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Sex and the Single Superheroine

I’ve never seen Catwoman, but I’m sure it’s a wretched film. It looked bad enough from the previews, and critical consensus seems to have placed it somewhere between Robocop 3 and An Allan Smithee Film Burn Hollywood Burn in the annals of catastrophically bad films.

In fact, I think it’s quite right to point out that Catwoman is only part of a series of lame, derivative superheroine-exploitation flicks that have been coming out lately, and that Hollywood has been pumping trash into the cinemas on the completely mistaken assumption that formulaic flicks about sexy superheroines are just as guaranteed to produce box office smashes as past hits such as Charlie’s Angels and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. So I find it hard to disagree with Christina Larson at the Washington Monthly when she points out that after the success of a few films featuring women with superpowers, Hollywood overreached. Studios didn’t pause to figure out why audiences loved action heroines. Instead, they rolled out a formula that pandered to all of the wrong instincts. True that. But I find it a lot easier to disagree when Larson goes on, apparently, to inform us that the problem isn’t that the flops were formulaic and derivative–it’s that they used the wrong formula. The mistake, you see, was for Hollywood to give the anonymous gendered masses plots and characters limited by the narrow criteria of sexual titillation and choreographed fight scenes–when they should have been aiming to give them plots and characters limited by the narrow criteria of self-confident sex appeal to men, immense worldly success, and a distinct lack of inner conflict.

So, also, we are told that Hollywood needs to realize that the first crop of warrior women won a following because they were strong, smart, and successful in addition to being sexy. Men wanted them, and women wanted to be them. Who needs a a richer selection of superheroine films that deal with the many different ways complicated women in extraordinary circumstances might relate to the world? Why not just kvetch about Catwoman’s contempt for men or Elektra’s grim life: her personal magnetism doesn’t measure up: She’s a gloomy assassin who suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and OCD. Plus she hates her job but can’t–or won’t–figure out what else to do with her life.

Now, Peter Parker, of course, was an angsty teenaged boy who hated his life and couldn’t–or wouldn’t–figure out what else to do with it for quite a while in Spider-Man 2. Sure, the film also included a lot of glorious spectacle and comic-book battle scenes. But its real narrative arc was a pretty somber, inward-directed reflection on loss, duty, and sacrifice featuring a geeky boy whose life as a superhero was steadily destroying his friendships, job, studies, and, oh yes, his aborted love life. The hero is nervous, moody, socially isolated, and filled to the brim with male teen angst. The movie worked, really worked, and it was fantastically successful at the box office to boot.

On the other hand, The Punisher tried to adapt a notoriously dark comic featuring a sociopathic antihero whose survives as an empty shell, living only on a consuming lust for vengeance, which fills scene after scene with remorseless death and suffering. The Punisher was a box-office flop, and by most accounts a pretty bad film.

Of course, neither of these films is mentioned, either as a point of comparison or of contrast. Nor do we hear anything in particular about whether superhero movies smash box office records or disappear without a trace when they are about the psychological journey of afflicted heroes. But of course that’s because they involved boys, and since boys’ gender is invisible, there’s no need to try and piece out what the particular successes of Spider-Man 2 or failings of The Punisher mean for the prospects of any and all films that happen to feature a male superhero. Ah, but throw a pair of breasts into the mix and suddenly we have a Gender Issue to sort out. And what better way to sort out a Gender Issue than to make up a list of arbitrary rules for women’s conduct? Take this oneplease!

  1. Do fight demons. Don’t fight only inner demons.
  2. Do play well with others. Don’t shun human society.
  3. Do exhibit self-control. Don’t exhibit mental disorders.
  4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don’t wear fetish clothes.
  5. Do embrace girl power. Don’t cling to man hatred.
  6. Do help hapless men. Don’t try to kill your boyfriend.
  7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don’t look perpetually sullen.

— Christina Larson, The Washington Monthly (March 2005): Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make

So let’s review. (1) Whatever the conditions of your life, stay bright-eyed and confident all the time. (3) Don’t weird out on us. (4) Dress sexily, but don’t be a slut. (5) Embrace something that vaguely resembles feminism, unless it vaguely resembles the kind that makes boys squirm in their seats. (2), (6)-(7) Good God woman, whatever you do, ensure that you are both sexually available and unthreatening to men at all times. And so there you have it: an advice column for superheroines, straight from the pages of Cosmo, passed off by the Washington Monthly as a piece of cultural criticism.

It’s not that I mind articles which seriously explore the double-standards that men and women are held to in our culture. There are lots; sometimes they occur in weird places; and it’s worth spelling them out. But it’s worth spelling them out critically; if there is such a narrow formula that Hollywood priorities are forcing superheroine flicks into then that’s as good a reason as any to demand better, richer films about women with extraordinary powers.

But no; that would require thinking that audience tastes when it comes to gender and sexuality are complex, or–horribile dictu!–that it’s possible for them to change over time and acquire a taste for something more than the standard formulaic fare that you and I have been fed so far. But the worst thing you could possibly suggest about gender and sexuality in the mainstream culture is that they might be complicated or changeable.

So what matters is not that Catwoman was a wretchedly-written film or that Tomb Raider 2, like most sequels (not to mention most video game flicks), was derivative hackwork. It’s that they involved women who weren’t pleasing to the gaze of an anonymous, immutable, and male-defined audience. Any possibility of criticism must be stifled as quickly as possible, and the best way to do it is to present yet another manual for the sexy single superheroine to achieve success by resorting to every simplistic gender cue available. In other words, we have another opportunity to give a lecture–not to filmmakers to stop producing sleazy, also-ran hackwork, of course, but rather to fictional women, to ensure that they remain young, pleasant, and sexually available to the male gaze. Because that’s all the anonymous mass of boys can stand and all the anonymous mass of women want. Or something.

God only knows what they would do with a superheroine who happens to be a homicidal lesbian terrorist.

4 replies to Sex and the Single Superheroine Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Trix

    I enjoyed this article, but I think some of your points are weakened by your not having seen the movie. You say, “In fact, I think it�s quite right to point out that Catwoman is only part of a series of lame, derivative superheroine-exploitation flicks”. How do you know? Other than the crap reviews? You make the point that Spiderman wasn’t just an action flick; perhaps you’re selling this one short as well (likely not, but the point is, you don’t know).

    Otherwise, thanks for your site, I enjoy it.

  2. the.akaneko

    Oh, but Catwoman IS every bit as terrible as everyone has heard. It’s a little sad how desperately it TRIES to be feminist, and TRIES to present a sympathetic main character with a deep-seated inner conflict, but, alas, then it fails by sucking horribly in just about every way.

    Not to mention the bizarre choice of making a movie titled “Catwoman” that is about A “catwoman”, not THE Catwoman. >_Oh, but Catwoman IS every bit as terrible as everyone has heard. It’s a little sad how desperately it TRIES to be feminist, and TRIES to present a sympathetic main character with a deep-seated inner conflict, but, alas, then it fails by sucking horribly in just about every way.

    Not to mention the bizarre choice of making a movie titled “Catwoman” that is about A “catwoman”, not THE Catwoman. >_<;

    If for some reason you find yourself stuck watching this movie, it’s bearable because Halle Berry does absolutely kick ass even in a role as awful as this one, but some of the scenes will make you cringe from the sheer depth of cheeze you find yourself wading through.

  3. Rad Geek

    Trix,

    Thanks for your kind words. As far as your worries about my statements on Catwoman go:

    How do you know? Other than the crap reviews?

    Well, people I trust (both reviewers and personal friends) all tell me that it was god-awful, and I think that’s good enough grounds for saying that I know it’s awful. There’s tons of things that I don’t (can’t) know about the movie without having seen it, and it’d be irresponsible to try to write some kind of extended discussion of Catwoman specifically without going through that ordeal myself, but my beef is with Larson here, and Catwoman only comes into the picture as a particularly catastrophic example of the kind of film that superheroine movies that Larson and I disagree about. If all that makes sense, I figure that knowing (from reliable sources) that it’s wretchedly written, exploitative, more or less incoherent, etc. is enough for the limited use I put it to.

  4. Trix

    That’s fair enough; I understand that the movie is just a launch-pad for your wider comments, which I fully agree with, btw.

    And yes, from what I heard, this movie will be a “if-there’s-nothing-else-to-do” DVD rental for me. If that. :-)

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