We Need More SuperHERo Films

This year’s Comic-Con showed us once again the importance of representation in young girls’ lives. Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot was able to meet with and encourage fans, many of whom came dressed as her character. In a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil, Gadot and director Patty Jenkins continue to provide inspiration for those of us turning to the big screen to see versions of ourselves taking on the world and fighting for what we believe.

I’ve always loved superhero movies. The idea that there are people out there who are fighting for justice in such a tangible way has always appealed to me and often encouraged me to fight for what I believe. I was incredibly excited when The Avengers movie premiered in 2012 and I could see some of my favorite characters on screen, fighting together. I could never pick just one favorite; sometimes it was Captain America, the moral compass of the group, or Iron Man, the charismatic genius. Other times, it was Black Widow, the girl. Because that’s what she often felt like in the movie: the obligatory female presence there to tone down the testosterone levels.

Black Widow is practically the definition of a strong female character. She’s tough and powerful and skillfully guides the group out of tense situations while keeping a cool head. However, Black Widow’s more caring and feminine side is often seen as a weakness that villains attempt to exploit. She is often portrayed as strong only when she shuns this softer side and regains her icy exterior. This can cause her typical audience members, especially young girls, to relate to her less than if she presented a more complete version of herself.
Even with Black Widow’s positive traits, she alone as a representation of female strength is not enough. For truly effective representation, there has to be more than one side of a character with whom you sort of identify. One of the most widely-used methods to test for gender representation in movies is the three-part Bechdel test. In order to pass this test, a movie must have at least two named female characters who have a conversation with each other about something other than a man. Unfortunately, The Avengers only passes the first part of this test: there are three female characters–Black Widow, Agent Maria Hill, and Pepper Potts, but unfortunately they never interact with each other.

Black Widow’s role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe introduced the idea of a female superhero to wider audiences and helped reignite the conversation about the role female representation plays in the media. As Marvel adds more characters to its growing universe, this conversation has continued, but the main fuel was provided by DC Films with the stand-alone Wonder Woman film. This film passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, as powerful women of all ages, sizes, and races work together to help Diana grow and become Wonder Woman. This is the first superhero film that girls can watch and see countless examples of strong people just like them working together. Diana also embraces traits traditionally associated with femininity- empathy and caring- and draws strengths from these qualities. Diana’s goal of maintaining peace in the world as a demonstration of love for mankind also suggests a softer side to her toughness that resonates with audience members.
Unfortunately, more than half of the top 10-grossing movies this summer fail the Bechdel test, including Marvel’s newest film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. This test is by no means a comprehensive measure of gender bias, and many movies that fail the test are still excellent movies with dynamic female characters. However, it is a starting point in the conversation around representation. Wonder Woman’s box office success as the current top-grossing movie of the summer has also shown that there is an audience who is eager to see this representation. Though Wonder Woman is not a flawless film or a perfect feminist symbol, it has proved that movies focused around strong female characters can draw huge audiences and provoke meaningful discussion. Hopefully filmmakers will take note of this success and continue this conversation in future projects.