When I was a child, all my idols were male. I wanted to glide through the blanketed skies like Superman did, bring justice to the oppressed poor people like Robin Hood or just become a sarcastic-mega-billionaire-hero like Iron Man. The glaringly obvious fact that these heroes were male and I was female never bothered me, as my naive, self figured women simply were not as strong or capable as men (I cringe just remembering these thoughts).
I often disagreed with my Barbie-Fairytopia-worshipping friends who saw power in the beautiful, brainless, damsels-of-distress that cartoons called “girls.” Even in pretend play, I always insisted on playing the male parts just to feel an inflated sense of importance, with the superpower of working exciting jobs and saving the world while my “pretend” girlfriends awaited their rescue. Never did I realize women also had the power- but often not platform- to be superheroes.
I, along with millions of other young girls, grew up in an environment in which the media portrayed women as unimportant eye-candy sitting on the sidelines rather than the lead role. Men were the interesting heroes, full of goals and ambitions, faults and virtues, with a plot revolving around him overcoming his own obstacles through self-growth and a bit of divine luck. But women? They played stereotypical characters with a maximum of two attributes: hot but mean, kind but quirky, beautiful but daring, or some other flavorless variation of the same archetype.
When, by some coincidence of fate, women received the coveted opportunity to play a lead role, the entire movie frequently centered around her romantic interest or dependence on men rather than her own growth. Even more disturbing, such films commonly normalized women remaining in toxic relationships that begin with the man disrespecting her, which deteriorates a woman’s already-depreciated allowed sense of self-worth and perpetuates the submissive expectations of women in modern society.
Evidently, media portrayal of women has not significantly improved in the past few years. Although some genuinely empowering films (such as Mona Lisa Smile, Atomic Blonde, and Hidden Figures) have been produced, the most highly-marketed and top-rated films tend to focus on a male star’s story, rich with character development, dynamic personalities, and plot twists. Many of the recent top action films feature a daring male- Ryan Reynolds or Tom Holland or Dwayne Johnson- following a quest requiring him to face his fears, battle out his insecurities, and eventually find love in some one-dimensional, insanely attractive woman. It’s almost painful to watch thrilling, interesting movies reduce women’s worth to simple sexual objects and never feature them as the heroes that they truly are. Look at the trailers and posters promoting movies- without fail, most of them have multiple depictions of men with gruff, pensive faces while some woman in the background sashays like a dangling clickbait with a couple of exaggerated round assets.
Where are the powerful women? When are they something more than sex dolls or damsels in distress? What can young girls, watching from all around the world, idolize when they go to the movie theaters?
As society becomes more aware of little-voiced injustices, more and more of us promote the equality of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, religion, creed, or sexual orientation. Even numerous Conservatives or former sexists/racists/homophobes have become more politically and socially aware to the point of caring about the fate of society as a whole, extending beyond the scope of what directly impacts them. If the media shared even a fraction of these values, they would diversify their movies, characters, and plots to endow more equal representation and hence inspiration to the viewers.
However, current media reinforces outdated philosophies, such as the sexist stereotype of strength correlating with masculinity and fragility with femininity. Even if directors desired to empower women through films, women already receive very limited opportunities in the film industry. From 2000 onwards, only about 6% of leads in our beloved Marvel and DC movies were female. One can play the gender stereotypes card, proposing that the target audience of action/adventure films are male, but 40% of movie attendees are female.
So what hinders Hollywood from including female leads in their movies? Are there simple no female heroes? The truth is, of all the genius minds and billions of dollars invested into these movies, no one has found a true purpose for the woman. Even in films such as X-Men and The Avengers, women serve primarily as gorgeous romantic partners to the male leads. Many of the original comics themselves were written in the 1950s and ’60s, so they delved more into the protective, patriotic white male face of America to boost the nation’s morale.
Yet, all modern action movies have adapted the plots and characters to fit the modern world by implementing modern technology, architecture, and conflicts- but few modern women. Directors must create more movies like Wonder Woman to represent the other 50% of the world full of incredibly powerful and resilient mothers, sisters and daughters.
The film industry globally promotes a conservative view of gender relations through action/thriller movies. From Hollywood to Bollywood to Tollywood, there lies undeniable trends of misogyny and patriarchy embedded in the most intense action films. Heroes are supposed to act as hyper-masculine men of stature and prowess with a complacent, trophy-wife side-kick. Villains are supposed to sport a sinister smile and steal the hero’s possessions—his money, his house, his woman. Such is the status quo division of roles that bind women but further authorize men to their trespassing rights. Yet, maybe these producers secretly did make all of us women superheroes—and gave us the superpower of invisibility.