My wife and I went to see Avengers 2 this weekend, which is unusual. It’s a rarity for us to go see a movie in the theater in the first place (young kids and all), let alone on opening weekend, but the hype was sufficient, we enjoyed the original. Further into the mix, we are both big fans of James Spader ever since his stint as the inimitable Alan Shore on Boston Legal a few years back, so… well, there we were.
And the movie’s great. Exactly what it says on the tin: a good time, tons of action, more than a few explosions, not too heavy on the brain. Good stuff. I pointed out, more or less in jest, to my wife after the fact that for all Marvel’s trying to make itself more female friendly (see the new Thor for example), their biggest franchise in the Avengers doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. (If you can’t be bothered, the Bechdel test is a rule-of-thumb, exceedingly low bar for a film to pass to qualify as not-entirely-chauvinistic-in-its-portrayal-of-women.) Now, you might argue, and you might be right, that the films’ primary audience is men. But you don’t have to look far to find female fans of not just the Marvel universe, but of comics in general, and of popular cinema for that matter. My wife and I are perfect examples; I don’t think I’ve ever cracked a comic book and I’d bet dollars to donuts that my wife hasn’t, but we love the recent spate of superhero movies nonetheless.
So we go home, and my wife discovers the “news” story that Mark Ruffalo tweeted at Marvel calling them out for the lack of gender equality in their Avengers merchandise. Not in so many words. He simply stated that it would be nice for his nieces and daughters to be able to find their favorite figures from the films in the toy stores and on the t-shirts they’re buying. Now, that surprised me, except that it didn’t. Because as much as Black Widow has become a face of the franchise, and as much as Scarlet Witch impacts the new story, they are still girls.
Right? Sure, you say, they’re girls, but only until a certain point. Black Widow single-handedly tames the Hulk, for example, and becomes one of the trainers for the newly reformed SHIELD unit at the end of the film. Not to mention the numerous asses she kicks along the way. Her kung fu is strong. Scarlet Witch manipulates the minds of virtually everybody in the film, including a demigod, for goodness sake, and then is solely responsible for the defense of the MacGuffin at the end of the film, dispatching baddies to the left and the right with little more than a flick of her brain stem.
And that’s awesome!
Black Widow is still exceedingly feminine, in that she tames Hulk with the calming, gentle gestures that only a woman (in the world of this film) could effect. And her primary arc at the end of the film shows her as a lovelorn, heartbroken woman after the Hulk takes off. She’s a badass, but her badassitude is mitigated in no small part by the fact that she still plays into the roles we expect.
Scarlet Witch, too, as part of a genetically-modified duo together with her brother, falls into the same trap. You’ve got twins granted superpowers through some undisclosed don’t-ask-questions science thing. One gets super speed, the other gets the ability to manipulate minds… which one do you think goes to the boy, and which to the girl? You could have just as easily gone the other way and let the girl have the super speed for once (looking at you, The Flash, Superman, Nightcrawler, etc) instead of making her a master manipulator (and there’s nothing woman-phobic in that, promise), but no, we’ll make her eyes turn red and give her these mind powers.
Okay, okay. I don’t mean to deconstruct the film. Fact is, Marvel is trying, and the further fact is, they are succeeding in a lot of ways at giving their female characters depth, realism, dark sides, and the unpredictability that we expect from its male characters. They’re still women, but they’re not “women” the way women are women in movies.
But why, then, are they not embracing the female fans in their audience? Or the males who (rightly) think a character like Black Widow or Scarlet Witch has something admirable or worthy of emulation about her? Sure, we can put those characters front and center when it’s time to put together a promo spot, but let’s not monetize those characters. Who would want that?
Except they don’t even make the ladies front and center. Look at how far from center the women are in this promo! Not one, not two, but three slots away from the place your eye goes to when you look at the picture. They’re there, sure, but they’re so removed from top billing they’re almost an afterthought.
There’s a problem here, and it’s a self-fulfilling problem. The problem is that Marvel thinks they’re not going to make any money on the sale of merchandise that features its females (and let’s not argue that it’s about anything other than money; if they felt it would sell, they would be overflowing the shelves with it). So they don’t make the merchandise, which of course ensures that they won’t make any money on it. And they market the hell out of the male-centric toys and apparel, which ensures that girls buying the stuff are an outlier rather than a focus. But is the problem a real problem, or is it a problem they assume is true? Maybe the audience has evolved; maybe there’s more market than ever for female superheroes, but we’d never know it, because we’re holding onto an outmoded way of thinking. Make hulk hands and replicas of Thor’s hammer and Iron Man gloves so that little boys can pretend to be those guys, but if a girl wants to imitate her favorites, well… send her to the Barbie aisle, point her at the Disney Princess outfits.
I’m reminded of Field of Dreams. Guy gets the idea to build a baseball diamond in the middle of nowhere — and, yeah, the idea comes from a disembodied voice in a cornfield, but you know, roll with it — but nobody supports him because there’s no market for it. Nobody’s going to come to a rinkydink baseball diamond on a farm. But in true hollywood fashion, he builds it anyway, and lo and behold, people start to come. Sure, the ghosts of dearly departed baseballers coming to noodle around on the field helps. But the point remains: he didn’t accept the way things were, he insists on at least trying his idea before he’ll take no for an answer.
I have a feeling that we’re having that If you build it, he will come moment here, except it’s a lot bigger than one person — it’s a whole gender. The whole town (the existing industry) is telling Marvel that it doesn’t make sense to market the female superheroes, but I have a feeling that if they can have the courage to build a baseball diamond in the cornfield (roll out some female-targeted merchandise), the consumers will come. And let’s be honest. Marvel has the money for this gamble.
All they need is the courage to phone up a bulldozer and knock down some corn.