Superheroines: Progressive Role-Models or Problematic Stereotypes?
In the past few years, women have made significant progress in achieving greater gender equality.
However, the representation of women in the media often trails behind what is happening in the real world.In film for example, only 22% of protagonists are female and women receive only 32.8% of speaking roles (Lauzen 2015, p.2). A higher percentage of male characters are shown as having jobs, and female characters are rarely depicted as CEOs, doctors, or scientists (Smith, 2012, p.12).
Women in movies have not benefitted from the progress made in the real world. They are still depicted based on outdated stereotypes that make them look weak and dependent on the male characters (Murphy, 2015, p.9). The way women are represented in the media is a serious issue; research has shown that these media representations have a significant impact on real-world perceptions of gender roles (Pennell, H. and Behm-Morawitz, 2015, p. 212; Behm-Morawitz and Mastro 2008, p.
1). Additionally, the media strongly influences women’s idea of what the ideal female body should look like. Research shows that for many women appearance is central to their identity and is strongly linked to self-esteem and self-worth. This is evident in a nation where 20 million women have eating disorders and over 50% of adolescent girls use unhealthy weight control behaviors (National Eating Disorders Association, 2016, p.2). Even children internalize the subconscious messages in the media; studies have shown that children are more likely to engage in gender stereotypical play after viewing television shows that contained stereotypes about women (Coyne et al, 2014, p.
246).As representations of women in the media fail to improve, consumers have become much more vocal about their frustration. In response, Hollywood has pointed to one genre that contains many strong, empowered, female characters: superhero movies. These female characters are powerful women who defeat their enemies and save the world. Are these superheroines the future of female representation in the media? If so, are they positive or negative role models for the viewers? Have we finally created realistic female characters or is there still work to be done? This essay seeks to explore these questions. Ever since female superheroes began appearing in movies, these characters have generated discussion for their contrast to traditional female characters.
Superheroines like Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, Black Widow in the Avengers, and Mystique in X-Men, are often considered to be positive female role models in film. Robin Rosenberg, an American author and a clinical psychologist, explains that these characters are inspiring because they physically dominate and excel at activities normally controlled by men (Rosenburg, 2013, p.1). Seeing women physically shine on the screen can have a positive effect on viewers. A study by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri finds that these characters can increase the value female viewers place on body competence, the health and performance of their bodies (Pennell, H. and Behm-Morawitz 2015, p.
212 ). Many female superheroes are not just physically strong but also highly intelligent. Unlike in other genres, their talents are often crucial to the success of a mission and their brainpower helps to save the day. Women have recognized just how empowering and inspiring these characters can be. According to a study of undergraduate students at Washington University in 2003 “74 percent of women said they went to female action hero movies specifically to see a woman in a powerful role” (Kilkenny, 2015, p.2).
It is important to note that these positive effects of do not just happen in the short term. Female superheroes can serve as role models that affect the decisions women make in everyday life. Gloria Steinem, a famous feminist activist, says that as a child she “learned from [Wonder Woman’s] example how to change the world” (DiPaulo, 2011, p.18). Young girls have even said that the positive role model of a female superhero “helped them stand up to bullies at school” while older women have said that these role models “helped them get out of an abusive relationship” (DiPaulo 2011, p.18).
When a female superhero enters the scene it is easy to be awed by her strength, independence, and power. However, it may be necessary to delve deeper and critically examine the roles that these female characters play. While these superheroes are strong and intelligent, they often are still forced to occupy traditional gender roles. Cindi May, a Professor of Psychology at Charleston College, argues that the most glaring problem with these superheroines can be picked up on with just a glance. Female superheroes are consistently costumed in a way that reduces them to sexual objects.Everything from their voluptuous figures to their sexy and revealing attire allows these complex characters to become nothing but eye-candy (May, 2015, 2).
Wonder Woman’s skimpy leotard, Black Widow’s skin tight suit, and Mystique’s complete lack of clothing besides body paint distract from their importance in the plot. These costumes are no accident, and the directors exploit them fully by using camera angles that highlight the actress’s bodies. Unfortunately, male audiences help to continue this trend of hyper-sexualization because it is what they expect to see. According to a survey of undergraduates by Washington University, 74% of men said that their main reason for attending female superhero movies was the “the physical attractiveness or sexuality of the female action hero.” (Kilkenny 2015, 2). For female viewers on the other hand, the effect is very different.
Instead, research by Pennell and Behm-Morawitz has shown that the hyper-sexualization of female characters may cause body-image and self-esteem issues for young women (Pennell and Behm-Morawitz, 2015, p.219). When comparing their own bodies to the perfect bodies of the superheroines on the screen, female viewers can feel inadequate and ashamed of their appearance. The message from the media is clear: you can be a strong, powerful and intelligent woman, but your real purpose is to look good. While the unfortunate costuming of female superheroes is easy to identify, the other gender roles that these characters are forced to occupy can be more difficult to recognize. Jen Yamato, a film critic for Daily Beast, explains that despite all of the action, fighting, and saving the world that these characters are a part of, outside of the fight they transform back into a familiar gendered role, the “protector” or the “love interest”.
After an unexpected roadblock it is often the female characters that must soothe their male counterparts, using their feminine charms to heal their woes (Yamato 2015, p.1). Female superheroes may be effective fighters, but their true value to the plot is often their soft voice and gentle manners that can convince the male hero to continue on the fight. While not true across all movies, many times the female superhero ends up being the love interest to the male protagonist. According to a 2010 study by K. Gilpatric of Kaplan University, women in action films are submissive to the male character 58% of the time and are the love interest 42% of the time (Gilpatric, 2010, p.
3). In even more alarming news, over 30% of these female characters die before the end of the film! Gilpatric argues that the positive effect of female superheroes is undermined by the gender roles that they are forced to occupy. In these movies, a superheroine can be powerful and strong, but not too powerful or strong in case she outshines the male protagonist.Female superheroines can be intelligent and empowered, but they still have to follow the commands of male characters. These representations may send a problematic message to female viewers. In the summer of 2017, “Wonder Woman”, a movie starring a woman and directed by a woman, will hit the theaters.
In 2019, Marvel’s first female-led superhero film, “Captain Marvel” will also open. If done well, these movies could be the inspiration for many more superheroine movies. If profitable, they could demonstrate that the audience for these movies exists. As the number of female writers, directors, and workers slowly increases, women have more opportunities to be well represented in film. If they are used to create sexualized, disposable female characters then the problems within the film industry will continue. If these opportunities are used to create well-rounded, empowered female characters then the superhero genre will be enjoyable for all.
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