Powerful Women in media can’t catch a break

Courtesy of Vanity Fair via Twitter

The release of the new trailer for Marvel Studios’ “Multiverse of Madness” has incited yet another debate across social media about Wanda Maximoff, the controversial superheroine who starred in her own limited series on Disney+, “WandaVision,” earlier last year.Prior debates surrounding Maximoff centered on the casting of Elizabeth Olsen, a white actress, as the Romani character, but this time the spiral ended on the treatment of powerful women in media in contrast to men. As the witch herself said in the most recent trailer, “You break the rules and become the hero. I do it and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.” This debate wasn’t unwarranted either, since a lot of negative feedback around female characters seem to focus on the double standard of masculine traits.

A good example of this aversion to masculinity in female characters is the reactions to the newest sneak peaks to Amazon Prime’s “Lord of the Rings” (LOTR) prequel series. The series casts an impressive number of female characters (as opposed to the original LOTR’s one woman character). Among the new images, released by Prime to promote the series, was a particular image of the new Galadriel, clad in stereotypical full-coverage knight armor, sword and all. Many potential viewers had positive reactions, spanning from calling her attractive to praising the more realistic twist on the character, who was previously depicted as traditionally feminine. The negative side of the attention that the image received was the usual spiel against  “girl power characters” and being “woke” ruining Tolkien’s world, with some Twitter users attributing fake quotes to Tolkien that supported their claims that mostly centered on what could be summarized as “change is bad”. 

Much less recently, and hated by the masses and actual film critics alike, is the now cult-classic “Jennifer’s Body”. While originally dummed down as a “an old-fashioned same-sexploitative zing,” and “gruesome paint-by-bloody-numbers succubus story,”, myself and alot of other women and fem-presenting individuals look back at the bloody-horror flick as empowering and a fun take on alot of modern discourse on feminism. While its true the film depicts a very scantily clad Megan Fox as a man-eating monster, it also delves into femenine resentment of a male dominated world. However, critics chose to ignore that factor because the character who happened to be the killer, thus holding a great deal of power, happened to also wear cute clothes and be a cheerleader. Not to mention her ultimate vanquisher, Anita, wasn’t much different, another strong girlish character who somehow managed to do what the male victims didn’t: survive.

Whether it be wearing a suit of armor or the ability to overpower male characters. In innumerable book and movie franchises, powerful female characters are either plagued by sexist tropes and stereotypes or belittled by disgruntled critics as being woke propaganda or else as tasteless trash, before subsequently tossing the characters aside, all the while disregarding their inherent value. (see: Katniss Everdeen, hefty political metaphor turned archer girlboss).

Admirable women in the media tend to fall into one of two categories (although I’m sure there are others): damsels or madonnas. The damsel is exactly what it sounds like— a docile, overtly feminine teary-eyed young girl, whereas the madonna can be older but is also sexless and flawless, not to mention infinitely wise. It’s not new to see female characters being unnecessarily criticized for failing to fulfill their stereotypical roles as madonnas, or even to see damsels be criticized for fulfilling their role, being called your usual insults or “annoying,” “silly,”—you get the gist. Regarding the two aforementioned characters, Anita and Galadriel, you can see how both roles play into their characterizations. Anita, Jennifer’s vanquisher, is a damsel because she doesn’t initially realize the danger she is in and one might presume she too is destined to be a victim. Unfortunately for her, her damehood is overshadowed by her lack of docility and her ability to outsmart and outdo her male counterparts by surviving and defeating her would-be killer, and so she becomes discarded by film critics. With Galadriel, who was previously depicted as a kind of Madonna character in the LOTR movies, she is this time shown as more masculine, armor-clad, and presumably about to take action. That makes her an imperfect person, thus no longer a Madonna, and her metamorphosis earns the same reaction as Anita did, but this time on social media.

Male characters in contrast get seemingly infinite room to play around without being discarded, especially if they’re white and straight. The Netflix original “You” is a great example of this, a series whose own leading man dislikes his character, Joe. Joe is a stalker and a murderer and yet the internet went crazy over the character upon the series’ inital release in September of 2018. It didn’t matter that Joe was an awful person in general, or even that his character was a bit dim or nonsensical at times. Joe was allowed to be annoying and hold power over other people even when it didn’t make any sense, because Joe was entertaining and attractive. His violence as well as his occasional lapses in judgment are sexualized and shown as evidence of his ultimate humanity. He goes from scary to worthy of sympathy in a heartbeat. This ultimately showcases our own idealizations of masculinity (at least in men), where power is desirable to the point of being sexual and fractures in that power are allowed because they are humane. Later on in the series, Joe’s reaction to his female counterpart, Love Quinn, mirrors that of many people when implementations of those traits show up in women; disgust, hate, and annoyance. 

Unlike male characters who get away with actual murder (Hannibal got a whole TV show and three movies), women tend to be put under a microscope in media, especially when they’re powerful. Whether they’re superheroes, immortal elves or political allegories, people seem to believe that women can’t have some of the cake without audiences referring to it as a tragedy or a woke bomb. While I might sound like I’m exaggerating, I would invite you to think about it. When was the last time you saw a badass lady in TV, movies or books who didn’t fit the madonna or the damsel archetype, and she was actually considered cool?


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