Wednesday, May 13, 2015

At Least They Don't Call Her "Girlie" Anymore

(Above is one of my top favorite comic-book panels of all time. Natasha Vs. the Man-Bull!)

So, the Internet is ablaze with people who are angry at Marvel for the shortage of female superheroes in their movies and their treatment of women characters. That means every OTHER studio in the world is giving us loads of movies about women superheroes, right?

Just looking at the past several years of films based on DC comics, who are the women characters? Not the superheroes -- just women characters in the movies at all. I'm a huge fan of Christopher Nolan's first two Batman movies, and I don't think he should have shoehorned in women characters just because, but in them, the only female character of note is Rachel Dawes. (There's Ramirez and Mrs. Gordon in Dark Knight, and the Russian ballerina, but I wouldn't call them major characters). The third movie adds Selina Kyle and Talia al Ghul. All three are involved romantically or sexually with Bruce Wayne, and none of them qualify as superheroes.

In two recent Superman movies, there's Lois Lane and Martha Kent. Zod had a female compatriat in Man of Steel, much like Sarah Douglas played back in the '80s, but I literally forgot about her. There's the Silk Spectres in Watchmen, who actually are members of a superhero team. And I guess there was a girlfriend in Green Lantern.

In the 1990s, the Batman films gave us Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Batgirl; prior to Alicia Silverstone’s character in ‘97, you have to go back to 1984's Supergirl to find another female superhero.

On the other hand, since the X-Men films were launched in 2000, what's Marvel done for us, as far as getting women superheroes and super-powered villains on the big screen? Some are more successful than others in the execution, just like the male characters. But overall, let's see ...

There's Rogue. Jean Grey. Storm. Mystique. Emma Frost. Black Widow. Scarlet Witch. Sue Storm. We can count Elektra, if we want. Then there's all the kick-ass women agents (S.H.I.E.L.D. and CIA): Maria Hill and Peggy Carter, who are both fantastic. Moira MacTaggart. Scientist Helen Cho. Steve Rogers' neighbor, Kate, who's both tough and ethical. On the TV tie-in, there's a whole crew: May, Simmons, Skye, Bobbi, Raina, and Jiaying: some good, some bad, some with super powers, some just highly skilled agents, all major characters.

 If we add in important female characters, like we did with DC, we get Pepper Potts and Jane Foster. And Darcy! Seriously, when is she going to get recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D.?

 Oh, yeah, and there’s Gamora and Nebula and Nova Prime, as well.

It's true that Marvel has put out more superhero movies in the past few years than DC, and with that, we might expect more female-centric films, and more screen time for those female characters. I agree, that would be great. But again: where's the equivalent of the The Expendables with Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton? Where's the equivalent of the Taken franchise with a female lead? The perception (probably based on number-crunching) that action movies are more bankable with male leads is spread all over the industry, not something that Marvel or Joss Whedon made up in a vacuum just to be jerks.

Speaking of the TV shows, I hope that everyone railing against Marvel’s treatment of women watched Agent Carter, an excellent series with a strong female lead (not to mention women producers and some women writers), supported by Marvel with high production values and extensive promotion. Despite that, the ratings were definitely underwhelming, and we’re lucky to be getting a second season.

So who are we pissed at again?

We should certainly feel free to critique women's roles in the media, but the amount of nitpicking going on seems disproportionate. Which doesn't really encourage companies to include more female characters. Maybe they'll be perceived as not worth the trouble, since nobody will ever be happy with them anyway!

I'm going to add that even if the Marvel movies did absolutely nothing else good with their female characters, throughout all their movies, I would still give Age of Ultron my highest marks as a feminist for one particular plot element. SPOILER! But seriously, you should have seen Ultron by now.

In this film, we belatedly learn something about Clint Barton (a.k.a. Hawkeye): he's really a happily married dork with two kids and another on the way. What that means, in the context of both Avengers films, is that he and Natasha's relationship is crystal-clarified as colleagues and close friends (at one point, she calls him her "best friend"). They are absolutely loyal to each other and have each other's backs. We saw this in the first film when Coulson pulled her into action with the simple words "Barton's been compromised," and in the second, each has a moment of deep concern for the other's well-being. At his house, it's obvious she's been there many times before. His kids hug her familiarly, and it's clear that she's also friends with his wife, Laura, who knows something big is up because she's never seen "Nat" look so rattled. Not only is nothing going on between Natasha and Clint -- not even a secret longing on one side or the other -- but there never has been. No romantic past gotten out of the way before they could be friends, which is a dynamic we've often seen.

Frankly, this plot development is awesome. Depictions of friendship between men and women, without some sort of relationship angst raising its head, are rare in movies. In Googling for other examples, the best similar one I found was between Veronica and Wallace in Veronica Mars.

Another note: another criticism I've been seeing, that started in an Entertainment Weekly article states that Natasha has been a significantly different character in each movie, and the headline implies that's because they have "no clue what to do with her." Yeah, she's a different thing in each movie … in the same way that Michael Weston was a different thing every week in seven seasons of Burn Notice. She’s a master spy! It's true that, just like Michael, she’s unrealistically capable: go undercover with a false identity? Fly a plane? Defuse a bomb? Kill a bad guy? Sure, why not? But they’re no more unrealistic than, say, James Bond, and he doesn’t worry anybody.

Come to think of it, if Michael lived in a universe with superhuman abilities and alien technologies, he’d be a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. I can just imagine his and Sam's sarcasm on having to work missions with the bow and arrow guy.

But overall, Natasha's character seems plenty consistent. She's part of Nick Fury's inner circle on the Avengers Initiative, either as a liaison with super-powered people (using her psychological spy skills) or as a field agent (using her physical ones), or, more often, both.
The role, as such, that she plays in the team varies depending on the needs of the mission, just like Hawkeye's does, and just like Coulson and his agents on the TV show. The only difference is that she is loosening up and "being herself" more, as she develops more relationships with people she trusts, like Steve in Winter Soldier, and Bruce in Ultron

In Iron Man 2, she was first seen for a long stretch of the film in a persona that had been crafted for the sole purpose of appealing to Tony Stark. That's a tricky choice to introduce a character with, but the contrast paid off when the real Natasha was unveiled in a kinetic action scene that perfectly established what she was capable of, and would have been a big surprise to people unfamiliar with the comics. In The Avengers, her approach to Banner, a man with deep-seated and entirely justified paranoia about government agents, was completely different, as it should be. Instead of going undercover to infiltrate his organization, she met him in an isolated location and told him upfront what the situation was.

Natasha's particular story arc, taken from the comics, is about her breaking free from her conditioning. This didn't happen in the vague, sloppy way we're all conditioned by our societies and acclimated to their norms, but, with the directness of comic-book scenarios, she was literally conditioned, more or less brainwashed since childhood to turn her into a particular kind of person. She fulfills this role for some time, but eventually breaks free of it, and changes sides.

In doing so, she doesn't become a pacifist or anything. She continues to use the skills she learned as part of this conditioning, but for purposes that she chooses to support.

To me, this is a glaringly symbolic feminist message. Everything in your upbringing may have taught you what you were supposed to be, without taking your individuality into account. And all of that social training was to benefit others, particularly those with power, not to benefit you. Maybe we all wouldn't look so cool in tight-fitting leather, but we can all choose to shake off conditioning that isn't in line with our real values. And if anyone says we're too smart for our goods, we can (metaphorically) kick their asses.

So that's today's thoughts on the Great Natasha Controversies. There may be a follow-up post on Black Widow in the '70s. If you're good ...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Imaginary Guests, DC Edition

Current unexpected obsession: the CW hits Arrow and The Flash. These are shows I never thought I'd watch, much less love, but here they are, hitting exactly the right marks I want in "comic-book" entertainment. (Yikes, archery-related puns!) The fact that we have these on TV, and the Marvel movies, at the same time, kind of blows my mind.

Since these shows have been bringing in various characters from the DC universe, I've been trying to decide who I most want them to pull from the back pages as guest stars. Keep in mind I'm only midway through Arrow's season two, just in the unlikely case I've already gotten a wish and don't know yet.

My top choice would be Chloe Sullivan. She was created for Smallville, but since she has backstory with their alternate version of Oliver Queen, her presence would be awesome. Even as an Easter egg, I'd be happy. In lieu of (or in addition to!), a guest appearance by actress Allison Mack would be equally welcome, especially if she were playing a drastically different character.

Next, I've got a tie between Buddy Baker (Animal Man), and Zatanna. What's great about them is that they could work on either show. On The Flash, with all their meta-human shenanigans, they could turn up in their flashier, superhero versions. Over on Arrow, they could be stripped down to more "realistic" essences: Buddy as the family man and animal rights activist who thinks he has a special rapport with animals, and whose idealism might get him into trouble, and Zatanna as a professional stage magician (maybe performing at a Queen Consolidated function?), whose seemingly "real" mystical powers could be based in science, trickery, or hypnotism.

I also keep thinking about the Martian Manhunter, but I'm not sure either show is quite ready for him yet!

Friday, April 24, 2015

"There's a chance you may be in the wrong business"

"It’s about money. It’s always about money. 'Money before people,' that's the company motto. Engraved on the lobby floor. It just looks more heroic in Latin." -- from Better Off Ted

The last few days, I've seen a lot of re-posts of articles on the absence of Black Widow from The Avengers: Age of Ultron marketing: t-shirts, action figures, etc. Here's a couple of basic overviews, from io9, Vanity Fair, and the Mary Sue.

Brouhahas like this always create conundrums for me, because I am a feminist, and I would like Black Widow on a t-shirt too, as long as it was a cool one. But I always end up feeling like I -- conscientious objector to the system that I am -- have to explain how modern capitalism works. The problem isn't with Marvel/Disney's marketing divisions. The problem is that we're in a system in which consumerism is seen as the primary means of social engagement, and the ultimate demarcator of value. We have defaulted so much to this idea, and become so immersed in this environment, that this seems completely natural to us.

Unfortunately, our consumer culture cannot be those things, whatever values we ascribe to it. Because that is, very specifically, not its job! In this case, providing strong female role models would be a very nice thing. But Disney's merchandising division isn't there to do that. It exists to generate obscene profits for a large corporation.

A more detailed Mary Sue article says  that "My demographic (female) was already giving them money anyway, with Disney Princess purchases. Even now, there’s no incentive to make more Marvel merch for women, because we already buy Brave and Frozen products." All true. But she prefixed her remarks with this: "I’d entered the comics industry because I was a comics fan. It hurt to see so plainly that to Disney, people like me didn’t matter."

Of course we don't matter! We've never mattered. Disney is a giant soulless conglomerate (not an insult, just a fact). Whatever the law says, a corporation isn't a person; it doesn't have feelings; and it doesn't care about any of us -- up to the point at which obviously not caring starts to impact sales, and then it pretends that it does. Individuals at Disney might care, but they aren't going to "matter" either. It's always about money.

The Vanity Fair article sums up: "It seems pretty clear that Disney doesn’t think boys are interested in female heroes and, even worse, that little girls don’t care about action heroes at all." But I doubt that this is based on a gut feeling on Disney's part. And I don't think there's a supervillain in a boardroom, rubbing his hands with glee over perpetuating institutionalized sexism. I'm sure there's lengthy, expensive testing, sales demographics, focus groups, and projections of all kind. There's a lot of anecdotal evidence about people who'd like to buy more merchandise with female action heroes on it, and I'm sure that's true. But it's probably also true that if they run the projections based on all their research, and the dollar amount is below a certain threshold, they won't even consider it. Maybe they could sell millions of Black Widow action figures, but if they think they can sell billions of Iron Mans, it's not worth their while to pour the plastic.

It's easy to forget how big these figures are. For example, the movie The Book of Life was supported by a surprisingly large marketing push, and sadly, all that cool stuff was in the bargain bin really quickly, because the movie wasn't a big hit. What's not a big hit? It opened third in its weekend, and (according to the Wikipedia), made a total amount of $95,347,255. Ninety-five million is a lot of money to me. But the biggest hit that weekend, Brad Pitt's Fury (which, frankly, I forget ever existed) made $211.8 million. The second-biggest, Gone Girl, went on to make $368 million. I also just saw an article that ratings for this year's Grammys were way down -- only 25.3 million viewers.

25 million people is a disappointment! That's the scale these movies are working on, and they're small potatoes to Disney. According to this article in Variety, Disney's licensed merchandise raked in  "$40.9 billion in global retail sales in 2013."

By contrast, the largest comics distributor, Diamond, has stated that the "OVERALL North American Dollar Sales for Diamond's Comics, Trade Paperbacks, and Magazines for 2014" is "around $540.4 million." That's for Marvel, DC, and everybody else put together. That kind of money is nothing to Disney.

Similarly, I doubt anyone purposefully planned all the Disney Princess B.S. with the intent to undermine diverse roles for women. Little girls like princess crap, and their moms and aunts and grandmothers like to buy it for them. If antiquated gender roles sell, that's what's going to be available. That's exactly how the system works. Sadly, marketing and society do reflect each other, so the more toys that reinforce the gender roles, the more those gender roles influence toys. So the people who are mad at Disney aren't wrong; it is a problematic circle. But again: that's how the system works.

Of course, the profit-motive isn't always the only factor at play. Public perceptions and public pressures do play a part, and can encourage companies to hold to more socially-conscious standards. If encouraging strong female role models will serve long-term goals, or create good enough P.R., it might be worth their while to do that. So I'm not saying that people who really want to buy Black Widow merchandise shouldn't let somebody know. There's a reciprocity between buyers and sellers; they won't sell what we won't buy. Consumer choices can influence what's available to us. But even if we get to the point where we have "all the toys" (little shout-out to Natasha there), we'll still be enmeshed in a system that judges everything by its dollar value.
Does Disney sincerely believe that little girls don’t like or want action figures? Or that little boys might not be interested in adding Black Widow to their action figure assembly to properly complete the lineup? Not to mention all the adults of both genders who collect action figures, too. Girls and women need to see themselves represented not just on screen, but off as well, and it’s unfair and insulting to exclude Black Widow from merchandising — and it sends the message that she’s not an equal part of the team.

Read More: Black Widow Gets Left Out of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Merch |
Does Disney sincerely believe that little girls don’t like or want action figures? Or that little boys might not be interested in adding Black Widow to their action figure assembly to properly complete the lineup? Not to mention all the adults of both genders who collect action figures, too. Girls and women need to see themselves represented not just on screen, but off as well, and it’s unfair and insulting to exclude Black Widow from merchandising — and it sends the message that she’s not an equal part of the team.

Read More: Black Widow Gets Left Out of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Merch |
Does Disney sincerely believe that little girls don’t like or want action figures? Or that little boys might not be interested in adding Black Widow to their action figure assembly to properly complete the lineup? Not to mention all the adults of both genders who collect action figures, too. Girls and women need to see themselves represented not just on screen, but off as well, and it’s unfair and insulting to exclude Black Widow from merchandising — and it sends the message that she’s not an equal part of the team.

Read More: Black Widow Gets Left Out of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Merch | 
Now obviously, decisions aren't made solely on the profit-motive; there are public perception issues, and long-range goals, which providing strong female role models may be part of. Public pressure can be put on companies to act more in alignment with higher social values. But in the end, you don't generate billions in sales by being altruistic. If you did, public libraries and homeless shelters would be gold mines. 

Yeah, what was that thing I was saying about values and social engagement? Well, I'm as obsessed with the Avengers as anyone (and let me tell ya, those Watergate issues of Captain America and the Falcon I've been reading are FANTASTIC!), but consumerist toy merchandising probably isn't where we should be making our stand for women's rights. To do that, we probably should be paying attention to our boring legislative sessions, which don't get nearly the attention in social media. And in general, we need to figure out a way to have cultural engagement, and put value on things, apart from what anyone wants to sell us. I'll admit I don't really know how that would work in this day and age, but I'm open to suggestion.
it’s still annoying — not only is her role in the film just as important as those of her co-st

Read More: Black Widow Gets Left Out of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Merch |