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Gender Politics and 'Batman v Superman'

Can’t we just dislike superhero films because of their mind-numbing VFX rather than their misogynistic misuse of metaphorical phalluses and vaginas?

Warner Bros.’ long awaited DC Comics superhero epic Batman v Superman: Dawn of the Justice League hits theatres across the globe tomorrow, undoubtedly headed towards massive box office receipts despite the huge amount of critical drubbing it’s already taking in the press. 

I haven’t yet seen the film, though I’ve read quite a bit about it from a variety of mainstream and comic book fan media websites. Since part of my job at AWN is to try and make sense of topics and perspectives that are relevant to our industry, a calling that seems to get more and more perilous and difficult each day, I spend considerable time perusing a vast array of media sites to see how they cover things near and dear to my heart.

What I find more often than not are netizens armed with formidable digital weapons doing battle without shame or compassion – anything goes, as long as it generates attention.  With so many voices competing for eyeballs and web traffic on so many digital platforms, journalists (I use that term loosely) are pitted against each other in an aggressive online maelstrom that relentlessly vies for clicks. Pop culture is a common feeding ground for website page churn, and the big studio blockbuster film offerings such as Batman v Superman are like chum in shark-filled waters – swim at your own risk.

Case in point -- Yesterday, I happened upon a curious article in The Guardian penned by columnist Zoe Williams:

“Pow! This isn't Batman v Superman. Whack! It's Wonder Woman v Supersexism”

“It is billed as a battle between two giants of spandex. But Batman v Superman could also mark the dawn of a new feminist icon. So how does Wonder Woman compare to the guys in capes and pointy ears?”

After reading Williams' piece, I immediately felt lost - normally, I consider issues of gender politics in comic book superhero movies as often as…well, I honestly never consider issues of gender politics while watching DC superhero movies. Or any movies. Ever. I’m not thinking Batman has body armor while Wonder Woman’s breasts are barely covered, and this is just all completely predictably fucked up male-dominated sexist narrative drivel. I’m just thinking, “Right, how much longer will Superman and General Zod destroy old town USA before the director is convinced he’s shown they’re indestructible and moves on to something more interesting?”

The article’s primary observations and positions, as far as I can tell, are focused primarily on the disappointingly predictable male domination within superhero narratives, and specifically, on the film’s poorly constructed characters of Lois Lane and Wonder Woman. Williams starts off her piece digging deeply into an analysis of the film’s underlying gender politics:

“What are we to make of the gender codes in Batman v Superman? Is it confused or certain, modern or prehistoric? To reach a clear conclusion, I might have to tell you the end, or at least flesh out my analysis that the lasso in the final battle is a metaphor for the omnipotent but non-lethal vagina.”

She assesses the film’s sexism with the same criteria she claims we should use to assess a person, namely, according to established methods:

“Everyone knows how to adjudicate the sexism in a normal film: do the women have agency, or are they perpetually needing rescue? Are the women naked more often than the men, for no clear reason? Does it pass the Bechdel test – do two women have a conversation in a film about something other than a man?

Upon these foundations, you can begin to adjudicate the film as you would a person, weigh it up for sleaziness, slut-shaming, the whole busy toolkit by which women are undermined; although then you get into the territory of “does the film think that, or just the character, and is misogyny actually conceived as a slur on that character in order that he might ‘go on a journey’?”

She claims Lois Lane’s character breaks no new ground:

“Lois isn’t woeful, but breaks no molds in terms of what she brings to the narrative; her sex appeal is built around peril, and her intimacy is in her helplessness.”

With Wonder Woman, she writes that the opportunity to usher a new feminist icon into the Justice League narrative is lost in yet another sexist superhero movie…though not completely:

“…she has a show-stopping cleavage, unleashed to maximum effect in a series of asymmetrical clothes whose only internal logic is to make sure you can see her breasts but her neck is covered…”

“Plainly, it will take more than Wonder Woman to smash the patriarchy, but she’s a start.”

With almost 800 comments posted on the article, as you can imagine, commentary has been quite varied -- some more thoughtful than derogatory, much of it wittier and more interesting than anything I was able to come up with on my own. Some highlights:

Group 1: Williams is right, or at least, worth reading.

  • “I have no interest whatsoever in seeing this film but from what I have gleaned from trailers and from reading this article, what Ms. Williams has written is far more interesting. I would even suggest the article generated more thought than the Warner/DC picture could possibly warrant.”
  • “Batman vs Superman...Brain dead America strikes again. They put Wonderless Woman in because most 'men' that watch this tripe can't really stand to be away from their porn sites for more than an hour otherwise their fragile hold on male superiority is threatened.”

Group 2: Williams is wrong, and here’s why.

  • “Strong female characters have been mixing it equally with the boys for decades. Within the Marvel Netflix series, which are aimed at adults: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and more to be released. There are many nuanced characters: male, female, rich, poor, white collar, working class, black, white, straight, gay, old, young - so many in fact, it would be hard to list them all here.”
  • “Deconstruction of a work filtered by gender theory does not necessarily enlighten the audience about the subject but rather overtly displays the ideological preoccupations of the reviewer.”
  • “In the modern era everything seems to have become a canvas for projecting one's own beliefs rather than judging a film on its merits. This critique essentially consists of answering the question: does this movie display the gender portrayal I personally approve of? Artists do not create works to pander to anyone's beliefs and prerogatives, they do it to satisfy their own creative desires (tempered by studio commercial considerations).”
  • “I love Zoe Williams, I really do - when she is writing about politics and economics. I'm a bit surprised by her foray into the superhero world, and despite her level of intelligence and articulacy, I find this article somewhat confused and a bit beside-the-point and not quite in touch with how men and women (and gays and straights) are treated in the most modern superhero comics. We have to accept that they have a history, first, from more simple and sexist times. We also surely have to accept that it is normal, not perverted, to enjoy great human bodies in exciting adventures - there's nothing sexist/anti-feminist about that statement, as it applies to looking at Hugh Jackman and Jason Statham as much as Wonder Woman or Sandra Bullock or whomever…Relax, superheroes are great stuff - they're not about injustice and exploitation, they're about people who can do fantastic things but (generally!) choose to do good things rather than misusing their abilities. Superman is the ultimate moral concept - someone who could rule the world as an unbeatable tyrant, but stays modest and truthful and saves the innocent. This is not about getting tangled up in modern hypersensitivity about ‘gender issues.’"

Group 3: Williams is way off base in her perspective:

  • “You've never read any comics have you?”
  • “You might be overthinking your analysis of a comic-book-film about a fight between a super alien and a man who dresses up as a giant bat.”
  • “I'm actually bored of hearing every film review done through an undergraduate gender-studies class.”
  • “I’m sure the world’s feminists will all sleep soundly tonight now they have Wonder Woman as their new icon.”
  • “Zoe, I’ve read this twice and I can’t work out if you are being ironic or serious – either way it made my head hurt. Was the film any good?”
  • “Fantasy superhero movie doesn’t reflect societal normal - *shock*.”
  • “A feminist skewering of megastudio adaptations of comic books written for teens, which originated in the 40's and 50's. Shooting fish in a barrel much?”
  • “A bit like discussing whether Fruit Loops have any real nutrition.”
  • “Literally the daftest thing I've seen all week. Superman has no weapons, does that mean he has no genitals?!”

Group 4: These were just plain funny.

  • “I’ve already seen BvS but not at the cinema. The movie had XXX after the title and Wonder Woman is a wonder to behold.”
  • “Why the heck do Superman and Batman wear capes? What's with that? Are they just stylin' it? Who would imagine that Batman and Superman are slaves to fashion?”
  • “It’s quite sad if every time someone sees an object it is either phallic or pudendic. I guess it makes trips to the supermarket more interesting. Damn those patriarchal vegetable aisles, it’s donuts for me.”
  • “Only angry repressive cat ladies would find a problem with a beautiful woman expressing her femininity.”
  • “Is it a bad sign or a good sign if the comments are far more interesting than the actual article?”
  • “No we are not required to view a lasso in the same way a disturbed mind does. The lasso is there for bondage fetishists, that's why it was there in the first place – ‘look the women dressed like a patriotic dominatrix is going to tie you up and punish you!’ DUH. Do these "experts" ever bother to read stuff they comment upon? Or is reading source material ‘part of the patriarchy’?”

As someone who cares deeply about the art and craft of animation and visual effects, I’ve come to appreciate the incredible amount of brilliantly executed and mostly unrewarded work done by talented artists toiling away in tiny cubicles crammed together on dimly lit floors of non-descript office buildings literally dotting the globe.

I’ve also come to appreciate that a surprising amount of the movies, TV shows and commissioned work they produce, from a storytelling, creative and entertainment perspective, is just plain awful. They know it. I know it. We all know it. Nothing earth-shattering there.

But if we force ourselves to view everything on big and small screens through the filter of gender politics, will we ever be satisfied with anything we’re watching? Doesn’t that take the joy out of loving a show, or bagging on it mercilessly, just because we think it’s great or it sucks within the context of the work itself?

Can’t we just dislike superhero films, or any show for that matter, because of its mind-numbing VFX or lack of originality rather than its misogynist misuse of metaphorical phalluses and vaginas? Must we judge all our entertainment by who wins the philosophical battle between men’s and women’s genitals?


Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.