Bodysuits, Corsets, Cleavage & Cape: Female Superheroes on Screen Under the Male Gaze

Bodysuits, Corsets, Cleavage & Cape: Female Superheroes on Screen Under the Male Gaze

Before MCU’s first female superhero movie ‘Captain Marvel’ hit the theatres in March 2019, the hype was high and so were the stakes. It was a milestone for the superhero franchise – to be producing their first-ever film entirely centered around a female superhero, often deemed among the most powerful in the comic book universe. Months before its theatrical release, social media was already abuzz with easter eggs, conspiracy theories, and hilarious memes, featuring Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel at the center of it all. However, there was a disgusting trend that crept up alongside all the fun banter.

“She needs to smile more,” came the ridiculous yet most common suggestions from self-proclaimed comic book nerds, who groaned and grumbled about her non-sexualised costume and absence of a protruding derriere. Her curves, cleavage or even smile had nothing to do with the storyline where she spends most of her time flying fighter jets or beating the sh*t out of aliens and goons. Nevertheless, the casting of an ultra-feminist actress like Brie Larson as a female superhero was considered a turn-off by men whose perception of the same is limited within utterly tight spandex bodysuits.

Two years before in 2017, when DC released ‘Wonder Woman’, with the beautiful Gal Gadot in the lead, there was hardly any such backlash. The reason for the difference rests in two words – male gaze. Here are two side by side photos of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel for you to understand better.

(L-R) Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (IMDb)

One does not need to be genius to spot out the clear differences – from costume, skin show, hairstyle to posture – while Captain Marvel fits the ideal depiction of a powerhouse woman, Wonder Woman exudes oomph and sensuality along with her powers.

It is this male gaze that has dominated the portrayal of women superheroes for decades – both on-screen and in comic books. While Superman with his inside-out underwears or body-hugging suits is not essentially perceived as a sex symbol, almost all the female superheroes never had the luck to get out of the hypersexualised male gaze. From Catwoman to Black Widow, Scarlet Witch to Wonder Woman – the universe might change but the perception does not.

Halle Berry in Catwoman (IMDb)

No matter how much we love Halle Berry in all the award-winning roles of her career, no one can hardly ever get over her role in 2004’s Catwoman – an absolute abomination of a movie to say the least. Keeping aside the muddled storyline, cringy dialogues and god-awful cinematography, Berry’s costume itself risked the chance of putting the movie in pornographic category. Director Pitof perhaps missed out on a basic gender sensitisation lesson – that you can depict a femme fatale without making her lean over the ground erotically while dressed in absurdly impractical latex lingerie.

Take the earlier depiction of Black Widow in the initial MCU movies, for instance. A Russian spy with an accent, flaming red curls and all decked up in a black latex suit – who can resist fantasizing about her? On the contrary, the same Black Widow, essayed by Scarlett Johanssen evolved into one of the most important Avenger; with the male gaze slowly wearing off with each movie.

In the end, when she makes the heartwrenching final sacrifice in Avengers: Endgame, Natasha Romanoff is no longer the quintessential hot addition to the team. Rather, with frayed red hair all braided up, and donning a more practical utilitarian suit, Black Widow is the definition of power.

Scarlett Johanssen as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 (L) and Avengers: Endgame (R) (IMDb)

Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch actress Elizabeth Olsen once complained how she was uncomfortable with wearing the corset costume, which accentuates her cleavage above everything else. And soon, there was a significant change in her attire and make-up too.

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Captain America: Civil War (L) and Avengers: Infinity War (R) (Disney+)

From being the exotic Sokovian damsel with revenge of her mind but her fashion game on top at all points, Wanda Maximoff has now emerged to be the supremely powerful Scarlet Witch in WandaVision.

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch in WandaVision (Disney+)

The male gaze is not limited to superheroes only, often it affects our favourite supervillains as well. For instance, in the movie Suicide Squad, the quirky, eccentric and deadly Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has an unnecessary undressing scene, where she flaunts her gorgeous physique in front the cast, crew and audience in a bright red bra and underwear. The scene has become one of the most paused moments in cinematic history.
The same Harley Quinn sports an entirely different avatar, at least costume-wise, in ‘Birds of Prey’, a movie directed by a woman (Cathy Yan). Spot the difference in Margot Robbie’s costumes and posture and figure out for yourself.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad (L) and Birds of Prey (R) (IMDb, Twitter)

As a bonus, we are adding some more non-sexualized, male gaze free depictions of women in the MCU. Brownie points for naming the movies correctly in the comments.

(L – R) Cate Blanchett as Hela, Danai Gurira as Okoye, Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts and Evangeline Lilly as Hope Van Dyne (Disney+, IMDb)

Since multiverses and crossovers are the new trend in superhero cinema at the moment, as women, we can hope that in an alternate universe, Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel does not need to ‘smile more’ to tick all the parameters of being a superhero, or Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn does not need to undress sensually in front of the camera to make the audience take her seriously as a super-villain.

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