Women on Doctor Who: Where We’ve Come From, Where We’re Going

Part 1: Classic Who

I first met the Doctor, Time Lord of Gallifrey, in the early 1980s when his adventures across time and space aired on our local PBS station. There’s a saying among Whovians that “you never forget your first Doctor,” and mine was Tom Baker.  He of the curly hair  with the mellifluous, aristocratic baritone voice, the slightly wild eyes, and the long, colorful scarf. Even as I’ve come to know and embrace other Doctors, I’ve never lost my love for Tom Baker, and over time my husband and I have been adding some of his best episodes to our DVD collection. Sometimes “Classic Who” is just what we’re hungry for.

Not long ago, we watched our DVD of “The Pirate Planet,” teleplay by the legendary science-fiction humorist Douglas Adams (then the newly-minted story editor of the show, and not all that far away from introducing “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to the word). It’s a delightful adventure on the whole, as the Doctor and his fellow Time Lady, Romana (played in this episode by one of my major girl-crushes, Mary Tamm) stop an evil queen from extending her already over-extended life by sucking other worlds dry. Grim as that scenario might sound, the episode has plenty of humor, as Baker’s episodes usually do, and Tamm’s Romana faces danger with the sort of unruffled, witty aplomb I associate with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to those looking to become better acquainted with Classic Who.

Yet as I was reading the Info Text, a DVD feature that gives viewers fun and interesting facts about the production as we’re watching, I learned that Adams’ script had originally called for a heroic female guest star to do in the villainous queen with a well-placed blaster shot. Quite frankly, that would have been nothing less than awesome. In the finished episode, however, the heroine’s love interest wields the blaster and fires the fatal shot. This bothered me for some while after the episode was finished, particularly since Info Text offered no explanation of why the change was made. The female character was certainly brave enough, and the story seemed to have been leading up to her doing something useful. Why take the privilege of offing the villain away from her and give it to the man? I can only surmise the change sprang from a general squeamishness at the thought of a heroine killing someone, however much that someone might have it coming. For a man, killing the villain is proper, but for a woman it’s… unfeminine. I’d say, “That’s the late 1970s for you,” but then I remember that of all the Disney princesses throughout that company’s history, only two (Mulan and Tiana) actually got to kill the villain.

This rewatch of “The Pirate Planet,” along with the choice of Jodie Whittaker to play the Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation, leads me to reflect that to a great extent, the evolution of gender roles over the last fifty years, with all its progressive and regressive complications, can be glimpsed in the history of Doctor Who — partly in the depictions of the Doctor himself, but mostly in the female Companions (Whovians capitalize the noun) who have traveled with him.

Doctor Who was originally conceived as a show for children — or more specifically, a show for boys, and since a show for boys is really a show for everyone (there it is again, that bit of “conventional wisdom” that trampolines on my last nerve), girls would follow where the boys went. The earliest female Companions were designed not to serve as role models for the girls in the audience but to please “the dads” who would be watching with their kids. Not that these characters never had anything to recommend them; for instance, Barbara, the first adult woman Companion, came across as classy and intelligent, often a voice of reason. Yet their purpose was clear cut: to get in trouble and need rescuing, while a male Companion was kept around to handle the action scenes (the Doctor himself being above such things at the time). A studio memo describing Polly, a Companion who traveled with the first two Doctors, offers this blatant statement: “As a general rule, Polly should find herself in dangerous situations from which either Ben or the Doctor, or both, rescue her. She is our damsel in distress” (qtd. in Doctor Who Companions 38).

Zoe Herriott, a computer genius from the future, was perhaps the earliest Companion to move a few steps away from this mold, in that she considered herself the Doctor’s intellectual equal and even, at times, his superior, and could often handle herself in dangerous situations quite well, thank you very much; in the excellent “The Mind Robber,” featuring second Doctor Patrick Troughton, she defeats a man three times her size in hand-to-hand combat. But other attempts to change the early recipe for female Companions didn’t work out so well. One substantial black mark in the area of the show’s gender representation was the firing of Dr. Liz Shaw, a highly competent scientist who was the Doctor’s match in intellect (on the grounds that viewers didn’t like her), and replacing her with high-voiced, wide-eyed, hapless, clueless innocent Jo Grant, who offers no challenge to the Doctor because all he really needs is someone to hand him his instruments and tell him how great he is. Jo does have her moments, and at least she has an earnest desire to be more useful than she’s given credit for. Still, she stands as the penultimate example of the old-school model for the show’s female Companions. Once her tenure was done, audiences were at last ready to try something different.

What we got was Sarah Jane Smith, an investigative journalist who, despite having her share of distressed-damsel moments, still came across as a smart, funny, and courageous individual thanks to careful writing and Elisabeth Sladen’s engaging performance. No matter what the scripts threw at her, Sarah Jane never quite lost her charm, and the show’s fans liked her so much that many years later she headlined two spin-off series, with the latter, The Sarah Jane Adventures, becoming a bona fide hit.  In The Sarah Jane Adventures, she got to be the hero with her own set of young Companions. (Sladen was hard at work on a new season of the show when she suddenly passed away in 2011. Matt and I still miss her.) The show also served as a bridge between the classic “Who” series (hello, K-9, Brigadier Alister Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, and Jo Grant!) and the new one (Doctors 10 and 11 featured in a pair of episodes each). It’s impossible for me to imagine any female Companion who came before her having the stuff to carry her own show.

By today’s standards, Sarah Jane might still tend to get in trouble and need rescuing a little too often, but she did represent a notable step forward, and she paved the way for a pair of Companions who would challenge the old-school model even farther. When Tom Baker took over as the Doctor, the action-guy male Companion was phased out after a few episodes, and after Sarah Jane left, the show did something heretofore unexpected — it filled the action role with a new female Companion, the savage warrior Leela, who, despite being saddled with a skimpy leather costume to hold the attention of “the dads” who still had the TV on after football, managed to kick plenty of butt during her all too brief tenure. Another episode we recently rewatched, “The Sun-Makers,” places Leela in a particularly harrowing spot from which she must be rescued (and even when facing painful death, she remains defiant), but during the course of the episode as a whole, she saves the Doctor more than once. When she is threatened, she doesn’t cringe or cry; instead, she gets angry. I love the way Doctor Who Companions puts it: “Leela would never scream. Her foes, however, often do!” (74)

The next Companion offered an even bigger step forward, one that in the fullness of time has helped lead to where we are now, getting ready for a female incarnation of the Doctor. In Romana we saw our first Time Lady, or female Time Lord, whichever term one prefers — brilliant, sophisticated, inquisitive, different in personality from the Doctor but every bit his equal. Romana would have been inconceivable at the show’s dawn. Susan, one of the first Companions, was supposed to be the Doctor’s granddaughter and therefore (ostensibly) a female Time Lord, but we never really saw her act the part, as we did Romana. Like Sarah Jane, Romana and Leela both found a life after the Doctor as protagonists of their own adventures, headlining a Big Finish Audio series called Gallifrey, in which Romana, the president of the Time Lords’ homeworld, seeks reform and relies on Leela as her most trusted operative.

Sadly, with the departure of Romana from Doctor Who came a creative regime change, and with that a woeful rollback of all the progress that had been made in female Companions’ characterizations. Nyssa, the brainy amateur scientist/engineer from the lost planet Traken, who came onto the show in Tom Baker’s final days, could have been as awesome as Romana, but the show’s new creative team couldn’t figure out what to do with her, and her time on the show was brief. (Luckily, Big Finish Audio productions have given her more of a chance to shine.) We were left with Tegan, a self-described “mouth on legs” with an abrasive personality but few to no useful skills. All the same, even Tegan’s shrill whining was preferable to what came after — Peri, a character so appallingly incapable that I simply will not watch any full episode in which she appears, part of one episode being more than enough. The worst of Peri is that she just wouldn’t leave the show. She stayed on and on, and the writing for her never improved. It was all too obvious that her character, a complete throwback to the distressed-damsel Companions of the show’s earliest days, was designed with “the dads,” not the girls in the audience, in mind.

Yet the tunnel had a light at the end, one who still resonates today. The seventh Doctor and my second-favorite, Sylvester McCoy, spent most of his time on the show traveling with Ace, played by Sophie Aldred. Like Peri, she was an “ordinary” girl, meaning a regular human, but unlike Peri, she had some extraordinary qualities — boundless courage, skills in demolition (Nitro-9!), and a fierce, common-sense toughness; rather than running and hiding from danger, this girl would attack a Dalek (a killer “little green blob in bonded poly-carbide armor”) with a softball bat. In a number of ways, Ace serves as a forerunner to the style of Companion we would see when the show was revived some years later, with Christopher Eccleson as the ninth Doctor. Ace could be seen as a co-protagonist with a character arc that could be charted through the episodes in which she appeared. Many of Ace’s best episodes were as much about her as about the Doctor.

For this Whovian, the Companions matter. I like Tom Baker best not only because I saw him first, but because I enjoy the women he traveled with, Sarah Jane and Leela and Romana. Sylvester McCoy is my second-favorite first and foremost because of Ace. These women have a huge hand in making Classic Who worth watching. Yet the show is still called Doctor Who, letting us viewers know, if we were in doubt, where we should focus the bulk of our attention.

(Coming Next: The “New Who” and the Future)

Howe, David J., and Mark Stammers. Doctor Who Companions. London: Virgin Publishing, 1996.

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A Confession

I have a confession. As much as I deplore the trope when it appears in fiction, I fear that I am “not like other girls.”

I don’t set myself disdainfully apart from the actual girls and women around me. Rather, I have a hard time connecting with the vast majority of movies, shows, and even books that a certain conservative strain in pop culture pigeonholes as “entertainment for women.” I have no plans to read the Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey series, as a pairing of a very ordinary heroine with an uber-powerful alpha-male hero, supernatural or otherwise, doesn’t appeal to me. I have never watched a single episode of Sex and the City. While I appreciate recent/current romantic comedies when they’re done well (e.g. Trainwreck), for the most part I can take or leave them. I loathed Mamma Mia (remind me to tell you that story one of these days). The new breed of raunchy “girl comedies” like Bridesmaids and Rough Night also holds no interest for me. Probably the “girliest” (as defined by the all-powerful Them) shows I watch are Orange is the New Black and GLOW — both of which my husband, who in fact got me into Orange, watches with me.  (Matt read the book Orange is based on, which he told me stops being based on the book at the end of the first episode.)  Yet that conservative pop culture strain still tells me, if not in so many words, “You’re a woman. This is what you get.”

This strain motivates the people who shout “SJW!” at those like me who hope to see women authors and characters better represented in other genres, such as SFF and action-adventure. These people cry foul when female characters are given prominent roles in franchises like Mad Max and Star Trek and when the Doctor regenerates from a man to a woman (an issue I’ll tackle in an upcoming post). Translation: “Get out of our Boys-Only clubhouse. Go watch Sex and the City or… something else!”

Bad news, gatekeepers: I’m not going anywhere. Neither are other women like me, and we are many. In the ways that count, I am “like other girls,” and we won’t be fobbed off any longer with the things you tell us we’re “supposed” to like. (Except pumpkin spice lattes. I love those, and Matt enjoys them too, on occasion.) We’re a colossal part of the reason why Wonder Woman is a bona-fide smash hit, and why we’re seeing more, and more diverse, female characters in the Star Wars franchise, and why BBC chose to take a chance on a thirteenth Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker. Fans who demand male heroes still have an abundance to choose from, but female heroes are now a part of the discussion, and fans like me will not see that progress rolled back.

Still, the wild popularity of “my-monster-boyfriend” books, as well as books like Fifty Shades, makes me wonder. My problem with these stories isn’t so much that they’re ineptly constructed (although I think they are) as that too many people see them as representative of “what women want.” This feeds the neolithic illusion that men are the true arbiters of good taste, that stories by and about women have nothing to offer male readers, and that the only ways to make a female character interesting to a broader audience are to put her in a traditionally “masculine” sphere of action and endow her with skills and traits commonly associated with masculinity. Yet while the monster-boyfriend stories and Fifty Shades thrive, far better stories by and about women, featuring elements that supposedly appeal to women, are waiting to be discovered. Somehow I don’t think these “arbiters of good taste” would find Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart quite as easy to attack as Fifty Shades.

Juliet Marillier, with her superb Sevenwaters Trilogy as well as her YA fantasies Wildwood Dancing and Cybele’s Secret, Patricia C. Wrede, with her funny, insightful rewrite of the usual “princess” narrative The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Shannon Hale, with her lovely fairy-tale retelling The Goose Girl, deserve to be the household names that Stephenie Meyer is. I’m not sure why they aren’t. Less effective marketing, perhaps? I only know that the best girl-centric stories, whether they place their female heroes in presumably masculine spheres or focus on more traditionally feminine environments and concerns, show that girls’ and women’s lives are fascinating and complicated and encompass a lot more than fashion and adolescent crushes. “Girly” does not equal “lower quality,” however much the conservative pop-culture strain would like to convince us it does. The more we can challenge this notion, the better.

To those who may feel they’re “not like other girls” because they don’t see themselves reflected in pop culture’s notions of feminine tastes and preferences, have courage.  Someone out there is taking notice, and it won’t stop with Rey or Diana or Art3mis.  I say again, we are many.

 

 

I Have to Do This Again: A List of Names

When I was re-reading Euripides’ Medea in preparation for a class I’ll be teaching in the future, I came across an element I had forgotten, or maybe my mind had blanked it out. According to the conventional wisdom of ancient Greek culture, the god Apollo and his Nine Muses, the divine forces of artistic creation, did not commune with women. Women were believed incapable of creating anything meaningful or valuable — except babies, of course. This was ostensibly “how it was,” an unchangeable dictate of nature.

On the one hand, it delights me to see how far we as a society have moved beyond this idea. Yet at the same time, I’m saddened when I stumble across signs that some still hold to this view. It’s been tempered a little by time, but at its core it’s still much the same. Instead of “women can’t create art,” we now hear “women can’t create art good enough to deserve the attention of a male audience,” because of course only men are qualified to distinguish the gold from the dreck. One persistent form this idea takes is, “Women don’t write epic SFF.” Evidence abounds that this assertion is false; I’ve debunked it on this blog before. But it just keeps coming up, most recently in an article in the National Review, supposedly intended to expose the Bechdel Test as “useless political correctness.”

Here’s the article’s most fascinating aspect: it doesn’t deny that women lack representation on the Big Screen. It admits that the biggest blockbusters tend not to include many female characters, and the scarcity of women in important movie roles is just what the Bechdel Test was designed to highlight. But according to the article, this inadequate representation is women’s own fault. Apparently we just don’t tell the right kinds of stories. The big blockbusters are written by men, and male writers/filmmakers can’t be expected to include women in any meaningful roles (or so this article seems to think). Just look at the SFF section of the bookstore, it says, the place where filmmakers get their ideas for big-budget spectacles. All, or nearly all, the writers are men. And like the ancient Greek permutation of the idea, it’s presented as “the way things are,” as if the strides that have been made since the days of War Games and The Last Starfighter were an illusion or a fluke.

So yet again, I’ve gathered evidence to show this notion is just plain wrong. First I turned to Goodreads, to the lists where readers voted on “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century” and “Best Fantasy of the 90s,” and I focused on the first page of each list, the 100 highest vote-getters. Here books by male and female authors compete for space; how would the works by women measure up? Male-authored books did outnumber them, true — but on “Best Fantasy Books of the 21st Century,” thirty out of the top 100 spots went to works by female authors, and on “Best Fantasy Books of the 90s,” thirty-seven of those top spots went to books by women. That is hardly an insignificant minority, let alone an invisible one.

But the National Review author referred to bookstore shelves, so I went to my closest used bookstore, Books for Less in Buford, GA, and took myself straight to the shelves reserved for SFF. I started writing down every female name I came across. (I only included ‘initial’ given names if I already knew the writer was a woman.) This is what I found:

Lynn Abbey. Shana Abe. Elizabeth Alder. Alma Alexander. Margaret Allan. Katherine Allred. Jessica S. Andersen. Zoe Archer. Keri Arthur. Catherine Asaro. Christina Askounis. Jody Lynn Nye. Jean M. Auel. Camille Bacon Smith. MargaretBall. Gael Baudino. Hilari Bell. Marcia J. Bennett. Nancy Varian Berberick. Carol Berg. Laura Bickle. Anne Bishop. Jenna Black. Cat Bordhi. Elizabeth H. Boyer. Leigh Brackett. Marion Zimmer Bradley. Rebecca Bradley. Andre Norton. Mercedes Lackey. Gillian Bradshaw. Patricia Bray. Patrica Briggs. Kristin Britain. Mary Brown. Kathleen Bryan. Lois McMaster Bujold. Anne Kelleher Bush. Rachel Caine. Trudi Canavan. Pat Cadigan. Marie Brennan. Jacqueline Carey. C. J. Cherryh. Deborah Chester. Jan Clark. Jo Clayton. Molly Cochran. Amanda Cockrell. Shirley Conran. Storm Constantine. Dawn Cook. Louise Cooper. Juanita Coulson. Joan Cox. Janine Cross. Terrie Curran. Julie E. Czerneda. Rowena Cory Daniells. Anne Elliott Crompton. Sarah Douglass. Mary H. Herbert. Margaret Weis. Carole Nelson Douglass. Alyssa Day. Dianne Day. Pamela Dean. Susan Dexter. Diane Duane. Doranna Durgin. Kate Elliott. Rose Estes. Annaliese Evans. Erin M. Evans. Linda Evans. Jennifer Fallon.

But wait. I’m not finished.

Janny Wurts. Jane S. Fancher. Lynn Flewelling. Quinn Taylor Evans. Mary Gentle. Alexis A. Gilliland. Carolyn Ives Gillman. Christie Golden. Maggie Furey. Jeaniene Frost. Shayla Black. Sharie Kohner. Yasmine Galenorn. Kathleen O’Neal Gear. Kelly Gay. Diana Pharaoh Francis. Cheryl J. Franklin. Margaret Frazer. Nancy Freedman. Lorna Freeman. C.S. Friedman. Esther Friesner. Elaine Cunningham. Lisa Smedman. Gayle Greeno. Nicola Griffith. Barbara Hambly. Joan Lesley Hamilton. Laurell K. Hamilton. Virginia Hamilton. Tara K. Harper. Deborah Harris. Elizabeth Haydon. Lian Hearn. Barb Hendee. Zenna Henderson. Marie Lands. Laura Hickman. Robin Hobb. Tanya Huff. Angela Elwell Hunt. Mollie Hunter. Elaine Isaak. Michelle Izmaylov. Jean Johnson. J. V. Jones. Sherryl Jordan. Aline Boucher Kaplan. Katharine Kerr. Katherine Kurtz. Patricia Keneally Morrison. Elizabeth Kerner. Kimberly Iverson. Gini Kock. Elizabeth Knox. Sharon Shinn. Rosemary Edgehill. Lynn Kurland. Anne McCaffrey. Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. Julian May. Adriane Marine Barnes. Ann Maxwell. Karen Marie Morning. Janet Morris. Marianne Marcusi. Louise Marley. Ann Marston. Juliet Marillier. Jessa Slade. Morgan Llewellyn. Elizabeth A. Lynn. R.A. McAvoy. Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Rebecca Lickiss. Jane Lindskold. Holly Lisle. Julie Leto. Margaret Lawrence. Tanith Lee. Sharon Lee.

There’s still more.

Ursula K. LeGuin. Lynda LaPlante. Dinah McCall. Patricia McKillip. Juliet McKenna. Lyda Morehouse. Fiona McIntosh. Vonda McIntyre. Karen Miller. Donna McMahon. Richelle Mead. Shirley Meir. R.M. Meluch. Judith Moffat. Elizabeth Moon. Alanna Morland. Kate Mosse. Sharan Newman. Shann Nix. Lisanne Norman. Naomi Novik. Theresa Oliver. Fiona Patton. Julienne Osborn McKnight. Diana L. Paxson. Donita K. Paul. Irene Radford. Marita Randall. Melanie Rawn. Micket Zucker Reichert. Laura Resnick. Jenna Rhodes. Jennifer Roberson. Joyce Ballou Gregorian. Jane Routley. Kristine Katherine Rusch. Michelle Sagara/West. Melissa Scott. Josepha Sherman. Susan Shwartz. Jan Siegel. Joan Slonczewski. Kristine Smith. Jeri Smith-Ready. Julie Dean Smith. Midori Snyder. Melinda Snodgrass. Nancy Springer. Mary Stanton. Mary Stewart. Kathy Tyers. Deborah Talmadge-Blackmore. Judith Tarr. Sheri S. Tepper. Lisa Tuttle. Joan D. Vinge. Paula Volsky. J.R. Ward. Jo Walton. Elizabeth Willey. Liz Williams. Anna Lee Waldo. Kathryn Wesley. Catherine Wells. Kate Wilhelm. Connie Willis. Patricia C. Wrede. Susan Wright. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Jane Yolen. Lisa A. Barnett. Sarah Zettel.

This doesn’t include a number of well-known names, such as Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor, whose books haven’t yet found their way to these shelves. It also leaves out writers of best-selling YA fantasy, such as J.K. Rowling. Even so, surely all these names don’t represent only one to ten percent of SFF bookshelf space. If they do, boy, would I love to visit that bookstore.

So once again, the evidence shows that women do write SFF — some urban fantasy, some paranormal romance, some epic and historical fantasy. There is no subgenre in which female authors haven’t participated. So I’m left with the question: why does the myth that women have no significant voices in SFF persists, when it’s so obviously not true?

And I’m left with only one very sad answer. It persists because of those who want it to be true, and believe that repeating it often enough will make it true. This is what we’re up against.

So I have to do this again.

(NOTE: In my previous draft of this blog, I included a link to the National Review article. I have since thought better of it and omitted that link. The women whose names I have italicized deserve our attention. The author of that article does not. Tor.com’s latest Sleeps With Monsters commentary by Liz Bourke has some choice words to say about the ongoing foolishness. I link that instead.)

 

 

 

Assessing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 2

WARNING: Spoilers for the MCU.

(NOTE: My Good list from my previous post omits the best film I’ve seen based on a Marvel Comics property, Logan, the swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It has its share of grit and grime, but it also has a heart and a grace note of hope, and it boasts sterling performances from all its principals. The movie’s young heroine, Laura, is almost a co-protagonist in terms of the development and emphasis she is given. But I had to leave it out, since it’s not officially a part of Disney’s MCU. I just wanted to note my regard for it.)

THE OKAY:

Captain America: Civil War. Third time isn’t quite the charm for the Captain America series, at least where female characters are concerned. While I enjoyed the intriguing and charismatic Black Panther (the highlight of the film, for me), and the movie’s central question of how and why superheroes might be policed has no easy answers, the problem is that the more characters are included, the less development there is to go around, and this time, sadly, the women (Black Widow and Scarlet Witch) are given short shrift. Black Widow does get my favorite line in the movie, however; when another character asks her whether anyone has ever told her she’s paranoid, she responds, tongue firmly in cheek, “Not to my face. Why? Has somebody said something?”

Avengers: Age of Ultron. Some of the fun of the last team-up is preserved, and the addition of Scarlet Witch is welcome, but again, Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow is underserved. In the first film, she plays the distressed damsel. In this one, she is the distressed damsel, the only team member to get captured. She observes and thinks while in captivity, but she must wait for her male partners to rescue her — a sad case of a sequel being less progressive than its predecessor in terms of representation and challenging the old gender stereotypes.

Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is an engaging anti-hero, and while non-powered love interest Pepper Potts is a quivering bundle of terror at the climax (as well she might be), she still manages to be useful. Yet Pepper’s first scene puts a bad taste in my mouth that never quite goes away, as she refers to dispensing with Stark’s latest bed-mate, an investigative reporter, as “taking out the trash” — to the woman’s face. What exactly makes this woman “trash”? That she sleeps with Stark, or that she asks him hard questions? Or is this a way of pointing out that “trash” is how Stark sees her? Because Pepper is the heroine, we in the audience are clearly supposed to be fine with this bit of catty slut-shaming. Well, sorry. It bugs me.

THE DISAPPOINTING:

Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, or The Movie Everyone Else Loves. I can handle a villainess like the High Priestess of the Sovereigns as long as the female hero gets her share of badass moments. Gamora, my favorite green-skinned assassin, gets one, and only one, badass moment, and it takes place in the movie’s first ten minutes. Thereafter she gets next to nothing to do but fret about Peter Quill and commiserate with her evil sister Nebula. To make matters worse, we’re introduced to Mantis, a thinly veiled stereotype of an Asian “comfort woman” who has very little to contribute and is accordingly the first to get knocked out at the climax. Aside from Quill himself, the only members of the team who have truly meaningful “hero moments” are Rocket Raccoon and ex-villain Yondu. As a result I find myself longing to edit the Sovereigns right out of the movie. It has plenty of story without them, after all.

Doctor Strange. Setting aside the obvious objections — the miscasting of Tilda Swinton in a role for which Michelle Yeoh would have been ideal, and the criminal underdevelopment of yet another non-powered love interest (I swear, once, just once, can’t a superpowered man fall for a superpowered woman? Just to shake things up?) — my dissatisfaction can be summed up by a brief description of the climactic battle. Evil is represented by a man and two women. On the side of Good, we have three men. I just can’t bring myself to be okay with that.

Thor: The Dark World. Kenneth Branagh’s failure to return as director should have been sufficient warning that a lot of the earlier movie’s charm would be lost in this one. Its worse crime: the reduction of Jane Foster, the active and competent heroine of the first film, to a damsel who does nothing useful until the last fifteen minutes and who spends nearly half the running time unconscious, being carried hither and yon by Thor and even Loki. In the first film, I could almost understand why Thor would fall for Jane when the amazing Sif was right there, but in this one it becomes a clear case of “Gentlemen Prefer Damsels,” a trope that sets my teeth on edge. Not helping matters: seeing another female character go full badass just long enough to get herself killed.

Iron Man 2 and Iron Man 3. The most important thing about these films is how little I remember them. I remember from 2 the first appearance of Black Widow getting a big build-up with little payoff and Tony Stark being a charmless jerk for most of the running time. From 3 I remember Pepper finally getting superhero capabilities only to lose them, because apparently a superhero’s love interest just has to be an Ordinary Girl. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you a thing about what happens in either of these films.

HAVEN’T SEEN:

Ant-Man. The sidelining of a capable potential female hero in favor of a less competent man is actually a significant plot point in this one, and a closing-credits scene really can’t make up for it. It just isn’t for me.

THE OUTLOOK:

Spider-Man: Homecoming. Despite great reviews, I will probably wait for the Blu-Ray release to see it. I have heard from people who note that the movie shows a conscious effort to make its young female characters smart and interesting, and this time around they aren’t damseled. Good. But I think I may need a bit more distance from Wonder Woman in order to enjoy it properly.

Thor: Ragnarok. My lack of interest in this one is based entirely on the trailer. Cate Blanchett’s Hela is a powerful force for Evil, but unfortunately it looks like Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is also a villain, albeit a more minor one. No one remotely like a heroine, let alone a female hero, appears in the trailer. Some movies seem to have been designed from the ground up to please me (from last year, Hidden Figures, Moana, and Zootopia). This one looks as if it were designed not to please me. All the same, I’ll keep an eye out for some Spoilery reviews, because sometimes trailers are misleading.

 

Assessing the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Part 1

I’ve always contended that fan battles are, for the most part, silly — as if you couldn’t enjoy both Star Wars and Star Trek, or appreciate David Tennant and Matt Smith in the role of The Doctor. Yet if I had to choose a side in the contest between DC and Marvel Comics properties, I would declare my allegiance to Marvel. The only superhero graphic novel series I’ve taken an interest in over the last few years have been She-Hulk (the “Superhuman Law” stories), Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, and Squirrel Girl. In the realm of television, the only DC show I watch is Supergirl, yet I’ve followed Agents of SHIELD, Jessica Jones, and Agent Carter, and my husband and I are just starting on Luke Cage. In animation, DC has an edge, since Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Young Justice were all favorites of mine, yet I don’t think the DC Animated Universe has released a strongly female-positive movie since Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. (And no, I’m not keen at all to see Batman and Harley Quinn.) On the Big Screen, for me at least, there’s just no contest. I haven’t seen, and don’t plan to see, every Marvel Cinematic Universe release, but in general the MCU adopts the tone I prefer to see when I watch a superhero flick — fun, energetic, and on the whole optimistic. Marvel all the way.

But now that Wonder Woman has happened, I’m a little less sure. After years of waiting, we finally have proof that a female superhero can serve as the lead in a good movie that people want to see. No longer can Hollywood execs point to Catwoman, Elektra, and Red Sonja as evidence that comic book movies featuring female heroes just don’t work. Those days are gone, and good riddance to them. Yet I find myself retroactively disappointed in the Marvel films, that so far none of them have shown remotely the same kind of faith in female superheroism that we see in Wonder Woman. In the Marvel films, when female heroes (not superheroes; of all the women I’ve seen in Marvel films, I can think of only two on the side of good that possess any superhuman qualities) show up, they’re part of teams on which they’re outnumbered by men, and in most of these films the female leads aren’t heroes at all, but love interests, women of Kleenex whose usefulness varies wildly. Yet Kevin Feige, executive in charge of the MCU, claims with pride that his movies are full of “strong women.”

Some of them are. Yet none of them are protagonists. Perhaps it’s time to take stock.

THE GOOD:

Captain America: The First Avenger. My love for Peggy Carter, absolutely the best non-powered love interest any movie superhero ever had (although Steve Trevor comes very close), is already well documented here. This movie also shines for me thanks to Chris Evans’ sheer likability as Steve Rogers (which hopefully the MCU will maintain, avoiding that “Cap is Hydra” trainwreck), the World War II setting, and the rousing musical score. (Just try getting “Star-Spangled Man” out of your head.)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier. An adventure more stark in tone than the first film, more appropriately “wintry,” it’s still a lot of fun to watch (the elevator scene is a highlight) and it features two badass ladies, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and SHIELD agent Maria Hill, both of whom manage to kick extensive butt despite having no superhuman abilities. This one also stands out as the only superhero film I can think of to focus on a friendship, not a romance, between its male and female leads.

Thor. In this movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, best known for his adaptations of Shakespeare, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor exudes the charm and charisma of the swashbuckling heroes Errol Flynn played back in the 1930s, and Christopher Hiddleston’s Loki is by far the MCU’s most interesting villain. While I don’t care much for Natalie Portman’s listless performance, I do admire the character of Jane Foster, whose scientific inquiries are relevant to the plot, and whose friendship with her intern Darcy counts as the first (and so far, the only) example of true cameraderie between women we’ve seen in the MCU. Then there’s the awesome Sif, finally a superpowered woman. A pity her role is so small.

The Avengers. This movie opens with a brilliant subversion of the distressed damsel trope, as a tied-up Black Widow plays the role just long enough for her supposed captors to feel comfortable with their presumed upper hand — and then she demolishes them. The rest of the film lives up to this good start, as each hero gets a chance to shine. Plus, Loki’s back! The moment when an old man who remembers Nazi Germany refuses to bow down before the conquest-minded Loki stirs the heart. These glimpses of the heroism of ordinary humans help make the best MCU films special.

Guardians of the Galaxy. This one has some problematic elements, but I admit I was hooked from the opening credit sequence (featuring Star-Lord dancing through a swamp fill of poisonous lizards to the tune of “Come and Get Your Love”), which ended up setting the tone for the whole movie. Since I have a soft spot for nonhuman characters, I love it that only one of the team is human. Gamora the assassin is, surprisingly, the film’s moral compass, the one whose decision sets the plot in motion. The problem: leaving gender out of the equation for the moment, the writers evidently feel the audience can only identify with the human, so Gamora isn’t allowed to be the protagonist. The good news is that the human male protagonist is only able to save the day in tandem with his team.

Any of these movies I’d happily rewatch in a heartbeat. All of them feature heroines I can get behind. Yet I can’t help regret that even in its best films, the MCU hasn’t yet achieved a female hero. Next year’s big offering, Black Panther, promises to feature a whole coterie of badass women, and I can’t wait to see it. But it’s called Black Panther for a reason.

Still waiting, Marvel.

(Up next: Part 2, The Okay and the Disappointing)