Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff failed on almost every count when she first appeared in Iron Man 2. She was pretty much there to support Tony Stark’s narrative, she ticked every cliche of the kick ass chick and she was absolutely set up to be a sexy object of desire.

They’d largely fixed this for her return in the first Avengers movie but even here she was the lone box ticking female among all the boys. We had Maria Hill too but she wasn’t involved in the same way; she was back office. Wanda Maximoff was added to the mix in Avengers: Age of Ultron and then by the time Avengers: Endgame came along The Wasp, Valkyrie, Gamora, Nebula, Mantis, Captain Marvel, the whole of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje and an iron suited Pepper Potts had joined the fray.

Unfortunately Pepper in her ‘Rescue’ armour was seemingly only really there to be shoehorned into that laboured shot of all of the women on the battlefield near the end of Endgame. Her superhero persona is not one that had been previously established, at all. Also, cool as a formidable all female security force are, Dora Milaje actually translates to ‘adored ones’ so the feminism wasn’t quite there with that one either. Captain Marvel who is a positive, non masculine, non-objectified, narratively key hero and the MCU’s very first female protagonist, had only been introduced one movie previously of course, after twenty other films. Ant-Man and The Wasp, the sequel to Ant-Man gave a woman joint billing, kind of, but that itself was film number twenty.

Interestingly the Ant-Man sequel did appear to start a trend but perhaps not the one that was intended. At that stage they seemed to be saying that a woman couldn’t front a film alone and even though they moved on from this quickly, they’ve got back on it. The second Captain Marvel film is now The Marvels featuring Carol Danvers again but also Monica ‘Photon’ Rambeau and Kamala ‘Ms Marvel’ Khan. There were some great female characters in Eternals but only, Guardians of the Galaxy style, amongst a larger group and even Natasha Romanoff was joined by at least two other Black Widows for her belated solo movie. Where has the confidence in projects lead by a single strong female superhero gone?

Quick mention to last year’s Shang Chi that had two great female heroes but again, like Valkyrie and the adored ones, they were there to support the man.

The new Disney+ Marvel TV shows are doing a little better. The title of WandaVision again combined the names of its two leads, one male and one female, but the lady came first this time and was most certainly the star. The guy didn’t even really exist having been previously killed off, subsequently giving the woman her motivation. Now there’s a nice turn around. Loki introduced someone who was finally a match for the wily, duplicitous and irascible god of mischief and it was a female version of him. There’s a lot to unpack there in terms of gender equality but at least she got the better of him at the end. Question: in a world of infinite variants of Loki, why was only one of them a woman? Perhaps because the only ones we hear about are the ones that have been caught by the Time Variance Authority coppers. The She Hulk show promises much in terms of representation but only if they can only get past her distastefully antiquated patriarchal moniker.

In fact this same naming issue and the handling of it is one of the best things around the latest MCU Disney+ show Hawkeye. Here we have a new female superhero being introduced. She is skilled, brave, smart and not wearing a tight bodysuit yet it is he, Clint Barton the erstwhile Avenger that has the program named after him. She is the secondary player, he is the lead character. As the show progresses though it seems that he is taking the supporting part in his own show and by the end it transpires that sure enough, it is not his show at all. She is the Hawkeye of the title as he gives up the name and passes it to her. Not She-Hawk, not Hawkress, not Lady Hawk, Hawkeve or Lady Arrow, she is not an alternate gender version of the hero, she is now the hero (and she only needed one Black Widow as back up, that’s progress).

Thor: Love and Thunder is apparently set to do the same thing this July when Jane Foster lifts the hammer, but it should be noted that the Netflix MCU shows did this a while ago when Jessica Henwick’s Japanese character Colleen Wing became Iron Fist at the end of Iron Fist, reclaiming the mystical Asian Kung Fu power from the white guy. With this and Jessica Jones from 2015, Netflix (and ABC with Agent Carter in the same year) have been better at doing female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Now that the MCU is starting to acknowledge these shows again, along with their own approach to Hawkeye, will we see women finally taking centre stage as they can? I think we might have turned that corner.

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