Why you should care
Because a woman's touch is a valuable thing.
The internet can be a scary place for women, especially if you spend time on the testosterone-fueled subreddits. Those Redditors, mostly men, tend to cancel out anyone with opposing views, particularly women. Scroll through examples of DC/Marvel/comic/anime subreddits, and you’ll quickly realize that men take their superheroes very seriously. These online corridors contain a gold mine of post-release breakdowns: theories, analyses, intense discourse. And, sadly, rampant misogyny.
When Patty Jenkins was hired and later fired from Thor: The Dark World in 2011, there was a collective snicker in social media circles. Predictably, some of my friends pointed out that “women can’t direct a superhero film anyway.”
Jenkins went on to make history with the top-grossing blockbuster ever directed by a woman. Her Wonder Woman surpassed the figures grossed by the debut films for Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. But that still wasn’t enough: During an interview about female empowerment, James Cameron called Wonder Woman an objectified icon. “I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie, but, to me, it’s a step backward,” he said, offering yet another male view of what type of woman should be considered powerful. Jenkins’ response was succinct. “There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman,” she tweeted.
The makers of these superhero films have a rigid idea of what constitutes “superpower” and how the heroes — regardless of sex — should brandish it. As a female filmmaker, this leaves me with very little to be excited about. Virulent masculine traits are glorified, while hypersexualized women become flustered if their breasts aren’t large enough. I propose a fix: Only let women direct superhero films.
Here are a few steps:
Use Scripts Written by Women
We can’t fix the masculinity issue when most of the scripts are written by men. Rachel Feldman, a film and television director-writer with more than a decade of experience breaking the glass ceiling, agrees. “The stage to fix toxic masculinity … or let’s call them antiquated hypermasculine stereotypes, is in the script, not in the direction. Is the character kind, does he have a sense of humor, is he compassionate to living things, does he treat girls and women as equals? These character attributes must be built into the screenplay,” said Feldman.
Use Appropriate Clothing
Historically, women in superhero films are either plucky sidekicks or damsels in distress. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t matter who directs or writes, but the key ingredient in almost all scripts is the male gaze.
Female superheroes as presented by male filmmakers reek of sexual stereotypes: Just look at Catwoman, Black Widow, and Harley Quinn. Take the warriors of Themyscira in Justice League and compare them with Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. The revealing costumes for the former were designed by Michael Wilkinson, while the battle-ready armor of the Amazonians in Wonder Woman was designed by Lindy Hemming.
This year brings with it the promise of female superhero films helmed by women. The actresses in them look formidable, and with no “window for boobs!” says artist Renae De Liz. The contention isn’t about their clothes, but if their sole purpose in the film is to be relegated to sex object, that’s cause for concern. De Liz made a helpful post on how to illustrate realistic female superheroes. “If your hero has a zippered top, DON’T unzip it! Breasts can easily fall out during hero work, which would be silly,” she advised.
Show Mindful Men
A Stanford University experiment conducted by Wilbur Lang Schramm in the 1980s showed that violence in motion pictures watched by children can contribute to real-life violence. Schramm argued that violence, as well as socially acceptable behaviors, are more likely to be learned if practiced by a character with whom the viewer strongly identifies. So if little boys could watch their idols weep a little, that would send a stronger message than the violence. If violence can be learned, it stands to reason that the same is true for sensitivity.
With female-led genre films that produce compassionate men and self-made women, the concept of equality is demonstrated at a very young age. India-based psychologist and researcher Sadaf Vidha notes that the “absence of powerful female figures would be a huge loss to young girls. Without access to social evils overcome by female icons, they would think of themselves as lesser than men.”
Failing Can Help
This year, female directors and screenwriters will be assembling their own super squad. I hope that the future is female, but it is going to be under heavy scrutiny too. Men are allowed to fail — a privilege they’ve enjoyed since the Ice Age — and we need to give female writers and directors the opportunity to lead, fail and succeed. Even an average Captain Marvel film directed by a woman is a feminist victory.
Vaishnavi Sundar is a writer and self-taught filmmaker from India specializing in feminism and art.