The Role of Feminism in Action Movies

Megan Walsh

 

Feminism has become something of a buzzword in the media lately, used to trip up pop stars and actresses in interviews with very little thought to the actual meaning or application of the term. It tends to create fervor either way, whether a new film or show or something is deemed too feminist or not feminist enough, leaving dozens of thinkpieces in its wake – not unlike this one.

 

It is unequivocally a good thing that feminism is at the forefront of the public mind, and that media is being held accountable for failing female narratives. There has been a definite clamor for more female-led projects, particularly in regard to popular mainstream films, most especially action movies, considering they are currently dominating the market. With such a suffusion of films dealing in similar subject matters, it's hard not to notice that they've been telling the same stories for years, and those stories all revolve around white men.

 

Nothing exemplifies the tug-of-war of female portrayals in action movies like two of the more highly anticipated big-budget films of recent memory: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road. There was a divisive reaction to the movies, with the former receiving criticism for its one-note, seemingly out-of-character version of Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff and the latter receiving surprise acclaim for its treatment of women.

 

They're two films that share little in common besides colons in the title. Age of Ultron was a much-hyped, long awaited follow-up to 2012's The Avengers, one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Age of Ultron did well financially but was ultimately a disappointment to many critics and fans. Mad Max was also a follow-up, but one that had taken many years to come to fruition: it took over a decade of pre-production before filming even began. It garnered a great deal of praise upon its release, and a lot of that praise was thanks to its women.

 

There was even a bit of outcry on that front, which some sexist men on the Internet made uncomfortable and angry by the feminist message of the film. Which is, ultimately, that women are people. That's it. That's the big, revolutionary message of Mad Max: Fury Road: women openly declaring that they are not things. It makes one realize how far we haven't come, if such a simple statement can cause such a fuss.

 

 

But it is nevertheless true that after dealing with scraps for so long, the fair treatment of Mad Max's women was honestly refreshing. It tells a story of women facing sexism and abuse without the narrative heaping similar abuse on the women, or reveling in their pain. There are young women, old women, disabled women. There are women with dreams and journeys, who fight for their right to their own bodies, who fight for their independence. And the film's titular character, Max, is a mostly-silent supporter.

 

For sheer numbers, Mad Max has more women in its main and supporting casts than most mainstream films, and certainly more than our Marvel point of comparison. Avengers: Age of Ultron had a total of seven women with speaking parts; Mad Max: Fury Road had nearly fourteen. But, of course, it isn't just a numbers game. The point is how that screentime is utilized. This is where a great deal of Age of Ultron's criticism came out. At the beginning of the film, there is only one woman on the Avengers team (and by the end, only two), and that woman is Natasha Romanoff. She has appeared in four films total, Ultron included, and is a fan favorite, with regular entreaties from fans for a movie focused entirely on her (which Marvel maintains they just can't seem to find the time for, despite moving around their entire schedule to fit in yet another Spiderman reboot).  Natasha has always been something of a lone wolf, forming friendships with her teammates but remaining slightly emotionally distant, finding it difficult to trust because of her traumatic past. It's a classic story and character type, especially for films in the genre, but more commonly used with male characters – in movies, at least. Natasha is unique in that respect, no doubt leading to her popularity.

 

Many fans were taken aback by her storyline in Age of Ultron, where she spends a great deal of time chasing after Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner with an openness that seemed at odds with the character up until that point. It's not that all romantic subplots are automatically awful, or even that a romance between those characters is ridiculous on its face; it was the cringing, cutesy way it was written, culminating in a scene in which it appeared Natasha was linking her infertility with her being a "monster."

 

Age of Ultron was an underwhelming film in a variety of respects, but the dated gender politics throughout were especially strange. In addition to the seeming affiliation between Natasha's monstrosity and infertility (potentially a result of bad phrasing, but if so, it was really bad phrasing), there was the sudden existence of Linda Cardellini's Laura Barton, wife of Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, who seems to exist in total seclusion on a farm in the middle of nowhere – barefoot, pregnant, and preternaturally supportive of her husband's constant near-death experiences. There was a subtle thread throughout the film that the ideal life, symbolized by the Bartons, is that of a married heterosexual couple with two-point-five kids living honestly off the land. It's not an idea that feels very relevant to 2015, nor does it give women much to do besides be defined by their ability to be wives and mothers.

 

 

But these are only two films out of many. Television will be bringing us female action heroines in the form of Supergirl, Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter. Wonder Woman is making her first live action appearance in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice; there are several women of note in the upcoming Suicide Squad. Marvel claims there will be a Captain Marvel movie someday, probably. Analysis on female representation in those films will have to wait, but it's become increasingly clear that audiences are much less willing to settle for scraps. Female-led films have proven themselves immensely profitable and have proven that they have an audience. It's up to the studios to catch up, and to do it right.

 

Author Bio:

Megan Walsh, a former writer at Highbrow Magazine, currently writes for adorama.nyc.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

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