by: Jessica Luecke
In the last two decades, Marvel has grown into the most successful franchise in the world. With over 26 films, not including spin-off television shows, Marvel has become a household brand. But with so much success comes the questions of whether the franchise is portraying and representing woman well and if at all?
According to IMDB the most a female character is seen throughout the duration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow. She is played by Scarlett Johansson and appears in a total of nine films.
Her total screen time without her new solo film “Black Widow” is an Hour and 50 minutes. Perhaps the most prominent and consistent female character in the MCU is barley getting under two hours of screen time?
Black widow is the prototype of the MCU’s female heroine. Her character arc of trained assassin and soldier to avenger, friend, and selfless martyr shows promise for the future of MCU heroines.
The second most shown female in the MCU is Gamora. Played by Zoe Saladana, Gamora alongside Black Widow and Captain Marvel is one of the only female characters in the MCU that is more of a protagonist that a side character. Marvel has done extremely well with Gamora’s character development and purpose; she has only been in a total of 4 movies in the franchise and has more screen time that almost all other female characters.
In 1985 Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test to gauge female presence in films. The three rules of the Bechdel test are
- Two named female characters
- Must talk to one another
- The conversation must have nothing to do with a man.
A surprising 16 movies out of 26 in the MCU pass. The more phases Marvel tends to move through, the more movies pass the test.
Most passing Marvel movies include a “main” supporting female, and a less important named female talking very briefly about a topic adjacent to the main mal protagonist. For example, Iron Man 2 passes the Bechdel Test because of Pepper Potts, the main love interest of Tony Stark, talks about work with a very sexually dressed “assistant” who is a young Natasha Romanoff before her character development was created.
The Bechdel test was not created with the intention to be feminist propaganda, but just to determine of women were a crucial part of the movie. If you can take a woman of a movie and still have the plot stay the same, she was placed there either for the diversity quota or for the sexualization of the Male Gaze.
Most MCU movies barely pass, the first one to ace it with flying colors was Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. In this film we really start to get some character backstory and development for Gamora. The audience is introduced to Nebula who is the adoptive sister of Gamora made up almost entirely of spare parts. These two have a heated discussion about their mission, their father, and even become allies. None of which has to do with their more shown, more glorified, male counterparts.
When I asked my interviewee Kait Atkinson who she first thought of when superhero came to mind, she said “Captain America.” While he is a great and solid choice, I find it a little disheartening she did not say something like “Wonder woman” or “Black Widow.”
Kait also expresses that she “would not go see a marvel movie just because it has a female protagonist.” She is not the biggest fan of Captain Marvel. “You cannot have a half-baked character and expect women to like it because we’re women.” She continues by saying “I wish female characters in general had more depth.”
I asked my interviewee Trevor Luzi the exact same question, who do you think of when you think of a superhero? His answer? The Incredible Hulk. He expresses that growing up with Incredible Hulk was his favorite because he was so powerful.
I then asked him who is favorite female in the MCU was he responded with Scarlett Witch; he refers to her as “the most powerful avenger.” He’s indifferent to addition of ‘female’ characters, he just wants to see powerful characters. “I’m so excited for Marvel’s Phase 4 She-Hulk.”
Based on research and the two human resources, it is shown that the most well received female inclusion narratives are those that are not forced. When Marvel really spends time crafting character development and backstory, breathing life into characters that otherwise would fade into the background, they speak to those in their more feminine audience. The future of Marvel heroines is not a diversity quota, but real time spent making powerful, relatable, superheroes that other little girls can look up to.