So, for the past well, forever, Hollywood and it’s counterparts have been operating under a few misconceptions (and probably will continue to do so. Oh well). The first of these is that media with females leads won’t make money because only women will watch it. The second of these is that women clearly don’t like action, space, or other typically “masculine” genres, so they don’t have to do anything at all to make women feel included in that environment. Wrong wrong wrong.
We all know that Hunger Games has made a ludicrous amount of money, and while Divergent may have been Hunger Game’s lackluster little sis, it still had the second-largest opening of the year at the time of its release. But I don’t want to talk about those today. I want to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy some more, and I also want to talk about Starz’s new series Outlander.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Guys, I know I have spoken ad nauseum about the problems I had with Gamora in GotG, but dang. I loved this movie, and I wasn’t the only one. According to BoxOfficeMojo, in addition to garnering 94.3 million during it’s opening weekend,
“Guardians of the Galaxy wound up having a ton of appeal with women: exit polling indicated that the audience was 44 percent female, which is the biggest share ever for a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie (the previous high was 40 percent for The Avengers). Meanwhile, the audience was 55 percent over the age of 25.”
It’s surprising a movie about a rag-tap group of space losers featuring a raccoon and a tree was ever made, let alone that it appealed to so many women. However, i09’s Charlie Jane Anders explains two aspects of the movie’s success that most likely made it appealing to such a large number of women.
First of all, Ander’s points out that it’s easy to appeal to men and women! The movie did so well with men between the ages of 17-34 and women, “Because they both want the same thing, more or less — fun adventures in which both the male and female characters are fully realized.” What a novel idea! Movies with solid, well-developed characters will appeal to men and women, because they appreciate fully realized nature of the characters and the solid narratives which those characters create.
While that probably got women to return to the movie for a second or third helping (I’m planning my 4th visit this weekend) it doesn’t quite explain how the movie got so many women into the theaters in the first place. And don’t give me the “They’re boyfriends took them” excuse. I’m sure men have been taking their girlfriends to Marvel movies for quite some time, but that alone doesn’t explain why GotG nabbed the highest percentage of ladies for a Marvel movie yet. Ander’s again has a solution to this, pointing out the marketing that focused primarily on cuteness and personality.
Between the talking raccoon and the walking tree and the sad-sack merc attitude of Peter Quill, the trailers for this movie were just full of personality and adorable, identifiable characters…The visuals were there in the trailers, but the personalities were front and center, and you wanted to know more about these ridiculous underdogs and just how many people Rocket Raccoon was going to get to shoot.
Rocket Raccoon did not shoot enough people, nor did he ever utter his catchphrase, “Blam, MURDERED YOU” but enough of his adorable (yet dark) personality came through the trailers to make us all (men and women) curious enough to see what happens next. Between the smart marketing and a movie with solid characters with real psychological problems, it’s no wonder that this goofy space epic appealed to so many people.
Men, women, and people who prefer not do identify in a sex binary like characters. Besides the dragons, why else would you watch something like Game of Thrones? You watch every week to see what Tyrion, Cersei, Jon Snow, Brandon, Sansa, and Arya will do next (sorry if I didn’t name your favorite character). Sure, the actions of these characters have greater significance in the world George R.R. Martin has created, but the foundation of the series is the great characters that Martin has given us.
And yes, women like Game of Thrones. In an article for Wired, writer Angela Watercutter provides us with this graph of Game of Thrones viewership based off of statistics provided by Nielsen statistics:
Would that statistic go up further if there was less female nudity in object in the series? Perhaps, but such high numbers of female viewership indicates that women are just as interested in gore, sex, and damn solid characters as the rest of the human race. The show is basically a soap-opera with weapons, dragons and nudity. Why wouldn’t that appeal to women?
Similarly, Guardians of the Galaxy capitalizes on our (men, women, and non-binary peeps) adoration of complex characters. Case in point: Groot.
It’s characters, not always genres (although genres are a useful tool) that appeal to humans. If you write a movie or show with a cast of well-written characters, and happen to have at least one prominent female character in the mix, women will watch it. They might just even enjoy the explosions too.
Conversely, Starz new series Outlander based on a series of books by Diana Galbadon (am I a bad feminist if I haven’t read these? Don’t answer that) has been dubbed “The Feminist Answer to Game of Thrones” by Buzzfeed writer Anne Helen Peterson, and still managed to win over an audience that was 45% male.
For any other people like myself who aren’t as familiar with Outlander as you should be, the eight book series follows 20th century nurse Claire Randall who time travels to 18th century Scotland and finds adventure and romance with the dashing James Fras. If someone had told me that premise would win Starz an aggregate total of 3.7 million viewers of the first episode, I might have said something rude (I did say something rude about the GotG announcement, but that’s neither here nor there).
Granted, Outlander already has a dedicated fan base. Over 25 millions copies of the books have sold worldwide. Divide that number by eight (making a gross assumption that everyone who bought one book bought all the book) and you get 3.125 million – a number that closely matches the 3.7 million viewers of the first tv episode. While that may explain the the high number of people watching a first episode of a Starz show (What other shows do they make? Serious question) it still doesn’t explain why so many men tuned in to watch a show with a female lead.
Oh wait. We already talked about this! People like good characters and strong narratives. While there is a lack of well-written self-actualized female characters on the large and small screens, it doesn’t mean that men won’t respond to those characters when they do see them.
Hunger Games wouldn’t have made so much money, so so much money, if men hadn’t enjoyed Katniss Everdeen just as much as women. Frozen wouldn’t have been such a success if the emotional turmoil of Anna and Elsa didn’t strike a chord with men in the way it did with many women. Just watch this video of Marines singing along to “Let it go”.
Together, the success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Outlander in bringing both sexes into their respective viewerships demonstrates that putting genres in gender categories and assuming that men won’t watch female leads are erroneous beliefs… assuming the product features well-developed characters of both sexes. There are some movies I still feel bad for making my husband watch (Aliens: Resurrection).
Look, the world has reacted favorably to Guardians of the Galaxy and there’s a reason. It’s an excellent movie with a great soundtrack, oddball characters, and a dancing baby Groot. Additionally, the movie has brought in much larger numbers of women than the average Marvel film. Box Office Mojo reports that Guardians of the Galaxy ruled the box office garnering $94.3 million during it’s opening weekend, with a 44% female audience.
Ladies not only attended the movie en masse, but there are surprisingly few complaints about the representation of women. Alyssa Rosenburg’s piece at the Washington Post about constant use of the word “whore” in conjunction with Gamora, is the only piece of criticism I found with a cursory Google search, and even that isn’t about problems with the character herself. It appears that if a movie features a three-dimensional female character with minimal sexist overtones, we can all just consider it a job well done!
Not. I demand more! But I only demand more because the comics (both the 2008 and current run) gave me great expectations. I went in expecting to see the Gamora, Galaxy’s greatest assassin. Instead, I repeatedly saw Gamora the world’s most easily captured assassin. Quite a bit of difference, no? So here’s my catalog of complaints.
Problem #1: Gamora Talks Too Much
I realize that this is a strange problem to have. According to one study, only 30.8% of female characters get speaking rolls, which is related to the fact that so many movies fail the Bechdel test. Against that backdrop, I’m thrilled to pieces that Gamora gets so many speaking lines in Guardians of the Galaxy. However, compared to the Gamora in the comics it’s extremely out of character.
Due to her relationship with Thanos, Gamora frequently has to defend herself against accusations of evil and the like. However, instead of spewing a sad tale about her tragic past (which fails to account for all the legitimate pain and suffering she’s inflicted on the galaxy) the Gamora of comics speaks with her actions.
In the 2008 run of Guardians of the Galaxy from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, Gamora proves her devotion to the team by allowing herself to burn whilst saving the rest of the team. It’s not pretty. So the rest of the team won’t be fried by nearby sun-rays, Gamora herself must fry, resulting in the loss of her hair and some gnarly looking burns. Like Groot, her actions speak louder than words, to the point that no one is willing to question her loyalty after the incident.
We are given a similar introduction to Gamora in the 2013 introduction of the character in Guardians of the Galaxy Infinite Comic #3. Gamora doesn’t utter a word for the first 66 frames of the comic. Instead, she spends those frames fighting a giant and catching on fire (again!). Her very first words of the issue are directed to the slaves surrounding the battle — “You are free.”
The implications of the statement are clear. They are free from Thanos, in a way that she will never be while Thanos is alive. Yet she is taking back her freedom, piece by piece, with each blow she strikes against the Mad Titan. A single statement and a butt-load of fighting is all that is needed to demonstrate Gamora’s character.
Instead, in the movie we have Gamora speaking an uncharacteristic amount. To be fair, someone has to, and Groot and Drax aren’t exactly striking conversationalists, but the burden of speaking falls unduly to Gamora. She must constantly explain herself and the mission to her teammates and the audience, giving us insight into other characters and helping us understand what is at stake should the Infinity Gem fall into the wrong hands. In short, the burden of emotional work falls directly onto Gamora’s shoulders as evidenced from her excessive speaking.
This undermines her character by making her less “bad-ass” than the rest. Drax demonstrates his devotion to this mission with his fists, Rocket with his guns, and Groot with his limbs. While Gamora does demonstrate her martial expertise, she’s not given the same opportunity to be seen as a an active character which is further illustrated by how many things happen to Gamora as opposed to her happening to them.
In this regard Nebula, Gamora’s “sister” is the perfect demonstration of how Gamora could have been. Nebula is a woman of few words in the movie, offering brief commentary in several small scenes but primarily developed through her actions against Thanos and the rest of the galaxy. As an active character, Nebula takes her destiny into her own hands and demonstrates her values through repeated attempts on Gamora’s life and swearing her fealty to Ronan.
One of Nebula’s most poignant moments of the movie occurs when Gamora has her on the ropes. While she’s dangling off the side of a spaceship, Nebula purposefully cuts off her own hand rather than accept Gamora’s offer of help. That act of defiance single-handedly demonstrates how deep Nebula’s commitment to destroying Thanos runs, and how unwilling she is to compromise her own goals for the perceived greater good. Gamora isn’t offered such a defining moment, but as the gosh-darned deadliest assassin in the galaxy, she deserved it.
Problem #2: She’s Not a Whore (But she should be)
There’s a moment in Guardians of the Galaxy where Drax the Destroyer takes a moment to share his appreciation with his teammates. Comically, his appreciation comes out as insults, but the joke stops short when he calls Gamora a “Green whore”.
Despite a shirtless image of Gamora in one of the movie’s trailers, there’s not actually a single scene in the movie where we see Gamora behaving in a sexual way. In a discussion of the ways in which Marvel women combat sexism, Alyssa Rosenburg points out:
The other Guardians are taken aback by the slur that he has lobbed at her. Drax’s enraged response to Gamora’s sister, who insults Gamora shortly thereafter, shows how little he understood what he has said. The sexist remark reinforces our sense that Drax is out of step, not Gamora.
While Drax is clearly out of step, it doesn’t change the fact that accusing a woman of copious amounts of sexual activity still counts as an insult in the far flung reaches of the galaxy.
The audience clearly loves the fact that Gamora doesn’t fall for Peter Quill’s “pelvic sorcery”. She’s too smart to fall for such antics and she continues to rebuff potential advances from Quill throughout the movie, something that we applaud her for. Considering Quill himself could be labeled a “slut” (you don’t want to see his spaceship under blacklight) it’s important to Gamora’s character that she isn’t portrayed in a similar way.
Yet why should Starlord be the only person who can enjoy meaningless sex in the galaxy? This almost virginal representation of Gamora is in stark contrast to her sexual appetites in the comic books. During the very first issue of Abnett and Lanning’s 2008 run, we see Gamora getting angry with a guy because he didn’t just call her up for sex.
Gamora’s a gal who takes pleasure in celebratory relaxations, and doesn’t mind talking about ex-lovers and turn ons if the situation calls for it. In the current Guardians of the Galaxy comics written by Brian Michael Bendis, Gamora has a one-night stand with Iron Man and then completely ignores him for the rest of his visit. If Gamora had her own spaceship, I’m not sure you’d want to use a black light in that either.
It’s rare to see a female character so comfortable with her sexuality without being vilified for it. In the comics, Gamora’s sexual proclivities are taken in stride by the rest of her teammates (along with her continued refusal to sleep with Peter) and accepted as a part of her complex character.
By taking away Gamora’s sexy drive in Guardians of the Galaxy, and using the word “whore” as a pejorative, the movie takes a sexually mature character and makes her fit more standard cultural definitions of propriety. It also sends a strong message that female promiscuity isn’t tolerated even on the edges of space.
It further makes it feel like the producers are saving Gamora’s virginity for the right occasion — perhaps for when Starlord finally exits his Peter Pan syndrome and is capable of a meaningful relationship. Just what every girl wants right? No sex until the guy you’ve been hanging around is finally ready to accept you as his monogamous partner.
Okay, so I may be reading into things a bit much with that last comment, but come on! Peter isn’t the only one who deserves a random sex partner stashed in a spaceship. Gamora is always ready to have some post-mission fun. A sexually frustrated Gamora is not something you want to be stuck in a ship with… or is it?
Problem #3: Zoe Saldana
I love Zoe Saldana. I love that she enjoys playing strong female roles, I enjoy that she’s a prominent woman of color in films, and I love watching her kick butt. My problems with Zoe Saldana playing the role of Gamora primarily comes down to one thing: body type.
When Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman for the upcoming Superman vs. Batman film, one of the immediate complaints was that Gadot was not muscular enough to play the famed Amazonian warrior. To prove her worth, Gadot released images of herself working out and flexing. Problem solved!
Zoe, on the other hand, lacks the visual markers of strength. Perhaps the green paint washes out her muscle definition, but superhuman enhancements or not she just doesn’t look very menacing — particularly when standing next to the rest of the Guardians…or standing near shirtless in one of the trailers.
Saldana is dwarfed by Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Groot, and even Rocket’s attitude. While the male characters cut swaths through the crowd with muscle and bravado, Saldana’s body language is often presented as less aggressive. With her limbs frequently pulled close to her body, Gamora takes up less space than the rest of her crew members and frequently comes across as the least menacing.
This is further driven home by her reflexes and agility. While Saldana’s graceful fighting and quick movements are clearly effective and violent, at times it looks as if she’s doing ballet rather than fighting. Since she is bested by Peter Quill, Drax, Rocket, and Groot at various times of the movie (though admittedly it takes three of them to KO her during the first encounter), speed and agility don’t seem to count for much outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
View-able muscle mass may have given Gamora equal footing with her compatriots, who all value brute force (or lame dance moves) over Gamora’s feminized fighting.
Problem #4: Gamora Needs Saving
On my second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy, I did notice that Gamora isn’t the only character who gets rescued. For the most part, each of the team is saved by another team member at least once in the movie. The difference between Groot saving Rocket from the Infinity Gem explosion and Starlord saving Gamora from Drax is a giant gendered chasm.
Gamora, the deadliest assassin in the galaxy, gets captured by a bunch of dim-witted prisoners. How does that even happen? I can believe that she was overwhelmed by sheer numbers, but surely you’d need more than 5-10 men to do it. When she does momentarily escape their grasp, she’s damseled faster than you can say “I am Groot”.
She’s damseled a second time later in the movie when she’s shot out of space and her body is left floating. All she needs is for her prince (Starlord) to come and wake her up with a kiss…er, his own headgear. How do any of these moments contribute to demonstrating how awesome Gamora is? Hint: they don’t.
Instead, these moments contribute to a more victimized image of Gamora than many of us are used to seeing. Gamora’s been victimized by her foster-dad Thanos, she’s victimized in the Kyln by Drax and other prisoners, and she’s victimized by her own sister, Nebula, who shoots Gamora out of the air. In each instance, Starlord becomes her savior. Excuse me while I go vomit.
Still, despite all these quibbles, I feel I can still honestly say that Gamora — in all her diminished glory — is still the best Marvel Movieverse gal we’ve seen on screen. Let’s just hope Squirrel Girl does better.