“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”
― Charlotte Whitton
“Women always have to be the eye rollers, as the men make a mess,” said Amy Poehler in a recent New Yorker interview. She could easily have been talking about Gamora’s role in Guardians of the Galaxy, the much-hyped newest entry into the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) canon.
Let me be completely clear about this: I had a ball watching GotG. It’s a funny, fun, warm movie, and the first Marvel script to have a credited female writer. There is a lot to love about it, but it’s not perfect, and as part of the wider context of the MCU it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to female characters.
The debates about hypersexualisation, the male gaze and underrepresentation surrounding superheroines are all important, but they’ve also been discussed at length, and I want to examine the issue from a slightly different angle: the women in these movies all had to work really fucking hard to become heroines.
Superheroes are often interpreted as power fantasies, and while I don’t think that’s all they are, it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle. What scrawny 12-year-old with glasses or asthma, who likes art or science more than sport, hasn’t wanted a magic serum that would make them strong and fit and able to stand up to bullies? Well, Captain America and the Hulk (or Steve and Bruce to their friends) have exactly that, no gym membership required.
Thor has muscles on his muscles, and they’re probably his birthright, what with him being the god of war.
Let no-one say that Tony Stark isn’t a hard worker (at least not in my earshot), but he was also born into immense wealth and privilege, and became a hero overnight (when he built the Iron Man suit — in a cave!! With a box of scraps!!)
These are the core male Avengers (I’m not counting Hawkeye. We can fight about that later). Either born with strength and power, or granted it through some kind of deus ex machina. It’s no coincidence that these are the characters who have been given origin stories.
Black Widow, on the other hand, has gained her strength the old-fashioned way: years and years of strenuous hard work and training. Admirable, but not much of a power fantasy. That’s not the reason we don’t have a Black Widow movie yet (the reason is misogyny), but it certainly doesn’t help that there’s no one dramatic moment when she achieves power (even Thor gets one, when he has to earn back his hammer).
Peggy Carter doesn’t tend to be counted among the quote-unquote heroes, but she’s getting her own show, so we can consider her a prominent MCU character. The same goes for her: she must have had to work her arse off to succeed in the army of the 40s, and we see her struggling with discrimination both in The First Avenger and the Agent Carter short. Her work is never done.
Gamora continues in this tradition: she’s neither born with powers nor handed them on a platter, and despite her origin story being far more complex and interesting than Quill’s, it happens entirely off-screen. We don’t even get to see her redemption arc — in her first scene, she’s already gone over to the ‘good’ guys (as she explains later, in a clunky expositional monologue).
Meanwhile, we are treated to an extended flashback of Peter Quill’s mother dying. Stirring stuff and all, but why no Gamora flashbacks? Her parents, along with the rest of her entire species, were murdered by her adoptive father. Honestly, what does a girl have to do to get a flashback around here? Not be a girl, I guess.
Let’s go back to that scrawny 12-year-old with glasses. Whoever said they were a boy? I was that 12-year-old once, and as much as I can identify in my way with Bruce, Tony and Steve, and as much as I love Natasha and Gamora just as they are, I’d love to see a female character who got to be strong in a different way. Not a hand-to-hand combat expert, and not someone who had to spend every day of her life proving herself. A real power fantasy.
That sounds like an end line, but it would be remiss of me not to mention Pepper. The Pepper Potts of Iron Man 3 is the closest thing the MCU has had so far to the kind of female hero I’m talking about, and I’m eternally grateful to Shane Black for that (and for other things. I just love Shane Black, okay?). Unfortunately, though, Pepper is never going to get her own movie, and her characterisation in the first two Iron Man movies kind of ruins her as a heroine for me (I talk about this at length here). Pepper got to be a heroine for about seven minutes of screen time, and I doubt she’ll get much more than that, particularly since Gwyneth’s contract is up.
I hope that the Scarlet Witch will be a breath of fresh air; I hope we get a Black Widow movie; I hope we get Captain Marvel and She-Hulk movies. But I wish that after six years of the studio making movies in this universe, I’d have a little more to show for it than hope.
With thanks to Agatha Frischmuth.