Let me start by explaining something simple: there is a difference between an empowered female character and a female character that looks good while throwing a punch. All too often male directors create a character that speaks funny one-liners, kicks a little ass, but is ultimately there to look good for either the male characters or a male audience. That is not what women mean when they say they want empowered female characters.
Let’s take Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad, for example. Although she isn’t a hero, she’s a major character in a superhero-genre film. I’ve been obsessed with that character since I was a kid. She’s always used her sexuality to her advantage. In the film, however, she is sexualized for enjoyment of the male audience, not because she is using her body to her own advantage. The camera slowly pans up her body as she’s in her bra, it zooms in on her butt in her barely-there shorts, and the male characters around her make sexist comments about her looks. Sure, she can fight. Yeah, she can tell a guy off. But is that the way male action heroes are treated? The way that “empowered” female action heroes are portrayed is not the same way male action heroes are. Harley is ultimately a sexy prop. I’m not saying a sexual woman isn’t empowered. It’s the way the character is presented on screen that determines whether she is being treated as an object or as a legitimate hero. Action films with female leads usually attempt to present their characters as strong, independent women but they are ultimately objectified for the enjoyment of a male audience.
Black Widow is portrayed in a similar light in The Avengers. While men that watch the movie claim that she’s badass (which she is, at moments), they don’t understand that many women watching don’t have the same experience. Black Widow is incredibly sexualized and is shown to be emotionally weak. She can kick-ass and dishes out snappy dialogue, but in the second film she’s reduced to a love-interest for Bruce and believes she is a monster because she cannot have children. The root of her character is now diminished to an emotional woman that believes her femininity is damaged. There wasn’t even any chemistry between the two characters; it’s as if they felt the need to force a romance. Natasha even offers to give up her entire life to run away with Bruce, which is so unlike her character. But she’s the woman, right? It’s as if she can’t be a fully developed character and a love interest. She has to be either/or. In actuality, a female character can have a love interest without being weakened by it. A woman can be a hero and be in love. They’re making her choose between saving the world and loving Bruce. Black Widow has so much potential, but they made her entire characterization revolve around a male character.
Wonder Woman is a perfect example of a powerful woman with a love interest that doesn’t operate under the male gaze. She is wearing an exposing outfit, but it’s her choice to wear it and it makes her feel powerful. The camera doesn’t treat her as a prop. It doesn’t slink up her body as she walks. There are no close ups of her behind. And at the same time, she owns her sexuality. She speaks to Steve in the boat about women’s sexual pleasure, but it isn’t a sexually charged scene. Actually, none of the scenes between her and Steve seem to operate under the traditional cinematic norms of an action-film romance. Steve gives her enough strength to keep fighting, but he isn’t the reason for her success. He doesn’t weaken her or reduce her to an emotional woman dependent on the male character. Their relationship is based on mutual respect and doesn’t cloud her judgement. Rather than the woman following the man’s lead, Steve learns to respect Diana’s decisions and treats her as an equal. He even followers her lead at times. The fighting scenes are filmed the same way a fighting scene with a male hero would be shown. Wonder Woman kicks ass and isn’t objectified while she does it. The film rejects the patriarchal norms of the genre and shows what gender equality actually looks like. It was a breath of fresh air for female superhero fans.
Hopefully, Joss Whedon will learn from watching Wonder Woman and his upcoming Batgirl film will operate on a similar level of respect for female characters. We’re tired of women that appear badass on the surface but are ultimately treated as props to further the plot for male characters or look good for a male audience. Times are changing, and it’s time Hollywood changed too.