"Superheroes, Women, and Visual Pleasure: The Construction of the Female Gaze in the Marvel Cinematic Universe" by Orsolya Szujer
Orsolya Szujer gained her master’s at Eötvös Loránd University in 2017, and is currently a third year PhD student in ELTE’s Gender in English and American Literature and Culture program, with her research focusing on the representation of female characters in mainstream American superhero comics. Email:
Abstract: The paper analyses how the female gaze is present in selected movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, primarily based on Laura Mulvey’s theory on the male gaze and Richard Dyer’s observations on the instability of the male pinup. Before delving into the study of how the eroticized male (super)body is presented in the MCU, I briefly outline the current situation of women in the superhero fandom, with emphasis on the growth of female audience in the case of comic book blockbuster movies and how the presence of an eroticized male body might be a tool for gaining female audience. I will analyze Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the Thor–trilogy—Thor (2011), Thor: The Dark World (2013), and Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018).
Keywords: superhero, Marvel Cinematic Universe, male gaze, Laura Mulvey, Richard Dyer, Thor Trilogy, Captain America, Black Panther
Traditionally, superhero comics are considered to be a site of male power fantasies, something that is exclusively meant for men. Stephanie Orme notes that there is an “aura of masculinity permeating the comic book culture” (404), stemming from the stereotypical representations of comic book readers as asocial and rejected by society (Lopes 406), gender-coded language within the subculture that insists that comics belong to men, and marketing campaigns making women feel unwelcome (Orme 404). This representation is further complicated by the so called “Image House Style” or “Bad Girl” comic art, originating from the early nineties. “Image House Style,” named after Image Comics, founded in 1992 by star artists, is known for its depiction of male characters as “asexualized Adonises” with over-exaggerated musculature and female characters with hyper-emphasized sexual characteristics. Women are also often shown in the “broke back pose,” which contorts their bodies in a physically impossible way, but allows artists to showcase their breasts and buttocks at the same time, favoring the male gaze (Cocca 11-12). Comic book writer and “herstorian” (Cocca 40) Trina Robbins even noted in her 1996 book The Great Women Superheroes that:
Using a circular kind of logic, editors at the major comic companies continue to produce sex object-heroines which appeal to a male audience. Their excuse for not adding strong female characters who might appeal to women is that “women don’t read comics.” Of course, as long as female comic characters are insulting to the average woman, she won’t read comics. (166)
Conventional wisdom would then suggest that the superhero genre, the superhero blockbuster movie included, only caters to the male tastes, and has nothing to offer to the female spectator. However, the genre has been going through a change in the last decade or so, and even though the general assumption that “comics are for men” is hard to break, it is nowhere near true today.
Although female objectification is still prevalent, both in print and on screen, the change mentioned above is palpable. The “Image House Style” has lost popularity, and the visuals of comics have become more diverse. There are more and more carefully written female characters who go well beyond being a one-dimensional sex object, and who “have internal lives, friends and family, conflicts, moments of doubt, quirks, strengths, humor, and heroism” (Cocca 213). Still, Carolyn Cocca observes that these changes are still happening on the margins, and even though the number of female-led mainstream superhero titles is rising, it stills hovers at around 11-12%, with the percentage of female creators being approximately in the same league (215). Concurrently, the most dynamically growing group of comic book buyers is women between the ages 17 and 30, and, based on comic book store survey data in 2015, women now make up about 40% to 50% of customers (O’Leary).
This trend is observable in the case of superhero blockbuster movies as well. Although Orme notes that some women still feel negatively about the idea of being interested in a movie such as Guardians of the Galaxy (408), statistics show that comic book movies generally have a considerable female audience. The audience of the movie mentioned above was 44% female, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) first crossover movie, Avengers, drew in an audience that was 40% female in 2012 (Toro). Furthermore, Statista made a survey on the share of US consumers who have watched selected MCU movies as of February 2018, divided by gender. According to their findings, broken down by sub-franchises, between 29% (Doctor Strange) and 48% (at least one Iron Man) of men taking part in the survey reported having seen the MCU movies in question. The numbers move between 20% (Doctor Strange) and 41% (at least one Iron Man) in the case of women. The biggest difference can be observed in the case of the Captain America trilogy, where 35% of women and 45% of men reported having seen at least one installment, closely followed by the Doctor Strange, The Hulk, and Ant-Man movies, where the numbers are 20% against 29%, 32% against 41%, and 23% against 32% respectively. Meanwhile, the smallest difference is in the case of the Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, where at least one installment was seen by 36% of women and 41% of men, which is in accordance with the data offered by Toro.
So, there seems to be something that draws women to superhero blockbusters, even if their numbers have not yet caught up to men’s, except in the case of Wonder Woman (McNary). And, adopting Trina Robbins’ circular logic, if there is a female audience, producers are inclined to cater to them, and one of the ways to do that is to serve the female gaze. Doing so, by offering voyeuristic images of conventionally attractive men (in various stages of undress), seems to be a powerful tool in the creators’ arsenal. For example, The Sun recently reported that ITV period drama, Victoria, which chronicles the life of Queen Victoria and her royal household, cast David Burnett in the role of footman Joseph in its third season to combat failing ratings with his presence. ITV source told the tabloid that after seeing that “Aidan Turner’s abs have done wonders for BBC1’s Sunday night ratings”—as Turner plays the titular character in another British period drama, Poldark—, showrunners are hoping that making the series “racier” will draw in higher ratings (Halls). Sure enough, Burnett’s character is seen swimming naked in the sea in the third episode of the third season, titled “Et in Arcadia.” This example beautifully illustrates the importance and power of the male pinup in popular culture. This is something that the producers of superhero movies are also aware of, and use to their advantage. In other words, although one might not expect it at first, superhero movies are ripe with erotic male images geared towards the female gaze. The aim of this essay is therefore to study such images found in the various installments of the MCU, and to dissect how the presence of the female gaze influences the scene, how the female gaze itself is structured, in what ways does it differ from the male gaze, and how the two functions of the heroes affected—male power fantasy and female erotic fantasy—are mitigated.
The male body as a sexual object is a hard subject to grasp. In her now iconic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey altogether dismisses the idea of the presence of the female gaze. She states that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification” (20), and, insisting on the active/male and passive/female split, she argues that the “male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly” (19). Furthermore, she speaks of two structures of looking that offer pleasure to the (male) spectator. The first is scopophilic, which derives pleasure from “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight,” while the other rises from narcissism and the constitution of the ego, and its source is the identification with the image of the (male) hero on the screen (18). However, the female form, with her lack of penis, signifies sexual difference, and so carries the threat of castration. According to Mulvey, the male unconscious has two ways of evading this castration anxiety: “re-enactment of the original trauma […] counterbalanced by the de-evaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object” or “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented into a fetish.” In other words, by either investigating and de-mystifying the woman or turning her into a non-dangerous, reassuring image (21). She briefly mentions that there are movies with female protagonists (20), and that “there is pleasure in being looked at” (16), but she never elaborates on them, and keeps to her argument of identifying the spectator as male throughout the essay.
Of course, the idea that the female gaze does not exist has been contested many times, both academically and anecdotally, as women do report looking at men and taking scopophilic pleasure in looking. Or just let us think about the case of Victoria mentioned above. Although it is true that women seem to be limited in the ways they are allowed to look. Richard Dyer notes in his 1982 essay, “Don’t Look Now,” how one of his female friends once told him that she envies men’s right to look. Elaborating on this idea, Dryer then discusses the power politics of looking and being looked at among the sexes. He notes that, in cinematic tradition, women might look at men once they realize that they are being looked at, but once the look is established, they are obligated to quickly avert their eyes and resume being the object of the gaze. This behavior is socially ingrained in us, so the power relations between the sexes are maintained (61). He then cites Nancy M. Henley’s Body Politics, where she argues that the question is not whether men and women look at each other, but how they do it. According to her, in one-on-one situations women actually look at men more, however, it is all in the service of male dominance, as women listen and pay attention as men speak, while men tend to look away, asserting their dominance by not looking. Meanwhile in crowd situations men are more likely to look at women, while women look away in a maidenlike manner. In other words, women watch men and men stare at women (61-63).
In the meantime, Peter Lehman tries to explain in his book, Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body that, if the female gaze does indeed exist, why has it gotten so little academic attention. He argues that the lack of feminine interest in the male body comes from the fact that academic feminist film theory and criticism are primarily concerned with how the female image is being controlled, regulated and fetishized by patriarchy. However, by prioritizing the analysis of the representation of the female body and withdrawing attention from the male body, scholars “have replicated as well as deconstructed the very sexual ideology they are analyzing,” as the female form remained in the center of attention (4-5). This position actually benefits patriarchy, since as long as the male body remains unexamined, the mythos of the phallus and its socially constructed nature of masculinity stays unrevealed. As Lehman says, “[o]nly after thus centering the male body will it be possible truly to decenter it, for it is precisely when the penis-phallus is hidden from view in patriarchy that it is most centered” (5-6).
Lehman also notes, arguing with Mulvey’s assumption, that men have not only carried, but want to carry the burden of sexual objectification. Moreover, he underlines that although as late as in 1985 Rosalind Coward still called men’s sexuality a “dark continent,” ever since the male body as a sexual object and as a source of sexual appeal to women has received feminist critical attention (7). Nevertheless, Dyer’s observations about the instabilities of the male pinup put forward in his essay mentioned above still apply. He names three instabilities: the first one is that the male pinup violates the codes of who looks, who is being looked at, and how it all happens, so “some attempt is instinctively made to counteract this violation” (63). This is usually manifested in how the model looks: while the female pinup averts her eyes, expresses modesty, patience, or lack of interest, or, if she looks at the spectator, smiles invitingly, the male pinup usually looks either off or up, not acknowledging the spectator, and when he does look at the spectator, he stares, as if trying to establish himself beyond the boundary set by the camera (63-66). The second instability is “the apparent address to women’s sexuality and the actual working out of male sexuality,” where “[w]hat is at stake is not just male and female sexuality, but female and male power” (66). Men strive to maintain power, and since being looked at is seen as being passive, to counteract this implied powerlessness and to remain within the lines of “dominant ideas of masculinity-as-activity,” the male pinup most often depicts men doing something, or posed in a way that promises upcoming action (66). Third instability has already been touched upon: the penis, and so masculinity, “can never live up to the mystique implied by the phallus” (71).
The second instability, especially the promise of action, is highly important, as musculature plays a considerable part in it. Dyer notes that the male pinup is posed in a way that tightens his body, emphasizing the muscles (67), which seem like a natural indicator that differentiates the male body from the female. The naturalness of the muscles also “legitimizes male power and domination” (71). However, Dyer points out, developed musculature is not natural, but achieved through bodybuilding, which, once again, ties the male body to activity (71).
Several more questions could be raised about the male pinup, partially because it is a relatively new area of study. Lehman, for example, quotes Steve Neale in his book, who brings up the notion that when the male body is objected to the gaze, it becomes feminized, and that when it “becomes an erotic spectacle, […] it is brutally and sadistically punished.” He argues that this is a homophobic response to the objectified and eroticized male body, with the intention to “destroy its attractiveness.” However, Lehman cautions that Neale, just like Mulvey, came up with a hypothesis first, and applied the theory only later, emitting texts from his analysis that did not fit his initial hypothesis (35). Nonetheless, as we will see, the script that Neale identified, the coupling of male objectification with sadistic response, does appear, and not infrequently.
We have sufficiently established that, contrary to Mulvey’s original argument, men can bear the object of the gaze, women do look, and the female gaze does exist, although it is not simply the gender-swapped version of the male gaze. For one, the female gaze tends to be kinder than its male counterpart, not completely objectifying or striping its object of his agency, and even if it does, it is only temporary. However, the underlying reason for this might be the second instability Dyer lists, namely that the male pinup rejects the passivity of objectification through being in the middle of action, or at least posing in a way that promises action. We cannot forget either that the characters who are bearing the female gaze in the movies studied are also the protagonists of their respective films, so, of course, they remain the driving force behind the plot. In the following section I am going to utilize the three looks identified by Mulvey to analyze the eroticized male (super)bodies that appear in the MCU’s movies: “that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion” (25).
The best example for the presence of the female gaze within the MCU might be found in the 2011 movie, Captain America: The First Avenger, more precisely in the scene when the protagonist goes through the scientific experiment that turns him into a super soldier. The segment in question takes place in a secret laboratory in Brooklyn, in the early years of the Second World War. Steve (Chris Evans), still short and skinny, arrives at the scene with Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), where he is asked to strip and to lay down in a pod-like contraption, while the representatives of the army are convening on the gallery above (31:45–33:00). After all the preparations are done and the leader of the experiment, Professor Erskine (Stanley Tucci) explains what is going to happen, the procedure starts and the pod closes (33:00–35:20). As the experiment proceeds, the camera keeps shifting between the scientists and the members of the military watching (35:20–36:10), lingering on the faces of some of the key characters, especially on Peggy, who is visibly worried due to the obvious strain of the procedure on Steve. Next, she stands up, leaves the secluded gallery, and shouts down to the lead scientist, demanding that the experiment is stopped. Here, she is shot from a slightly upwards angle, which clearly identifies her as the dominant character in the scene (36:10–36:17). The experiment, however, proceeds as planned due to Steve’s request, until, finally, the pod opens, revealing his new, muscled body (36:18–37:15). The camera approaches him from a slightly upwards angle, panning up his body, putting his heaving, hairless, glistening chest on display. As Dyer notes, looking, especially the way of looking (63), is important, and here, Steve does not look. He is disoriented and exhausted, eyes barely open as his head falls forward. In other words, he does not try to counteract being looked at, he is not challenging or dismissing the spectator. Instead, his body language, in his powerless state, is more reminiscent of a woman averting her eyes demurely. Erskine and the lead engineer, Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) help him out of the pod, supporting him from two sides, holding him up. Astonished, the two men look at each other, expressing their disbelief that the experiment was a success (37:24–37:30). The camera first shows Erskine, then Stark, and although their faces take the center in both shots, it is Steve’s chest on the side of the screen that really draws in the spectator’s gaze, which effect is strengthened by the fact that his skin is the brightest color within the frame. Peggy arrives at the experiment floor and directly addresses Steve, who is starting to get his bearings. She is clearly torn and slightly embarrassed: her concern for his well-being is still palpable, although now it is mixed with sexual longing. Her gaze flashes between his face and his bare chest, and we can see that she opens her mouth several times to say something, but keeps backing down. The mixture of excitement and lust makes her nearly hyperventilate. She even reaches for him and briefly touches his pectoral muscle, only to quickly pull her hand back, after what she takes a shirt from the nearby nurse and offers it to Steve, symbolically giving him his agency back (37:30–37:44). All this time, Steve remains completely unaware of being the object of the female gaze.
As I noted before, this scene incorporates all the three looks Mulvey lists, used within the frame of the female gaze. First, the camera often shows Peggy from a slightly upward angle and focuses on her face in moments of intensity and when the eroticization of Steve’s body is at its height, establishing her as the dominant character in the scene and encouraging spectator identification. Second, Steve’s bare body is positioned in a way that invites the audience’s voyeuristic gaze: it is shown with long, lingering shots, with direct emphasis on how his chest heaves and glistens, which imitates a post-coital state. Third, Peggy’s sexual longing for him is palpable as she interacts with him, while the fact the he is disoriented and thus in a vulnerable position makes her dominance even clearer. These three instances, highlighting a woman as the dominant character in the scene through camera movement, eroticizing the body of the titular hero, and interaction between the hero and the woman where she has the upper hand, all appear in other MCU movies as well, however usually not in the same scene.
Although the three looks never appear so much in tandem in them, the Thor–movies might offer the most powerful instances of the female gaze within the MCU. The first installment, Thor (2011) immediately starts with establishing the female lead, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) as the dominant character. The movie opens with her, her colleague Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and her intern, Darcy (Kat Dennings), out in the New Mexican desert at night, as they are observing a phenomenon connected to their astrophysical research. It is apparent from their conversation that, although Selvig is skeptical at first, Jane has the authority within their party. When the phenomenon turns out to be Thor arriving at Earth, Jane, accidentally, hits him with their car (00:40-03:20). After a lengthy flashback explaining how Thor was sent to Earth, the movie cuts back to this scene. Jane rushes out of the car and kneels next to Thor’s body; in this position, she is shot from a slightly upwards angle, which reinforces her position as the dominant character in the scene. As Thor comes to, he looks up at Jane, his expression quickly turning from confusion to wonderment. He does the looking, and his longing for her is evident, but his gaze holds no possessiveness, nor does it objectify Jane, but expresses awe directed at her, not erasing her dominance. Her look at him holds nothing but worry and curiosity at the moment, however, she will arrive at longing soon enough. At the same time, Darcy, standing a little to the side, looks at Thor and says, “Does he need CPR? Because I totally know CPR” (29:53–30:32). Her exclamation is not born out of the desire to help, but out of the desire for him. So, in this scene, two out of the three looks are present: the movement and position of the camera establish Jane as the dominant character, while the characters’ behavior reinforce this, and Darcy expresses sexual longing for Thor.
The third look, the voyeuristic engagement of the audience, follows soon. After a short interplay, Thor ends up in Jane’s laboratory, where she provides him with clothes. He dresses in the bathroom with the door partially open, but since there is a mirror on it, the audience sees his every move. At first, his back is to the viewer as he adjusts his pants with his upper body bare, then he slowly turns around, allowing a 360-degree view of his body (36:36–36:42). His muscles are well-defined, shoulders wide, waist narrow, chest hairless. The whole setting up of the scene invites the voyeuristic engagement of the female spectator, whose thoughts are, once again, voiced by Darcy: “You know, for a crazy homeless person, he is pretty cut,” she says, openly staring at him (36:43–36:49). By this point Jane is watching him as well, her interest slowly turning to erotic from scientific. She is shyly glancing at him while reading her notes as Thor dresses in the bathroom, quickly averting her gaze, just like romantic heroines often do according to Dyer (61), only in this case she is not responding to the gaze, but initiating it. And, as the scene continues, her gaze becomes bolder. When Thor walks out of the bathroom, still shirtless, Jane rushes to him to prevent him from interfering with her equipment lying on the table. As she steps in front of him, the two of them barely a foot apart, her eyes quickly move along his body, from his hips to his chest, signaling desire (36:55-37:03). So, once again, this scene holds two of the three gazes: the voyeuristic engagement of the audience through eroticization of Thor’s body and the interaction of the characters, where Jane and Darcy’s actions reveal their attraction towards Thor.
Jane, who in this case is the proxy of the female spectator, looking at Thor is a recurring motif in the movie. As noted above, she looks at him with worry and curiosity in the beginning, and with slight annoyance and barely concealed lust in the scene described in the previous paragraph. This changes throughout the movie. In a later segment, Thor and Jane are out in the desert during the night, sitting next to the fire as he explains that her theories are right and they align with the Asgardian—Thor’s home—understanding of the cosmos. He takes her notebook and scribbles over her own notes to help her understand. As he draws, she watches him, her gaze oscillating between scientific curiosity and romantic longing (1:14:00–1:15:15). In other words, using Dyer’s terminology, she switches between watching him and looking at him. He is barely aware of her gaze, and she never averts her eyes, unabashed by her looking. The movement of the camera makes this even more central, with close, lingering shots of her face. Near the end of the movie we get two more shots of her watching him, in quick succession: after reclaiming his hammer and powers, Thor returns to New Mexico in a flurry of lightning, in full battle armor. The first, longer, approaching and close shot shows her surprise and wonderment as she utters “Oh. My. God.” The second, shorter and closer shot only shows her quick burst of joy at seeing him (1:28:40–1:28:50). Jane acts as a proxy for the men in the audience as well as the women: men can identify with her amazement at his sheer power, which supports the (male) power fantasy, while, for women, this mixes with the eroticization of Thor’s body, which supports the female sexual fantasy. Phrased differently, men who identify with Thor can find pleasure in projecting her look on themselves and in being looked at by her, while women identifying with her can share her amazement and find pleasure in looking at Thor.
Just as Jane looking is a recurring motif in the first movie, there are two elements that keep appearing in the other installments in the Thor-trilogy. The first is the audience’s voyeuristic engagement in the film through the objectification of Thor’s body. In the second movie, Thor: The Dark World (2013), this happens somewhat similarly, as in the first film, only without the intradiegetic audience. After a victorious battle, Thor is in his chambers in Asgard, washing up. The camera first shows his hands, dipped in a basin, then slowly moves up to his bare abdomen, chest, then face (11:10-11:17). The movement fragments his body, only focusing on certain parts of it at a time, just like in the case of female stars Mulvey mentions, destroying “the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative” (20). This effect is strengthened by the fact that the scene has seemingly no function beyond serving the female gaze, as nothing else even happens at the location other than Thor cleaning his body. On the other hand, however, this notion is undercut by Thor’s clearly visible emotions: he is tortured, unable to find fulfillment in victory, because he is missing Jane. This turbulence of emotion is what saves him from becoming a simple image to be admired.
In contrast with the first two movies, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) offers a completely different approach to Thor’s partially nude body. Director Taika Waititi took the movie to a different direction than the previous two installments, and although the humor he has approached the subject with has been praised, the feminine components of the series have clearly suffered under his hand. For instance, none of the four previously important female characters are present in the movie, and instead they are replaced by a visually alluring, but underdeveloped female villain, Hela (Cate Blanchett), and a heavy drinker, foul, former Asgardian female warrior (Tessa Thompson), who is not even properly named within the narrative. Furthermore, the female gaze is not only pushed back, but almost mocked in some instances.
In a scene at around the middle of the movie, we see Thor, unconscious, laying on his back, bare chested, on the floor of the suite he shares with the Hulk, with whom he had just been forced to fight in the gladiator arena. Four women are kneeling around him, laying wet rags on his injuries. Thor suddenly awakes and gasps, startling the women who run out of the room. Thor pushes himself to his knees and briefly looks right into the camera. He stands up, takes a couple of steps, looks around in the room, then reaches for his armor and puts it on (1:02:45–1:03:37). When applying a closer reading of the scene, an interesting pattern emerges. When Thor regains consciousness, he is surrounded by women who are tending to him. But instead of being characters, these women are mere images of subservient femininity. Their bodies are fragmented, with the camera focusing on their hands, and thus their work, while we never even see their faces. They do not matter, only the service they can offer (to a man) does. Then Thor kneels and looks into the camera. This is the look that Dyer mentions when he talks about eye contact patterns in the case of male and female pinups: Thor is trying to reach beyond the camera, attempting to establish himself. This is the exact opposite of what we have seen so far, when he was either unaware of the look or welcomed it. Then, as stated above, the scene ends with him abruptly putting his armor on, which can be interpreted as a message to the female audience: “That is it, ladies. Show is over.”
The other recurring image is a very specific one: Thor’s face smashed against glass. It appears in all three movies. In Thor, he is pushed against a glass door in the hospital as he is given a sedative, which causes him to slide down (32:00-32:27). In Thor: The Dark World, he is transported to the top of the London Bullet in the midst of battle, where he, once again, slides down with his face smashed against the glass (1:31:40–1:31:47). In Thor: Ragnarok, he is thrown on the glass floor of “Valkyrie’s” ship as the woman captures him (30:31–30:40). Although it could hardly be called torture, nor is it especially sadistic, I would interpret this recurring image as the homophobic response to the eroticization of the male body Neale mentions, as it does serve the purpose of destroying the character’s attractiveness.
There are several smaller, less significant appearances of the female gaze in the movies found in the MCU. For instance, in Ant-Man (2015), the first meeting between Scott (Paul Rudd) and Hope (Evangeline Lily), the main male and female character, clearly establishes Hope as the dominant character, both by the movement of the camera and the interaction between the characters. In the scene in question, Scott awakens in a strange place, only to find Hope standing at the foot of his bed, looking down at him (38:58–39:50). Both the way the camera shows Hope, either from behind her, looking down at Scott, or from behind Scott, looking up at her, and her behavior underlines her dominant position. She does not look at him, but focuses on her phone, typing something, which recalls what Henley says, quoted by Dyer: “superior position… is communicated by visually ignoring the other person” (63). In a later scene, during a training montage, we see as Scott treats a minor wound on his ribs, his upper body bare and slightly twisted to the side, emphasizing his muscles, while Hope watches (53:30-53:37). This image both induces the audience’s voyeuristic engagement and underlines Hope’s desire directed at Scott. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) opens with the eroticization of the male protagonist, Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) body: he is shown alone on a deserted planet, listening to music and dancing as he approaches his destination (05:50–07:50). One of the shots even focuses on his pelvic area as he thrusts his hips forward, alluding to sexual prowess. At the same time, some of his movements are rather silly and awkward, which undercuts his attractiveness. In a later scene, however, he is shown in prison, striped to his underwear, being force-bathed. He is agitated, his chest is heaving, muscles bulging, and when his gaze meets the camera, it is as if he is trying to reach beyond it, just as Dyer notes. In Doctor Strange (2016), the audience’s voyeuristic engagement happens when Stephen (Benedict Cumberbatch), having gained control over his hands once again, shaves. The audience sees him in the mirror at first, only his face, but when he finishes, the camera pulls back and shows his bare upper body, holding out the shot (43:18–43:34).
However, we need to discuss the movie Black Panther (2018) at length, because even though black characters have been a part of the MCU since the beginning, this is the first time the eroticization of a black male body happens. The depiction of black bodies can be problematic due to ingrained social stereotypes. Dyer notes that the physicality of black men is “inextricably linked to notions of ‘the jungle’, and hence ‘savagery’” (68), while Jeffrey A. Brown emphasizes the perceived hypermasculinity of male black bodies (28). He argues, based on the work of bell hooks, that the adaptation of the hypermasculine image is due to the resistance against the white supremacist characterization of black men as effeminate (28-29). Furthermore, he cites Kobena Mercer, who elaborates on the cultural associations between black men and muscles as a signifier of “natural power,” which leads to dehumanization and the racist view that African people are bodies without minds, who then might be seen as insensitive, unintelligent, uncultured, and animalistic. He also notes that “many black men do not want demystified because it in some ways (e.g., strength, sexual prowess) raises them above the status of white men” (30).
Although Black Panther is firmly rooted in an Afro-futuristic vision, it is not free of images of male bodies that are tied to the savage and the animalistic. This is the most evident in the case of M’Baku (Winston Duke). He is first seen at T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) ritualistic “coronation.” He arrives through a tunnel in the mountain wall, bare-chested, shoulders painted white, chanting, and wearing a tribal gorilla mask. His pectoral muscles are twitching as he stands before T’Challa, signaling elemental, bestial, masculine power (23:00–23:28). There is only one saving grace in this imagery, and that is the fact that it is actually scaled back from the character’s original, comic book version: “Reviving the outlawed White Gorilla cult, M’Baku killed a rare white gorilla, then bathed in its blood and ate its flesh, which gave him the power of the ape” (“Man-Ape”). It is also worth noting that while M’Baku is an antagonist in the comics, he is a reluctant ally of the hero in the movie. But elaborating on the animalistic male images in Black Panther, T’Challa himself is associated with the titular animal through his superhero alter ego (although in that case the high-tech nature of the suit smoothens the edge of the association), and appears with tribal body paint that mimics the pelt of the animal at the aforementioned ritual (20:17–27:30). Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) scars that cover his whole body, each one self-inflicted and signifying a kill, also place him within the realms of the bestial (1:17:45–1:21:49). Furthermore, most scenes where the male characters appear bare-chested involve physical fights, either hand-to-hand or with various phallic symbols, such as swords and spears. Due to this, these scenes are more closely connected to masculine posturing and thus serve as male power fantasies, rather than being a spectacle for the female gaze.
There is, however, a strong female presence in the movie, coming from the numerous important female characters, allowing it to pass the so-called Bechdel test1. T’Challa is consistently bested, dominated, and good-naturedly mocked by his female compatriots, for example when he “freezes” in Nakia’s (Lupita Nyong’o) presence (10:30–10:42), or when Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) joke about the aforementioned incident (14:20–14:27). The women are just as important, or arguably even more important, drivers of the plot as the men, while Nakia even serves as the moral center of the narrative and as a foil to the villain Killmonger. Furthermore, there is a scene in the movie that is especially interesting from the point of view of the female gaze.
After a failed battle against Killmonger, T’Challa is believed to be dead and his throne is taken by his opponent, which forces his lover Nakia, younger sister Shuri, and mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), along with American Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) to flee. The women decide to go to the Jabari, the tribe led by M’Baku to ask for help, but upon arrival they are informed that T’Challa was found by the Jabari, alive, albeit barely. M’Baku leads the women to T’Challa’s comatose body, which is in a secluded, shrine-like room, half-buried in snow. After their initial bewilderment and realization that they cannot move T’Challa without killing him, the women use the magical herb, the source of the Black Panther’s power, sneaked in by Nakia, to heal him. Ramonda grounds the herb, calls upon her ancestors and deities, then makes T’Challa drink the potion, after which the women cover him completely with snow while chanting (1:34:45–1:36:23). After a short interplay, T’Challa awakes, healed (1:38:04–1:38:16). This scene is basically the gender–reversed version of Snow White’s awakening. The snow stands for the glass coffin, the potion for the kiss, while the women take the position of both the grieving dwarves and the newly arrived prince, their triumvirate calling forward the image of the life-giving triple goddess, the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. And while Snow White is “patriarchy’s angelic daughter,” perfected in her passivity and docility (Gilbert and Gubar 294), it is exactly T’Challa’s activity what the women long for. In other words, patriarchy saves the princess so she can remain a powerless object, a prize, while matriarchy saves the prince so he can become king, which takes us back to the beginning: even if the female gaze objectifies a man, it is only temporary, and his agency is quickly given back.
The female gaze is, as demonstrated, interwoven into the fabric of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is there as the camera follows the women highlighting them as dominant characters. It is there as they best men and look at them, desiring them. And it is there as the audience is invited to take sexual pleasure in the masterfully sculpted bodies of the heroes. It is there, just as the female audience is there, which has been neglected for so long by the superhero genre. The female audience, which is no longer demanded to identify with a hypermasculine power fantasy, but is allowed to identify with the protagonist’s heroics and ogle his body at the same time. Of course, not everyone is pleased by this. Brannon Moore, for example, wrote a longwinded article for the Lewton Bus, in which he elaborates on how annoying he finds the “pandering, trembling female gaze” in Marvel movies. He says that,
I am a heterosexual male, and I do not enjoy Marvel’s female gaze. I find it distracting and irritating every time the movies indulge in it, and I wish they would stop, because I do not need this kind of nonsense in my superhero fantasies.
Although he is surely not alone with his views, he might be in the minority. At least the number of those who actively voice their concerns over the inclusion of the female gaze, or women in general, seems to be diminishing. Women are, after all, staking their claim in the superhero genre. They are there as readers, viewers, and fans, at greater and greater numbers, so of course the creators want to please them. And they are there, at still small, but growing numbers, as creators and heroes—at the time of writing this essay, Captain Marvel is weeks away from its premiere, and Wonder Woman 1984, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), and Black Widow are in the works. As comics writer Gail Simone says, “We won the war. But it may take a while for the opponent to realize he’s got a musket ball right through his awareness” (18).
- Ant-Man. Directed by Peyton Reed, performances by Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and Bobby Cannavale, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2015.
- “Audience Distribution of Wonder Woman in the United States in 2017, by Gender.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/807534/wonder-woman-audience-gender/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2019.
- Black Panther. Directed by Ryan Coogler, performances by Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, and Lupita Nyong’o, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2018.
- Brown, Jeffrey A. “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero.” African American Review, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1999, 25-42.
- Captain America: The First Avenger. Directed by Joe Johnston, performances by Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Stanley Tucci, and Dominic Cooper, Paramount Pictures, 2011.
- Cocca, Carolyn. 2016. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
- Doctor Strange. Directed by Scott Derrickson, performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, and Benedict Wong, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.
- Dyer, Richard. “Don’t Look Now.” Screen, Vol. 23, No. 3-4, 1982, pp. 61-73.
- “Et in Arcadia.” Victoria, written by Guy Andrews, directed by Geoffrey Sax, Masterpiece Classic, 2019.
- Gilbert, Sandra M and Susan Gubar. 1999. “Snow White and her Wicked Stepmother.” The Classic Fairy Tale, edited by Maria Tatar, New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 291-297.
- Guardians of the Galaxy. Directed by James Gunn, performances by Chris Pratt, Zoë Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, and Karen Gillan, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2014.
- Halls, Andy. “Victoria Erotica: Victoria Bosses to ‘Sex Up’ Drama in Desperate Bid to Rescue the Show from Low Ratings.” The Sun. News Group Newspapers Limited, 2 Jan. 2019, https://www.thesun.co.uk/tvandshowbiz/8106291/victoria-bosses-sex-up-drama/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2019.
- Lehman, Peter. 2007. Running Scared: Masculinity and the Representation of the Male Body. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Lopes, Paul. “Culture and Stigma: Popular Culture and the Case of Comic Books.” Sociological Forum, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2006, pp. 387-414.
- “Man-Ape.” Marvel Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., 2014.
- McNary, Dave. “Wonder Woman’: Female and Older Moviegoers Powered Boxoffice, New Study Shows.” Variety, 6 Jul. 2017, https://variety.com/2017/film/news/wonder-woman-study-box-office-1202488262/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2019.
- Moore, Brannon. “Marvel’s “Female Gaze Problem.” Lewton Bus, 17 Mar. 2018, https://lewtonbus.net/criticism/marvels-female-gaze-problem/. Accessed 16 Feb. 2019.
- Mulvey, Laura. 1989. “Visual Please and Narrative Cinema.” Visual and Other Pleasure. New York: Palgrave, 14-26.
- O’Leary, Shannon. “Comic Retailer Survey: Good Sales Get Better in 2015.” Publisher’s Weekly, 5 jun. 2015, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/comics/article/67045-comics-retailer-survey-good-sales-get-better-in-2015.html. Accessed 14 Feb. 2019.
- Orme, Stephanie. “Femininity and Fandom: The Dual Stigmatization of Female Comic Book Fans.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2016, pp. 403-416.
- Robbins, Trina. The Great Women Superheroes. Northampton: Kitchen Sink Press, 1996.
- “Share of Consumers Who Have Watched Selected Marvel Studios Superhero Films in the United States as of February 2018, by Gender.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/807365/marvel-movie-viewership-gender/. Accessed 13 Feb. 2019.
- Simone, Gail. 2012. “Mary Batson and the Chimera Society.” Chicks Dig Comics, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis. Des Moines: Mad Norwegian Press. pp. 12-18.
- Thor. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, performances by Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Kat Dennings, and Idris Elba, Paramount Pictures, 2011.
- Thor: Ragnarok. Directed by Taika Waititi, performances by Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, Anthony Hopkins, Tessa Thompson, and Lou Ferrigno, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2017.
- Thor: The Dark World. Directed by Alan Taylor, performances by Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013.
- Toro, Gabe. “Guardians of the Galaxy Did Better with Women Than Any Other Marvel Movie.” Cinemablend, https://www.cinemablend.com/new/Guardians-Galaxy-Did-Better-With-Women-Than-Any-Other-Marvel-Movie-66603.html. Accessed 13 Feb. 2019.
1 “The Bechdel Test, sometimes called the Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Rule is a simple test which names the three following criteria: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something beside a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel’s comic Dykes to Watch Out For, in a strip called “The Rule.”” (www.bechdeltest.com) According to Cocca, only one third of all superhero films made between 2000 and 2015 pass the test (4). ↩