Thursday, May 22, 2014

Failing Feminism in the Marvel Animated Universe

Guys, it really should not be 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 part of who they are, but it shouldn't be the only thing. 

Second, stop writing female characters as having no flaws because you think you have to make up for that second X-chromosome. I get that male writers often fear accusations of sexism if they create a female character that could be seen as "weak" or "frail" when compared to male characters, but too far in the opposite direction takes away any flaws that could potentially make the character interesting.

If you want to write a good female character, the best thing you can do is give them depth. Make them 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.

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.

Of course, if there are any women or girls who find the Marvel Animation Universe's female characters empowering, I can't argue with that. So if you find these characters inspiring, then by all means don't let my opinion stop you.

But my opinion is that the men writing the MAU could be doing a better job with the unfortunately few female characters they have.

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.

The comic version of the character is a seven-foot tall, green, musclebound lawyer. She's probably the ultimate proof that no matter who you are, you can still follow your passions. Which is why, when they adapted her into the cartoon, they made sure to make her not be a lawyer.

She-Hulk (Cutaway): “…but when you’re a 6-foot-5, indestructible, green-skinned woman, your career options are limited.”

A sentiment which is... you know. The exact opposite of what the character is supposed to represent.

In the comics, She-Hulk is a pretty cool addition to the Marvel Universe. In the show, she's a flat character whose personality is defined by pointing out how much she isn't a stereotypical "girly-girl" while she's also completely robbed of her most interesting qualities that made her unique and beloved. 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 rudely 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.

Although, Black Widow 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.

And you could give the show the benefit of the doubt and say that her behavior is a result of her upbringing and training making her not the best people person. Fair enough.

However, that does not excuse the fact that Black Widow is absent from more Season 1 episodes than any other Avenger. 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 the change stick 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.

Okay. Fair enough. But that raises a question.

What's the point of her, then? Why have her in the series? What purpose does her character serve in the show's narrative?

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 and quirks. 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," and it doesn't make her into a role model, if that's what they were going for.

She's a flat character whose repeated goal of someday running Daily Bugle Media is belied by the fact that she keeps sabotaging her own attempts to even be a Bugle intern. To say nothing of how hard her "subplot" was dropped!

Since her journalism aspirations amount to nothing, and she's not involved in Peter's life apart from the incidents that happen at Midtown High... what is the point of including her at all? She's not Peter's girlfriend, they rarely do anything together outside of school, and Mary Jane's journalism subplot keeps going nowhere.

Why even include her? The Peter/MJ shippers are going to be upset that they're not together, and the Gwen Stacy fans are going to be upset that Gwen was left out of the show in favor of bringing in Mary Jane and doing nothing with her.

If you're going to include her, then include her.

Of course, Ultimate Spider-Man seems to take absolutely no interest in anything outside of Peter's superheroics. Speaking of which....

White Tiger
White Tiger 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.

Generally speaking, this seems to be more of an issue with how Ultimate Spider-Man characterizes Peter's teammates, rather than being indicative of being unable to properly write a female character.

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 weird.

But once again, the writers seem to be 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?

And I'm not saying that Aunt May has to be old and sick.

Aunt May, from a storytelling perspective, exists in order to give Peter Parker someone to care for. Even if she isn't ridiculously frail and weak, adaptations often have Peter find himself in the position of having to replace Uncle Ben by helping Aunt May pay the bills, or help her through her loneliness. That way, juggling his personal life alongside his Spider-Man duties becomes even more of a challenge. And in return, Aunt May provides support for Peter, financially and emotionally.

These two people are supposed to depend on each other to fill the hole that Ben left.

But as with Mary Jane, they've made May pointless by removing her narrative purpose.

Peter and May spend barely any time together. In fact, it seems like the writers try to find convenient ways to not include her in episodes, apart from the episodes that are about Peter comedically hiding his double life from her. So what is the point of the character when they keep finding excuses to keep her out of stories?

The change doesn't bother me as much as the fact that it looks like they completely changed the character just to have an excuse to write her out of most episodes.

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.