Reading time: 8min.

by Joseph Lyne

Who wears the pants… cape?

We are living in an epoch of superhero media, with film, TV and comics capitalising on the best that DC, Marvel and others have to offer, attracting thousands of new fans and old fans with every release. Kids love them, adults love them and they rake in the cash; that said, very few of the comic-based releases seem to be focused on women, even with today’s culture of greater focus on improving gender equality. With nearly a century of superhero lore to delve into, why is there such a poor abundance of female superhero media?

Women in superhero comics did not have the best beginnings, mostly being the stereotypical damsels in distress that had to be saved by the early Golden Age heroes, with the best known from the time being Superman’s long-time beau Lois Lane. The films are also not without their damsels: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy had Peter Parker save Mary-Jane Watson from each of the villains throughout the series; even in the recent releases of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: Lois Lane, and Superman’s human mother Martha Kent, are both relegated to little more than people for Superman to rescue from danger, in spite of the screenwriters’ attempts to flesh out their originally paper-thin characters.

The female superheroes that do exist are often just a female version of an existing male hero – Ant-Man has Wasp, Hulk has She-Hulk, etc. – which, while these characters have their own personalities and alter-egos, leads little to be excited about regarding the possibility of something new and unique. It should not be a psychology that women will want to read female versions of a male superhero; a character should have an audience if they are interesting and compelling, regardless of gender.

The popular female superheroes that do exist have had little to no time at all on the big screen to gain much popularity – Wonder Woman was first released in 1941, and sparked the powder keg of strong female superheroes, but has had to wait more than 60 years for her first feature film (due for release 2nd June 2017). The current Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in circulation since 2008, and the first female-lead superhero film – Captain Marvel – will not have a release until 2019, with the other films in the series having comparatively weaker female characters like generic love interests Pepper Potts and Jane Foster.

There are strong women in the Marvel Universe; Black Widow has been in the series since the third film (Iron Man 2) but ten films later and she is still without her standalone piece; and the little-known character Jessica Jones has not been exposed to the mainstream due to her appearance being limited to the Netflix series of the same name.

It has often been commented that the physical appearance of female superheroes has been somewhat fetishised in comics in an attempt to appeal to the sexuality of male readers, similar to the design of Lara Croft: large breasts and bottoms fitting into skin-tight Lycra or boob tubes – practicality be damned. Scarlet Witch’s costume in the Marvel Universe has been considerably toned down from the non-functional one in the comics, and has given way to a strong character, rather than one that is visually distracting by having lots of flesh on show.

Female characters should also not be purely a sex object or love interest just to have one in the movie for the male lead, and should be deeply defined: Batman Return’s Catwoman was sexy but had a primary personality with sexiness sprinkled throughout Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, and carried the film far greater than a comparatively run-of-the-mill Batman from Michael Keaton. Although sexuality should play a part in some characters’ personalities, costume should not necessarily wholly represent that part, and should strike the perfect balance of adaptation from the source material and what would be advantageous on-screen.

It is not a question of familiarity either; the general movie-going audience did not know characters like Iron Man, nor the Guardians of the Galaxy upon their release but the critical acclaim of their respective films lead to sequels and popularity. Hollywood marketing executives have voiced concerns about the fear of poor toy sales surrounding female characters in superhero films – Iron Man 3 had its primary villain changed from female to male in order to circumvent this, and with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the number of Rey-related merchandise was minimal in comparison to the other characters – and she was the lead of the film!

In a world where the majority of superhero films are lead by white males, it seems unfair that females, and to a greater extent, minority groups, are not leading more films. It is true that more upcoming films are breaking the mould – Suicide Squad has the bisexual Harley Quinn in the lead, and Marvel’s Black Panther has reported it will have a 90% African/African-American cast – but it does seem too late given the difference in time between the creation of the characters and the release of their respective films.

Now that Marvel and DC have huge movie universes that can technically introduce any character from their respective archives, now is the time to shine light on lesser-known female characters rather than just see well-known icons like Batman again and again. A group will always want to be represented in a huge series – if the majority of superhero films were led by females, then male fans would likely be outraged by not being represented – but as long as a character is written, directed and performed well, they should garner popularity, female or otherwise.