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The rise of the female superhero

It started when “Wonder Woman” roused women to cheers in theaters.

That was just the start of a surge of women superheroes on the big screen — and perhaps the dawn of a new era for women and film. 

“We are really seeing the effect of women demanding characters who are more relatable,” said Linda Mizejewski, Distinguished Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State. “We’re seeing the effect of feminism in the media, and more opportunities for women in filmmaking, such as Patty Jenkins, who directed ‘Wonder Woman.’ All those things are happening together.”

Gal Gadot led the modern rise in female superheroes in the 2017 hit “Wonder Woman,” based on the DC Comics character. Brie Larson starred in “Captain Marvel” in 2019, the first woman-led superhero epic from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, in a world still grappling with a global pandemic, Disney is finally releasing its "Black Widow" on July 9 in theaters and via streaming services.

Scarlett Johansson will star as the Black Widow in her own standalone movie. Johansson has played the character as part of a team in multiple Avengers movies.

“Wonder Woman” was a critical moment for female action heroes in cinema, said Mizejewski, who is teaching the course “Women in Comedy” in the fall and is scheduled to teach the course “Women in Hollywood Cinema” in the spring.

Like the hit “Black Panther,” with its all-black cast, the female-led “Wonder Woman” proved there are audiences eager to see diverse superheroes up on the screen.

“Producers discovered that if it’s a good movie, people will go to see it,” Mizejewski said. “Both movies proved to producers that it’s possible to have an action heroine and an all-black cast and if it’s good, it’s going to get good box office.”

Television has been way ahead of cinema in embracing women starring in action and detective roles, including “Police Woman,” “Wonder Woman,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Cagney & Lacey,” and “The X-Files,” said Mizejewski, whose book Hardboiled and High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture examines the rise of the female detective in contemporary film, television and literature.

Women either suffered or got married, or were dead at the end of the film.
Linda Mizejewski, Distinguished Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

“Television has always been more influenced by women,” she said. “There have always been more women writers and directors in television. Part of that is television has always been considered less prestigious” than cinema.

Interestingly, the dawn of cinema — the time of silent films at the turn of the last century — provided a lot of action heroine roles for women, including western cowgirls and adventurers.

“These were bad-ass action characters,” Mizejewski said.

These roles largely disappeared in the romantic comedies and melodramas of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, whose plots relegated women to limited fates. “Women either suffered or got married, or were dead at the end of the film,” Mizejewski said.

Gradually, some female action characters started reappearing on the big screen, starting with Jane Fonda in “Barbarella” in 1968 and continuing on to Angelina Jolie in the “Lara Croft” films in 2001 and 2003.

“They were glamour babes,” Mizejewski noted, but they also were female action heroes. The most powerful and memorable action heroines weren’t glamorous at all, she said: the Ripley character played by Sigourney Weaver in four “Alien” movies starting in 1979, and the Furiosa character played by Charlize Theron in the 2015 anti-patriarchal film “Mad Max: Fury Road."

“It’s not new. It didn’t come out of nowhere,” Mizejewski said of today’s enthusiasm for women in action roles.

Mizejewski expects we will see more women playing more of these roles now that movie producers recognize there’s an audience, and profits, for these films. She welcomes the change.

“In movies, women’s appearances have been the major draw, whereas men act and are the action heroes,” she said. “To have a woman act, rather than look good, is huge, really huge.”