Opinion |

Despite Wonder Woman’s Success, the Superhero Universe Is Still a Man’s World

Comics, conventions and Hollywood still favor hypersexualized, simplistic female characters, and don't treat female fans as equals

Ariel David
Ariel David
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Gal Gadot in a scene from "Wonder Woman" in theaters on June 2.
'Despite Wonder Woman’s success, the superhero universe, from comics to fandom to movies, is still a man’s world.' Gal Gadot in a scene from "Wonder Woman".Credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP
Ariel David
Ariel David

The Wonder Woman movie, released to glowing reviews and an estimated $100 million in box office receipts in the U.S. for the first weekend alone, has been hailed as a milestone in the representation of women in pop culture and film franchises based on comic book heroes.

Some of the enthusiasm is justified. It is, after all, the first time in her 75-year-old history that Wonder Woman stars solo in a major Hollywood production, while countless male counterparts of equal popularity – from Spiderman, Batman and Superman to much less storied characters like Ant-Man and Deadpool – have been headlining their own blockbusters for decades.

Wonder Woman, starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot as the eponymous Amazon princess, is also the first major production centered on a female superhero in more than a decade, following flops like Catwoman and Elektra in the 2000s.

But let’s not get carried away.

Wonder Woman’s occasional feminist quips and impressive fighting skills cannot hide the fact that, as a whole, the comic book universe remains a male-dominated world that often marginalizes women or, at best, struggles to include them as equals.

This is evident in both the industry’s creative output and its outreach to female fans (or lack thereof).

Although research shows that between 25 percent to nearly half of comic book fans are women, this rising demographic is often ignored by those in charge of creating new stories or selling them to the public.

Ahead of Wonder Woman’s release, questions were raised over the apparently low-key marketing efforts for the film – compared to the massive campaigns for other recent superhero movies, like Suicide Squad, or for products whose release is still months away, like Justice League.

This led some commentators to suggest that the studio didn’t really know how to market a movie that could appeal widely to a female audience – a demographic erroneously considered non-traditional and uninterested in superhero stories.

Of course, in light of the enthusiastic reviews, it's possible to conclude that the studio simply decided to save a few dollars on marketing, knowing it had a good movie on its hands that would rise to box-office success on its merits alone (unlike, for instance, Suicide Squad).

But then, how to explain that one of the few product tie-ins sponsored by Wonder Woman has been a diet biscuit

One wonders which Mad-Men-style marketing executive was pulled out of the 1950s to promote a character who is supposed to make women feel strong and empowered by linking her to the incessant pressure over body image that society foists upon women.

'Women characters continue to appear as one-dimensional, hypersexualized characters to satisfy male fantasies.' DC cosplay 'bunnies' at London's "MCM Comic Con". May 27, 2017.Credit: DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

And as usual, when it comes to women’s bodies, nothing is ever perfect enough. When first cast as Wonder Woman, even Gadot, whose unattainable fashion model physique was set up as an example for those potential diet biscuit consumers, was criticized by fans who claimed she was too skinny and flat-chested to take on the role. 

Yes, there was controversy when Ben Affleck was selected to play Batman too, but that criticism largely focused on his acting skills, rather than his body and the size of his chest.

In fact, it seems that these days any increased female presence in the world of all that is geeky, both as characters and fans, is met by an ugly backlash originating from the darker corners of the Web. There were complaints of “discrimination” for the women-only screenings of Wonder Woman at an Austin, Texas theater; there was the organized campaign against the all-female cast of the Ghostbusters remake; and in 2014 there was the violent harassment of prominent female figures in the gaming world as part of the infamous Gamergate controversy, a testing ground for the mass-trolling methods now commonly used by the alt-right.

Of course, such campaigns are initiated by a small minority of fans, but they do reflect a broader culture that views the comic book universe as one that should remain a largely male-only club.

This is also shines through in the depiction of female superheroes. Though women in comic books and movies are no longer just damsels in distress, in many cases they continue to appear as one-dimensional, hypersexualized characters that satisfy male fantasies with their impossibly bodacious bodies, skimpy outfits and high heels more suited for a strip-tease show than battling an arch nemesis.

Challenging the dichotomy of weak victim or flawless, invincible sex goddess? Latifa, a Saudi super woman character, at the first Saudi Comic Con, Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Feb. 17, 2017Credit: STR/AP

To realize how distorted and demeaning the depiction of the female body can be in some comics, one only needs to glance at the Hawkeye Initiative, a blog that pokes fun at these illustrations by creating images of male superheroes striking the same ridiculous poses and wearing the same revealing outfits found in the adventures of female superheroes.

And although these modern-day pinups have muscled up and have superpowers of their own, their stories do not necessarily make readers or viewers feel stronger and empowered. In fact, some research suggests that watching movies that include female caped crusaders does not increase beliefs in gender equality among young women and can have negative effects on their body image as they compare their own physique to those of the statuesque actresses who perform their extraordinary feats onscreen.

In other words, the transformation of female comic characters from weak victims in need of a savior to flawless, invincible sex goddesses just substitutes one stereotype for another. Female superheroes should be more than cardboard characters that promote unattainable standards. The likely solution is to do for them what has already been largely done for male superheroes: make them into more diverse, layered, all-round characters, expose their vulnerabilities, explore the problems of their everyday lives and how these affect and get entangled with their crime-fighting activities.

This has been achieved to some extent with some recent character evolutions: Spider Woman has had a baby via artificial insemination (while fighting aliens) and has faced the dilemma of whether she should continue her superhero life while raising a child; Jessica Jones is a hard-drinking, super-strong private eye with a history of abuse and a difficult childhood; and the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel is a teenage American Muslim who tries to reconcile her different cultural identities, while exploring her newfound superpowers and hiding them from her strict parents.

While Jessica Jones has starred in a successful TV series, such complex characters have yet to make an appearance in mainstream Hollywood productions, where so far there is no female equivalent for the ethical quandaries of the brooding Batman and the guilt and teenage angst of the young Spiderman.

Such depth is essential to modern fans, whether male or female. It is only when superheroes are shown as real, flawed people that we can truly relate to them, and be inspired by how they manage to transcend those flaws and face with courage the same challenges we deal with in real life – all while still finding time to kick the ass of mad scientists, killer robots and assorted villains.

Ariel David is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz. He worked for five years as correspondent for the Associated Press in Rome, covering Italy and the Vatican. Follow him on Twitter: @arieldavid1980