There is a famous scene towards the end of Avengers' Endgame where all the female characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe strike a pose and prepare to fight the aliens unleashed by Thanos. Hailed as a moment of "empowerment," this scene showed the diverse female characters in the MCU and each of the strengths they possessed.
In the franchise's subsequent films and TV shows, more "powerful" female characters are introduced, including Yelena Belova, Kate Bishop, America Chavez, Kamala Khan, and the newly powerful Jane Foster. She now wields Thor's mighty hammer, Mjolnir. Her new powers reinforce the "empowered female" archetype portrayed in the MCU.
But is Marvel really doing its characterisation of female superheroes properly? These women have powers, but are they given depth and nuance by writers and producers? Or are they just token female representation that is too often objectified?
The case of the female Thor
With the release of Thor: Love and Thunder in theatres, the subject of female representation is a timely and controversial one. When Marvel announced months ago that Natalie Portman would be the female Thor in the movie, fans quickly criticised Portman's petite figure. In short, they believed she was not physically fit enough for the role.
After ten months of intensive workouts and an intensive protein diet, Portman is receiving praise for developing strong arms that are fit enough to wield a hammer.
However, the criticism of Portman's casting shows the reality that movie-makers face regarding female representation: the established audience is young, white, cisgender, and male. Therefore, they still hold narrow stereotypes about what females should be.
Although Marvel tries to subvert gender stereotypes, the studio inevitably retains other stereotypes to cater to the established audience. There is still token female representation, so audiences are not alienated or ostracised.
For Portman, this means that while she worked out to build strong arms and muscles, she is still subordinate to Chris Hemsworth's Thor because she is first and foremost his love interest. She has no agency or character motivation other than being the romantic partner of the main protagonist. Her character development is linked entirely to Thor's perception of her.
When female superheroes are objectified
Another issue with Marvel's representation of its female superheroes is that they are objectified and hypersexualised.
A report by Hillary Pennell and Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz at the University of Missouri suggests that female superheroes in movies are often unrealistic, with large chests, curvaceous backsides, and unattainable hourglass figures. Often, their outfits are skintight, accentuating their sexuality, while the female characters' names connote allure and mystique.
According to Pennell and Behm-Morawitz, although powerful female superheroes might promote egalitarian beliefs about gender roles, their objectified nature might negatively affect girls' and women's body image and self-objectification.
Is Marvel trying to rectify its mistake?
Scarlett Johansson paved the way for female characters in the MCU as Black Widow, but she was not immune to objectification in the Iron Man films. Her role was initially to be the eye-candy for Tony Stark, but gradually her character changed. It also took years before she got her first solo film in the MCU.
In succeeding films and shows, Marvel tried to rectify its mistake by not centring characterisation on appearance. The Scarlet Witch underwent an emotional awakening as she lost the love of her life and her children in WandaVision.
Marvel also introduced characters such as Black Panther's sister Shuri, whose advanced technological skills have helped Wakanda thrive into a great albeit secretive nation. Aside from Jane Foster, Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie is a familiar face in the Thor: Love and Thunder movie. Her character is a mighty warrior with deep trauma who fought with Thor when Surtur destroyed Asgard during Ragnarok.
Marvel is trying its best to introduce more progressive female characters, but they must do much more than beef them up to prove that they are great characters.