There has been a lot of discussion lately about what it means to be a feminist. The word is en vogue, you might say. Beyonce flashed it proudly behind her at last year’s VMAs, Emma Watson’s September call for male participation in feminism at the UN quickly went viral, and Time magazine unwisely tried to include it in a poll of “words that should be banned in 2015.” Various celebrities in recent months have either volunteered or been asked to take a stand on whether or not they are feminists, and to define what the word means to them.
Contests over the word “feminist” are nothing new, but they have reached something of a zenith in the public discourse over the last year. While the dictionary tends to be a primary source for those taking their first baby-steps towards understanding, those with a little bit more knowledge turn to more sophisticated sources in the vein of Judith Butler or bell hooks. Hooks, in her primer Feminism is for Everyone, defines feminism as “A movement to end sexist oppression.”
Of course this does not entirely resolve the issue, as one is immediately left with the conundrum of defining what counts as “sexist oppression.” Sexism these days frequently, if not always, can manifest in highly ephemeral, deceptively subtle and deeply intangible ways. Often it is difficult to offer ‘objective proof’ that the mechanic’s tone of voice was full of male condescension, or to explain the nuanced distinction between typical sexualized images of men, versus ones of women (Erotic images of men tend to emphasize their phallic power, while women’s tend to emphasize their passive accessibility – even when everyone is showing the “same amount of skin”)
In other words, sometimes sexism is not always readily demonstrable or easy to objectively index. Modern sexism has gotten better at veiling itself, makes itself opaque and harder to put your finger on. Or it just appears idiosyncratic, like a reliably doomed anachronism akin to a Walkman or a VCR. However, when it comes to the recent explosion of superheroes into every corner of mainstream media, the blatant sexism of a supposedly by-gone era has held on faster and stronger than even I would have initially anticipated during the first wave of this comic-book movie trend begun in the early 2000s.
Since the debut of The Avengers film in 2012, pleas for a Black Widow movie have fallen on profoundly deaf ears, despite the fact that Iron Man currently has three movies all to himself, The Hulk boasts two, and Captain America and Thor each have two, with more in the works. Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield combined give Spiderman five movies in the last little-over-a-decade, with a sixth installment planned. Batman and Superman both have more movies devoted to their fictional legacy than are worth counting at this point, with ever more always on the way. Not to mention various one-offs of the oughts like Daredevil, Ghostrider and The Green Lantern.
Since the turn of the millennium, Hollywood has churned out a seemingly endless stream of superhero big-screen blockbusters, and in that time, only two films have featured a solo female lead – Catwoman in 2004 and Elektra in 2005. Neither was a box office or critical success, and ever since, nervous studio execs have been adamantly against risking a female-led superhero anything. To call this situation unfair and sexist is rather like describing water as wet. Exact numerical disparities are merely a hyperbolic fetish at this point. Granted, in the last few months DC and Marvel have each committed to one solo superheroine film a piece– Marvel with Carol Danver’s Captain Marvel, and DC with Wonder Woman. However, at this rate, it will take several more decades, at least, for the pop-culture playing field to begin to approach gender parity within the superhero genre.
Women of course remain marginal and underrepresented in media across the board. However, superhero franchises have been especially guilty ofSmurfettingthem (The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Fantastic Four), damseling them (Spiderman, Iron Man II, The Hulk, The Green Lantern, Man of Steel)fridging them (Amazing Spider Man II, The Dark Knight), what I call “Eve-ing” them (this is the trope of the good female character seduced to the dark-side who must be taken down by the male hero; see Jean Grey and Raven/Mystique in the X-Men movies) or simply using them as one-dimensional props who exist primarily to affirm the hero’s heterosexuality. Even when these franchises manage to be relatively kind to their female characters by avoiding stock gender cliches, they still tend to confine them to secondary help-mate status, rather than making them full-fledged partners or leads in their own right.
It is in this context of very blatant and ostentatious sexism that the Captain America/Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off series Agent Carter debuts tomorrow, January 6th, on ABC. The MCU has been very cautious and calculated about this addition to their franchise, releasing a short film at Comic Con 2013 that was later included on the Iron Man III DVDs/Blue-rays, integrating flash-back storylines into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes, and greenlighting her solo project as a mini-series/“special event,” rather than giving her a full-fledge standard series order right off the bat. No doubt she will get one if her ratings are good, but the point is, they want assurances before taking the big plunge. Women are still seen as very ‘risky’ leads in the world of superhero entertainment (as is anyone who isn’t white or heterosexual, but that’s a story for another day).
Every semester, scores of 101 college students in fields like Women’s Studies and Africana studies read a famous piece by Peggy McIntosh called “White Privilege, Male Privilege.” It is a list of various things men and white people can typically do with easy, and which display the systematic biases faced daily by people of color and women. One of the dynamics that is highlighted in this piece is the extent to which the ‘failures’ of individuals in marginalized groups often are applied to that entire group, while the failures or shortcomings of individuals within dominant groups are always treated as individual.
When a superhero movie or TV show starring a white man flops, nobody assumes this is a reflection of white men’s ability to successfully headline a superhero franchise. The default explanation is that it was a failing with that particular movie, rather than a problem with white male leads as such. However, when a female-led film flops, gender becomes the automatic causal explanation, regardless of any and all other factors which may have made it a washout – bad writing, bad casting, bad promotion and marketing, bad directing. Catwoman and Elektra both had subpar scripts, did not do justice to their source material and had a variety of other shortcomings, irrespective of being female-led. Of course, these same criticisms can easily be applied to the likes of films such as Daredevil and The Green Lantern, but the difference is, tepid reception of the latter pair did not slow down Hollywood’s love affair with white male superheroes. In the case of the former, it caused a 10+ year injunction on female superhero films which continues to hangs over us to this very day.
That is sexism in its purest, most transparent form.
Being able to be seen as an individual, treated as an individual and evaluated as an individual is a privilege. Belonging to any marginalized group means your successes and failures are always going to be evaluated with reference to your entire group, and they are always going to be representative of the potential of your entire group. It is always a mark of privilege to be able to succeed or fail “on your own merit” and not have to worry that someone is going to say you succeeded in spite of your race, or you failed because of your gender.
Agent Carter needs to be a success. It needs to be a success because sexism is still very much a thing, in Hollywood as in most other large societal institutions. There is an ironic meta-level to this series and to Peggy Carter as a character, wherein she must battle the sexism of her time in order to do the work she feels called to and which is exclusively male-dominated. Concurrently, her series must fight that same uphill battle of entrenched sexism 70 years in the future, in present-day 2015, as it attempts to make a dent in an entertainment genre still depressingly, excessively inhabited almost solely by white men.
Male superhero yarns can be brilliant, and they can be mediocre and they can be downright abominable, and Hollywood will continue to churn them out prolifically like clockwork. If Agent Carter is not a roaring success, all hopes for a Black Widow movie go rushing down the drain, along with any other female-led superhero movie or TV franchise still in early stages of development. Agent Carter is a test balloon, and all of Hollywood is using this one 8-episode series to pose the question “Can female superheroes be successful? Can they be profitable? Can they be popular?”
I hope that Agent Carter is good, and early reviews have made me optimistic on that front. But more than that, I hope with all my heart that this show is popular. Like break the Nielson needle, #1 trend on Twitter, overtake all of Tumblr popular. As Peggy Carter would be the first to tell you, when you are trying to break a glass ceiling this dense, it isn’t good enough to be good. You have to be twice as good as all the rest.
The show’s promotional organization was delightfully blind-sighted this past summer when their Comic Con booth ran out of female show-shirts 3 full days before the 5-day event concluded. They did not anticipate her level of popularity, particularly with female fans, who make up roughly45% of the MCU audience. With any luck, the show itself will outperform audience expectations with the same level of vigor. And maybe, just maybe, Agent Carter will help break the Elektra curse we’ve all been living under and futilely battling against for the past 10 years.
Agent Carter premiers Tuesday, January 6th at 8pm on ABC.