Discussing the representation of women in film will only get old when the situation gets better. With the recent release of Now You See Me 2, it’s obvious that we’ve still got a long way to go.
The Now You See Me franchise, like so many others – The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, etc – has a serious woman problem. Namely that they can only handle one of them at a time. The setup is familiar: a team is brought together through extraordinary circumstances: magic, crime fighting, revenge, etc. Three of them are men, one a woman. With a couple of notable exceptions, this is the format of the central team of every action movie ever.
Is it just me, or is it getting a little tired?
Now You See Me 2 is a particularly frustrating example. In the first movie, The Four Horsemen, the famously befuddling, bank robbing magic act was comprised of Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Isla Fisher. In the second movie, from which Fisher was reportedly absent due to her pregnancy, she was replaced by Lizzy Caplan. The writers attempted to get around this by acknowledging it, having Lulu, Caplan’s character joke that ‘I’m the new girl horseman!’, but the joke really only served to raise the obvious question. Why was there only one girl horseman in the first place?
A lot of it comes down to the limited roles women are allowed to play. In Now You See Me, Henley’s (Fisher) primary function is as a love interest to Jessie Eisenberg’s inscrutable J. Daniel Atlas. The only other major female character in the entire movie, Alma (Melanie Laurent) plays a similar role to Mark Ruffalo’s Dylan Rhodes. In Now You See Me 2 – in which there are even fewer women with decent speaking roles – Lulu, Henley’s replacement quickly establishes herself as super into Dave Franco and makes sure to remind us of her attraction to him. Regularly. The only girl in the group is always cast as the love interest.
This particular role could not be more obvious than in the various Avengers movies, in which Scarlett Johansson’s character, Black Widow, has played the potential girlfriend of just about everybody. This demonstrates a pretty narrow view of women’s capabilities, and in the case of Black Widow, really serves to trivialise her character. Her co-stars even laugh about it in interviews. It strikes me that perhaps rather than slut shaming the character in the press, it might be nice to see Johansson and co. questioning why Black Widow is written that way in the first place. Marvel has established a world in which it is possible for men to exist without love interests – Bucky Barnes and Sam Wilson are going through pretty major dry spells – but women cannot. Even in the more recent movies, with the introduction of Scarlet Witch, she stepped out of the shadow of her twin brother only to be paired with Paul Bettany’s creepy robot man, Vision.
But the tropes don’t stop there.
Not only is the woman an available love interest for sometimes multiple male characters, but she has to mother them too. I might be picking at a freshly healed scab, but it’s impossible not talk about Age of Ultron’s most cringe-worthy moment: the lullaby, when Black Widow is asked to turn the Hulk back into Bruce Banner. Of the entire team, apparently only she can accomplish this. Not Tony Stark, who the writers have gone to great pains to assure us – through both The Avengers and a scene at the end of Iron Man 3 – is knee-deep in a Banner bromance. No, talking down a hulk takes the sort of loving nurture of which Marvel level masculinity is apparently incapable. It was only ever going to be Black Widow’s job. The stereotype lives on and the audience are reminded that, despite all the fighting, she is still a woman after all. And what do women do? As Black Widow says later on in the movie ‘I’m always picking up after you boys.’
Like I said, cringe.
Gamora gets to play a similar role in Guardians of the Galaxy. She spends much of the movie berating playboy Peter Quill – who has mummy issues of course – for his irresponsible lifestyle and childish personality. In one scene when the newly assembled team are making themselves at home on Quill’s space ship, Gamora informs him that the place is filthy. And then there’s a really lingering shot of her butt while she walks up the stairs. Mothering? Check. Sexy love interest? Check, check.
Ultimately, I think this is much of the reason behind why there is only ever one woman on the team. Why have more than one, when her role is so limited? The group only needs one mother, after all, and most audiences can’t be expected to care about multiple romances in the same story. The only way to ditch this trope and get together a team with some girl power is to expand our perceptions of what women can be and do. Ditch the skimpy outfits and the victimisation. Don’t cast them in the role of the sexy parent figure. If by some chance there is more than one woman in the movie, let them have a scene together. Perhaps rather than casting them as rivals, a la Gamora and her sister, Nebula, let them be a team as much as the guys are. Make a movie poster where the women are as active as the men, rather than posed and passive.
The situation is bleak, but I have hope. If it is a movie studio’s job to entertain, then in serving up the same tired stereotypes over and over again, they are failing. Maybe Now You See Me 3 – which is, somewhat unbelievably, a thing – will see the return of Henley, and she and Lulu will share some screen time. Perhaps despite its traditional set up, Marvel’s next Netflix collaboration, The Defenders – made up of three men and Jessica Jones, sigh – will find a way to turn the trope on its head. They’ve done it before with Karen Page’s subversion of the innocent girl stereotype, and the fight against the patriarchy that got us addicted to Jessica Jones in the first place.
It’s time for a change. And the think pieces and Twitter arguments aren’t going to end until we get it.