Legacy sexism and superheroes

Here’s a post that’s been kicking around in my head for awhile, which I’m finally writing because I have some spare time over the holiday break:

Lately within some segments of geekdom some people have been hoping really hard we’ll that soon we’ll get a superhero movie focused on a female superheroine. A major one, and not a sucky one like the infamous Halle Berry Catwoman movie. As much as I’d like to see this happen I think there’s a practical barrier here that people are underestimating.

To a first approximation, all the superheroes anyone cares about debuted 50 years ago or more. The X-Men provide a bunch of partial exceptions, because they’ve added a lot of team members since their debut in ’63, and many of those more recent editions have become fan favorites, most notably Wolverine (1974). But beyond the X-Men, if you looking for important superheroes created after 1963 you won’t find much beyond inherently R-rated characters like the Punisher, the cast of Watchmen, and most recently Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl.

And however bad you think sexism is today, it was much worse 50 years ago. Second-wave feminism hadn’t even happened yet. And it shows in the comic books of the time. Almost without exception, the female superheroines of the time are The Chick, aka The One Girl On The Team. People familiar with later incarnations of the characters may not realize how bad the problem was, because of the upgrades some of these characters later got, notably X-Men’s Jean Grey becoming the Phoenix and Fantastic Four’s Invisible Girl getting force-field powers (originally, she could turn invisible and that was it.)

The big exception is Wonder Woman. The story behind Wonder Woman and her creator, William Marston, is fascinating, but while I would gladly pay to see a movie that returned Wondie to her original bondage-themed roots, my guess is that such a movie would be perceived by the general public as another Catwoman.

Strip Wondie of her fascinating real-life roots, and it’s not clear how much she has going for her. How many people know anything about Wonder Woman beyond the fact that she’s The One Important Superhero Who’s A Woman? Or worse, the Justice League’s version of The Chick? Quick: name Wonder Woman’s greatest foe. Who’s her Lex Luthor, her Joker? And yes, some comics fans really, really like Gail Simone’s run writing Wonder Woman or whatever, but trust me the general public doesn’t know anything about that kind of thing.

The sexism of the early 1960′s comic book industry wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except for whatever reason the superheroes that matter are still mostly the ones that were around 50 years ago. If someone gave Joss Whedon $200 million to make any movie he wanted, you could bet your ass he’d make a fun movie with multiple kick-ass female characters, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, he got $200 million to make The Avengers using a specific group of characters who’ve mostly been around for 50 years.

There’s been hints of a clever solution to this problem from Marvel when they had Carol Danvers, formerly Ms. Marvel, take over the “Captain Marvel” mantle. This has some people hoping we’ll get a Captain Marvel movie with Carol Danvers in the role. You can imagine this approach being extended to other superheroes, say having She-Hulk take over as the “main” Hulk. But in a large number of cases, this ends up being hard to do because the names of the superheroes aren’t gender neutral, usually because they contain the word “man” but sometimes for other reasons (e.g. Thor).

There is, however, an even simpler solution to this problem: we can all agree to stop caring how long a character has been around. Movie studies can agree to make awesome superhero movies about brand new characters, and audiences can agree to go see them based on whether or not they’re good, rathe than how long the characters have been around.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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