In its third week at the box office, Suicide Squad finally lost the top spot to a movie where Ike Clanton pretends to be Ray Charles so he can sexually assault teenagers, and while the rapey aspects of that flick are a bit beyond the pale for me, I hope to see more films with crazy pitch-lines. But “Magnum P.I. pretends to be W.E.B. DuBois so he can throw rocks at stray dogs” is mine, so don’t even try to act like you came up with it, savvy?
Looking at the year’s current Top Ten Grosses, I’m actually pretty pleased to see how many films with prominent female leads there are; you’ve got Finding Dory, Cap-3: Civil War, Zootopia, Star Trek Beyond (whose Jaylah is my current draft pick for the 2016 All-Girl All-Stars), plus just outside the list, X-Men: Apocalypse. This is looking like a pretty. solid. fucking. year. And I’m stoked, because there’re a few more gal-forward flicks still to come this winter: we’ve already gotten a look at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and Rogue One, and I’m really hoping that Assassin’s Creed finds something interesting for Marion Cotillard to do–it’s my personal dark horse simply because the last time Cotillard and Fassbender got together with Justin Kerzel they made one of my favorite films of 2015.
By my reckoning, five of the top earners this year featured well-written roles for women. Two others didn’t really feature women prominently at all. So that leaves just two more that did feature female characters… but did a remarkably shitty job presenting them. Both of these movies were DC superhero movies put out by Warner Bros: Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad.
Batman v Superman
Honestly, Snyder’s two Superman films haven’t showcased an egregious treatment of women, just a very disinterested and trite attitude toward their being present. Lois Lane, back from her stint as one half of the completely chemistry-free romance in Man of Steel, is depicted in the very first scene here as a damsel needing rescued. Matter of fact, the idea that Superman specifically comes to Lois’ rescue is a huge part of the terrorists’ plot; Lois is a damsel, a hostage, and a Macguffin all in one! Nothing’s too much to ask of our hard-working career girl, eh? It’s okay though, because for the rest of the film she’ll be solving a mystery about bullets that has absolutely no bearing on the story, until the end when she wastes everyone’s time by misplacing a Kryptonite spear. Agency! Just as in the prior film, Lois is interminably defined by her connection/fascination/attraction to Clark. She doesn’t really do anything of consequence, and certainly nothing at all that doesn’t connect to her boyfriend in some way, yet most of their (very few) scenes together have her doing nothing but looking forlorn and distant (chemistry!). She reacts to Superman, she insists on Superman, and she serves no other function.
The other major female character, Wonder Woman, barely even meets Superman. She’s too busy kicking ass. She kicks Doomsday’s ass, she probably kicked Batman’s ass, she definitely could kick my ass and probably your ass too. She kicks all the asses and smirks while doing it, all set to an outdated electric guitar riff. She is an asskicker, de-luxe. Quick! Someone tell me something else she does! Like in that one scene where… um….
Okay, we do see Diana slink around in a sexy dress at a swanky soiree as she banters flirtatiously with Bruce Wayne–something that wouldn’t be out of place in Ian Fleming’s oeuvre–but it doesn’t really amount to anything. Other than that, she’s not really given all that much to do, outside of suddenly appearing with no explanation at the end to save-and/or-kick everyone’s ass. In fairness, Wonder Woman is intended here as little more than a glorified cameo and advertisement for forthcoming sequels, but she’s written very thinly, and I don’t know about you all but I like my Strong Female Characters written strong (and maybe with thighs to match)(I digress), and by “strong,” I don’t mean “noticeably goes to the gym.” Strength of character has nothing to do with physical displays–I mean, my running shoes smell strongly, but they probably can’t benchpress for shit. Wonder Woman is finally getting her own movie, though, and the trailer is actually kinda impressive, so maybe, maaaaaybe I can dare hope a movie with a female lead character featuring a cast of female supporting characters directed by a female director will give us something approaching well-rounded representation. No way am I holding my breath, though, no ma’am–Warners’ DC division has a knack for cutting amazing trailers for thoroughly execrable movies (see: Man of Steel, Suicide Squad)(or don’t, they’re kinda terrible).
For this one, I got to start with a few positives, because the simple truth is that while DC’s Snyderverse movies are just godawful, director David Ayers’ film entry did beat Marvel Studios to the punch in two areas: having a lead minority character (Deadshot) and lead female characters (Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller)–something Marvel still hasn’t done in any of their sixty-two MCU films (granted, they’ve already had three TV shows with a female lead, so it’s not like they’re exactly raging misogynists here).
I’m torn on how to write about Viola Davis’ portrayal of DC’s super-badass, Amanda Waller, mostly because Davis could do nothing but stare down a motherfucker and still be the baddest bitch in the room. She commands the hell out of Waller’s presence, and despite being a fairly small woman with little to physically intimidate anyone with, Davis is downright scary in the role. Confident. Intelligent. Insistent. Unfortunately, her character is written to be an absolute dumbass. I mean, it’s kind of okay, everyone in charge of the Suicide Squad is an absolute dumbass; the plan couldn’t have been more ill-advised if it hinged on the Joker giving an anti-nuclear proliferation speech at the UN. The movie is an abomination, starting with the script and spiraling out to all other facets, so despite the fact that Amanda Waller is written like an oblivious buffoon, Viola Davis really did her best with it, and I can’t fully parse anything specifically anti-woman in the writing.
Which is fine, because Harley Quinn is written like something right out the Fantasy Women for Abusive Douchebags annual short-story compilation volume (if abusive douchebags could read) (or write) (or had money left over for books after buying all those Juggalo tattoos).
I have to wonder how that pitch went down.
-“So this Harley Quinn chick, she’s like the Joker’s girlfriend?”
-“How’d they meet?”
“Well, she was his therapist at Arkham Asylum until he seduced her, kidnapped her during a prison riot, painfully tortured her, burned her with acid, brainwashed her, and pimped her out to his drug lord pals.”
-“…uh, so this is a revenge flick, then? She hunts him down and delivers the hellacious payback he deserves?”
“Even better. She is completely in love with him until the very end!”
-“Oh, because he changed his ways and treats her better? Her love fixes him?”
-“So she doesn’t even acknowledge the controlling abuse he heaps on her?”
“Not even a little!”
-“. . . . . . meh. Sounds fine. How much money you gonna need?”
“Just $150 million. And another $30 million for reshoots after we realize what a flaming sewer fire this film actually is.”
Say what you will about Marvel’s issues with female representation (and I’m sure I will at some date, they’re not perfect by any stretch), but never have they had anything close to a character who unabashedly clings to their abuser, and I’d like to think that if they did, they would at least acknowledge how extremely fucked-up and not-at-all-okay that is. Jessica Jones‘ entire first season is devoted to exploring one woman’s battle with PTSD brought on by repeat sexual assault and abusive control. Jones is, like, the anti-Harley, and she’s a much deeper, more introspective, and enjoyable character to watch. Harley’s defining traits, per Suicide Squad, are an ambivalence toward being sexually objectified and not minding getting rescued by her shitty, controlling boyfriend.
Tellingly, this blasé attitude towards crafting and developing compelling and singular female characters isn’t really anything new, for either DC Movie Universe sherpa Zack Snyder or the DC Comics arm of Warner Brothers’ Studios. Synder is the anthropoid hamfist responsible for the appallingly misguided Sucker Punch, a paean to feminism by way of hysterical onanism, as well as 300, wherein the most well-rounded female character spends a lot of time not wearing all of her toga.
The DC end of the production hardly gets off lighter, as despite how well-crafted much of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are, his female characters are underwritten plot motivators insulting to any audience member more progressive than a Baptist minister. The real tragedy is that Nolan hired three of Hollywood’s most genuinely talented actresses (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Marion Cotillard, and Anne Hathaway–with five Oscar noms between them) and couldn’t find more to do with them than… well… whatever the implausible fuck this is. (spoiler alert for The Dark Knight Rises)
The most frustrating thing for myself, as an unabashed fan of lady-centric funnybooks, is that both Harley Quinn and Selena Kyle (aka “Catwoman” for you Socs that somehow accidentally wandered onto this web magazine about manga and shit) have largely been steered in a much more progressive and singularly-defined direction on the path towards feminist territory. Harley’s relationship with the Joker in the comics (and TV shows, since Batman: The Animated Series was where she actually first appeared) has always had a few problematic elements; for starters, she was invented in the vein of one of the comic industry’s oldest chestnuts–creating a female character that’s just an analogue of an existing male character, like Batgirl or Spider-Woman or Supergirl or Hawkgirl or She-Hulk or any dozens of others. Then you have the canon origin that has a brilliant woman of science doing inexplicably stupid things because her dumb lady-brain fell in lurvvve with DC’s biggest murderous lunatic. At least the comic version of Harley Quinn eventually got wise and told her old man Mr. J (or Puddin’, if you’re nasty) to take a long walk off a short pier over a piranha fishery, since A) he was an utter bastard to her and was super fucking abusive, while Harley is a goddamn actual medical doctor and too smart to let that shit go unremarked upon, and B) she doesn’t need anyone for validation, and C) she’s in a very healthy and supportive polyamorous relationship with Poison Ivy. Likewise, the comic book version of Selena Kyle has stepped away from the tacky innuendo and cat-themed latex fetish gear and has gone to the (somewhat) good side, becoming an ad-hoc protector of her dreary little corner of Gotham City.
We can talk about what makes the DC Movie Universe a horrible mess all day long, but it all comes down to character, and it’s frustratingly obvious that in 2016, there isn’t anyone in control here that understands these characters–male or female–in any kind of fundamentally workable way. There’s no one in the DC studio lunchroom with any kind of clout who will say, “Hey, maybe write your female characters as more than a sexually-objectified plot device,” or “Yo, duder, maybe try to do more with your character than show that she’s totally okay being the victim of an abusive relationship.” Marvel doesn’t have a movie with a female lead yet (and won’t until 2018), but not only have they already produced a goodly selection of positive female portrayals in their output so far, they don’t have anything nearly as regressive as Harley or as underwritten as Lois Lane. It stands to be said, though, that even the modest levels of progressive representation that we’ve seen in DC from their comics took quite a while to refine, years even–and if you know anything about the New 52 reboot of the Teen Titan member, Starfire, you’ll know they still get it wrong to an embarrassing degree. It’s hard to expect these companies to change overnight, and some progress is notable–for example, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is a more fitting modern take than Halle Berry’s–but it doesn’t really blunt the fact that Warners’ DC wing under guys like Snyder and Ayers is either actively condoning these regressive, harmful, reductive portrayals… or they simply do not give enough of a shit to push for something better. Either way, it’s shamefully indicative of what they feel their audiences deserve.
I have no trouble saying we all deserve better.