Why I'm Taking a Break from Superhero Movies

I briefly mentioned the not-so-great Star Trek: Into Darkness last week. Shortly after, I came across this article in which writer Damon Lindelof apologizes for the gratuitous scene of Alice Eve in her underwear. Then, in his defense, he mentions that Kirk was shown in his underwear in both movies.

The fact that Lindelof follows up his apology with a moment of defensiveness almost negates it for me. Yes, sexualization of both women and men is a problem. But we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples in a culture where women are much more likely to be seen as mere sexual objects — props, if you will — than men. And this is especially true in the Superhero genre. The shots of Kirk in his underwear were used to advance his “character arc” (dubious as that might have been) as a “playboy,” a more explicit rendition of something that has galled female fans of Star Trek for generations. With that said, they don’t fall under the definition of “gratuitous” (i.e.: doing nothing to advance the plot) because of that. In both Kirk’s “underwear shots,” he was in bed with women — which also provides ample “reason” for his state of undress. In the Alice Eve shot, she was simply changing her clothes — something that she could have done offscreen without anything being lost.  A shot of a woman changing clothes does nothing to advance her character arc, unless as she does so she discovers her midriff becoming covered with scales. This was merely a “reboot” of the gratuitous scene in the first Star Trek movie, wherein Kirk hides under the bed while we watch Uhura change her clothes, giving us that film’s gratuitous shot of partial female nudity. Also, let’s not forget that the sexualization of male images, which usually includes bulging muscles and toned waistlines, implies strength and physical prowess, whereas the sexualization of the female form implies lack of nourishment, which may be one reason these women often find themselves weakened enough to become damsels.

While I appreciate Lindelof’s apology and certainly hope he will follow through on his promise to “be more mindful in the future,” the article left me more angry than placated. I grew up on Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, and Gargoyles. I like the escapism of the superhero genre. But I no longer find myself wanting to “escape” to a place where women are portrayed as objects — I can get plenty of that in real life. The truth is, I am tired of “just ignoring” the rampant sexism in superhero movies in my attempts to enjoy a fast-paced story with sci-fi elements. (I know that Star Trek doesn’t technically fall into the “Superhero” category, but I think we can all agree that this frat boy, rebooted series is very much in line with emo Spiderman and Young X-Men).

How do I get myself into these situations?

I’m tired of the way the tension was ruined for me in Spiderman 2 by the sexualized shot of Mary Jane in chains with all its allusions to bondage and sexual victimization. I’m tired of Bruce Wayne taking women to bed but refusing to be straight with them about who he really is (and I’m also tired of him only sleeping with women who have no personality or canned personalities). I’m tired of the general consensus that Tony Stark’s womanizing behavior is “amusing.” (And if I were Pepper, I would dump his sorry ass faster than he could say, “I’ll be home late tonight!”) I’m tired of seeing the smart, competent Moira McTaggert, Charles Xavier’s worthy love interest, disguised as a stripper. In short, I’m tired of women appearing in these movies as though they are one more nifty accessory, like a Batman’s “batarangs” or Green Lantern’s Power Ring, just another perk of being a superhero.

Boys and men can flock to these movies for the rush it gives them to identify with the hero as he goes from “nobody” to “savior of the world” in two hours. Women, like me, are left with fewer choices: identify with the woman, who is portrayed ambiguously at best; identify with the superhero character who interacts with women as though they are props to be alternately saved, kissed, or deceived; or just try to push it all away and enjoy the cool special effects.

On second thought, don’t bother coming back when you get this “superhero” thing out of your system.

I tend to go with option 3.

But reading the somewhat disingenuous “apology” from Lindelof brought all my resentment about these portrayals bubbling back to the surface. And I realize I am really, really sick of it — really sick of having to compartmentalize myself into either the person who likes a good superhero flick, or the feminist who can’t help critiquing the portrayal of women in said flicks. The truth is, in a culture where one in four women is sexually assaulted by the time she reaches adulthood, reducing women to the role of objects does matter.

So, I think I’m taking a break. I’m going to refrain from supporting Superhero movies with my hard-earned money for a while. Or if I do go, I’m going to go ahead and let myself be angry, let myself point it out and vent about it in the parking lot. This will doubtless annoy people who think I’ve “ruined” the movie. But disregard for their female characters has ruined these movies for decades. We deserve superheroes, too, and the crop of busty, scantily clad sheroes and sidekicks just doesn’t cut it.