Forget Thanos. Disregard Lex Luthor. The most dastardly cinematic villain of all is undoubtedly the Male Gaze. Cast your mind back to any blockbuster and chances are, he’s there. The woman introduced bum-first by a waist-level camera? Male Gaze. That femme fatale who uses her Deadly Weaponised Sexuality to kill men with her thighs? Male Gaze! That Strong Female Character who conducts her spy work in slinky leather and six inch heels? Why, Male Gaze, you’ve done it again! The male gaze, a term coined by critic Laura Mulvey, positions female characters as objects for heterosexual male desire – think Kirk ogling Dr. Carol Marcus as she undresses in Star Trek Into Darkness, or Megan Fox bending over a car bonnet in Transformers. If it’s a female body packaged for consumption, chances are that wily devil Male Gaze is working his leering misogyny mischief.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League justifiably found itself in hot water before it hit screens with the news that the Amazon’s costumes had undergone redesigns since their first iteration in Wonder Woman. Photos appeared of women in cropped metal bikini tops, calling to mind Conan-style fantasy films of days gone by. For many, it confirmed their fears that Diana would be gravely mishandled in her latest cinematic outing. Fears were exacerbated when reviews mentioned gratuitous shots of her behind, or flashes of underwear. So why are film’s still getting it wrong? Aren’t we past this yet? And does Justice League deserve this bad press?
First of all, let’s revisit Patty Jenkin’s original thoughts on Wonder Woman’s costume design, which itself drew some criticism:
It’s total wish-fulfillment […] I, as a woman, want Wonder Woman to be hot as hell, fight badass, and look great at the same time—the same way men want Superman to have huge pecs and an impractically big body. That makes them feel like the hero they want to be. And my hero, in my head, has really long legs.”
One the one hand, it’s a salient point. We need only look at Thor, Captain America, Superman or Aquaman to argue just that – that it’s nothing more than “wish fulfilment”. Moreover, it’s unfair to shackle Wonder Woman with the responsibility of perfect representation, when at this stage the number of female-led comic book movies can still be counted on one hand – and the number of female-directed ones on one finger. However, it’s interesting to note that even with a woman at the helm, a female hero’s requirement to be “hot as hell” is top of the list – even when catering to a woman’s fantasy. Fans rightfully decry the changes to the Amazonian armour – but Diana’s fitted metal boob tube, minuscule skirt and wedge heels surely weren’t designed to be practical battle attire either. They serve to lengthen Gal Gadot’s legs and accentuate her figure – essentially, to make her look good. Female fantasy or not, this perpetuates the narrative that super heroines need to be conventionally beautiful – and this basic tenet is where our problem lies.
Even villains, typically an actor’s golden opportunity to shake off bland beauty standards, aren’t exempt from this expectation. In Norse mythology, Hela is a grim giantess who is sometimes depicted as being half-decayed, like a corpse. In Thor: Ragnarok, she slinks into frame in a skintight black suit. X-Men’s Magneto and Apocalypse get to fly around causing merry havoc in capes and helmets, but Psylocke and Mystique are handed a boob-windowed leotard and blue body paint, respectively. This isn’t intended to criticise the actress’ performance, or to police women’s bodies, but simply to ask ourselves – in a world of Toads and Sabretooths, or Thors and Caps, why are we so afraid to let our heroines and villainesses be anything other than sexy? Where are our grotesque villains or our musclebound heroines? Surely they don’t all need to be slim, pretty young actresses in form-fitting outfits and flawless makeup?
Justice League will prove divisive. We can take comfort from the fact that at least in the final film, there aren’t any lascivious closeups of the more scantily clad warriors. The only time the camera lingers on the women wearing cropped armour is arguably when it focuses on their strength. The scene in question features two Amazons as they strain against the crushing weight of a giant descending stone door. Crucially, these women are impressively muscled, exhibiting the kind of powerful physique that suggests they actually do possess the sheer strength needed to hold solid stone aloft – a rarity in TV or films when female super strength is usually displayed by slender waifs (Buffy, Firefly‘s River Tam, and The Fifth Element’s Leeloo to name a few). Here’s where things get tricky, and personal interpretation comes into play. Is it possible for women filmed in exposing attire to not automatically cater to the male gaze? Is it still exploitative if the camera focuses on bulging muscles rather than breasts or bottoms? Could this same effect have been achieved in the original costumes? It’s a tricky line to walk, and not always a definable one.
This is not to argue that the criticisms against Justice League are groundless – you’d have to do some impressive Amazonian-style mental gymnastics to argue that the reasons for the costume redesign were based on anything other than showcasing the actress’s bodies. But Justice League is far from the only – or even the most egregious – example of this kind of objectification. It’s simply the most recent, and unfortunately it won’t be the last. Consider the casting of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel; fans of the comics have pointed out that Carol Danvers, a Colonel in the US Air Force, should realistically be at least in her early 40s. Larson is in her late 20s – a hugely talented actress sure to turn in a brilliant performance, but arguably another example of youth and beauty being unduly prioritised.
If we criticise Justice League – and we should – then we also need to cast a wider net. Remember Natasha Romanoff being ogled by Happy Hogan as she changes her clothes in the backseat of his car in Iron Man 2? Bruce Banner ‘comically’ faceplanting onto her breasts in Age of Ultron? (a trope bizarrely repeated in Justice League with Diana and Barry). How about that definitely necessary from-behind shot of Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman mounting the Batcycle in The Dark Knight Rises (not to mention her alarmingly high heels) There are simply too many instances to name. It’s a genre-wide problem, and the solution lies not only in allowing more women behind the camera, but in a change of attitude across all genders – we all desperately need to relinquish the misogynist, boring, and reductive idea that our heroines need to be conventionally beautiful and sexually appealing to be worth our time.