Mainstream Movies’ Biggest Mistake

What do Guardians of the Galexy, Pacific Rim, and The Avengers have in common?

The tokenization of their female characters, of course!

Movies and films have become a prominent feature in today’s shifting nerd culture. More than ever before, people are being exposed to nerd culture on the big screen rather than bookstores and comic shops stashed in the corner. No longer is liking superheroes or sci-fi something that would mark you a target to get your lunch money stolen. It’s become cool, commercial; something that everyone is into on some level.

Yet, there are still problems.

I enjoy films as much as anyone else — they’re an easy, unintimidating form of entertainment. However, watching films as a feminist nerd culture critic can be difficult. As Hollywood digs through the comic book bin for the “Next Big Thing”, I can’t help but wonder if that’s really a good idea.

Hollywood has struck gold with blockbuster hits in films like Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Pacific Rim. But while the box office sales soar, the fight for equal, real representation seems to have ended on writing room floor. These films in particular showcase a trend that is taking over Hollywood and nerd culture: tokenism.

Tokenism is described by the “Geek Feminism” Wikipedia page as: “the practice of including one or a few members of a minority in a group, without their having authority or power equal to that of the other group members.” When we think about it this way, pictures of gross inequality (the treatment of the Districts in Hunger Games, for example) come to mind. But tokenism works in a much smaller way.

For this post, I will be focusing specifically on tokenizing female characters, though action films go beyond gender tokenizing.

Let’s look at Pacific Rim, as an example. The entire film features an entertaining cast — including Idris Elba in his wonderful native English accent. If we look at this film from a feminist standpoint, it doesn’t fare too well. There are only two named female characters in the spotlight, both of which deserve to be examined.

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Mako Mori (center right) next to her co-pilot, Raleigh.[/caption]

Mako Mori, the female lead of the film, is awesome as a character. She is a Woman of Color (Japanese, according to the Wikipedia page), which is rare enough for mainstream action films. The film introduces her as both Pentecost (Elba)’s adopted daughter and tech officer. A driving force in Mako’s characterization is that she has fought for the chance to be a Jaegar pilot. She has trained, tested, and pleaded for the chance to pilot. By the time she achieves her goal, the audience feels her joy and happiness. We root for her.

Indeed, Mako proves to be a capable heroine for the film. However, she remains the lone prominent female presence in the film. The other female Jaeger pilot we are introduced to — Sasha Kaldanovsky — is only given 15 minutes of screen time before she is killed in battle. The rest of the Pacific Rim world exists almost exclusively with men.

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(from left: Alexis and his wife, Sasha)[/caption]

Pacific Rim is not alone in its tokenizing of marginalized characters. In Guardians of the Galaxy, green-skinned Gamora is both the token (“Smurfette”) female member of the lead protagonists. The same goes for superspy Black Widow/Natasha Romanova in the Avengers films.

In all three films, it’s interesting to note that Mako, Gamora, and Natasha are all capable heroes on their own. They are strong, smart, and lack any romantic subplots, making the focus stay on their role as team members rather than their relation to the men in their lives. Mako and Gamora could also be considered as women of color (some would argue not so much in Gamora’s case, though with her portrayal on-screen being done by Afro-Domincana actress Zoe Saldana, I would disagree), further showing that they exist outside of the stereotypical female lead in action films. However, color nor capabilities are enough to save these three heroes from being tokenized.

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Gamora (left) from “Guardians of the Galaxy”, and Black Widow/Natasha Romanova of “Avengers” fame. Currently, these two women are the only female action leads in the Marvel universe, though this is stated to be changed in the next few years.[/caption]

As stated in my previous post, it’s not enough to write women as strong and capable. They should exist and be looked at for the people that they are, and not by the stereotypes and identities that they fall into. In order for mainstream action films to rise in popularity and profit, corporations must understand how harmful tokenizing characters can be.

What are your thoughts on tokenizing characters? Feel free to share below in the comments.

Til next time,
CG