The DC Extended Universe Must Do Better By Its Female Characters

If the DC Extended Universe wants to thrive, it must start doing better by its female characters – and not just the one named Wonder Woman.
By  · Published on April 4th, 2016

Sooo…how about that Batman v Superman, huh? It’s still all anyone wants to talk about, and so I find myself writing another article about it more than a week after release. Regardless of how you felt about it, there were some major problems with the film that are hard to ignore or excuse. In particular, it’s impossible to deny that the film didn’t exactly treat its female characters well. But if the DC Extended Universe wants to thrive, it must start doing better by its female characters – and not just the one named Wonder Woman.

I’m one of the few who won’t complain about Wonder Woman’s limited screen time. It wasn’t her movie, after all. Her filler scenes in the first two acts of the film were not a problem with any inherent issues with her being a female character, but rather just the narrative challenge of trying to shoehorn her into the film in a meaningful way. And, frankly, she was by far the most fantastic part of the final battle scene. You got glimpses of the fierce warrior she could, and hopefully will be, in her solo film, and that was enough for me.

No, the problem I had with the film and the way it handled its female characters had nothing to do with Wonder Woman, but with the other women in the film. Consider the other five women with speaking roles: Jenny Jurwich, Mercy Graves, Senator Finch, Martha Kent, and Lois Lane. Of those, Jenny Jurwich was an ultimately pointless character, there for a few filler lines and nothing more. So that leaves the other four. Let’s take a look at what happened to them in the film, shall we?

Mercy Graves, Lex Luthor’s personal assistant/right hand, was killed in the explosion at the Senate hearing. Why? No reason. As the one who orchestrated the explosion and architect of countless deaths, Luthor could have easily told Mercy about it beforehand or saved her before the bomb went off, rather than just saving himself. It would have had no bearing on the plot had she survived, and, in fact, it would have actually made more sense. Yet, he left her to die in the explosion like everyone else, nor was any explanation offered. She was sacrificed for literally no reason.

Senator Finch, as well, died in the explosion. While her death certainly made more sense from a narrative perspective, it came after one final insult of Luthor replacing her water with a jar of his own urine, an ultimate slap in the face and last degradation to her before she died. It was an unfortunate and embarrassing end for a character that, to that point, had been one of the few women to hold her own and be fully formed on screen, neither needing to be saved by or bow to the male characters.

Martha Kent’s arc was gruesome. Her kidnapping at he hands of Luthor’s henchmen wasn’t just a kidnapping; the pictures Luthor scatters at Superman’s feet approached something closer to a snuff film, a gruesome violation of her autonomy as a character. There were definite Killing Joke vibes with it, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It wasn’t that she was kidnapped as a damsel in distress; it was that she was kidnapped, tortured, and threatened with being killed, not painlessly with a gun, but torched to death with a flamethrower. It was sadistic and vicious and vindictive in a way that was deeply unsettling, and had it had a point, I might have accepted it. But once again, this narrative decision was made for no reason. Kidnapping her would have been more than enough to propel the plot forward, but she also had to be degraded and stripped of her innate hope and strength. In essence, the film took as much pleasure in breaking Martha Kent’s spirit for no reason as it did in breaking Clark Kent’s for a reason.

And as for Lois Lane, well…”damsel in distress” was a phrase tailor-made for her arc in the movie. It’s a continuation of her role in Man of Steel, but even more pronounced in Batman v Superman. And yes, this is often her role in the comics, but it’s 2016 – it would have been quite easy to make her a stronger character in the films. But, just as with Martha Kent, her life was used as a bargaining chip to bring Superman down. It was not as drawn out and torturous, but the same disregard Luthor showed for women in particular applied to her when he pushed her off the roof. In all honesty, it didn’t particularly matter whether she lived or died; she was merely used as a tool to rouse Superman into action multiple times. She was not her own person, but merely a narrative deus ex machina to trot out whenever the film needed a catalyst to get Superman to take action. And let’s not forget the gratuitous almost-boob shot! As a sidenote, this didn’t exactly paint Superman in a flattering light, either: The one who is supposed to be the most selfless of them all was only spurred into acting heroic when the woman he loved was in trouble? That’s a pretty crappy Superman, if you ask me.

The disregard for women was so pervasive and such a part of the natural tapestry of the film that I didn’t even truly realize its full scope until after I started mulling everything over after leaving the theater. And that’s exactly the problem. So far, treating its female characters poorly (for the most part) has been built right into the DNA of the DCEU. Again, setting aside Wonder Women, and Martha Kent’s much better showing in Man of Steel, the films haven’t exactly created a track record that gives me confidence it likes or understands its female characters very much. It’s worth noting that the most prominent, notable scene in the first two Suicide Squad trailers regarded Harley Quinn. But not Harley Quinn, quippy psychopath, or Harley Quinn, clever acrobat and force of nature, but Harley Quinn, slowly bending over in a pair of Daisy Dukes with her ass showing to the camera – and, not coincidentally, to the male audience eagerly watching. Sex sells, certainly. Anyone would be naive to think it doesn’t. But what the trailers have sold hasn’t been Harley Quinn as a person, but as a sex object, with that particularly chosen scene saying to the audience, “This is the hook, this is the most important thing about her. She’s hot and she’s crazy and she’s probably down to fuck, boys.”

For those who point to the upcoming Wonder Woman film as if it nullifies all the rest of the problems the universe has with women, I say to them: It’s not enough. It’s a start, certainly. And I am truly excited for her solo film. But when only one woman is being given autonomy, when only one woman, so far, in the entire universe is able to hold her own and not treated as cannon fodder and frigid to further a male narrative, that’s a problem. And it needs to change, fast. I hold out hope that Suicide Squad‘s Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller, Enchantress, and Katana will be amazing characters and help balance out the thus far bro-centric universe that Zack Snyder has built. My God, they need to. Because right now, the DCEU feels like a world that doesn’t particularly care to include or care for women much at all. And because of that, it’s a world that many women, including myself, have no desire to revisit again.

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