Part 3: Just Because There's a Female Character, Doesn't Mean We Have to Sexualize Her
Photo Credit: Jay Maidment/Marvel/Walt Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock
A female character’s value should not be determined by the desirability of her male costars. This comes to one of the most annoying parts of the "lone female character in a group of men" trope. Just because there is a female character does not mean she needs to date one of the male characters. A female character can exist without needing to enter into a relationship with any character. She can exist without any romantic feelings whatsoever. A female character can simply just exist. They do not always need to exist only in relation to the men around them, as objects to be won, plot devices, or sexy window dressing.
Of course, we cannot discuss problematic female portrayals in comic book adaptations without discussing Whedon’s widely panned D.C. movie adaptation, 2017’s Justice League. When Whedon took over directing duties on JL, it was reported that some scenes were being reshot to further sexual chemistry between Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Ben Affleck’s Batman. This is in spite of the 13-year age difference between them. Men on the internet were quick to point out to me when I voiced my complaints that Wonder Woman and Batman had a relationship in the original comics. But, this just helps to further serve my point — this trope dates back even longer than one would think. The lone female member of any group consisting mainly of men will inevitably have to enter into a relationship with at least one, if not more, of them.
Also, Wonder Woman was introduced as a character back in 1941. Society has progressed in the 80 years since. Acceptable behavior toward women and how they are depicted in the media has thankfully progressed. So maybe we don’t have to be so precious with the more outdated details from the source comics. After all, you wouldn’t be so precious about preserving outdated views concerning race from the 1940s, so why is it so important to preserve outdated sexist attitudes toward women?
Even Wonder Woman cannot escape this degradation.
When it came to Joss Whedon’s JL, many were quick to point out the sexism in a scene where the Flash lands on top of Wonder Woman’s breasts, echoing a similar scene between Black Widow and Bruce Banner in Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. While this scene was thankfully removed from Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the slow-motion-reliant director should not be applauded just yet. A scene Snyder added into his 2021 Justice League in which the Flash and Cyborg are digging up Superman’s body sees the Flash quip, “Wonder Woman … What do you think, man? You think she'd ever go for a younger guy?”
Once again, this exchange shows that Wonder Woman is not seen as an equal by her male colleagues but is once again looked at for the sexual access she can potentially give them. She’s not talked about in the way you should discuss a respected colleague with your peers. It’s this objectification that A.V. Club writer A.A. Dowd adeptly characterized in his review when he wrote, “Gadot’s Wonder Woman is still subjected to some slobbering objectification from her new teammates — proof that in at least one respect, Snyder and Whedon saw eye to lascivious eye.” This goes to show that in both cuts, both male directors sought to objectify Wonder Woman, who was, once again, the sole female member of a male-dominated group. Even Wonder Woman cannot escape this degradation.
My last example of this tired old trope comes from another classic staple of nerd culture — Star Trek, specifically the 2009 J.J. Abrams-directed reboot. In addition to loving comic books and comic book culture as a kid, I grew up loving Star Trek. I was understandably skeptical when a movie reboot was announced, and I have already written about my issues with the whitewashing that took place in its sequel, 2013’s ironically titled Star Trek: Into Darkness. However, my problem with the 2009 Star Trek movie stems mainly from the movie’s treatment of its sole female main character, Uhura. Star Trek: The Original Series (and the Original Series’ subsequent movies) are of course not without their problematic moments for Uhura and women in general — the series began in the 1960s, after all. But typically, in Star Trek: TOS, Uhura is treated by her male colleagues as an equal. They are not competing over who will get to date her or sleep with her or making sexual comments behind her back. They view her as a talented officer and treat her with ample respect. For the most part, she is seen as a capable crew member who just happens to be a woman.
Sadly, that is not the case with 2009’s Star Trek. Uhura is immediately sexualized in the reboot, as she is introduced in a scene where a young James Kirk flirts with her. He then gets into a bar fight with her male peers from Starfleet Academy who don’t like the attention he is giving her. Kirk continues to flirt with Uhura throughout the movie, until it is revealed that she is actually romantically involved with Spock. This move is completely against the spirit of the original series and the way both Spock and Uhura were originally characterized.
Just because there's a woman present in the plot, does not mean she needs to be sexually pursued or romantically linked to any of the male characters to justify her inclusion. The inability to see a woman and not think about how she could/should be romantically linked to the male characters is sexist writing.
TOS depicted both Spock and Uhura as incredibly professional, capable crew members who were dedicated to their jobs. They were not star-crossed lovers with a penchant for inappropriate public displays of affection and getting into lovers’ quarrels in front of their superior officers — such behavior would have been beneath them. Uhura’s story line is then inextricably linked to her romance with Spock in the movies, with any accomplishment undercut by the sheer quantity of time her story line is focused around this poorly thought-out romantic subplot.
A chance to give the series’ sole main female character any impactful story line is squandered instead by relegating her to the role of one of the main male characters’ girlfriends. She is depicted as an object of desire for Kirk and Spock first and foremost and not as a person in her own right. Initially, the audience is asked to invest in her story line with the eventual payoff being whether she will succumb to Kirk’s flirtations or not, and the only reason she doesn’t is because she is already inappropriately romantically involved with another crewmate, her superior officer at that. The fact that we see the addition of a Kirk versus Spock competition for Uhura’s affections, which was not inspired by the original series, in a 2009 reboot of a show from the 1960s demonstrates just how prevalent this trope truly is. Can we please just end it once and for all now?
Now, before someone tries to argue with me that I’ve been giving examples of women who are taking control of their sexuality and sexual agency and using it to their advantage, I need to shut that argument wholly down. I am a sex-positive feminist who is all about people taking charge of their sexuality in whatever way that manifests, however they are comfortable, as long as it doesn’t harm others. But, there is a big difference between a woman realistically taking control of her own sexuality and using it powerfully and a sexualized woman being portrayed through the male gaze. While Sex and the City hasn’t always aged well, I feel the character of Samantha Jones actually does a pretty great job of illustrating a woman who is in charge of her own sexuality in a powerful way. Samantha chooses to have many sexual partners because she simply enjoys living her life that way. She is not typically acting out of insecurity or a need to fulfill a male fantasy — after all, the men in her life are disposable — the fantasy she seeks to fulfill is her own. This is made clear by the many, many descriptions Samantha gives throughout the series of her view around sex and sexuality. Her choices and her agency are her own.
I love watching movies, bingeing TV, and reading all kinds of books. But oftentimes, I feel I am short-changed as a female fan. I am sick of completely unrelatable female characters fed to me through a male gaze. I am sick of sexist story lines. And, you know what, I am sick of being bored! Too many times, female characters are not treated as people by the male characters around them but instead are often seen as a sexual prize to be won. Whole plotlines often revolve around which of the men will end up with the one woman.
I am sick of this trope. Just because there's a woman present in the plot does not mean she needs to be sexually pursued or romantically linked to any of the male characters to justify her inclusion. The inability to see a woman and not think about how she could/should be romantically linked to the male characters is sexist writing. Women can be your friends, coworkers, and a million other things without needing to be objectified or justifying their existence in relation to the men around them. As we move toward a world that is more inclusive when creating content, it is important to be aware of the sexism that still exists and the tropes that feed into it. This sexist trope ruins movies, books, and TV shows for me and countless other female fans. It is time we put an end to it once and for all.