Marvelous Hypocrites: Sexism in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Author: Jordan Sickrey

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most popular movie franchises ever. It has had fourteen movies released thus far and has another nine planned (three released every year for the next three years). It also has the tv shows that air on ABC: “Agents of SHIELD”, which is in its fourth season, and “Agent Carter”, which was cancelled after two seasons. It has the show “Inhumans” which will be airing in 2017. Beyond that, it has the Netflix Original series that include: “Daredevil” (renewed for Season 3), “Jessica Jones” (renewed for Season 2), “Luke Cage” (renewed for Season 2), “Iron Fist”, “The Defenders”, and “The Punisher”. There is also a Freeform series called “Cloak & Dagger” in the works for 2018. They are also preparing for pilots to be done for even more Marvel.

However, this success has always been built by stepping on the female characters. For the purposes of keeping this relatively short, I’m going to keep this strictly in the movies. The treatment of female characters in the Netflix series and ABC shows is a whole other matter, which I would go into, but I won’t. It’ll make this much longer than necessary.

Now, people may ask “Why are you attacking Marvel? They make great movies! The TV shows are fantastic!” This is fairly true. The movies are interesting and visually pleasing. Some of the arcs on the TV shows are really well done. The visuals on the shows are just as stunning as the movies, even without the larger budget.

However, again, this does not mean that they cannot improve. The main thing that needs to be improved is the treatment of the female characters. Without further ado, let’s move into the unfair treatment of how the women are treated in the movies.

Case Study 1: Betty Ross

Betty Ross is a woman who has only ever been in one movie, and it is a movie that most people tend to forget is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That movie would be The Incredible Hulk from 2008. Betty Ross has a PhD in cellular biology and was shown working at Culver University. She is the daughter of General Ross, though he appeared to have been promoted in Captain America: Civil War (2016).

Betty has not been talked about at all since The Incredible Hulk. She was so important to who Bruce Banner is as a person, but she has not even been mentioned once since her appearance in 2008. She was the first person to ever break through the Hulk’s mind. The Hulk was not mindless when it came to Betty Ross. Yet, she just disappeared. Even after Bruce appeared to be able to control the Hulk after the events of The Avengers (2012), there was no mention of him even calling her.

Now, her storyline is revolving around Bruce. However, Betty Ross was not just the love interest. She was able to assist a fugitive and help him escape, and she fought against her father—a general—to protect him. She was no limp noodle. She was her own character who made her own choices and stood on her own two feet. Her story did revolve around Bruce in The Incredible Hulk, but her character was not only there for Bruce.

And Marvel just made her disappear. She was already 30 or 31 when The Incredible Hulk came out, and Hollywood has problems with women who are 35 or older, which she would have been when Bruce and Hulk returned in 2012 with The Avengers. So Marvel just quietly pretended she never even existed.

Case Study 2: Pepper Potts

Pepper Potts was a very divisive female character. Many people have a problem with Gwyneth Paltrow, which bled over into them not liking Pepper. However, by many other people, she was a beloved character. Her devotion to Tony was one of many admirable qualities, especially because Tony Stark is not an easy man to deal with.

And, Pepper has never been a prop for Tony. After all, she became the CEO of Stark Industries. She often helped Tony save the day, twice delivering the final blow (Iron Man in 2008 and Iron Man 3 in 2013). She always knew what was going on, and she knew how to command the arena.

Yet, after Iron Man 3, she stopped appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She was mentioned, very briefly, in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) where Tony was bragging about her to anyone within earshot—mostly because Thor was bragging about Jane, and Tony confessed that he and Pepper were “taking a break” in Captain America: Civil War (2016). There appear to be no plans to bring Pepper back, even though she has been an important link in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, through the three Iron Man movies and The Avengers.

Why is this? Well, after Gwyneth’s last appearance in Iron Man 3, she was 41. This is “old” by Hollywood standards, and Marvel could not see why they would keep her around. She had served her purpose with helping Tony on his path, and they wanted to move on to the conflict between him and Steve for Captain America: Civil War, so while she was mentioned in the movie, it was only to mention that she and Tony had broken up. Which is ridiculous, because she is canonically the CEO of Stark Industries, so she should be there in some capacity. Especially if the Avengers’ home base is in NYC, because it makes sense that Tony wouldn’t want to be too far away.

But, no. Civil War needed Tony and Steve to both be at their lowest and most desperate, and that includes getting rid of the woman that has always stood beside Tony when he needed someone.

Case Study 3: Jane Foster

Okay, just going to preface this with some honesty: Jane Foster is my favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And I am extremely bitter about how the franchise and the fans have treated Jane as a character and Natalie Portman as an actress.

Jane Foster is arguably the hero of the Thor franchise. The first Thor movie in 2011 was framed as her movie, just as much as it is Thor’s. The movie starts and ends with Jane Foster, and it is centered on her work as a theoretical astrophysicist. Thor is just the hot byproduct that fell out of the sky and proved that she was right about her life’s work. She and Thor are equals in a way that they push each other; they support each other; they put each other on the right path. Their interest in each other forms naturally, and it only comes after Jane realizes that Thor is also incredibly smart.

However, Jane is not relegated to just the “Love Interest” role. She has agency and power and helps the plot move forward. In the first Thor, literally nothing would have happened without her. Thor would have been wandering around New Mexico forever and a day and never learning what it means to be Worthy.

Of course, she should have been in The Avengers (2012). Dr. Selvig being the one to work on the Tesseract was completely unnecessary. It was Jane’s work that focused on the possibility of life outside of Earth. Jane was the one who believed that there could be other dimensions out there. So, it should have been her that worked on the Tesseract with SHIELD. But, no. She was whisked away to be kept safe in Norway–more like Marvel wanted to keep her out of sight–but they still felt a need to drop a small mention, given that her potential romantic partner and her mentor/father figure were both in the movie.

And then in Thor: The Dark World (2013), Jane is again the one who is responsible for saving the world. It is her knowledge of astrophysics and the way that she tweaked Dr. Selvig’s equipment to work with the Convergence that saves them. Thor just uses his muscle to keep the bad guys distracted long enough for Jane to do her thing. And, we finally get to see Jane and Thor be together.

Jane is not a typical “Love Interest”, either. She is nerdy. She does not dress for the male gaze. She dresses practically and comfortably. She has red rain boots on for the entirety of The Dark World. She even tries to move on from the hero after he’s been gone for two years. (Of course, everyone tries to hate on her for pining for Thor when they forget that Thor was pining just as much if not more.) She is not sexualized in a way that nearly every other female character has been. (Pepper in particular, as she was in a sports bra and yoga pants for about the last quarter of Iron Man 3 (2013).)

But then she too disappears. She is mentioned along with Pepper in Age of Ultron, as Thor brags about how Jane is up for a Nobel Prize. But then the Marvel heads decided that Thor needed someone who was more of an equal. As if Jane Foster, who saved the world with him twice, who stood up to Odin, who survived with an Infinity Stone in her bloodstream for days when it was proven by Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) that Infinity Stones are incredibly dangerous, wasn’t equal to him. Just because she couldn’t fight. Even though she does. She never runs away. She does all she can in both Thor and The Dark World to stand with Thor and do the right thing. But, Natalie Portman will be 36 this year, and Thor: Ragnarok apparently has no room for her. The off-screen break up and subsequent disappearance of Jane Foster is among the biggest tragedies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Conclusion

Now, I only looked at three characters out of the many women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I mean, we all collectively pretend that the Bruce/Natasha romance that was shoehorned into Age of Ultron (2015) didn’t happen, right? The way Natasha was compared to a monster due to her forced sterilization was just cringe-worthy, and the entire plot made no sense.

Not to mention Laura Barton who was only there as a “Love Interest”, and who did not seem to even exist prior to the movie, because Marvel did not even hint at her existence until suddenly they were on a farm and Clint was kissing her.

Then in Civil War, they blamed Wanda Maximoff and treated her like she was unstable and dangerous even though she is still just a child. She generally has a lot of control over her powers, and the deaths that were caused on that mission were definitely more Steve’s fault than Wanda’s.

I could go on and on and on, because there are so many Marvel women who got the short end of the stick. Helen Cho, Maria Hill, Sharon Carter, Maya Hansen, Queen Frigga, Lady Sif…the list goes on.

Marvel may say that they are being inclusive. Marvel may say that they are not just catering to the men. However, it shows when the movies effectively kill off or phase out women. Apparently women can only be fun and exciting when being “one of the guys”, which is the new template for Valkyrie, who we will get to meet in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

I used to love Marvel. But they really need to stop saying that they are inclusive and show that they are inclusive. They need to bring back Betty Ross and Pepper Potts and Jane Foster. They need to take the time to really make sure that the women are characterized as well as the men. They need to stop killing women just to further a man’s story (Maya Hansen and Queen Frigga are among the casualties).

The Marvel company is nothing more than a group of sexist men who want money. And they need to stop promoting themselves as something that they are not. Marvel is nothing more than a group of marvelous hypocrites.

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