With my child reaching the advanced age of four and a half I am having a harder time keeping him on the television designed for very little people, and he is starting to ask for the stuff with superheroes in it. I haven’t shown him any of the live-action Marvelverse movies, and probably won’t for a while, but I am allowing him a drip feed of some of the cartoon versions. This means watching him make the transition from TV full of gentle stories about making friends and being responsible to TV that is mostly about hitting people. As much as this gives me pause, I have been drawn in against my better judgement to the X-Men and their anti-normative struggles. I am even finding the animated series of The Avengers to be something I don’t hate. There are several fantastic conversations going on at the moment about sexism in geek culture, and I am right behind every person who is agitating for change. Just at present, however, I am being given an unexpected insight into the positives of these forms of storytelling.
Because there are two kinds of change we need in the representation of women in fiction: seeing a woman at centre of the story, and seeing women (plural) filling up the frame. When we watch Mulan, as refreshing as it is to see a story about a girl, as long as she is doing anything active or heroic she is surrounded only by men. On this score, the X-Men are offering more than that irritating zebra, Zigby, Thomas the Tank Engine, Rory the Racing Car, Bob the Builder, or even the Octonauts, in which two of the eight core characters are female, but the storylines invariably centre on the antics of their male counterparts. I get so weary of watching TV shows designed for young children, named after a central male figure with one or maybe two female characters obviously inserted because somebody told the show creator they have to have them.
One of the first episodes of Wolverine and the X-Men we saw showed a telepath watching a mother clutching two crying toddlers begging a traffic cop not to give her a ticket. The telepath worked some mojo and the cop ate the ticket and wandered off. Both the telepath and the cop were women, and my thought was, how often in children’s TV do I see three women in the frame like that, with no male gaze present, just functioning as ‘people’? How often does ‘cop’ get to mean a woman?
This general spirit may even be creeping over into the phallocentric world of the action movie. In the movie version of The Avengers, as Alex Cranz has observed, a failure to pass the Bechdel test is not a automatic fail for women: “But you know what The Avengers did have that sets it apart from other films, and particularly other Bechdel failures? It had women in many small supporting roles usually reserved for men. Women flew planes and manned computers and gave orders.” However many problems feminists may have with Joss Whedon, where he excels is in thinking of women as half the people who make up the world. The X-Men movies have their high and low points, but I was surprised and gratified when I heard a female voice in a fighter jet instructing the heroes to land or be blown out of the sky.
Obviously this is a simplistic take on the topic. There is plenty to discuss about why I am prepared to treat less than 50% representation as acceptable, about the comparative sexualization of male and female costumes, about Wolverine still being the one at the centre of the story, about how Wasp was dropped from the Avengers movie during the script drafting stage. But if I am hoping for progress, that is what I am seeing.
On Blue Milk’s recent post about Brave, Tamara told us that her daughter ‘can hardly think of anything to draw besides princesses’, because the stories she has to look at offer no alternatives. If she were to watch an episode of X-Men she would almost certainly see Storm, Frost, Rogue and Shadowcat, all in one go; and probably also one or more of Domino, Mystique, the Scarlet Witch, Dust, Polaris, or Christy Nord, plus a few whose names I didn’t get, and although Jean is currently coming out of a coma somewhere, I suspect we will be seeing more of her before the series is out.
During a complicated story thread in the animated version of The Avengers, Ironman was captured by Black Widow who took him to see Nick Fury, who was backed up by Mockingbird and a woman I didn’t recognise whose role was to be Fury’s sidekick. This meant that the room had two men and three women in it, not because anyone had planned for women to dominate, but simply because that happened to be the way it fell out. When the Avengers fly in their fancy jet, my son sees Ms Marvel (and I notice she is ‘Ms’) pilot it, even when there are male heroes available. Just seeing Wasp have a night in with Carol, or Rogue share a coffee with Domino might act to forestall his little brain developing the habit of assuming that a room filled only with men is ‘normal’.
We still don’t see as many female characters as male, and some of, through not all, the women’s costumes are sexualized in a way I find a bit iffy. But after watching an episode I am just as likely to hear my son say, ‘she has cool powers’ as ‘he’, so for now I’m calling that a win.