As an action movie lover and feminist, I feel strongly about the representation of feminist themes in big box-office narratives. Feminist themes make better, fresher narratives and incorporate emotional intelligence (the part that makes viewers actually think and feel). Not only is it important to represent progressive themes, but box-office hits have a bigger responsibility to do so. Their impact on social culture is huge.
Captain America is a character who should represent equality in all aspects of the word. After all, he represents the American dream. Standing up for the little guy. Taking action to help others.
Cap embodies a lot of these values. Granted, he’s got bigger fish to fry than social injustice, but his whole character is centered around those values, and I’d like to think of him as a feminist. The movies, however, still have a way to go on that front.
Captain America: The First Avenger
On my list of favorite Marvel flicks is the origin story of Captain America. The story starts with a present day discovery of a huge ship in a large expanse of ice, before flashing back to WWII where young, scrawny Steve Rogers is trying desperately to get into the Army and assist the war effort.
One of the first feminist notes is when Steve is accepted as a great candidate for the super-soldier project, even though he is the smallest, weakest of all. He was chosen, instead, for his commitment to helping others and seeming emotional intelligence.
When the scientist doctor is contemplating letting Steve into his program, he asks him, “Do you want to kill Nazis?” The answer I expected was, “Yes.” The comic cover of Captain America punching Hitler in the face came to mind. But Steve’s answer was much more thoughtful. “I don’t want to kill anyone. But I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.”
We learn a lot about Steve’s character from that line. Many masculine films gloss over thoughtful contemplation to get straight to the action. Steve doesn’t just want to get in the action, he demonstrates a responsibility to help those in need.
Peggy Carter is the only notable woman in the film. Her character is fantastic (and now I need to watch Agent Carter), however, her appearance is unrealistically attractive. Her figure is slim, her lipstick never smears, her hair is bouncy, and her winged eyeliner is always on point.
Peggy never needs saving and puts her work in front of her love interest (Steve, of course). She is intelligent, tough, and dedicated, and for that, she’s a fantastic character, lipstick and all.
This is a film set in the 1940s when sexism was much worse than it is now, so there are several moments that are sexist. However, considering the time frame it portrays, this film is outright feminist. A woman secret agent? Impossible!
Aside from that, we don’t see any women who aren’t really there for anything but their looks. Bummer, but I get it.
Feminist Rating: 5/10
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rogers is firm in his beliefs of freedom, which calls into question his trust in SHIELD when he finds out about their upcoming surveillance tech that calculates individuals who are perceived threats, and, subsequently, takes care of those threats.
Of course, Cap is always right, and SHIELD is being influenced by a still-present Hydra, which seems to have just toned it down a notch from a shouted two-armed salute to an occasional ear-whisper of “Hail Hydra.”
So Cap and his cohort-and-sometimes-therapist Black Widow do some secret agent work. For all the good in this movie, Black Widow’s sometimes-flirting is a real drag. It’s like she’s suddenly interested in Steve now that he’s the only guy in the room. But more than that, the films just can’t resist making her soft and sensitive in addition to her cold, seductive prowess. There wouldn’t be a problem with that, except it contradicts the cold-blooded secret agent she’s supposedly trained to be. If she’d been trained to deceive and mask emotion from childhood, and on into her career where her life absolutely depends on it, she wouldn’t be likely to show much to her teammates either, even if she truly has the hots for them.
OK, but that’s not all that bad. Giving a woman her own thoughts and emotions are better than objectifying her, no matter how much you get the nagging feeling those emotions weren’t created by a woman.
But speaking of objectification, let’s look at that promo photo. Again, Black Widow is the object of the male gaze, hair swish, guns impractically held out of the way of her body, all while seemingly strutting a catwalk, hips in sway. Thankfully, the film itself isn’t bad about objectifying Black Widow, but promotional materials speak volumes about how the character should be viewed.
Moving on. Before Steve is a fugitive of SHIELD, he has this little side conversation with the neighbor girl, who is objectively attractive. She’s got that round-faced, bright-eyed purity that you’d expect from a girl next door. But NO! Steve quickly finds out that she’s a secret agent too! Hired to keep an eye on Steve!
Obviously, I don’t have a problem with women agents, but do all the ones who have a slightly important role in these movies have to be smoking hot? Can we have a woman who’s maybe average-looking, possibly a little chubby, possibly with small boobs, or messy hair? Nope. We’re in superhero-movie-ville.
Anyway, she doesn’t get much of a personality (at least thus far) except for (the usual) having a conscience when other people are just taking orders blithely.
We also have Maria, who is a badass SHIELD agent who doesn’t get enough screen-time or character development either (I haven’t watched Agents of SHIELD, so if she’s different there, I apologize in advance). She’s smart, tough, in charge, obnoxiously attractive…the usual.
While I’m happy to have more women as agents…it’s not enough to put them in a role and call it good. The characters aren’t that great. I like Black Widow, and her intelligence and badass moves, but she could be so much more. And she’s just…not.
Feminist Rating: 5/10
Captain America: Civil War
Full disclaimer: I’m not a huge fan of crossovers. This one, especially, felt a little out of hand, bringing in as many characters as they could just because they could. Not every superhero in this film had a reason to fight, but they did anyway.
Upon rewatch, I liked it better. But that didn’t make it any more feminist than before.
It goes without saying that MOST of the superheroes are men. Here is our badass woman count:
1. Black widow
2. Scarlet Witch
OK, just kidding, that’s it.
While part of this is already set from the previous movies and the comics, it wouldn’t hurt to throw in another female hero, would it? They threw in Spiderman and Black Panther…both great characters…but they could’ve made an effort.
Not only that, but Scarlet Witch is held in her apartment against her will (Iron Man’s orders) at one point because her powers caused an accident in the beginning of the movie. How infantilizing, Tony Stark! Would he have done that to Hawkeye? The Hulk? The short answer is ‘no.’
Then, Black Widow is the voice of reason throughout the thing, and switches sides partway through. Tricksy woman, I tell you! Though there’s a lot of this sort of double-agentry in the Marvel movies, it sticks to Black Widow, and smells of the devious, dangerous woman trope.
The important theme of the movie is whether or not the Avengers should have government oversight, which is a nice and complicated theme that we can get lost in. Complicated issues are often more feminine because they require deeper consideration than just DESTROY BAD GUYS, and in the end, fighting couldn’t solve the problem the Avengers faced. The movie gets a few points for this because there is no good/bad, and it takes more thoughtful consideration.