Lisa Anderson discusses gender in superhero films, marginalization and why audiences can be critical of a movie but still enjoy it
Over the weekend, moviegoers everywhere flocked to theaters for the premiere of the latest DC-Warner Bros. vehicle “Wonder Woman”; the movie brought in an estimated $100.5 million in North America, the biggest opening ever for a female director (Patty Jenkins). In the weeks leading up to its release, media buzzed with speculation about how it would perform at the box office and if it would live up to the expectations of die-hard comic book fans.
Some — if not all — of the speculation was due to the simple fact that the summer-blockbuster hopeful was being headlined (and helmed) by a woman. Whereas there have been nine Superman movies, 12 Batman movies and dozens featuring more obscure male comic-book characters, this was the first time audiences were treated to a female superhero lead on such a grand scaleAlthough there have been a few female-led superhero (or supervillain) movies in both the DC and Marvel universes, such as "Catwoman" and "Elektra," none has had the superpowered marketing, hype and budgets of "Wonder Woman.", with Gal Gadot in the title role.
Lisa AndersonLisa Anderson is a faculty member in ASU’s School of Social Transformation., associate professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University, points out that while we’ve seen plenty of strong female roles before — in films like “Aliens” and TV series like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — this could be the beginning of a sea change where women find themselves better represented in an industry that has long been dominated by men.
Question: This is the first film ever made about Wonder Woman. Why did it take so long, and why is it finally happening now?
Answer: I think it’s a combination of things. I think that it’s taken this long to get a Wonder Woman film because studios were convinced that a summer blockbuster wouldn’t sell if it were headlined by a woman. Logic might have convinced them otherwise, because audiences have been craving strong female leads for decades. I think of Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens,” which was a successful genre film with a female lead. I think the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” phenomenon spoke to an audience for hero/superhero programming with a strong female lead.
I think that media corporations are realizing that the fan base for comics, anime, gaming, science fiction and fantasy are not just boys and young men — they are also young women. I also think that it’s a generational change; today’s audience, especially the younger audience, supports media that reflects the world they live in, which is a diverse world. We’ve seen an increase in comics-based heroes who are women and who are people of color.
I think there’s also a way in which social media has enhanced some of the crossover between what used to be considered “nerd” culture — like comics and sci-fi fandom — and serious writing. The popularity of the Marvel television series — “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” etc. — have also helped to revitalize audiences and bring in new viewers.
Q: Some say the film bodes well for a future with more female-centric plots and strong female leads. However, this year at the Cannes Film Festival, there were reports that women in the industry still felt largely underrepresented. Do you think this film is a sign of a sea change?
A: I think it is a sign of a sea change, and I think that’s what I was thinking about in my response to the previous question. In my current work, which is focused on the change in representations of black women in television, I mark the decade of the 1990s as the place where this change was primed. The proliferation of different platforms — we went from four broadcast television stations to eight, plus cable in the 1990s, and then more recently web series and streaming platforms exploded opportunities for more diverse writers, directors and producers who were willing and able to take a “chance” on something that might not have had sufficient support to make it on the “big four.”
As more people developed skill in all of the areas of film and television production, we have seen some films (and television series) get made that would not have been considered 30 years ago.
But just because there are these moments doesn’t always mean that the floodgates are opened. The industry ebbs and flows. While I’m optimistic that we will continue to see more films centered on women (and girls), it won’t be a simple progression each year. We have seen this for decades with representation of people of color as well.
Q: There are criticisms of the film: Some have argued that the film pays no homage to Wonder Woman’s origins, which were deeply rooted in early 20th-century suffrage movements; some have argued that women making gains in the superhero genre isn’t really progress, and that the goal should be to dismantle it rather than add to it. Should those concerns be allowed to overshadow the good things about the film?
A: There are always critiques, and no film (I don’t think) ever does what everyone else thinks it should. There’s only so much that can fit in two hours and 20 minutes, after all. And we have seen in other superhero films and other action films that the stories can deviate from, or fill in, or even reimagine the books on which they are based. As the stories within the comic universes shift, so do the stories.
As for dismantling rather than shifting the genre, I tell my students that they don’t have to give up their enjoyment of a film (or an entire genre); they can be critical and still enjoy it. I think it depends on the larger “message” of the film. What does it say to us in this current time and place? Does it give us something that helps us to move the world toward more inclusion and equity? Some people will be reached through genre films who won’t be reached through documentary, or period drama or other types of film.
Q: Is there an inherent sexism in superhero/action movies that keeps women down? If so, what can be done to dismantle it and how might that change the genre?
A: Of course — we live in a sexist culture, and comics and superhero/action films are a reflection of the society in which they are created. There’s this meme of Wonder Woman standing in front of the other DC heroes, with a caption something like, “If I don’t get to wear pants, no one gets to wear pants.” I think we only dismantle it when we dismantle sexism — and I’m not sure we will be able to do that anytime soon. There was a social media flurry because a theater in Texas wanted to have a women-only screening of the film, and a bunch of men got upset. I think such a screening would have been fun, but clearly some people didn’t get why women might want such a thing.
Q: Some people might say it’s just entertainment, so why do we need to bring questions of marginalization into it? Are they right, or is that something we should be concerned about and working to change as a society?
A: Representation is always important. It serves to both reflect and model how we are and how we might be. And most important is a proliferation of representations that show multiple ways to be in the world.
I think what’s most important is that the representations of people — and this includes all people — should be diverse and multiple. We see that there isn’t just one way to be in the world. We see possibilities. People make similar arguments about literature for children and young adults; it’s vitally important that our entertainment show us different ways of being that are more than two-dimensional.
Q: Aside from movies, the success of shows like “Star Trek,” “Battlestar Galactica” and Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” that feature strong female leads have shown that women can carry sci-fi and action series. Do you expect that success to translate to other genres?
A: I think there are instances of women being strongly represented in most, if not all, genres; those that I think of as particularly “male” are action and military films, and women are more regularly represented in both of those genres. I’m not sure about horror; it’s not a genre I watch personally, so I am not sure how things have changed … but if any, I would say horror has tended to stick with its gender roles more than most other genres.
Top photo: Gal Gadot as the Amazon princess taking on World War I in "Wonder Woman." Photo courtesy of Rock Paper Photo and Warner Bros.