Thursday, May 22, 2014

Failing Feminism in the Marvel Animated Universe

Guys, it's really not that difficult to write a strong, female character. It doesn't matter whether or not you can identify third-wave feminism from Third Edition D&D.

First of all, "female" is not a defining personality trait. Characters should no more be defined by their gender as they are by their race. Yes, it's a big part of who they are, but it shouldn't be the only thing. 

Second, stop writing female characters as having no flaws to make up for that second X-chromosome.

"Feminist" characters aren't overly tough. They're not perfect. Feminist characters are written to be three-dimensional, with quirks, faults, and foibles. They might mess up. They might be greedy, or kind, or smart, or stupid, or anything as long as they have some kind of characteristics other than being female and/or flawless.

How do you properly write a female character? Write them like a human being.

Marvel's current animated series are having... issues writing their various female characters. To be fair, that's indicative of the writing quality as a whole. However, I get the feeling that the female characters in particular give them trouble. Let's take a look.

F-Minus. See me after class.
First of all, I apologize for my continued harping on this character, so I'll make it brief.

In the comics, She-Hulk is a well-rounded character with quirks and flaws, like any other. She's a superhero lawyer, and a darn good one. She's unique, and a pretty cool addition to the Marvel Universe.

In Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H., she has no flaws (at least, no intentional ones), and everything she does seems to either reinforce female stereotypes (like being excited about parties and the mall), or attempt to refute those same stereotypes to the nth degree. In their attempt to make her tough, they've robbed her of her personality. She has no personality here; she's defined by how idiots think feminism works.

Black Widow
Black Widow from Avengers: EMH was great. She and Hawkeye had a long-standing espionage subplot that complimented both characters well, and she was presented as a three-dimensional character with flaws, fears, and actual personality.

In Avengers Assemble, though, she's been hit with the same problems as She-Hulk. In their attempts to make her tough, they've made a character who does nothing but criticize the others and get into childish fights with Hawkeye. Although, to be fair, all the other Avengers have lost their character depth as well.

Actually, Black Widow, as poorly as her character is written, did get a chance to shine in "Hulked Out Heroes." Her conflicting loyalties, coupled with an admittedly well-handled one-episode character arc, made her one of the more well-developed characters in the series. Unfortunately, sometimes, she doesn't even show up for some of the episodes. Ostensibly, she's off working for S.H.I.E.L.D., but I get the feeling that the writers don't know what to do with her sometimes, what with her two X chromosomes, and ovaries, and everything. It doesn't say good things when the only female character fails to show up for more episodes than any other character.

Mary Jane Watson
Over in Ultimate Spider-Man, MJ got hit with this hard.

First of all, she's not Peter's love interest. It was established in the first episode that they kissed at a young age, found it icky, and have just been friends ever since. The writers have even flat-out stated that the two aren't getting together. (Cue fan backlash.) Basically, they made Mary Jane, for all intents and purposes, asexual in order to avoid making her a stereotypical damsel in distress. I don't think I'm alone in saying that's a little extreme.

So, what's the point of her, then? Why have her in the series? Simple. She's a Brand X Lois Lane. Apparently, becoming a fashion model/actress (like every other version of the character) is too stereotypical, so they ripped off Lois Lane by making her a reporter wannabe.

The thing about Lois Lane, though, is that, once again, she has humanizing flaws. Lois Lane is a terrible speller. She takes Jimmy Olsen for granted sometimes. She can be sarcastic, grumpy, playful, etc. Mary Jane is always locked in "gotta get the scoop" mode, 24-7. It doesn't make her look "determined" or "tough," it makes her look like she needs a chill pill. Not only that, she repeatedly outlines her plans to someday run Daily Bugle Media. Note that she has failed on multiple occasions to even be a Bugle intern. The show's attempts to make us say "You go, girl" are only making us say "Chillax."

White Tiger
The same problems with She-Hulk and Black Widow, yet again. Only this time, the character flip-flops between apparent utter disdain for Peter Parker (as do Peter's other teammates, but that's another story) and big-sisterly, good-natured ribbing, which is welcomed when it shows up. She's a better character than some of these others, but a far cry from perfect. 

Aunt May
This isn't your typical Aunt May. She's young, hip, and doesn't actually need Peter to take care of her. Heck, she freakin' snowboards. It's like giving Mother Theresa an AK-47. It's just wrong.

Again, they're so afraid of falling into stereotypes that they completely missed the point of the character; Peter's supposed to be responsible for her. Great power, and all that. But what did that hack Stan Lee know, right?

Aunt May, from a storytelling perspective, exists in order to give Peter Parker someone to care for. That way, juggling his personal life alongside his Spider-Man duties becomes even more of a challenge. Like with Mary Jane, they've made the character pointless by removing her narrative purpose.

All in all, the Bechdel Test isn't all that these shows fail. The female characters are terribly written, conceived, and realized. And really, there wouldn't be a problem if the Marvel Animation writers (looking directly at you, "Man of Action") would just realize that female characters are allowed to be as three-dimensional and developed as the male characters.

It really just boils down to this: Women are people, too. Write them like people.


  1. Well SOMEBODY wasn't paying attention to the comics. It's pretty jarring when you remember that this was from the same creative team as Generator Rex. What the heck happened to that kind of quality?

    - That One Anon

    1. I guess they're better with original series than adaptations?

    2. Generator Rex was based on a comic. I pin all this on Jeph Loeb.

  2. These issues have been present in Man of Action's writing since the original Ben 10. White Tiger is basically just an older clone of Gwen but with ninja training rather than magic.

    1. Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Ben 10 or Generator Rex, or any of their other work.

    2. Not ENTIRELY familiar. I'm familiar with both versions of Big Hero Six, as well as some of their other comics work.