Female Superheroes: An evolution from page to screen
Grand Valley State University
In 2017, Warner Bros. studios will release the first live-action Wonder Woman movie. The film will star Gal Gadot and is being directed by Patty Jenkins. Wonder Woman was first introduced in 1941 with an appearance in All-Star Comics #8, (DC Comics). Seventy-six years passed before this iconic DC character was given a solo feature film. In comparison, the character of Batman was first given a 15-chapter serial film in 1943 and has been seen in countless films since, including the most recent Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).
Numerous academic scholars and entertainment industry journalists are moving towards the notion that women should be featured in more leading roles within the superhero genre both within comic books and in massive blockbuster films. While these notions are being discussed and even implemented, like Gadot in Wonder Woman, females in superhero roles continue to be overly sexualized, while remaining underrepresented in comic books, popular feature films, and pop culture.
Classic literature is deeply rooted in the tales of good versus evil. More times then not when the final page of a story is turned, the hero will have defeated the villain. Comic books have embraced these classic troops in broad strokes. In DC Comics, the character of Batman will almost ways triumph over the villains, saving the city of Gotham. The Flash can go back in time and reverse any outcome. Superman will always save Metropolis. These scenarios all have one commonality: a man saves the city and the day. While some iconic female superheroes have emerged throughout the years of comic history, it has taken over 70 years for female superheroes to move from the background to the foreground and from the page to the silver screen.
Numerous academic scholars and entertainment industry journalists are moving towards the notion that women should be featured in more leading roles within the superhero genre, especially in comic books and massive blockbuster films. While these ideas are being discussed and at times even implemented, like Gadot in Wonder Woman, females in superhero roles continue to be overly sexualized, while they remain underrepresented in comic books and films.
As a result, this literature review will examine the evolution of women in superhero roles from the 1940s, in their first comic book appearances, to their representation in modern pop culture today. As this evolution progresses over time and history, the over sexualization of female superhero continues, despite trends moving towards feminist equality in pop culture. My research combines the platforms of traditional comic books with representation from within movies and television, along with box office impact, culminating in a narrative that brings together gender studies, sexualization representation, and how the dynamic is slowly starting to change within the pop culture as a result of advanced gender equality movements, equal rights, and demands from fans.
Market research around the globe almost always reaches the same conclusion when it comes to how to best sell a product. Simplified, sex sells. The female body is often a symbol of sexuality, lust, and fertility, (Need, 2002). In early literature, art, photographs, and visual descriptions, women are clearly represented in a sexual way. These definitions and classifications of femininity and over sexualization remain true throughout history and have evolved into being critical pillars of modern pop culture.
The representation of females within film continues to put the focus on their outfits and sexual interactions. That is not the only glaring difference between men and women on screen; another example is the age of the characters represented. “Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (24%) and 30s (28%). Male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (30%)” (Lauzen, 2016). These statistics represent a constant over-sexualization and under development for female characters. This is especially true for female superhero characters.
In 2013, the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California looked at the top 100-grossing fictional movies of 2012. Of the movies reviewed only 28.4 percent of the speaking characters were women. That is less than the numbers for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 (Gray, 2013). In addition, the women that were seen on-screen appeared to be represented in an extremely hypersexual way. This hypersexual portrayal could be classified by the character wearing sexy/low-cut clothing, the amount of time spent on screen in the nude, and if the characters passed the Bechdel test, (Heron, Belford, Goker, 2014). The Bechdel test was created with the confines of whether a work of fiction features at least two women or girls who talk to each other about something other than a man or boy. The requirement that the two women and/or girls must be named is an additional factor that is also added into the boundaries of the test.
An example of extreme over sexualization comes from Wonder Woman, who is one of the most iconic female superheroes in the history of comic book lore. She was not the first female hero to adopt a costume and a secret identity, but her appeal has endured beyond that of all other Golden Age superheroes save for Superman and Batman (Lepore, 2014). While she represents many positive values, including physical strength and compassion, she is often depicted in a sexual way, with limited clothing, and over exaggerated physical features.
Batman has often shared the page and screen with Wonder Woman throughout comic book history. Batman is arguably one of the most famous characters in pop culture history. The comparisons between Wonder Woman and Batman, both pop cultures figures in their own right, shows the sexualization that Wonder Woman has received compared to her equally famous counterpart Batman. His costume has become iconic, even when it was modernized in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), it remained a staple in Batman lore. The outfit completely covered his entire body. The “Batsuit” had an armor/military look to the ensemble. The outfit was created for battle, not to show off Bruce Wayne’s physical features. Especially in Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the Batsuit felt extremely masculine compared to the outfit that Wonder Woman/Diana Prince wore in Batman v Superman. Her outfit consisted of only a leather corset and a shortened skirt, Wonder Woman had more skin showing compared to the entire outfit which was created for an extremely combat heavy battle.
With this background established, the following literature review will explore the constant theme of over-sexualizing female superheroes that has surfaced in the past, remains in the present and mostly likely will in the future. This over-sexualization and under-representation started back years ago with the first appearance of a female superhero in comic book history. This literature review starts with early comic book history in the 1940s and progresses into modern times up to the current landscape of 2017.
1940s & 50s: From Fantomah to Wonder Woman
The evolution of females in superhero roles has evolved in every era but a constant theme of under-representation and over sexualizing still remains throughout chronological history. These themes emerged in the 1940s and 50s. Before 1940, no female superhero existed within comic history. The 1940s and 50s were known as and are often referenced as the Golden Age of Comic Books. These years featured the first consistent publications of comic books and with each publication interest in comics rapidly increased. Mostly male characters were featured during the Golden Age of Comics, including Captain America, Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel (Klock, 2002).
Female characters had been introduced but they played minor background roles. In a world dominated by the male presence in comic books at this time in history, women started to emerge on the pages of comic books. In the 1940s, 70-150 million comic books were being sold on a monthly basis (Sarah Zaidan, 2015). Undeniably, male characters dominated comic book pages, but the 40s paved the way for female superheroes and allowed the concept of a female superhero to gain popularity. Without the authors and comic book pages of the 40s, Gal Gadot wouldn’t be seen on screen as Wonder Woman today.
The evolution of female superheroes in comics starts with the first appearance of Fletcher Hank’s character Fantomah back in February of 1940. Fantomah was an ancient Egyptian woman who could transform into a skull-faced creature in order to combat evil (Roach, 2004). Fantomah was drawn as a very masculine figure with extremely feminine features being highlighted. Audiences were used to male characters being drawn and featured on the pages of their favorite comic books, but the introduction of Fantomah allowed a female character to be introduced and drawn without too much of a shift. This introduction slowly pushed boundaries and allowed a door of opportunity to be open for female superheroes. While her character had masculine attributes, her feminine features stood out. Fantomah had perfect long blonde hair, heavy makeup, and abnormally large breasts. While she was able to transform into a skull-faced creature, her feminine features were constantly on display and in the forefront. From the first comic book drawing, it wasn’t the character that garnered the attention, instead of her physical attributes. Fantomah’s influence cannot be understated. As a result, many modern characters are drawn with a similar style.
After the introduction of Fantomah, another superhero was quickly inducted into comic history. Bill Finger and Bob Kane, introduced Selina Kyle/Catwoman in Batman #1 (1940). Batman was still the main focus of every story and conflict, simply introducing Catwoman to assist his plotlines in moving forward. Catwoman served more as a supporting character compared to the main character in her own right. While this was advancement, it wasn’t until 1941 that one of the most iconic characters in comic book history was introduced-Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman embodied female sexuality and was completely different compared from previous female superheroes like Catwoman and Fantomah. Wonder Woman was physically strong while being incredibly beautiful. She didn’t need a male character to save the day. Instead, saving the day was her mission. Diana Prince commanded the page from the moment she stepped onto the page, that was a result of her creator’s vision for this groundbreaking character. William Moulton Marston (1893-1947) created the character of Wonder Woman, along with extensive input from his wife and co-creator Elizabeth Holloway Marston. H.G. Peter illustrated the Wonder Woman comic book strip. Marston created Wonder Woman’s backstory from a verity of sampling from famous literature. She is an Amazon and a God from ancient Greece.
William Marston created one of the most iconic characters in comic book history while at the same time being a bondage enthusiast and pathological liar, as noted by many sources. Marston was an extremely complex individual. He was a Harvard graduate, psychologist, polyamorist, and inventor of the lie detector set. Much of his life and personal passions can be read as underlying themes within the early run of Wonder Woman comics.
The author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman Jill Lepore explored Marston’s background in detail and how he created Wonder Woman with feminist values despite his colorful and at times explicit background. Lepore explains that throughout the original comic strips, a theme of bondage and hypersexuality was a constant in the early Wonder Woman run. “Not a comic book in which Wonder Woman appeared, and hardly a page, lacked a scene of bondage. In episode after episode, Wonder Woman is chained, bound, gagged, lassoed, tied, fettered and manacled…her eyes and mouth are taped shut,” (Lepore, 2015).
While these early Wonder Woman comic book runs are iconic and historical, they show how far these characters had yet to go. “Quite how this story embraces women’s right is difficult to figure. It’s feminism as fetish. She was always an imperfect feminist icon, however. Who needs consciousness-raising and equal pay, when you’re an Amazon with an invisible plane” (Lepore, 2015). Marston died of cancer in 1947; the comic book didn’t return to its original glory and style until the early 1970s.
It wasn’t until fifteen years later that more female superhero characters were written into comics. Edmond Hamilton and Sheldon Moldoff created Batwoman/Kathy Kane, while Otto Binder and Al Plastino announced Supergirl in 1959. These years served as the introduction into female superheroes but continued the trend of oversexualizing our female heroes.
1960s & 1970s: From Sue Storm to Spider-Woman
History remembers the 1960s and 1970s as extremely polarizing times in history. 1961 brought about John F. Kennedy becoming president of the United States; Kennedy represented youth and hopefulness entering the Oval Office. That hope was extinguished in the 70s as the Vietnam War continued to rage on.
These types of events paralleled what was being created within pop culture at the time, especially in comic books. The 1960s and 70s also continued to pioneer new female superheroes in the mainstream culture. These characters included Sue Storm; Scarlet Witch; Black Widow; Carol Danvers; Spider-Woman; and Storm, a critical member of the X-Men.
During 1964, Scarlet Witch was announced through Marvel Comics, along with Black Widow (Tales of Suspense #52). Carol Danvers aka Ms. Marvel (Marvel Super Heroes #13) was introduced in 1968. All of these characters felt like the start of more developed characters that had traits beyond their physical looks, although their physical appearance remained the focus.
Transitioning into the 70s, Spider-Woman/Jessica Drew (Marvel Spotlight #32) was introduced. Spider-Woman was drawn very similar to the female superheroes from the 1950s and 60s. Spider-Woman’s physical features were exaggerated, her hair long and full, and was drawn with a skinnier form compared to that of the first female comic book superheroes presented. Spider-Woman was modeled after an extremely popular male character, Spider-Man. Throughout these years, female characters had started to show an evolution towards gender equality but remained stifled by recycled storylines, like that of Spider-Woman, or remained overly sexualized. With comic book history for female superheroes it appears that for every two steps forward, one was taken back; however, pop culture continued to put the spotlight on female superhero characters through a different medium; television.
The 1960s and 70s also showed that pop culture was making shifts towards more female representation through superhero characters. While this was advancement, the characters remained overly sexualized, putting their looks before powers. Wonder Woman continued her development from the early comic books and was introduced through a television series during the 1970s. Lynda Carter played the title character in Wonder Woman. The show ran from 1975 to1979 and consisted of sixty episodes. Lynda Carter became a superhero icon during the show’s course but was still held back by traditional costumes and over sexualization.
Empire Online reviewed Wonder Woman as a “look back” feature in 2005. The series was described as a show that had reached cult status and became known for its over stylised acting and action. The focus went back to Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman and how despite her acting and empowering role she was still held back by her outfit, which took away from her superhero status. “However, there’s still plenty of escapist fun to be had from the original pilot episode and subsequent first series of the show—not least in trying to work out just how Lynda Carter managed to breathe in that costume,” (Empire Online, 2005).
1980s & 1990s: Rogue to Jesse Quick
The 1980s and 1990s featured a comic book resurgence. The timespan from1970 to 1985 was known as the Bronze Age of Comic Books. This followed the Silver Age of Comics Book (1956 to 1970) and would be followed by the Modern Age of Comics. The Bronze Age is a reflection of the current times politically and socially. This era continued to reflect real-world issues on the pages of comics. No topic was off limits, including, racism, poverty, terrorism, and substance abuse. The 1980s also featured a shift in readership demographics: “The bulk of new readers who came into the comic book market in the late 1980s were urban” (Knowles, 2007).
Female superheroes during the Bronze Age were featured more prominently, but the shift away from over-sexualization remained unchanged. The 80s continued the lore of the X-Men, which featured more of female characters including Rogue, Kitty Pryde (Uncanny X-Men #129), and Emma Frost (John Byrne, Uncanny X-Men #12). Rogue was first introduced in Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1 #171. This was the issue where she became an official member of the X-Men team. The cover was similar to that of when Kitty Pryde was introduced. Physically, Rogue is drawn with more muscular definition, compared to other females within the X-Men universe, but her physical features were over exaggerated and her outfit was a skin-tight body suit. Emotionally, Rogue was defined differently compared to other female X-Men. Her backstory was explained in detail and her emotional baggage wasn’t hidden. She was a flawed character and written with more depth and honesty. This type of development was becoming more popular for male characters during the Bronze Age and it was refreshing to see Rogue explored in such detail. Rogue was originally described as a villain during her initial storyline; it was a hard journey back to becoming a hero but that arch and emotional turmoil were explored within the pages of X-Men comics, (Schedeen, 2015).
The 1990s featured the introduction of more female superhero characters, with a shift visually towards the characters being drawn with a thinner physique, while still exaggerating their breasts, eyes, and lips. In 1991, a new member of The Flash team was introduced through the Society of America, Jesse Chambers/Jesse Quick (Justice Society of America vol. 2 #1). The character of Quick continued many of the trends with females’ characters that had been implemented during the early years of comic book publications. Advancements had started but the physical representation of female superheroes continued to be stalled and focused on sexualization. The 1980s and 90s showed more development of the characters through complex storylines and backstories, which was a step towards having more gender equality amongst superheroes on the pages of comics and within pop culture.
2000s/Modern: From comics to movies to Netflix
Moving throughout and analyzing history has shown the start of an evolution with female superheroes within comic books and extending into pop culture as a whole. Despite this historical progress, female superheroes remained on a separate level compared to male counterparts throughout most of this examination; it wasn’t until 2008 that everything started to change. It was during 2008 that gender equality amongst female superheroes was escalated across a variety of planes. Iron Man (2008) was released and reenergized the comic book genre as a whole. With the debut of Iron Man (2008), being a comic book fan became a part of mainstream culture. Initially, when Iron Man arrived in theaters, the world wasn’t aware of the master plan that Marvel Studios and Disney had been concocting. The two companies had been working on creating an entire cinematic universe, something that had never been seen on screen before. Characters in solo movies would come together on the big screen in The Avengers (2012).
The Avengers traditionally feature Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hawkeye, Bruce Banner/Hulk, Black Widow, and Nick Fury leading the team. The revitalization of comic book popularity, however, opened the door for different, more unique characters to be featured, especially female superheroes. To date, Marvel has released fourteen films worldwide, and in doing so has created an additional cohesive universe within the medium of television, with nine films on the slate to be made.
Marvel started to introduce female superheroes with Black Widow/Natasha Romanova first appearing in Iron Man 2 (2010), portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. After the popularity of Widow amongst female and male fans, she was featured in Captain America: Winter Solider, The Avengers, and most recently, Captain America: Civil War. While Black Widow didn’t have her own feature film, she was billed as one of the top characters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This trend of introducing strong female characters continued with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), directed by James Gunn. Gamora was a main character within the cast, being featured in a variety of action and fight sequences. Saldana’s fight choreography skills matched that of her male co-stars. Marvel and Disney continued introducing more female superheroes with the appearance of Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), played by Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen’s costume was modified significantly from her character within the pages of comics. Olsen was able to wear clothing that would allow her to complete stunt work and intense action sequences. Her portrayal of the character brought in elements of emotional complexities while proving she could fight alongside the male Avengers. The use of Scarlet Witch in this way showed that Marvel and Disney were moving towards more gender equality within their superhero roles. Scarlet Witch wasn’t just a love interest; she was a complex and integral part of the story going forward within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While these characters showed progress with the representation of female superheroes on screen, it still didn’t feature a female superhero headlining her own standalone film, but Marvel is planning on releasing Captain Marvel in 2019 starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson. Larson spoke to The Sunday Times (UK) about the “responsibility” she feels playing an iconic character with whom female fans can instantly connect. “I feel a great responsibility. I want to create this symbol of strength and humor for women that I really wish I had had growing up. It feels so valuable. We need to break through that glass ceiling — women go to the theater to see a movie with a male lead, and men will go see a film with a female lead. We’re all equals here,” (Graham, 2017).
Marvel started to increase female superhero representation within their films and their television universe. The extended universe was developed for the online streaming service Netflix and featured more street-level characters. Within this universe, Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) and Karen Page (Deborah Ann Woll) were introduced as major characters within Daredevil and the character of Jessica Jones (Kristin Ritter) was given a full series order. Luke Cage (2016) continued the trend of introducing strong female characters that are not marginalized or stereotyped. Meghan O’Keefe, a TV reviewer for Decider, discussed the introduction of female characters in Luke Cage.
“Over the course of Luke Cage, we meet a cavalcade of strong female characters — some heroines, some villains, some a bit of both, some just civilians trying to get by. Each of these characters is allowed to be smart, get angry, be tenacious, and have aspirations. These women have jobs and dreams…Luke Cage exists in a world where a woman can be as powerful as a man — even more powerful — even if she doesn’t have superpowers.”
While Marvel has become the leader in translating comic books to film and has pushed the revitalization of physical comic book production and sales, DC Comics was not to be left behind. DC Comics has been seen in a variety of forms on the big screen. One of the most popular film franchises in recent memory was Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan embraced strong female characters and female superheroes within this trilogy. In the final film, The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Catwoman/Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) was reinvented for a younger generation. Hathaway played the character in a way that showed her physical and mental strength. Even when it came to the costume of Catwoman, Nolan strived to make it functional and built for the character as a resource and way to survive physical combat; it wasn’t just to show off her feminine form.
Following the completion of the Nolan trilogy, DC Comics teamed up with Warner Bros to bring DC Extended Universe to life, which is like what Marvel Studios has done with Disney. This was a similar plan to that of Marvel but would feature an entirely different gallery of characters, including some of the most high-profile female superhero characters that came to life in the pages of comic books years prior. Looking ahead to the future, Warner Bros. and DC is getting ready to debut the first ever solo Wonder Woman movies, featuring Gal Gadot in the title role with Patty Jenkins as director. Jenkins is amongst a very small group of female directors that have been placed in charge of projects with a budget over $100 million.
While history is showing advancement for female superheroes within all avenues of pop culture, the entertainment industry is a business, with profit being the bottom line. Is Warner Bros. taking a risk by placing Gal Gadot in a leading role with a woman director behind the camera?
Box Office: Female Impact
Dr. Martha Lauzen is a pioneer when it comes to researching and studying the trends surrounding women in both television and film. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and a Professor in the School of Theatre, Television, and Film at San Diego State University.
When she started this program, only a few articles had been published on the subject and overall it wasn’t a topic of discussion within Hollywood or amongst academics. Now, Dr. Lauzen is one of the leading voices within the industry. She has been examining the representation of women both in front and behind the camera for over two decades. She says that she’s noticed that the topic is receiving greater media attention than when she started crunching the numbers but also notes that the status quo has remained stubbornly resistant to change.
Dr. Lauzen looks at this dynamic issue from a variety of angles, including box office results, the portrayal of female characters, and audience reception. Focusing on box office first, Lauzen analyzes the top 100 worldwide grossing films each year and how women factor into the data. “On average, films with female protagonists or prominent females in an ensemble cast had significantly lower budgets ($45.0 million) than films featuring male protagonists ($77.9 million)” (Lauzen, 2008). How women are portrayed on film simply extends common gender stereotypes that are plaguing major motion pictures. While trends are changing to counterattack these stereotypes, they remain overwhelming.
Films featuring female protagonists or prominent females in an ensemble cast had significantly lower average domestic box office grosses than films featuring male protagonists ($54.5 million vs. $101.0 million), significantly lower average foreign box office grosses, significantly lower average opening weekend U.S. box office grosses ($18.0 vs. $32.2 million), and significantly lower average DVD sales. Despite these numbers, it should be noted that movies with female leads have budgets much less than those with male protagonists, which often allows the male leading movies to make more opening weekend and over time at the box office. “Films with larger budgets generate larger grosses, regardless of the sex of the protagonist” (Lauzen, 2008).
While box office is important and a major driver within cinema, character representation plays an incredibly important factor when analyzing women in Hollywood and how they are depicted on the silver screen. Dr. Lauzen most recently looked at the portrayal of female characters in the top 100 films of 2015. “Females comprised 22% of protagonists featured in the top 100 grossing films of 2015” while “women comprised 33% of all speaking characters, an increase of 3 percentage points from 2014” (Lauzen, 2015). The focus was traditionally on female roles in which they are the protagonists but 18% of leading women accounted for were antagonists (Lauzen, 2015). “Gender stereotypes were prevalent in the top grossing films of 2015. Moviegoers were more likely to know the occupation of male characters than female characters, and more likely to know the marital status of females than males. In addition, moviegoers were much more likely to see male characters at work and actually working than female characters,” (Lauzen, 2015, pg. 1). The differences between men and women on film extend well beyond occupation. How they are dressed and perceived appears to differentiate extremely as well. Researchers at USC Annenberg took the work of Lauzen one step further with data collection focusing on women in the film between the years of 2007 and 2012. “Amongst the 500 top-grossing films at the U.S. box office, and over 21,000 speaking characters, a new study by USC Annenberg found that females represented less than one-third (28.4%) of all speaking characters in 2012 films. When they are on screen, 31% of women in 2012 were shown with at least some exposed skin, and 31.6% were depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing” (USC Annenberg, 2013).
The representation of females within film continues to put the focus on their outfits and sexual interactions. That is not the only glaring difference between men and women on screen; another example is the age of the characters represented. “Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (24%) and 30s (28%). Male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (30%).” These statistics represent a constant over-sexualization and underdevelopment for female characters.
Across the five years that the researchers at USC Annenberg analyzed there has been no meaningful change in the prevalence of women on screen. While this might be the common type of females that are seen in major motion pictures, a few highly successful movies are showing that audiences are open to seeing a change and embracing it. Rotten Tomatoes is a website that aggregates published opinions of hundreds of film and television critics. It is designed to be a trusted measurement of movie and TV programming. “It represents the percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film or television show.” Movies can either be rated fresh, rotten, or certified fresh. Mad Max: Fury Road currently holds a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Fury Road features Charlize Theron in the leading role of this high-profile action film. Peter Travers wrote about Theron in his review published in Rolling Stone. “Hardy and Theron make a dynamite team, but Theron is the film’s bruised heart and soul. So get prepped for a new action classic. You won’t know what hit you.”
Star Wars: The Force Awakens holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and broke box office records around the world. Daisy Ridley was billed as the lead role in the film and was an unknown in the movie business until she was cast in Star Wars. This shows that a female in a leading role in a major franchise is becoming widely expected by different audience demographics. The Hollywood Reporter released an article during the first few days of the film’s release, detailing the audience makeup.
“While males continue to show up in force, increased interest among women and girls is another key reason why Force Awakens — featuring a strong female heroine in Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey — will soon overtake the $760 million earned by 2009’s Avatar domestically to become the top-grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada.” The research and ongoing studies that are being conducted by Dr. Lauzen allow the conversation about gender equality to begin. With bigger budgets, major studio films are allowing females to take leading roles in their most coveted properties—a main step towards more gender equality in film. “The numbers were definitely moving in the right direction. What is not clear is whether or not 2015 was a bit of an anomaly or whether this is the beginning of a longer-term trend” (Lauzen, 2015).
Analysis & Evolution
The following research and historical retrospective have shown how female superheroes have been portrayed within pop culture, starting in comic books and moving towards television and cinema screens. The progress has started, momentum is building, and these trends towards female superheroes being featured predominantly have translated to other genres, from horror to action movies. HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld both feature multiple female leads that are complex, captivating, and highly intellectual. These female leads demand attention when seen on screen. In addition to more screen time and more complex roles, the characters themselves are increasingly more outspoken and independent amongst their male counterparts. “I imagined a story where I didn’t need to be the damsel,” said Dolores Abernathy of HBO’s Westworld. What has started within the superhero genre is translating across the board to different genres, showing the turn in thinking towards female characters, as a whole.
These changes within characters are translating to changing demographics when it comes to fans. Comixology released the data collected from a reader survey, which showed that 20% of its new customers in the third quarter of 2013 were females ages 17-26. As interest in comics continues to grow amongst a female audience, the need for equal gender representation only increases and becomes demanded by audiences.
Emma Watson, best known for her role in the Harry Potter franchise and playing Belle in the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast for Disney, discussed the need for more strong female roles and why some are having a strong aversion to this shift within popular culture, (Breznican, 2017).
“It’s something that they are not used to. Anything that deviates from the norm is difficult to accept. If you have been used to watching characters that look like, think like, sound like you and then you see someone up on the screen and you go well that’s a girl, she doesn’t look like me, I want it to look like me, so I can project myself onto the character. Whereas women are great at doing that anyway, we see original characters on the screen and we recognize human qualities in the man, that we released to and there is not such a gap but for some reason there is some kind of barrier there were like ‘I don’t want to relate to a girl.’ Often I feel like you know the superheroes that if I asked a young boy what superhero they looked up to, a lot fewer would say a female one or even say a female one, than in reverse.”
Research, box office returns, fan demand, and history has shown the need and request for female superheroes to be represented across pop culture avenues in a way that is relatable, not oversexualized. While original female superheroes that were created back in the 1940s featured exaggerated physical features and minimal clothing, trends are now focusing on how to make these characters relatable to younger females looking up to their idols on the pages of comic books or on the big screen. Gal Gadot spoke with Collider.com about the opportunity of playing Wonder Woman and how she hopes to inspire both men and women with this iconic role. “I’m so excited about this role. I feel like I’ve been given a huge opportunity to inspire people, not only women. And not because of me but because of who Wonder Woman is and what she stands for. There’s a lot of responsibility. But I have the best team and the best people to work with. It’s going to be an amazing ride, (Trumbore, 2015).
June 2 will be a date that lives on in the comic book and pop culture history. Audiences will get their extra-large popcorns, take their seats in theaters around the world, and see the first ever live-action Wonder Woman feature film. Little girls will look up on the big screen and see a female fighting to save the world. They will see themselves represented on screen in a way that hasn’t been seen before.
On this date, history takes a step forward and moves away from underrepresentation when it comes to female superheroes. This is also a historical day for women in film as a whole. While Gal Gadot is trail blazing by appearing as Wonder Woman on screen, behind-the-camera Patty Jenkins is breaking new ground for female filmmakers. This film will finally give this historical character her due and show young girls everywhere that you don’t need Superman to rescue you—instead, you can be Superman.
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