he casting of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in Zack Snyder's Batman vs. Superman has jump-started a long overdue debate about the portrayal of women in superhero movies. And it's an especially boisterous one due to the wildly successful premiere of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a movie well-anchored by Jennifer Lawrence, who seems just as awesomely strong and heroic as her Katniss Everdeen. Poor Gal Gadot never stood a chance.
The debate has many layers, ranging from fears that Wonder Woman will be relegated to sidekick role and feminist disappointment to praise of Katniss as a feminist cinematic butt-kicker who will dramatically change the available roles for women in movies.
However, neither of these characters deserve such concern or applause.
Certainly, Wonder Woman has the potential to be a physically and emotionally strong female action hero; how big a role she will actually play is yet to be determined. And no one will argue as Shannon Houston at Hollywood does that Katniss is "multi-layered, complicated, and as honorable and brave as she is vulnerable." In fact, Houston believes Katniss is "the very type of character feminists have been championing for years."
Katniss and Wonder Woman are (and will be) welcome changes to the Lois Lanes and the other damsels in distress who have been the dominate female presence in action movies for a long time. And while they have been few and far between, there have been other butt-kicking, empowered ladies before them: Lara Croft, Lisbeth Salander, and even Ellen Ripley in 1979. And all of the ass-kicking women have something in common: They're all pretty darn attractive.
And while there may be a flurry of excitement over the proof that women action heroes are proving profitable, that doesn't mean people's, especially men's, conceptions of women are changing. David Cox at The Guardian cites a 2003 University of Washington study that shows while 73 percent of women see movies with female action heroes to "see their own gender in a powerful role," but 74 percent of men saw these movies for the female heroes' sexual attractiveness.
One may argue that men who play superheroes and action figures are also usually drop-dead handsome and uber-suave. But think of Tobey Maguire as Spiderman and Seth Rogan as the Green Hornet and then consider that Wonder Woman has to be played by a Miss Universe contestant.
What would be revolutionary in a female action hero — and is generally revolutionary in any major Hollywood female lead — is featuring someone who is not conventionally attractive or sleek and cool. Although she's a cartoon, Princess Fiona in Shrek is the kind of feminist action hero movies need more of: She's physically strong; she saves herself and loved ones; and ultimately embraces the "ugly" and "gross" aspects of herself that she never thought fit the rules.
Thankfully, Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig is planning to make a James Bond-style movie called Suzanne Cooper, starring none other than the fantastic Melissa McCarthy, an actress well known for smashing conventional Hollywood stereotypes of women. Hopefully, the movie wouldn't be all laughs, so audiences would consider Suzanne Cooper in the same category of Katniss and Wonder Woman. Except that she could kick their butts.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Why is American internet so slow?
- Don't worry: World War III will almost certainly never happen
- 22 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Watch The Daily Show mock Fox News' confused man-crush on Vladimir Putin
- Religious liberty should be a liberal value, too
- The odds are 11 million to 1 that you'll die in a plane crash
- The new bride who had a horrifying allergic reaction to her husband's sperm
Subscribe to the Week