In recent years, there are three very loud calls that routinely accompany the release of movies within the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “Why aren’t there any female-led superhero movies?” “Why aren’t any of these films directed by women?” and “Why aren’t the female characters represented in merchandising as well as the male characters?” The fact that these calls are made at all, at any volume, represents progress. It indicates that, firstly, audiences have a greater awareness of gender bias in the media, and secondly, those audience members that are aware are more able to make their voices heard.
This limited progress has undoubtedly led to a small amount of change – with Marvel scheduling its own female-led, possibly female-directed, and certainly female-written superhero movie for 2019, in the form of Captain Marvel. We have also seen better depictions of Marvel women on television – in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and Jessica Jones. Unfortunately, these calls do not go far enough, and this small amount of progress disproportionately favours white women. The progress, such as it is, distracts us from the reality of the situation – which is that one of the most high profile, successful Hollywood studios is actively contributing to the erasure of women in cinema, and most specifically, the erasure of women of colour.
It’s not just about the lead character, or the director, or the toys that accompany these movies. These are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues of bias in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While we’re all busy discussing – quite rightly – the fact that there aren’t more Black Widow action figures lining the shelves of the store, there is a far more insidious and systematic trend toward removing women and centering men in their stead – and the fact that it is almost certainly an unconscious move makes it all the more disturbing.
The issue is that, while the Marvel comic book source material is not exactly a beacon of diversity in itself, it does present a universe – panel by panel – that is relatively more balanced than the cinematic adaptations we have seen created since, and that is what makes for fascinating study. Defenders of the MCU – particularly male defenders – will argue that it is not necessary for Marvel to follow the source material closely and, apparently, that seems to be the view of the studio, too. Indeed, in order to adapt the vast Marvel comic book world for cinema, the source material must obviously be pared down to specific characters and narrative elements, in order to create coherent films. The problem arises when the ‘paring down’ process, reveals that women are the most likely elements to be removed (and again, most specifically, women of colour), in favour of men – because if men are always the lead character, women are inevitably the ones that are expendable.
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This is where hiring practices come into play. Until Captain Marvel arrives in cinemas in 2019 – a full eleven years into the MCU – every Marvel film that has made it to the big screen since 2008 has been the result of work in which men have been the driving force, in terms of writing and directing.
To be clear, if Marvel chooses characters and builds film franchises around them, it is hardly surprising that those characters are men (usually white men), given that the chief architect of the MCU is a man (Kevin Feige), along with the directors of all the films so far released, and all but one of the writers.
Yes, the great Lexi Alexander directed 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, but that film is not a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Also, the only female writer to actually receive an official writing credit within the MCU to date is Nicole Perlman, who wrote early drafts of Guardians Of The Galaxy – although the extent to which her work actually featured in the final film was later played down by writer-director, James Gunn.
“But, why does it matter?” the poor, maligned men wail. Well perhaps, just for a moment, imagine men were not being literally placed at the centre of this cinematic universe, and that women were consistently centred instead. If most giant blockbuster movies featured three male characters in a cast of hundreds of women – would you wonder why it matters then?
The fact is, it matters because the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest grossing film franchise of all time – the twelve films released to date having collectively generated over $9 billion in box office. It matters because you cannot walk down the street without seeing a young person adorned in some way with male-centric Marvel merchandise. It matters because there is absolutely no reason whatsoever why we shouldn’t see all women represented as leading heroes on the big screen, in the same way we see men, all the time. No reason whatsoever.
Like it or not, the MCU wields a vast amount of influence in western culture, and with great power, comes great responsibility. Shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Oh, they’re just a bit of fun – it’s just entertainment!” is how we got into this mess in the first place – with the majority of mainstream western film output depicting the world as seen through the lens of a tiny percentage of the global population. Does this discussion make you uncomfortable? Is your first instinct to instantly dismiss it as the paranoid ramblings of a rabid feminist? That’s understandable – nobody likes to be shown the way in which decisions can be influenced by unconscious bias. Like it or not, though – that is the reality of the beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Those that benefit from having men at the centre of all things (hint: it’s not women), tend to spout standard responses such as, “It’s not the right time,” or, “It’s a complicated issue.” On the contrary, it’s really very simple, and all boils down to whether or not players are willing to make room on the field. When a studio and its flagship film franchise operates at the level of Marvel, there are two options available. Either it can prop up the status quo, or it can present a new, more realistically representative way of looking at the world. In other words, it can support white-centric patriarchy, or it can challenge it at every turn. Enjoyable though the films may be, with each one of its MCU releases to date, Marvel has chosen the former option, every time. While the reasons for that are unlikely to be any more complex than the unconscious bias of privileged men, the result remains the same – women are erased.
Read on, to see how.