The evolution of female superheroes has been a long and varied journey, one that has seen these characters go from being sidekicks and love interests to fully fleshed out, complex, and powerful heroes in their own right. From the earliest days of the superhero genre, female characters have played a variety of roles, and their portrayal has changed significantly over time. In the beginning, female superheroes were often depicted as being weaker or less capable than their male counterparts.Today, female superheroes are an integral part of the genre, with many popular and well-known characters that are known for their strength, courage, and ability to hold their own against their male counterparts. This evolution reflects not only the changing attitudes towards women in society, but also the increasing recognition of the importance of diversity and representation in the media.
Evolution of Female Superheroes
In the past
Before World War II, the role of hero and protector was seen as a male responsibility. However, during the war, American housewives demonstrated their capabilities by taking on physically demanding jobs that were typically held by men. This proved to be a crucial contribution to the Allied victory. The experience of playing such a vital role during the war left a lasting impact on women, who were reminded of their ability to be heroes.
During the 1980s, the options for animated series featuring female superheroes were limited. The only notable examples were Sue Storm from Fantastic Four, who could turn invisible, and She-Ra, the sister of He-Man. To understand the history and evolution of female superheroes, it’s necessary to go back to the 1940s, when most superheroes were male. This was during World War II, and the need for a female superhero emerged as women played a crucial role in supporting men during the war and taking care of things at home while soldiers were away.
The creation of Wonder Woman, who was able to perform tasks on par with men, was influenced by the “wonder” attitude of women during World War II. Princess Diana of Themyscira, an Amazonian princess raised by her mother and aunts on an island where men were not allowed, used her lasso of truth and an invisible jet to defeat villains. After the war ended and soldiers returned home, women’s roles shifted back to traditional responsibilities such as caring for children and managing the household. By the mid-1970s, Lois Lane and Vicki Vale gained prominence in the comic and entertainment industry, but were portrayed as sidekicks to Superman and Batman respectively.
There has been significant growth in the representation and popularity of female superheroes in the present compared to the past. In the earlier days of the superhero genre, female characters were often portrayed as weaker or less capable than male characters, and were frequently sexualized. However, in recent years, there has been a shift towards more diverse and complex portrayal of female superheroes, with many popular characters that are known for their strength, courage, and abilities.
Scarlett Johansson made her debut as Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2010’s Iron Man 2. Black Widow, the MCU’s first female superhero, has often been sexualized in the comics, with her tight catsuits and low-zipped necklines. In the film, Natasha Romanoff is introduced as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who infiltrates Stark Industries to monitor Iron Man. Stark is immediately smitten with her, and his secretary and love interest Pepper Potts warns him that she could potentially be a costly sexual harassment lawsuit. While Black Widow is depicted as a formidable character, the film also portrays her through the male gaze, including a scene where she changes into her catsuit in the back of a car while Happy Hogan ogles her in the rearview mirror. Victoria Alonso, a producer on Iron Man 2 and now the Executive Vice President of Production at Marvel, has admitted that the sexualization of Black Widow did not sit well with her, but she was unable to change it at the time.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, while director James Gunn did a good job of developing Gamora as a character, the movie still focused on Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, making Gamora primarily a potential love interest. For the sequel, Gunn tried to improve his portrayal of women, and many praised the diverse array of female characters in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula, noted in an interview with IndieWire that the film’s women were not just “badass” and “super strong” but also well-rounded. Behind the scenes, Marvel seemed to be becoming more aware of their issues with female superheroes, even as their TV shows, such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix series, made strides in their portrayal of women.
In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, another one of Marvel’s more sexualized characters in the comics, Scarlet Witch, was introduced. Director Joss Whedon had to warn Elizabeth Olsen about Scarlet Witch’s costume, saying, “when you go home and Google her, just know that you will never have to wear what she wears in the comics.” Scarlet Witch was a unique superhero in that her powers were magical, marking the first time a female Marvel character had been portrayed as powerful in a way that was not purely physical.
Despite Marvel’s efforts to move away from a sexualized portrayal of Scarlet Witch in the comics, they still sexualized the character to some extent in the films. Elizabeth Olsen, who played Scarlet Witch, expressed frustration about the low-cut outfits she was required to wear, noting that other heroes seemed to be improving over time with more modest costume designs. Olsen pointed out that costumes in superhero movies are meant to create iconic images rather than represent the average woman.
Black Panther and Captain Marvel were groundbreaking for Marvel in their development of female characters in a fresh and empowering way. Marvel quickly pushed these new superheroines to the forefront, highlighting Shuri’s intelligence, which surpassed that of Tony Stark, and Captain Marvel’s status as the most powerful person in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These films present a vision of Marvel’s future that embraces the potential of female superheroes, incorporates elements of Afrofuturism and feminism, and largely moves away from the male gaze. In Black Panther, T’Challa relies heavily on the women in his life for guidance, technological support, and assistance in battle. The Afrofuturistic world of Wakanda values equality between men and women, a principle rooted in the real history of pre-colonial Africa. This is exemplified in the Dora Milaje warriors, who are based on the Dahomey Amazons of Dahomey, West Africa (now the Republic of Benin).
The better representation of female superheroes in recent years is not just limited to costume design, but also includes improvements in scripting and cinematography. For example, WandaVision centers on a woman grappling with trauma and grief, and Black Widow deals with themes of women fighting for agency and autonomy. The problematic male gaze that has often been present in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also decreased significantly due in part to the increased presence of female directors and members of the production team.
Victoria Alonso, a member of Marvel Studios, sees the release of Black Widow as a chance to reflect on how far the studio has come in terms of representation. In her view, Black Widow was only able to be made now, and not a decade ago when fans first started requesting a solo movie, because the climate has changed. Alonso explained that in the past, she would not have been able to have discussions about sexism with her director and see those conversations reflected on screen. She believes that Marvel Studios is now actively working to avoid objectifying women, which has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe stronger as a result.
Evolution of Female Superheroes