By: Susan Howse
“Oh I’m just a girl, take a good look at me: just your typical prototype.”
– No Doubt, “Just a Girl”
Many things instilled in me a deep sense of disappointment after I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Just off the top of my head? There was the music, the Lord of the Rings Orc replica that was Doomsday, the complete ass-hat that Batman was — I could go on. But by far, the biggest thing that upset me is the piss poor representation of women in this film.
Zack Snyder, the director, doesn’t have a great history with representing females in his films. The women in 300 and Watchmen, while powerful and strong, were constantly subjected to the camera’s ‘male gaze’. A term coined by film critic Laura Mulvey in the 1970s, this reflects the practice of women typically being objectified, because the control of the camera is based on “the assumption of heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres”. Nothing reflects this more vividly than Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Instead of focussing on the powerful women at the centre of the film, Sucker Punch seems to strive to provide more teenage fantasy wet dream fodder than any film I’ve ever seen. For some reason, I still clung to hope that Dawn of Justice would be different. It wasn’t.
To be fair to Snyder, not many (if any) of the new millennium superhero films provide great representations of women. Most are overtly sexualized, lack strong backstories, are given limited swaths of plot to fulfil, and are subjected to the same male camera gaze. It’s nothing new, unfortunately. Being a fan of said genre, it did not surprise me that BvS followed these same female archetypes. However, my lack of surprise does not mean I condone it. It’s not that these films lack central female characters; it’s that the same archetypes are trotted out again and again and are purported to be new ‘characters’. On top of that, these archetypes are poor ones. There are four female roles in this film and I consider none of them to be feminine role models.
Let’s start with the classic “damsels in distress”: Lois Lane and Martha Kent. You get brief glimpses of ‘intrepid reporter’ Lois Lane throughout the film — the strong, independent journalist trying to dig deep and uncover sinister plots. Most of the time however, she is regulated to helpless, “Save me Superman!” moments. Sometimes it was hard not to revert back to thinking Amy Adams was playing a princess in need of help from her prince. And man, in BvS, did she need a lot of saving. Not just once in grand fashion, but on a solid three separate occasions in the film! Even as a hard-core romantic, I personally find it a little creepy to have your boyfriend skulking around on your balcony without you noticing, even if he is Superman. Also, from a purely cinematic perspective, it’s deeply unsatisfying. After the second save in the movie, all tension is lost and you’re just waiting for Superman to swoop in. There is no surprise anymore. Does anyone believe at any point that Lois Lane is really going to die? No? So then what’s the point, exactly?
Martha Kent, Superman’s adoptive mother, also follows this similar archetype. While played with grace that only Diane Lane provides, hers is another role delegated to ineffectual, weak female in need of protection. She is literally chased in the dark after leaving work in one scene, reminding us that independent women are easy targets for bad guys. Come on, Hollywood!
The next female character on the docket is Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch, one of the more “strong willed” females in this film. She is surprisingly one of the few people suspicious of Lex Luthor’s interests and was a welcome powerful female presence early on. But, alas, her powerful voice does not empower any real change or development in the film. Her passionate voice is quickly silenced and Finch is relegated to the sidelines, to say the least.
All of this is tragic but understandable; nothing we haven’t seen before. But what about the female SUPERHERO in this film?! Finally, we have Wonder Woman! Some may argue that she is indeed a positive female presence in the film, showing that she can throw down with the best of them. I agree that it’s a welcome relief from the testosterone spewing titular characters, but I would like to point out what is emphasized most about her, and actress Gal Gadot, in this film: her looks. While Woman Woman’s talents with sword and lasso are helpful in battle, a lot of the film focuses on her physical beauty. We are introduced to her in an overtly sexualized and confident manner. Is she an evil spy? A secret government agent? A high class call girl? Maybe she’s all three! She certainly caught Batman’s playboy eye! Along with an emphasis on her physical features, there is also a definitive lack of her voice throughout the film. She’s given almost no personality at all, let alone motivation. She’s sexy and powerful. That’s it. Even when she appears to aid our macho men, she does very little talking and only relies on her body/athletic skills. I really hope that her own spin-off film (with a female director!) will be much more satisfying.
I’m curious to know if other people picked up on these gender nuances in the film. Have these poor representations of women in superhero movies become so normalized that most don’t bat an eye anymore?
Luckily, there have been some positive strides in the comic-adaptation universe. Marvel has been stepping up their game with the TV shows Agent Carter providing a light, slightly campy, positive feminine force, while Jessica Jones shades in the other side of a much darker dichotomy. DC has its Supergirl TV show and while I have yet to view it, this all seems to be heading generally in the right direction. Let’s hope that as we continue to drive down the superhero highway, more women will be represented as the awesome, butt-kicking, fully-established characters we know they can be.