Sunday, 16 June 2013

Men of Steel - Sexism and the New Superman

From Zack Snyder - the director of the slightly rapey 'Sucker Punch' and nakedly homophobic, machismo-fest that is '300' - Superman reboot 'Man of Steel' is rightly getting a lot of flack from critics for being a terrible movie. I'll post my thoughts on it later in the week, when I get a chance, but today (on Father's Day, no less!) I wanted to write about one particular element that hasn't gotten much attention - and that's the film's abysmal treatment of female characters.

Forget for a moment that "Pulitzer prize winning" reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) - the film's only female with any agency whatsoever - only figures out one key plot point/survives an action scene because a hologram of a man literally tells her what to do, step-by-step. Or the fact that a female military officer only exists to say that Superman (Henry Cavill) is hot and to ask dumb questions in the many scenes of Richard Schiff-powered pseudo-science ("what is terraforming?"). Or the fact that the Daily Planet reporter trapped under rubble during one climactic action scene, is also (with crushing inevitability) a helpless lady. Or the cliche scene that sees Clark Kent come to the defense of a helpless waitress, suffering from unwanted male attention. Or the fact that the henchman of the villain we are most encouraged to want to see die is a woman, becoming the default enemy of "cool military guy #3". Forget all of that for a moment, because I want to talk about the parents.

What really bothered me was the film's relegation of Superman's mothers - alien and Earthling alike - to barely relevant supporting roles, whilst emphasising both fathers. A conscious decision highlighted by the fact that both men are played by high-profile leading men (Russell Crowe as Kryptonian Jor-El and Kevin Coster as Jonathan Kent), whilst the women are scarcely of the same high profile. Incidentally that's not to say they aren't of equal talent: the Academy Award nominated Diane Lane (who plays Martha Kent) and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer (Lara Lor-Van - from whom Superman takes no part of his Kryptonian name) are both talented actors - but they aren't stars. They aren't required to be recognised or loved by the audience as soon as they appear, unlike Crowe and Costner who are expected to exude all the necessary paternal gravitas during the film's many father-son heart-to-hearts.

Comic book writer Mark Waid, author of the fantastic Superman origin story Birthright, penned his own fairly negative review of the film on his blog, after being left "heartbroken" by a midnight screening. But aside from his criticisms, he acknowledged with humility how Snyder's Christopher Nolan produced, David S Goyer scripted movie takes elements from his own telling of the origin story - from visual cues (like the transition from baby Kal-El's spaceship entering Earth's atmosphere to adult Clark Kent - not yet Superman - saving lives) to plot points (Lois Lane scouring the globe writing stories about Superman her editors don't want to publish) and whole chunks of dialogue. And this is true: the film does lift entire elements from Birthright to an almost distracting degree.

So it becomes very telling that when the film takes whole chunks of important dialogue and bonding moments between Clark and his mothers and gender swaps them in favour of male characters. For instance (and these are just a few examples gleaned from quickly flicking through the book again this morning)...

The history of the golden age of planet Krypton is depicted in the film - via a strange, metallic animated background - as quite a traditionally militaristic and very masculine affair. A page from birthright, below (shoddily photographed by me), shows the same historical events: but note ALL the warriors are female. It's a double-page spread and, as you might be able to make out, there's yet another female soldier in the bottom left-hand corner, on the fold. This isn't explicitly mentioned in the text - it's never commented on. It just seems to operate on the logic that Krypton is an alien planet, so who is to say they have adopted the same gender norms? Kudos to Waid and artist Leinil Yu.

Remember in the movie how Jonathan Kent tells Clark that he's the answer to the question of whether or not we're alone in the universe? In Birthright, guess who has that line:

That's right! It's mum. The same mum who, in the film, says and does practically nothing - aside from getting intimated by the bad guy (Michael Shannon's General Zod) and requiring rescue. After which she's completely forgotten about. In fact, Clark leaves her with a bunch of Zod's henchmen and doesn't ever go back to check on her. It's a miracle she survives, because movie Superman's priority in that scene seems to be "punch Zod" rather than "rescue mum".

In any case, Costner's Jonathan Kent gets all of Matha's key dialogue and character moments from Birthright - whilst retaining all his own - and the film is similarly skewed towards the male characters when it comes to the Krypton parents.

In the film, you may recall, it's Crowe's Jor-El who has the courage, scientific genius, emotional detachment and sense of perspective to send his baby son into space toward Earth, and off his doomed planet. Lara presses some buttons to initiate the launch, whilst Crowe has a pointless fist-fight with Zod (action! Please don't be bored kids!), but otherwise she's pretty passive and primarily ruled by emotion. And, when it comes to making the big decision, it's her who is portrayed as reluctant to send the baby into space - whilst Crowe is left to man-up and gets things done.

Here's how the exact same beat plays out in Waid's comic book (below):

That's right: the opposite way. Lara is the strong one, not ruled by emotion, with the courage and hope to send her son into the unknown, rather than leave him to certain doom with them on Krypton. It's Jor-El who wavers in a way that a male movie star apparently can't. Wouldn't that have been interesting in the film? But Russell Crowe had to be shown as the strong one who 1) got things done and 2) actually advanced the story. In the comic it's Lara who actually initiates the entire plot. In essence, she creates Superman as we know him, sending him to our world. And then, on Earth, it's Martha who helps create the man he becomes: the caring, selfless hero and saviour of mankind (incidentally the film makes it very clear - through the line "I'm as American as it gets" - that Superman belongs to the US and not to us). She encourages him and has unshakable faith in him, even whilst Jonathan gives air to doubt.

In fact, part of Martha's role in the comic book is in creating her son's costume and helping to fabricate his nebbish Clark Kent cover identity - both things rendered obsolete in this latest film adaptation, that presumably thought an outfit designed by the hero's mum wouldn't play as especially cool. Instead, in the film, the iconic outfit (or at least a muted and dour incarnation) is bestowed upon him by a holographic Jor-El. That's right: a long-dead father is more useful and relevant in this film than his living mother.

I bring the comic up for direct comparison because it seems clear it was a basis for much of what happens in 'Man of Steel' - and the gender swapping here seems consciously done in favour of the male characters. You can decide whether that's a symbol of patriarchy or the need to give Crowe/Costner more screentime, but either way, I hope you agree: it's pretty rubbish.

Oh and SPOILER WARNING!!!!!!!!!: the film's version of Martha Kent sends her husband INTO THE TORNADO THAT KILLS HIM in order to rescue the family dog. And she's not even shown to feel bad about that. She's a truly wretched character.

Review to follow.


  1. Blatant misogyny and the patriarchal diatribes of Marlon Brando's Jor-El are the reasons I cannot stomach Superman The Movie, Superman 2/ The Donner cut and Superman Returns.

    The same patriarchal propaganda is laced throughout Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy- Batman Begins.

    Apparenly women/ mothers have no input when raising their sons....

    1. Yeah, I was going to write something about the Nolan Batman films in here but didn't want to stray off-topic too much. For the record: I love The Dark Knight and enjoy Batman Begins, but that trilogy takes place in some sort of sterile, A-sexual universe, for sure.

      And - as with most tellings of the Batman story - all the emphasis is on his father, and what he stood for. His poor mum's death is a footnote.

  2. What a load of nonsense. You honestly just feel like complaining about something. Why not commend the fact that at no point in this movie were women over sexualized? There wasn't a single scantily clad woman in this movie. When was the last time you saw a big budget movie without a woman in some sort of undress or ridiculously revealing outfit? All the women were strong, starting from Kal-el's mom going through natural child birth to being strong and sending her child to another planet to save him. Lois Lane going toe-to-toe with army generals and top scientists and proving she's their equal. And the there's commander Faora who is arguably the most badass character in the movie. She takes down a squad of army rangers and thrashes superman by herself! You're wrong. Your article is a load of rubbish.

    1. I concur with you sir. This is some real hyperbolic mangina pandering. The problem is the author of this article doesn't see the attributes you mentioned about the women in this film to be strong.

      This is so retarded. Ask majority of women what they thought of the Superman character? He was uber masculine, and that is the idea isn't it. And thus strong in his on way. Both mother's in this movie, came off as strong pillars in their families. Not some weak shrew who just wants to prove to everyone that she can count and read. True strength, doesn't need to be out front, or famous. Look at the relationship Clark had with his mom years later, that's strength character.

    2. With all respect, when you start writing things like "mangina pandering" and call me "retarded", it's then hard to take any of your points seriously.

      And what is a "weak shrew who wants everyone to know she can count and read"? And how does that relate to anything I wrote?

      The relationship he had with his mum years later? That isn't in this movie at all. Unless you count the bit where he left her for dead so he could help destroy a small town, or the bit where a reporter turns up so she reveals his identity?

      I took issue with the fact that strong elements of the Birthright story by Mark Waid have been included, but all the dialogue given to the male characters. That's just a fact. That's what happened. If you don't think that's sexist, then that's your right. And I respectfully disagree with you.

      And to the anonymous above: the fact that the villain lady killed a bunch of guys doesn't make her a strong character - you're mistaking physical strength with character strength.

      And on the point of the women not being sexualised: you're correct. They were not overtly sexualised. However, the kiss scene was not earned by the movie at all (they had next to no chemistry and barely any scenes together up to that moment), so it does turn Lois' character into a typical movie "love interest" by default. She, like so many movie women, becomes something to be won by the hero. He completes his goal and is rewarded with the woman, as an extension of a male empowerment fantasy. That's not exactly groundbreaking and commendable in the way you suggest.

    3. I didn't call you retarded.

      And I kind of agree with you on the kiss scene. Neither earned that, but if anyone who was more rewarded by the kiss, it was Lois. C'mon, I'm not gay, but if dude just saved my life and the whole world, and can fly, it may hard for me not to be smitten in moment.

    4. You said the article was retarded, which is the same thing - in so much as you're using retarded as a derogatory term.

  3. No not the same thing. I don't believe I'm retarded, and I've said a whole lot of retarded things in my life. Yet I guess it was your turn this time, with this article.

    There are some things wrong with this movie, but misogyny wasn't one of them. Why the first leader we see in the film is an old woman who does not cower.

    You might as well say, "why didn't he make Superman a woman this time, since he was taking so much liberty with the film".
    No, he's a man. And yes that is sexist. But sexism isn't always bad. Neither is racism always bad. Misogyny is bad, yet it is not in this film.

    1. And there you go again. Please stop using retarded as a derogatory term on my blog. I don't care you say you are. You're clearly using it to be negative about my article, and that's not cool. Just say you thought the article was rubbish or whatever - don't bring "retarded" into it.

      And on this:
      You might as well say, "why didn't he make Superman a woman this time, since he was taking so much liberty with the film".
      No, he's a man. And yes that is sexist. But sexism isn't always bad. Neither is racism always bad. Misogyny is bad, yet it is not in this film.

      This has literally nothing to do with anything I wrote. I was complaining about anything of the sort. Is asking for a little more dialogue and agency for the female characters the same thing as wishing there were fewer male characters? Of course it isn't.

      Oh, and sexism is always bad. Because it means this:
      "Prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex."

      Prejudice = wrong.

      And "the old woman who does not cower" - isn't she the leader who doomed the planet against Russell Crowe's wise advice by mining the core and causing it to implode? Yes... very strong female character.

  4. I don't think you understand what sexism means. A person can be male and that wouldn't be sexist. I have yet to come across a situation where either sexism or racism was acceptable. And misogyny is just one branch of sexism; there's also androgyny. If misogyny is bad, and sexism isn't always bad, then can we assume that you mean that sexism when geared towards men (andro) falls into your category of "not always bad,"? From a logical perspective based on information you provided this is the only conclusion I can draw. Yet I doubt you would agree with this conclusion.

    1. Whoops, I meant "misandry," not "androgyny."

    2. I have no idea what any of what you said means. I thought Man of Steel was sexist. Whether or not you think that's a bad thing is your call.

      It was also a lot of other things - namely badly scripted, soulless, joyless CGI-fest, but this is the aspect of it I felt like writing about yesterday because a lot of that other ground has been covered elsewhere.

      What I thought was clear from the article, but which I might have to repeat, is the fact that I'm explicitly comparing the way the origin was done here with how it was done in Birthright (a clear source for the film), with an emphasis on the way the mothers were represented. People commenting on here seem to be calling me out for things I didn't say.

    3. Mr. Beames, I believe the guy you are arguing with now is on your side.

    4. As far as sexism goes. I believe we'd all agree that if their was a job opening, and all the women were told to go the back of the line, so that the men could get a shot first, that this would be sexism.

      But also, if one of the captains of latest cruiseliner blunder called for women and children to take to the limited number of relief boats first, we'd call that heroic. Yet it's still sexist. It's a dividing of the sexes that I, as man, am willing to up hold.

      This is amazing, a movie with no sexual exploitation of women, which is common in comic books, is found to be sexist. Even though the name of the film is "Man of steel". I'm mean dude really, out of all the problems to have with this movie.

    5. Yeah, I didn't understand the other comment but, apologies, I seem to have missed his point. Hands held up, and thanks for pointing that out.

      On your last point, "of all the problems to have with this movie": this isn't my main or only problem with the movie. I have loads of problems with this movie. However lots of people (comic book writers Mark Waid and Brian Bendis, Chris Sims at ComicsAlliance and the guys at the AVClub, to name a few) have made all those points better than I could. This is just something I noticed that I hadn't read about elsewhere and, for me at least, it was relevant. Especially as I was reading Birthright just before I saw the film and - whilst taking so many things from that comic specifically - it downplays the role of many of the female characters.

      To be clear: I'm not against the male representations in the film. I never accused it of being too macho or whatever. It would just have been nice for Clark's mums to have bigger roles in what went down.

      And, as far as a lack of sexual exploitation goes, I'm not about to praise a movie for just not doing something wrong. You say that's common in comic books and comic book movies - but not ones I like. And if it does occur in one I like, I'd say it was an element I didn't enjoy.

      If Man of Steel was a great movie in all other respects, then I'd say so and I'd have enjoyed it. This business I spoke about above was just another of many things wrong with it, from top to bottom.

  5. Yes! Thank you. I'm so glad other people see this. And don't forget that sexism goes both ways: all of the men are portrayed as these tough, unemotional characters who are always supposed to save the day. Being a male, this stereotype gets super frustrating. D:

  6. Thank you so, so, SO much for this article. It's simple, clear and it expresses exactly my thoughts about the film.
    You can't understand how much I was disappointed by seeing Man of Steel.

    "Superman" is a wonderful comic character, but the film interpretation really doesn't do him any favours. And Lois Lane, ugh.
    It's always a nasty surprise to discover that the Damsel In Distress Theme it's still a thing.

    Forgive me for my terrible English!