A quick note about spoilers: there will be spoilers in these articles, and there are brief mentions of the following films in this piece: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2”, “Wonder Woman”, James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre”, and “Iron Man 3”. In the future, I’ll flag spoilers for movies not within the purview of the article (for instance, if I bring up “Thor: Ragnarok” in an article about Tony Stark) with an exclamation mark at the start and finish of each sentence. Par exemple: !”Ant-Man and the Wasp” is the third most feminist film in the MCU, in this author’s not-so-humble opinion.! 

[Image description: Still from “Captain Marvel” trailer of Brie Larson as Carol Danvers sitting in a fighter jet, smiling slightly and giving the ‘hang 10’ sign with her right hand. Copyright by Marvel Studios LLC. and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.]

PUNCHING UP: AN INTERSECTIONAL FEMINIST LENS ON ACTION MOVIES

I really like action movies! I love the escapism of the bombast, the ludicrous stakes, and the people who are often flying through the air in ways that should actively piss off physics. I particularly love actions movies which take special care to incorporate character development, and a deep beating heart and story. I’m not going to say all (action) movies have to do that: happily, there’s room for all variations. But, this is the first of a regular column which will focus on the former from an intersectional feminist perspective. I’ll be starting with an article looking at Iron Man/Tony Stark’s epic cinematic journey across nine films, and continuing with the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Likely with a few other action-y (and not so action-y!) faves along the way. To get the ball rolling here, I will discuss some of the metrics I’ll be using, and how I came to formulate them. Spoiler alert: it’s an ongoing process!

BACKGROUND

My constructive introduction to feminism was through learning to evaluate women’s roles within the stories told on screen, with a mind to the impact of media as art, and the age-old adage: art reflects life. A character of particular focus for me was Guinevere from BBC’s “Merlin”, framed as a working class woman and portrayed by a mixed-race actress. And, crucially, constantly sidelined despite there being rich narrative possibility in her character. Through the generous discussions of other folks online, a world of feminist-lensed contextualization opened up to me.

[image description: Promotional photo for BBC’s “Merlin” of Angel Coulby styled as Guinevere. Copyright by Shine Limited and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.]

“Merlin” lasted 5 seasons and was probably seen by a few million people, namely in the United Kingdom. This is an impressive reach, though in the context of broader international media impact, more a drop in the ocean than a tsunami. In contrast, when considering the collective heft of action movies, there is no denying their cultural impact. Taking Marvel Cinematic Universe movies specifically: Disney has made an estimated $19.8 billion on this franchise. This amount includes the 22 MCU movies released worldwide between 2008 and 2019 (to April 29 2019, the last date reported). Imagining the global impact, if we estimate a movie ticket as $15, that means 1.3 billion tickets have been bought to watch a Marvel movie over the last ten years, globally, and this doesn’t include the folks who watched the movies through other means. There is no denying the cultural juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. [1]

GOALS

One thing that, for me, is a baseline that ought to hold across any work of art (and this to some is a controversial opinion) is a standard of respect to all the folks involved. That isn’t to say the heroes and villains can’t trash talk each other, or that a movie can’t take a critical look at social justice issues. Rather, I mean that the women don’t get sidelined, undermined, or fridged for the horrific crime of… *drum roll*… being a woman. (I’ll explain fridging shortly.) This same standard ought to be applied to all characters belonging to marginalized groups. Quelling any “well-actually”’s in the room: be mindful that this is the base level expectation for characters who are white, straight, cis gender and non-disabled men. It shouldn’t be a stretch to extend this baseline to the rest.

It’s probably worth emphasizing at this point that I’m not saying all characters need to be actively feminist. That’s unnecessary, and there’s no need for “Feminist Icon, Peter Quill” or for James Bond to stop having fleeting and consensual [2] sexual encounters with people he finds attractive. What I am asking for is that, for instance, in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2”, when confronted with the fact that his father had been ruining the lives of women and females all over the galaxy, Peter Quill is outraged and upset generally for the havoc and devastation caused, as well as specifically for his mother. Or that, for instance, instead of the notorious shower scene in “Skyfall” when James Bond has sex with a woman who is startled to find him in her shower, we have scenes where Bond’s sexual partners are clear and enthusiastic in their consent to sleep with him.[3]

The goal is to examine and discuss the narrative treatment of marginalized characters within, namely, action movies. I’m going to start with MCU movies, as there’s a natural framework there. As mentioned though, there are others I’m keen to explore: 2018’s “Tomb Raider” is a fave, as well as movies like “Wonder Woman”, “Pacific Rim”, “Aliens”, “Jurassic Park”, and the “Star Wars” franchise. I also might gift myself things like “Singin’ in the Rain” for totally self-indulgent reasons.

[image description: Three images of women who have been fridged in recent superhero movies. The first is a still of Renee Russo as Frigga in “Thor: the Dark World”, she is wearing some armour and looks defiant. The second is a promotional image from “Avengers: Infinity War” of Zoe Saldana as Gamora, she is looking defiantly into the distance. The last is a still of Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”, she is dishevelled from a fight and looks appalled. Copyright by Marvel Studios LLC. and Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.]

FRAMEWORK FOR ANALYSIS

When looking at the world of stereotypes and clichés, there is one which stands out as a particular bug bear: fridging. Fridging, as with many of these terms, has expanded in meaning since its inception. It is a shortened version of the term “Women in Refrigerators”, and was originally used to describe when a woman was murdered, raped, or maimed for the emotional or plot progress of the leading man in a story. Comic book writer Gail Simone coined the term in 1999  while reading an issue of “Green Lantern”, where the eponymous hero’s girlfriend is murdered and then stuffed into a refrigerator. Its meaning has now expanded to include any person from a marginalized group who is killed for the emotional or plot progress of the (typically) white, able-bodied, straight, cis, male character. This plot device is as old as storytelling, and I eventually wrote a dissertation about its use in comic book movies.

The series of posts I’ll be writing here is not limited to fridging, but the mistreatment of women and, where appropriate, other marginalized groups. As it is a particular irritant, I will be tracking fridging, along with a few other common clichés or tests, in a summary fashion at the top of each post.

The Bechdel-Wallace (formerly Bechdel Test) is probably the most famous. For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel-Wallace Test was adapted from a comic strip by Alison Bechdel. In “Dykes to Watch Out For”, a woman asks another if she’d like to go to a movie. The response is that she is now only going to movies which manage three basic criteria: “One, It has to have at least two women in it, who, two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man.” It’s a fairly basic test, but is still something infrequently attained.[4]

[Image description: a promotional still from “Pacific Rim” of Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in her pilot uniform, looking thoughtful. Copyright by Warner Bros. and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.]

The Mako Mori Test builds on some of the simplicity of the Bechdel-Wallace Test. Suggested by tumblr user Chaila and based on the often derogatory discussion of women’s roles in the movie “Pacific Rim”, this test is named after one of the leads in the movie and also follows three tenets:

  1. At least one female character,
  2. Who gets her own narrative arc,
  3. That is not about supporting a man’s story.

I’ll also be paying attention to other marginalized adaptations of the above two tests. There is an equivalent Racial Bechdel Test, looking at whether two people of colour have names and speak to each other about something other than a white person. There is the queer version, alongside the trope ‘Bury Your Gays’, which examines the prevalence of deaths amongst LGBTQ2 characters. There is a distinct (and arguably aggressive) lack of explicitly non-straight characters in these films, and this is doubly true for trans and gender diverse characters: while there are many characters in the MCU and beyond who can be read as queer (this is known as queer coding), I can’t think of any who could be read as non-cis gender. Given this dearth, I will likely examine this in terms of queer coding, alongside queerbaiting. And don’t worry if all these terms are unfamiliar or confusing to you! I’ll explain the relevant phrases as we go.

Something I’m still reading up on is portrayals of people with disabilities, and the treatment and coding of physical disfigurements. I will be trying to be mindful of related issues, stereotypes and clichés, and inform myself as I progress through this project. I know films such as “Iron Man 3” and “Wonder Woman” have been flagged for such issues and no doubt there are others.

[Image description: a promotional still from “Black Panther” of Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa and Letitia Wright as Shuri. They are all looking intently at someone speaking off-screen. Copyright by Marvel Studios LLC. and other respective production studios and distributors. Intended for editorial use only.]

CONCLUSION

Again, the goal of this project is not to slam these movies. Most of the ones I’ll be looking at are ones I really enjoyed and some are personal faves. The aim is to examine and discuss treatments of characters from marginalized groups – both positive and negative – as a tool for engaging with media and, perhaps, when folks look to create their own media. And there are definitely things to be celebrated: the dynamic and diverse women of “Black Panther”; Tony Stark’s implied Anxiety Disorder from “Iron Man 3” onwards; Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) embracing femininity positively, among others. I also won’t always be right, and I don’t expect to be. I’m sharing the framework I use when engaging with media and when creating my own, and perhaps most importantly, my journey to deepen the scope and depth of my understanding.

There is one final thing I want to add. For me, there is particular resonance here as we move into a world dealing with the recognition of abuses thanks to the #metoo and Black Lives Matter movements, and the ongoing fights by advocates for humane, sustainable and compassionate justice and treatment of Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ2S peoples, people with disabilities, people of colour, sex workers, safe spaces for religious groups facing violence and disenfranchisement, environmental advocates… the list goes on. How people are portrayed in our bombastically successful media is important as we seek to create a world grounded in equity, safety, and true justice. Yes, even in blockbusters. Perhaps especially in blockbusters.

So, join me! Let’s discuss, celebrate, and push for a continuation of the awesome!

[1] To emphasize: this estimate is only including the 20 movies released by Disney in the Marvel universe. Excluded are monetary values from the three Sony-led Spider-Man franchises, the two Sony-led Fantastic Four franchises, the 20th Century Fox-led X-Men series, any and all DC universe movies, and any other superhero movies from any other franchises or enterprises including television.

[2] In Bond’s long cinematic history, there are many scenes with dubious or no clear consent. Pop Culture Detective has a good video examining this trope within Harrison Ford films, and includes an example from the last Bond film, Spectre. Content warnings for examples and analysis of scenes with dubious or no consent.

[3] It is worth additionally noting that Craig’s run as Bond, to “Skyfall” and excluding “Spectre”, had the highest number of Bond Girl deaths proportional to any previous Bond: any women who slept with Craig’s Bond died. That this is worse treatment than the Bond films from the 60s & 70s is an indictment. The hamfisted attempt to retcon a reason for this disparity in Spectre is something I’ll discuss at some point. Across all movies (excepting “Spectre”) one third of all Bond Girls died.

[4] An immediate caveat: it is not the be all and end all of the feminist merits of a piece of art. But I think it is a worthy metric to include as I evaluate dozens of films over an expansive period of time.

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