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No More Gritty Reboots! Part 2 — the Women

by Alex Jacobs

This is the conclusion of Alex’s insightful rant about remakes of superhero films. In Part 2, he turns his jaundiced but discerning eye to the treatment of the other half of humanity in Hollywood reboots. I added a comment of my own at the end.

When I sent “No More Gritty Reboots,” it was intended as a stand-alone piece, but Athena did something rather irritating: she made me think. She pointed out that my examples only included male superheroes and asked if I’d care to see reboots of female superheroes.

I hadn’t realized I’d left such a gaping hole in my rant, but there it was. I had originally written it in a very stream-of-consciousness manner, which meant that female superheroes hadn’t even entered my train of thought. Why was that? It took me some time to figure it out, but the answers I came up with disturbed me a great deal.

I’ve no interest in seeing remakes of female superhero movies because the few that have been made have been so atrociously bad that I’d rather they scrap everything and start over completely. Most female superheroes work within groups (i.e. X-Men, Fantastic 4). While they may occasionally be given a worthwhile scene or two in films, such as Anna Paquin’s wonderful portrayal of Rogue’s fear at her growing mutant abilities in X-Men, the stories are still about the male characters. The only time a female hero has really been given equality within a group has been Elastigirl in The Incredibles.

To date, the overwhelming majority of female action heroes fall into two categories: ridiculously sexualized male fantasies (Catwoman) and male action heroes who happen to have breasts (Elektra). In very few instances are female heroes given the opportunity to explore what it means to be a female hero.

Catwoman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, as the comic books and the excellent animated series have shown.  Yet I have little confidence that Hollywood will move beyond the BDSM trappings and explore the reasons Selina Kyle has remained so compelling for over fifty years. While I would dearly love to be proven wrong, I suspect that Hollywood will see Catwoman only as a lithe young woman who wears a tight-fitting costume and carries a whip. While Tim Burton’s Batman Returns did much to explore the effects of trying to live a morally neutral life, even Burton failed to show Kyle as anything more than a freak avenger. Halle Berry did not improve matters and I see little purpose in rehashing that travesty.

I have even less confidence in Elektra. Her character was interesting in Daredevil because she was trying to balance her love for her family, a relationship, the risk of exposing herself emotionally, physically, and sexually, the danger of betrayal, and a drive for justice, all set against a world that systematically attempted to deny her agency in either a legal venue or as a vigilante. Is it any wonder she got a spin-off while Daredevil was quietly forgotten? However, Elektra completely ignored the character’s identity in order to prance her out in a ridiculously revealing costume to overly-sexualized, violent choreography (see this article on the impracticalities of female superhero costumes). Not even the fifteen year-old fanboy target audience was interested.

Jean Grey and Mystique do better in the first two X-Men movies, but the best female superhero in film remains Elastigirl from The Incredibles. As far as power and screen time goes, she is on par with the male characters. Her character integrates classically feminine roles (the caregiver) with classically masculine ones (the protector). Most importantly, she does not let herself be defined by either the superhero group or her family but chooses her own relation to both roles. To me, that is the ideal embodiment of feminism and gender equality: not a rejection of any given role because it is associated with one’s gender, but the power to choose one’s role. Our place in the world should not be defined by our birth, whether that means race, sexual orientation, class, or gender. In superhero movies, only Elastigirl truly gets it right.

Rather than remake these movies, I’d like to see completely different female superheroes get the full Hollywood treatment. I would hope that this would avoid female knock-offs (Superwoman, Batgirl, She-Hulk, etc). Rather, I’d love to see:

– Wonder Woman: Forget the powers. I’m interested in this movie because Wonder Woman isn’t just a powerhouse, like Superman, but a leader; not a soldier but a general. A Wonder Woman movie could not only serve as a positive feminist tale, but also expand our definition of heroism.

– Scarlet Witch: While lesser known than many other heroes, Scarlet Witch is one of the most fascinating. Her legacy is that of villainy but she often strives to be a hero. If we define feminism not as the championing of femininity against masculinity but as the attempt to rise above prescribed roles, I can think of no greater champion than Scarlet Witch. A Scarlet Witch movie would have more to say about individuality, family, and freedom than near anything else I can think of. That she’s a woman is part of her character, but not her defining trait.

– Stephanie Brown: If you’re not familiar with Stephanie Brown, please check Project Girl Wonder. Brown was the daughter of a super villain and, for a time, served as Robin, eventually dying in service in an incredibly disturbing and sexualized manner. The lack of acknowledgment of her death is a source of controversy within the comics community. I would love to see a Robin movie that featured Stephanie Brown rather than any of the rotating boys. Such a movie would include Batman but would focus on what it means to voluntarily work with such a disturbed individual for a choice you believe in. Whether Brown lives or dies in the film – and I believe the latter could be included in a respectful and appropriately literary manner – either conclusion would make it a tale well worth telling.

What are the chances of these movies being made? Pretty high, actually. Hollywood is motivated by money, and right now a super hero’s name in the title is the most overwhelming factor in whether a movie makes money. Will they be made well? That’s more debatable. Hollywood has shown that it can do superheroes well — even that it can do female superheroes well — but consistency is the big problem. Joss Whedon has shown he can deliver most consistently. He’s currently doing Captain America and The Avengers, which despite its historical lineup has no female heroes in the rumored cast, but maybe afterward?

I choose to hope.

Athena’s coda: Catwoman has been an incredible missed opportunity indeed, given the allure of Trickster figures. Additionally, she illustrates how differently women and men are judged for identical behavior. Both Catwoman and Batman are trauma-driven vigilantes; yet whereas he’s viewed as a hero and has the Establishment’s resources at his disposal, she’s often portrayed as a villain and operates without any external support. As for Elastigirl (girl?!), my take is less optimistic. Although she gets to exercise her powers, they are still strictly in service of her family — protecting her kids, cleaning up her husband’s messes — rather than the “larger” goals vouchsafed to male superheroes.

Superheroes who crack moulds: Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); Catwoman (Eartha Kitt); Hiyao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime; Aeon and Sithandra of Aeon Flux (Charlize Theron, Sophie Okonedo).

Related posts:
Le Plus Ça Change…
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
And Ain’t I a Human?

13 Responses to “No More Gritty Reboots! Part 2 — the Women”

  1. Alex says:

    I agree that Catwoman is a missed opportunity, but the recent failures to depict the character lead me to doubt that it can be done with the current generation of film makers. Hopefully in twenty years Selina Kyle can be written as well as she often is with the comic books. I do find your analysis of her as a twin of Batman to be interesting; I hadn’t seen that before but you’re correct about her origins. The difference is that Batman is ostensibly focused on others while Catwoman is focused on herself. Hence the judgment is not based on methods or even actions but motivations.

    As for Elastigirl (who I agree should be “The Elastic Woman”), I have to disagree regarding the value of her role. Yes, she chooses to only use her powers in service to or protection of her family, most notably to save her children and husband. In that sense while she is an equally powerful character with Mr. Incredible, she is only seen acting in the role of an angel in the house. The point, however, is not what role she chooses but that she chooses it. Unlike Mr. Incredible, who cannot reconcile himself as anything other than a warrior, Elastigirl is able to transition from warrior and savior in the flashbacks to mother in the present and then to an amalgamation of both roles as the plot develops. She is the one character in the film with true agency and her ability to transition between the two worlds is a strength that serves not only her but provides an example for her daughter Violet.

  2. Athena says:

    For Catwoman, my evaluation comes almost exclusively from Batman Returns (I don’t read comics and didn’t see the disastrous Berry film). In that film, Catwoman is as civic-minded as Batman. Her major action is preventing rapes. Also, Bruce Wayne is a millionaire, she is a destitute secretary. So he can afford to be “gracious” and shower largesse. The poor are often seen as grasping and self-centered — and they often have to be, to survive in a brutal society.

    Additionally, even if Catwoman is deemed morally ambiguous/mercurial, that is the most fascinating character if male. The stories of the Tricksters (Lucifer, Prometheus, Loki, Coyote/Raven, The Monkey King, Zelazny’s Shadowjack, Anderson’s van Rijn) are endlessly retold. Female Rogues meet a different fate, both in the stories themselves, and in how they are evaluated culturally. In this connection, I once read a very thought-provoking article about the fact that Harriet Potter would be judged an insufferable twit and an Edwina Rochester would be considered a sexual predator.

    The point you bring up about Elastigirl is a thorny one for women. Choice is all well and good, but to deliberately choose to forego power is always seen as an act of abdication, no matter what the motives. I agree that she acts as a positive model for her daughter — but only when she starts to kick ass. Before that, Violet is the usual sullen rebellious teenager mouthing off at her mother. I also agree that her ability to adapt and compromise indeed mark her as a mature adult, compared with her male equivalents who are stuck in perpetual — and decreasingly attractive — adolescence.

    However, the choice itself (coupled with the equally stereotypical depiction of her husband as a bad case of juvenile arrest — he’s a large baby, à la countless TV sitcoms) showcases the narrowness of gender roles and the thanklessness of options open to women, even (especially) in the meta-universe of Pixar. Pixar films, despite their ingenuity and wit, are essentially devoid of female characters; they have one at most, and that one is a peripheral helpmate — all the films focus on male bonding. The Incredibles is the single expection I can recall. The Chaplinesque Wall-E is in a different category, in that there are essentially two characters in it. Later, in Up, even that basic restriction vanishes: the single female character is quickly dispatched in the prologue, even though that is by far the best portion of the film. Thereafter, the screen is occupied entirely by male characters (the dogs included!).

  3. ZarPaulus says:

    Watchmen at least had some justification in that the original Silk Spectre was a supermodel using her superheroine identity to boost her popularity.

  4. Colin says:

    Regarding Catwoman, I think it’s important to note that Batman Returns is the ONLY time she can be see as a twin to Batman; her motivations in the other representations worth acknowledging (the comics and the animated series) are very, very different. She has no interest in stopping crimes and preventing rapes – really, she’s a kleptomaniac who steals often not out of greed but out of the pure love of the act itself. It’s the reason she’s usually regarded as a Batman character rather than a Batman villain; they’re not automatically opposed, only when the situation dictates it. What makes her interesting is that she will occasionally do something selfless and altruistic, and most of the time it seems not even she’s sure why she did it. While Bruce Wayne, despite the whole Dark Knight persona, is himself ultimately a good-aligned character who lives by a strict moral code that compels him to always do the right thing and never kill, Selina Kyle doesn’t fit into ANY category.

    About Elastigirl, I agree with Alex on the issue of choice. I think there’s this concept that in order for a female character (in particular a female superhero) to be a non-sexist positive female role model, she must inherently and categorically reject ANYTHING that might be construed as a traditional gender role. I think that in addition to being somewhat insulting (in that it’s like saying my mother is less worthy as a human being simply because she’s my mother), it’s also as dangerous from a “role model” standpoint as a depiction of that same character in one of the stereotypical female roles of sexpot, psychopath, mother, or crone.

  5. Athena says:

    I believe that I placed Catwoman into the category of Trickster/Rogue, which fits with the points you raise.

    As for Elastigirl, there is (or, rather, there should be) nothing morally wrong with a woman who is a great father to her children. As long as women are judged by gender-specific categories, we aren’t going far even if we have choices.

  6. Colin says:

    I agree on Catwoman. Fans of the comics would, I think, overwhelmingly tell you that because of how interesting Tricksters are, she’s the most fascinating character there (on part with the others you mentioned). From a comic standpoint, she doesn’t receive the different fate you described simply because she’s a woman. On the contrary, the fact that she’s a woman, while not irrelevant, isn’t the overriding aspect of her identity (and she would definitely be less likable and interesting were she named Steven Kyle). I think that’s why Hollywood never portrayed her that way; she DOES break the paradigm, and it’s easier to just show her the way they did than represent a complex character for whom gender isn’t her defining characteristic.

    Also, a point you made that I didn’t address before: Harry Potter himself is an insufferable twit, so why should his female alter-ego be any different? Ok, ok, your point is well-taken, I just couldn’t resist.

    While I agree with what you said about judging women by gender-specific categories, I think the point of Elastigirl was to prove that she doesn’t have to completely reject any role; she alternates between kicking ass and being a responsible parent. I think the idea is that she isn’t a traditional mother figure yet doesn’t reject being a mother, which makes sense given her identity and abilities. I might be speaking from the position of simply loving the movie (it’s my favorite Pixar film), but I still think they did a good job with her.

  7. Athena says:

    I agree that Catwoman breaks the mould — which brings us back to what all three of us discussed: missed opportunities. Characters not defined by gender or who alternate in roles (neither “good” nor “bad”, neither “feminine” nor “masculine”) are inherently complex and challenge unquestioned assumptions. I call them shapeshifters or changelings. And although they’re endlessly fascinating, they also often get short shrift (or get shoehorned into one of their many facets) because humans get uncomfortable if they cannot easily categorize something/someone.

    In my view, Elastigirl skirted stereotype but managed to ultimately avoid punishment for exercising her abilities, because the film was optimistic and large-hearted. In a more conventional treatment, she would end wing-clipped (dead, damaged, imprisoned) and/or lose her children (by death, separation, alienation). This happens not only in art but also in real life to women who insist on fulfilling multiple/flexible roles. It happens to men, too, but to a far lesser extent — and with far more lenient and laudatory judgments.

  8. intrigued_scribe says:

    Superb second part, Alex.

    I also agree that Catwoman breaks the mold and the Trickster aspect of her character holds immense potential (and that the alias of the Pixar character definitely should be Elastic Woman).

    As long as women are judged by gender-specific categories, we aren’t going far even if we have choices.

    So true, and an excellent point that alongside other things, calls to mind the abovementioned Aeon Flux and the relatively equal footing of men and women of that universe, most prominently shown between the titular character and Trevor Goodchild (whose, if I may borrow the term, snacho qualities underscore that factor). Though it’s been a while since I’ve watched the film, the absence of gender-specific categories–perhaps excepting the brief appearance of the mother of Una in her reincarnated infant form–remains one of the elements that leave a particularly strong impression.

  9. Athena says:

    Heather, you’re absolutely right. Whatever other flaws it had, the film version of Aeon Flux was essentially genderless and, in fact, women were the active partners (Aeon rescued Trevor repeatedly, most Monicans were women including the movement leader and Trevor’ security chief Freya was no slouch, to put it mildly). The relationship of Aeon and Sithandra was as crucial as that between Aeon and Trevor. This configuration left men space to be snacho (*smile*) and left women space for bonding, betrayal, reconciliation, privileges usually vouchsafed to men — in part because most Hollywood films, helmed by men, have a single major female presence (if that!). Aeon Flux, of course, was directed by Karyn Kusama.

    Speaking of heroic women not bound by gender roles, the indie winner of the Sundance Best Film Award, Winter’s Bones, features a stellar example — a younger, even tougher version of the women in Frozen River. If it comes anywhere near you, run to see it!

  10. intrigued_scribe says:

    Thanks for the rec, Athena. 🙂 I found Frozen River absorbing, and I’ll keep an eye out for Winter’s Bones.

  11. Eloise says:

    If you would allow me a slight digression…

    I recently came across an interesting article about the upcoming Thor movie:

    What really struck me was Natalie Portman’s view of her character:

    ‘Co-star Natalie Portman gave more details of her role as Jane Foster in an interview with Collider, revealing: “My character is working on this theory of connecting dimensions. There was an Einstein theory, a long time ago, where you could connect dimensions through the warping of time and space.

    ‘”Thor obviously comes from another dimension, so he is this missing piece to her scientific inquiry. Everyone thinks she’s on the fringe of science and that she’s this kook, so this is her opportunity to prove herself.”

    ‘Natalie said she and the other actresses such as Kat Dennings enjoyed helping to give the film some girl power: “It was great to be able to highlight a female friendship and female comradery and shared scientific passion among women.

    “And then, there’s also this great character that Jaimie Alexander plays, called Sif, and we got to work with her, too. She’s super-tough. So, we had a good female power on the film.”‘

    The way she describes her character and her relations with fellow women on set reminded me of my impressions of Pepper Potts and Natasha Romanoff in the last Iron Man movie. In it, both women are strong in their own right (as administrator and secret agent, respectively) and do not hesitate to call the hero on his bullshit.

    So I do wonder if we are not witnessing the emergence of a new representation of women in superhero movies: that of the women who *gasp* are not in competition for the hero’s attentions and are actually friendly towards each other, and who *re-gasp* have brains and brawn besides.

    If so, it’s a more than welcome change of pace, and a long time coming, too.


    Eloise 🙂

  12. Athena says:

    I agree, Eloise. Although Iron Man 2 was a silly, self-satisfied film, it passed the Bechdel test: the two women were not only extraordinarily competent and focused on their work, but were also allies who did not compete for Mr. Hero.

  13. Viergacht says:

    Well, in Elastigirl’s defense, she was very young when she was fighting crime under that name, and the movie’s visual styling suggests a sort of pseudo-past. If it hadn’t been for the superheros having to go underground, she might have chosen another moniker, but for most of her adult life she wasn’t a superhero.