One Step Forward, Two Steps back: The Representation of Women in Justice League (2017) and the DC Universe

When the Wonder Woman movie came out in May this year (2017), it was a triumph for the DC universe. Finally, a successful tent-pole film they can build their franchise and universe around because lord knows Superbats (2016) was a let down and so was Suicide Squad (2016).

While not the most brilliant movie ever made, Wonder Woman by Patty Jenkins gave women and little girls something to look forward to, something to invest themselves wholeheartedly in. In the furore that followed after the film’s release we got a wave of heartwarming stories of little girls stopping bullies and breaking up fights in school playgrounds and some awkward anecdotes of little boys declaring they wanted to dress up like Wonder Woman (and people wonder why women are associated with fluid/hybrid gender identities… one female superhero movie later and everyone’s worried about who little boys identify with…).

But with the release of Justice League, all the good karma the female directed female superhero film accrued has been undone.

Personally I didn’t think much about Wonder Woman, and it wasn’t until I watched Justice League that I began to appreciate all the things that Patty Jenkins did right. What was it that Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) said in Hannibal S01E01 about the copycat murder?

It’s like he had to show me a negative so that I could see the positive.

So, what did Justice League do wrong? A Gendered Reading:

The sudden sexualisation of Diana Prince a.k.a. Wonder Woman

In the hands of a male director (Zack Snyder), suddenly Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) becomes a sex object. While previously Diana Prince was described as beautiful and she was treated with respect – her upright posture spoke of her regal upbringing, and her superhero costume was about mobility and athleticism – Justice League transforms her into little more than a sex object to be perved on, possessed and owned.

Immediately apparent are the costuming choices. The sudden appearance of low-cut blouses, and tight leather clad ass shots was a little disconcerting especially because they were gratuitous and unnecessary. There’s absolutely no need to have selective focus on a woman’s ass taking up half of the foreground of a shot with a man in the background of the shot taking up the other half of the frame.

(Look at all these screenshots, where the frame cuts off your view of her blouse, just know that that neckline goes way way lower…)

This was further exacerbated by the use of low angle camera shots that seemed to be trying very hard to get upskirt footage of Wonder Woman’s ass. I didn’t realise how level the shots in Wonder Woman were until I noticed the angle and placement of Snyder’s camera in Justice League. In particular, is the scene where the four heroes alight from Batman’s Knightcrawler – what is the camera doing lurking under the vehicle getting ass shots of all four heroes but in particular Wonder Woman’s non-costume clad ass when her skirt flips upward very briefly from the force of her descent?

The other source of discomfort in the movie is how absolutely everyone hits on her. From Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) to Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) and even Alfred (yes, you read that right, Bruce Wayne’s aging butler is included in this list).

In conversations between Bruce and a very sassy version of Alfred played by Jeremy Irons, his butler repeatedly suggests/indicates/intimates/insinuates how dateable (bangable?) Diana is and how good they would look together, and how Bruce Wayne should just man up and ask her out on a date already.

In a fairly funny sequence which I won’t spoil, Aquaman just declares he thinks she’s hot. And even Barry Allen, who’s coded as the baby of the team because he’s a first-timer/ noob at this whole superhero business, gets to feel her up when he saves her from falling debris.

The cumulative effect of all of this is that Wonder Woman/Gal Gadot starts to feel like a piece of meat being dangled over a pit of alligators.

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Murray Smith’s essay on the Structure of Sympathy talks about how one strategy used to encourage allegiance (the final and most complete form of identification explicated in Smith’s essay) between members of the audience and the ideologies/viewpoints embodied by characters in a film is by having other characters, side characters with far less complex characterisation, who’ve been coded as good/heroic, espouse those same views. cyborg-flash-and-aquaman-in-the-justice-league-movie

So in the abovementioned sequences, what is Justice League saying? By having its other superhero characters repeatedly call Diana hot, it is foregrounding Diana as a sex object, an object of desire to be fetishised, looked at, and voyeuristically perved on, and nothing else.

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In essence, it is a crude reprisal of Laura Mulvey’s explanation of the Male Gaze from her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) which frankly, everyone is sick and tired of talking about! This thing was written in the 1970s and really shouldn’t be a thing anymore! Haven’t we progressed? Even Mulvey is sick of this essay… (which according to Google has been cited more than 11,000 times, just FYI).

Anyway, one more time, for the road, what does Mulvey say about the male gaze?

The camera’s gaze is coded as inherently male and the entire machinery of cinema, from its formal elements to its narratives is put together with the express purpose of containing the threat of castration that women represent. The two main strategies use by cinema to achieve this is by 1) turning woman into fetish, emphasising her role as spectacle, her to-be-looked-at-ness, and women as bearer of the look and meaning rather than maker of meaning; and 2) as an extension of the voyeuristic nature of the look which is tinged with sadism because of the power differential embedded in voyeurism, to contain her with narratives that are specifically sadistic in nature. By this, the woman is forced to change to admit defeat or accept blame in some way.

This brings me to my next point:

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Why are all the women incapacitated when the men in their lives die? You don’t see that happening to male super heroes. When girls get fridged they suddenly power up but when men die, women get broken. They don’t know how to move on. Martha Kent (Diane Lane) loses the farm, Lois lane (Amy Adams) can’t write anymore (Also, what’s up with the thirsty joke? This woman is an award-winning actress with nominations from the BAFTAs, Oscars, Golden Globes… What do you gain from making her, a grieving almost-widow, look like a hussy?), and Diana’s development and growth as a superhero is derailed by the death of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). This is compounded by the ridiculous mismanagement of the timeline! My issue with the timeline is mainly this – why is she still grieving after 100 years? Steve Trevor’s death is recent for the audience, yes, because both Wonder Woman and Justice League have been released in 2017, but the sting of loss should have long been dulled according to the timeline presented within the diegesis of  Justice League.

So Wonder Woman berated by Batman is forced to admit that she should have stepped up long ago instead of allowing herself to be broken by her grief, like it’s her fault she got bad writers.

Just to add insult to injury, Justice League also makes easy, unproblematised use of the usual binaristic portrayal of women as both heart of the team (Wonder Woman), a man’s better half, while obliquely coding her as the ultimate villain as well because this installment’s world destroyer, Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), is subsumed by his identity as “Son” and is therefore always indexical of a mother figure lurking in the background which at one point he actually calls “the mother of horrors.” He is also shown to be in constant pursuit of this episode’s MacGuffin, the “Mother Boxes.” At the end of the day, one really gets a sense that Hollywood has gone into overdrive trying to put women back in the box.

I still maintain that I’m not usually a chest-thumping, man-hating feminist who applies feminism to everything I watch/read… heck my undergrad university professor outright called me a stooge of the patriarchy once… but I can’t help but feel that this film suffers from the toxic touch of the Harvey Weinstein case. Since the news about all these powerful men in Hollywood (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, the Affleck brothers, etc.) abusing their power broke, everything has become gendered.

When I watched Bladerunner 2049 (2017) too… there was a lot of gratuitous female nudity I couldn’t make heads or tails of…

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Now more than ever, the Male Gaze that Mulvey talked about is showing… Someone needs to tell all the men in Hollywood that their slip is showing. And this is a good thing because too long have they been allowed to make films with deftly embedded sexist messages unchecked. It’s high time they did something about it. Hollywood is due for a change and unthinking, uncritical films like these only serve to undo any kind of progress or any potential for progress the entire industry seems poised on the brink of making. So, don’t let us be swept away by the flash and bang of the superhero movie, let us not be passive receptacles sitting in a darkened space to be fed the same sexist rhetoric over and over again.

Please let the next film be more than this.

Edit: a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of this video that totally backs me up 😉

And to help a friend plug a similar blogpost:

Justice League Reopens Old Wounds Adds a Few New Ones for Good Measure

 

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2 thoughts on “One Step Forward, Two Steps back: The Representation of Women in Justice League (2017) and the DC Universe

  1. Euuuuugh… Sounds like my worst fears realised.. At least as far as the film goes. DC has never known how to write women – Patty Jenkins’s WW is the first palatable one I’ve seen, but that just makes any step backwards even worse.

    Liked by 1 person

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