Why I’m Taking a Break from Superhero Movies

I briefly mentioned the not-so-great Star Trek: Into Darkness last week. Shortly after, I came across this article in which writer Damon Lindelof apologizes for the gratuitous scene of Alice Eve in her underwear. Then, in his defense, he mentions that Kirk was shown in his underwear in both movies.

The fact that Lindelof follows up his apology with a moment of defensiveness almost negates it for me. Yes, sexualization of both women and men is a problem. But we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples in a culture where women are much more likely to be seen as mere sexual objects — props, if you will — than men. And this is especially true in the Superhero genre. The shots of Kirk in his underwear were used to advance his “character arc” (dubious as that might have been) as a “playboy,” a more explicit rendition of something that has galled female fans of Star Trek for generations. With that said, they don’t fall under the definition of “gratuitous” (i.e.: doing nothing to advance the plot) because of that. In both Kirk’s “underwear shots,” he was in bed with women — which also provides ample “reason” for his state of undress. In the Alice Eve shot, she was simply changing her clothes — something that she could have done offscreen without anything being lost.  A shot of a woman changing clothes does nothing to advance her character arc, unless as she does so she discovers her midriff becoming covered with scales. This was merely a “reboot” of the gratuitous scene in the first Star Trek movie, wherein Kirk hides under the bed while we watch Uhura change her clothes, giving us that film’s gratuitous shot of partial female nudity. Also, let’s not forget that the sexualization of male images, which usually includes bulging muscles and toned waistlines, implies strength and physical prowess, whereas the sexualization of the female form implies lack of nourishment, which may be one reason these women often find themselves weakened enough to become damsels.

While I appreciate Lindelof’s apology and certainly hope he will follow through on his promise to “be more mindful in the future,” the article left me more angry than placated. I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, and Gargoyles. I like the escapism of the superhero genre. But I no longer find myself wanting to “escape” to a place where women are portrayed as objects — I can get plenty of that in real life. The truth is, I am tired of “just ignoring” the rampant sexism in superhero movies in my attempts to enjoy a fast-paced story with sci-fi elements. (I know that Star Trek doesn’t technically fall into the “Superhero” category, but I think we can all agree that this frat boy, rebooted series is very much in line with emo Spiderman and Young X-Men).

How do I get myself into these situations?

I’m tired of the way the tension was ruined for me in Spiderman 2 by the sexualized shot of Mary Jane in chains with all its allusions to bondage and sexual victimization. I’m tired of Bruce Wayne taking women to bed but refusing to be straight with them about who he really is (and I’m also tired of him only sleeping with women who have no personality or canned personalities). I’m tired of the general consensus that Tony Stark’s womanizing behavior is “amusing.” (And if I were Pepper, I would dump his sorry ass faster than he could say, “I’ll be home late tonight!”) I’m tired of seeing the smart, competent Moira McTaggert, Charles Xavier’s worthy love interest, disguised as a stripper. In short, I’m tired of women appearing in these movies as though they are one more nifty accessory, like a Batman’s “batarangs” or Green Lantern’s Power Ring, just another perk of being a superhero.

Boys and men can flock to these movies for the rush it gives them to identify with the hero as he goes from “nobody” to “savior of the world” in two hours. Women, like me, are left with fewer choices: identify with the woman, who is portrayed ambiguously at best; identify with the superhero character who interacts with women as though they are props to be alternately saved, kissed, or deceived; or just try to push it all away and enjoy the cool special effects.

On second thought, don’t bother coming back when you get this “superhero” thing out of your system.

I tend to go with option 3.

But reading the somewhat disingenuous “apology” from Lindelof brought all my resentment about these portrayals bubbling back to the surface. And I realize I am really, really sick of it — really sick of having to compartmentalize myself into either the person who likes a good superhero flick, or the feminist who can’t help critiquing the portrayal of women in said flicks. The truth is, in a culture where one in four women is sexually assaulted by the time she reaches adulthood, reducing women to the role of objects does matter.

So, I think I’m taking a break. I’m going to refrain from supporting Superhero movies with my hard-earned money for a while. Or if I do go, I’m going to go ahead and let myself be angry, let myself point it out and vent about it in the parking lot. This will doubtless annoy people who think I’ve “ruined” the movie. But disregard for their female characters has ruined these movies for decades. We deserve superheroes, too, and the crop of busty, scantily clad sheroes and sidekicks just doesn’t cut it.

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11 Responses to Why I’m Taking a Break from Superhero Movies

  1. G says:

    I was going to say that although I really like seeing beautiful scantily-clad women in films, I agree that all these films do it in objectionable ways. Then I thought, but it’s not even necessary for a film to be objectionable in order to be titillating. That’s the stupid thing of it. It’s lazy, dull, unreflective writing. It’s not merely that they’ve ‘sold out’ under pressure to appease the masses–it is more than possible to make a film exciting and sexy without populating it with damsels, bimbos and doormats. But these ready-made stereotypes are easier to create than living, believable characters.

    Likewise, I don’t mind if a film has men being sexy in it, but when I see men reduced to sex objects it annoys the hell out of me. I seem to see it a lot in adverts these days.

    • I agree that it’s absolutely lazy writing; I also feel that fully realized, well-written female (and male) characters are far more sexy than the cardboard cut-outs that are standard fare. And as a bisexual woman, I feel qualified to judge such things. 😉 I think Dana Scully is one of the sexiest characters I’ve seen, and she’s almost always dressed modestly, and is far from being a typical “bombshell.” But her intelligence and her believability as a character are what make her alluring to me.

      You’re right that men are being portrayed more often as mere sex objects as well, and this is objectionable. It’s not “progress” when we sink to the same low standards for everyone.

      • G says:

        Ah man, Dana–now you’re talking.

        That gives me one of those frustration-at-studios moments. They dream of having the hot chick with a cult following, but they don’t want to allow the creativity and space for that to happen. Shows are written like adverts, by marketing minds: “guys like ‘nerdy’ chicks these days so we’ll have a 20 year-old love-interest with glasses, some decent jokes and model’s figure.” GENIUS.

        I followed True Blood for a while; I thought Sookie was sexy as hell. Probably like a lot of viewers, I thought here’s a really good and interesting, special sort of person. She was well played and written and seemed to have some inner life.

        The show went off the rails somewhat, by my reckoning, and I lost interest. But around this time, I noticed they introduced this werewolf ‘hunk’ character. I see the actor is in all the gossip rags now; he’s a humongous, stacked, handsome freak of a guy, for sure; but as far as I could tell, the character was less real and believable than Wolverine, who is a drawing.

        So what I’m saying is, I can see why Mulder had his own cult following as well, even though the script does things that would be marketing no-nos, like making Mulder a slightly goofy, grubby and odd porn/erotica aficionado who loses just about every fight he gets into.

      • You know, I think the difference is depth. It’s counterintuitive, but the more depth a character is given, the more mysterious they become; and mystery is very sexy. The more we learn as a series progresses, the more we want to uncover, the closer we feel to the character, and yet that distance, that sense of mystery, always remains, and mystery is sexy. I think that’s where a strong inner life comes in, too — when we feel that a character really has something going on inside, there’s also the desire to somehow tease it out. And for many of these characters, there sexual selves is part of the mystery, something we may not see very often, but that we *know* is there because they’re fully fleshed out human beings and most human beings have sexual lives of some sort–even if it’s of the Mulder variety. 😉 When a bombshell is just dropped into a movie or TV series, there’s no sense of accompanying mystery, so the sexuality feels dirty and forced rather than sensuous and intriguing.

  2. C.K. says:

    Lacey, you eloquently and thoroughly explain the problem I have with these movies. Thanks for a fantastic post!

    “I like the escapism of the superhero genre. But I no longer find myself wanting to “escape” to a place where women are portrayed as objects — I can get plenty of that in real life.”

  3. G says:

    Depth and mystery–yeah, I like that way of looking at it. I think there’re two ways that works.

    Firstly, you sense the life force in someone by the way it manifests through their personality. A character doesn’t have life force in that way, but you can be half-knowingly/willingly fooled if it looks like a conscious mind is manifesting behaviours, not a bundle of tropes and rootless plot-driving behaviours. Life force is a wellspring, and you never exactly know what’ll come from it, hence ‘depth’ and ‘mystery’.

    To justify my two-part split here, imagine trying to have a relationship with a very convincing android, intelligent, complex and cultured, whom you know feels nothing whatsoever and has zero inner life.

    Secondly, you can imagine the relationship with the person. If I was into having imaginary (girl)friends, I could have a great banter with Sookie or Dana, with many unique, affectionate understandings and in-jokes. If I look at Megan Fox in Transformers, the sexual excitement doesn’t spread through my whole being. I’m not talking around something crude here; I think sexuality is always mental and can’t just be ‘in’ the genitals alone. I really mean, while fancying someone from a distance is never quite like the real thing, fancying Megan Fox in Transformers is like enjoying a Mars Bar compared with fancying Dana in X-Files, which is more like a ribeye steak with truffle sauce. Or blue cheese. Mm. A symphony of perception and pleasure.

    I can imagine Dana having a good comeback for whatever I say to her, so I’d always want to hear what she has to say. I wouldn’t know in advance. There’s a kind of creativity to her. So, again: depth, mystery.

    Yeah, cool!

  4. Philly says:

    I agree with your general comments, but I have to take issue with your complaint about Tony Stark, because it is incorrect.

    Tony has been in a monogamous relationship with Pepper since the the end of the second Iron Man movie. That’s two movies (counting Avengers) where he’s had the same girlfriend. He has never been shown to cheat on Pepper, nor has that ever been implied. On the contrary, Tony has said several times that he dislikes and regrets the person he used to be, and that Pepper is the best thing that ever happened to him.

    • Thanks for your comment, Philly. Although I’ve seen Iron Man 1 & 2 as well as “The Avengers,” I’m willing to defer to you on this one, as you have a deeper understanding of Tony Stark’s character than I do. I tend to be turned off by Stark’s personality, which probably caused me to unfairly lump him in with “less monogamous” superheroes. Aside from his personality, the main turnoff I remember regarding his relationship with Pepper was that he seemed to leave her with the majority of the “mundane” work of running his company while he explored his adventuring side, but it could also be argued that this is a sign of his trust in her, as I think he makes the case himself. Still, I think she got the shorter end of the stick on that one. And aside from being turned off by his personality, I’m sure I’m also projecting onto Pepper because I’d definitely not want to be in a relationship with any superhero (too much worry about him being in danger!)

      • G says:

        Tony Stark was based on the “enlightened self-interest” ideas of Ayn Rand as a reaction against all the left-wing influence in much of comic book writing. So right away you run into some uneasy home truths about that kind of worldview: the Randian hero needs someone loyal who is not trying to be a Randian hero; she’s willing to take the lower, supportive position. Stark is arguably true to Randian ideals, but if Pepper was she’d exploit her position either for personal gain or to realise her own distinct ideals; she wouldn’t be content as second-fiddle.

        That’s my take on it, anyway. I think Ayn Rand was a loony.

      • Thanks for that insight, G! I didn’t know this; my experience on Ayn Rand is pretty narrow, so I can’t comment on her ideals, but this does shine a new light on things (perhaps my annoyance with the general demeanor of Tony Spark speaks to what I might think if Ayn Rand!). You also articulate something else that makes me uneasy in the Tony/Pepper relationship — that she’s the one who is often left holding the bag; and while *he* gives her recognition for it, at the end of the day, he goes home with the lion’s share of the glory.

      • G says:

        Her life was full of ‘the Pepper irony’. I dunno if you’ve seen this (sorry, this subtitled version’s the only one I could find):

        http://vimeo.com/29865018

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