Sunday December 16, 2018

Women in Refrigerators: Female characters in superhero films, a feminist outlook

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By Atul Mishra

What does a Black Widow bring to the table? What’s Scarlett Johansson’s reel role in The Avengers? Is Rachel of Dark Knight a damsel in distress? Where is Spiderwoman or Batwoman? We hear of the superheroes, but we don’t often hear about super-heroines. There have been all those men like Batman, Superman and Spiderman. Why didn’t anybody (and hasn’t hitherto) write or film women like Batwoman, Superwoman or Spiderwoman?

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Luce Irigaray, Belgian-born French feminist, argued in When ‘Goods Get Together’ that sexuality and the patriarchal machismo that’s inherently been so obvious in our society is legitimately nothing but a transaction. 6301704418_eae771570f_o

The phallocentric divide rivers down to a profit-loss statement. This happens in the film fraternity as well. Some characters have phallus, others don’t. The ones who don’t are aces in the deck of film cards, merely there to sexualize the script.

This has been perpetually present in the movies as well. There have been many female characters alongside our superheroes merely to facilitate the script and monetary credentials attached with the fraternity. As Gayatri C. Spivak asks, “Can the subaltern speak?” The reality of these female characters is that they are subalterns. They don’t really have a voice. Rachel in Batman is a damsel in distress, defined only by her relationships with the men in movie. Mary Jane in Spiderman has to be saved by his Man like the Castle of Otranto. There is a lack of agency attached with the female characters which make them subjugated when juxtaposed with larger than life superheroes. So why have these characters? Probably the Irigaray argument comes into play here that non-phallic human characters are a tool of transaction. Giving a physical reality to these characters like say Scarlett Johansson playing the Black Widow is a way to glue audiences to their seats. No doubt sexuality is the most appealing thing in a heteronormative hegemonic patriarchal culture. The result of this discourse then weakens the already weak character and the actor. But the magic of physicality and sexuality still works on the screen.

Gayatri C. Spivak
Gayatri C. Spivak

Drawing along these feminist lines, Bechdel test comes into mind. As a fact, any fictional work that has at least two female characters who talk about something other than man passes the Bechdel test. Most of the superhero movies fail this test. A few like Thor and Catwoman just passed but most of the others including Spiderman series, Batman series, Avengers and Hulk have failed the Bechdel test.

Even the movie posters have the male machismo angle attached to them. All the theatrical posters of superhero movies have those hulky-bulky-clad-in-a-particular-glaring-costume heroes. The females are subjugated even in the posters let alone the screen and script. So the stern and gloomy reality check of the portrayal of female characters in superhero movies is that first there are dominantly only superheroes and not super-heroines and moreover the grim echelon ascends due to the realization of weak female characters portrayed alongside the Achilles of silver screen.

nemas_supergirl_by_slippyninjaLaura Mulvey, the British feminist film theorist, says- “In film, women  are typically the objects, rather than the possessors, of gaze because the control  of the camera (and thus the gaze) comes from factors such as the assumption of  heterosexual men as the default target audience for most film genres. Women  are the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning.”

All this portrayal is also mainly because most of the superhero films have been directed by male directors, be it Niblo and Reed’s The Mark of Zorro or upcoming Snyder’s Dawn of Justice. So superhero films are actually men’s stories with hyper-sexualized women’s stories which make the latter a bearer of meaning and not its maker. The female portrayal can be seen as “women in refrigerators” and one of the stark contemporary examples is Rachel of The Dark Knight where she is murdered for the male’s storyline to progress and catapult the rage of male characters.

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Trump Can’t Deny Birth Control Coverage: U.S. Court

The case became more complicated after the Trump administration last month issued new birth control coverage rules that are set to supersede those at issue in the lawsuit before the 9th Circuit.

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birth control, contraceptive
A one-month dosage of hormonal birth control pills is displayed in Sacramento, Calif. VOA

A divided U.S. appeals court Thursday blocked rules by the Trump administration that allowed more employers to opt out of providing women with no-cost birth control.

The ruling, however, may be short lived because the administration has adopted new rules on contraceptive coverage that are set to take effect next month and will likely prompt renewed legal challenges.

Thursday’s ruling by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concerned changes to birth control coverage requirements under President Barack Obama’s health care law that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued in October 2017.

States were likely to succeed on their claim that those changes were made without required notice and public comment, the appeals court panel said in a 2-1 decision.

USA, birth control
A man stands outside the main door of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals building in San Francisco. VOA

The majority upheld a preliminary injunction against the rules issued by U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam last year. It, however, limited the scope of the injunction, applying it only to the five states in the lawsuit and not the entire country.

Another federal judge also blocked the rules, and her nationwide injunction remains in place.

An email to the Justice Department seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Obama’s health care law required most companies to cover birth control at no additional cost, though it included exemptions for religious organizations. The new policy allowed more categories of employers, including publicly traded companies, to opt out of providing free contraception to women by claiming religious objections. It also allowed any company that is not publicly traded to deny coverage on moral grounds.

The Department of Justice said in court documents that the rules were about protecting a small group of “sincere religious and moral objectors” from having to violate their beliefs. The changes were favored by social conservatives who are staunch supporters of President Donald Trump.

Reproductive Rights, abortion, women, birth control
A community health worker holds up contraceptives during a lecture on family planning at a reproductive health clinic run by an NGO in Tondo city, metro Manila. VOA

California filed a lawsuit to block the changes that was joined by Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia.

“Today’s decision is an important step to protect a woman’s right to access cost-free birth control and make independent decisions about her own reproductive health care,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

‘Economic harm’

The states argued that the changes could result in millions of women losing free birth control services, forcing them to seek contraceptive care through state-run programs or programs that the states had to reimburse.

The states show with “reasonable probability” that the new rules will lead women to lose employer-sponsored contraceptive coverage, “which will then result in economic harm to the states,” 9th Circuit Judge J. Clifford Wallace, a nominee of Republican President Richard Nixon, wrote for the majority.

Reproductive Rights, abortion, women, birth control
Newer Contraception Tries to Engage Men. VOA

In a dissent, 9th Circuit Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said the economic harm to the states was “self-inflicted” because they chose to provide contraceptive coverage to women. The states, therefore, did not have the authority to bring the lawsuit, said Kleinfeld, a nominee of Republican President George H.W. Bush.

Also Read: To Diversify The Industry, Apple Pledges To Train More Women

The case became more complicated after the Trump administration last month issued new birth control coverage rules that are set to supersede those at issue in the lawsuit before the 9th Circuit. Under the new rules, large companies whose stock is sold to investors won’t be able to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage.

Wallace said the new rules did not make the case before the 9th Circuit moot because they are not set to take effect until January. (VOA)