The Disenfranchisement of Female Superheroes in Modern Movies

Comic book corporations are still being run by middle-aged white men and still catering to white males with their stories, without much though to covering other races and genders.

Written by Paul Fontaine

Despite being tailored to a younger audience, comic books (or graphic novels, as they are referred to nowadays) are very much part of the corporate entertainment media. From its beginning, comic book producers were mostly adult white men who drew and wrote stories for young white male audiences. Racial and gender diversity in comics were unheard of, with one exception. As decades have passed and comic book companies have become corporatized—offering entertainment in forms other than books—female representation has been slow to emerge, especially among the recent series of superhero movies.

The two major players in the modern comic book market are the Marvel Entertainment Group (featuring characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man and Captain America), and Detective Comics (DC) Entertainment Group (featuring such characters as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman). Marvel Entertainment Group is part of the Disney Corporation, which earned $2.345 billion in the third quarter of 2016, with DC Comics earning 1 billion in revenue in 2016. Of the two, DC Comics has come out as the more progressive and less sexist, actively working to create female superhero standalone movies.

One major complaint critics have of female superheroes is the way they are drawn. A woman superhero’s powers are often minimized by her physical appearance and proportions, which are often taken to the extreme. Some even believe “they are positively regressive in terms of the portrayal of male and female bodies, and gender relations” (LeBel, 2009, p.1). Sydney Feldhake, who spoke about female superheroes at an academic conference in 2016 added, “even though there are comic books out there that feature women in leading roles, most of the time the images portrayed are hypersexualized and focus on the women’s physical assets instead of her ability” (Feldhake, 2016, p.1).

Starting in the 1990’s and continuing through today, female super characters have grown in popularity and acceptance among both male and female fans. According to John Shelton Lawrence, “in exploring the difference between the relatively mediocre success of the Wonder Woman character (1942 – present) and the smash celebrity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003), …a gradual evolution in public taste for the female heroic” has emerged (Lawrence, 2005, p. 2).

The authors of the communication textbook Media in Society agree, writing “…a new generation of empowered girls and women has led to the inclusion of strong role models in the media, such as physically assertive girls and women who solve their own problems” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, Frechette, 2014, pp. 228-229). Chief Strategy Officer at JWT London Tracy Follows adds “…we need young girls to grow up in the presence of female characters that are active risk takers: female icons who are clearly seen to take on their enemies, their problems and even their ambitions, and risk it all in order to win (Follows, 2014, p. 1).

Unfortunately, comic book corporations are still being run by middle-aged white men and still catering to white males with their stories, without much though to covering other races and genders. While some comic entertainment companies have had success with creating (or rebranding) female superheroes, that success has not translated into more female superhero movies.

Perhaps the unwillingness on Marvel’s part to market and produce superheroine movies and related media products can be attributed to its top leadership. Marvel Entertainment Group’s CEO is Isaac “Ike” Permutter, a 74-year old executive widely known for his eccentricities and considerable frugality. In a leaked 2014 email from Marvel’s Perlmutter to Sony Entertainment’s Michael Lynton which appeared in a Time magazine article, Perlmutter listed three superheroine movies that did poorly at the box office. Without much explanation, he likened all three films to ‘disasters’. According to Eliana Dockterman, “the context of the 2014 email is unclear: Perlmutter could be enumerating the films as proof that female superheroes bomb at the box office, or he may be optimistically hoping to break the pattern” (Dockterman, 2015 p.1) Not surprisingly, Perlmutter’s opinion is shared among the top managers at Marvel Entertainment Group, and its owner Disney Studios. In a May 2016 issue of The Week, screenwriter Shane Black explained that he had originally planned to create a female supervillain, only to be overruled by Marvel management who wanted a male villain. “We had to change the entire script,” lamented Black, “because of toy-making” (Anonymous, 2016, p.1).

Unfortunately, Marvel’s reluctance to produce superheroine movies is not limited to just the big screen, but also toy tie-ins with those films. In 2015, Avengers II: The Age of Ultron debuted in movie theaters, with a series of (mostly male) action figures based on the movie marketed to children. Interestingly, all of the male superheroes were represented in the toy line with one exception: the sole female hero, Black Widow, was not among them. This character’s exclusion drew considerable outcry from comic collectors and movie enthusiasts, both female and male. Subsequently, toy sets added Black Widow figure.

LEGO toys added to the controversy by creating Captain America and Black Widow action figures, a motorcycle, and the quinjet. The set was contentious because the Captain America figure was riding the motorcycle, while the Black Widow figure was in the quinjet. This runs in direct contrast to the Avengers II movie, where Black Widow is clearly seen being dropped out of the quinjet riding a motorcycle following Captain America.

Forbes contributing writer Erik Kain had this to say about the controversy: “Look, the fact of the matter is that these companies are trying to sell toys, not force them on demographics that don’t want them” (Kain, 2015, p. 2). Seeing how the article appeared in Forbes magazine, which is a conservative–leaning business publication, Kain might be accused of offering an expedient rationale to justify what Forbes readers want to hear.

By contrast, DC Entertainment Group’s President and Chief Content Officer is Diane Nelson. Perhaps the fact that a woman is leading a major comics and entertainment company is the reason why DC has been more eager to produce superheroine movies than Marvel. And that enthusiasm is not limited to just movies. In 2015, San Fernando Business Journal reporter Mark R. Madler wrote about a new business relationship between DC Comics, Warner Brothers Entertainment, and toymaker Mattel. The three companies would work together to produce a line of female superhero action figures for release in the fall of 2015. “The DC Super Hero Girls line is a first for El-Segundo-based Mattel in that the company has not previously offered superhero action figures specifically for girls” (Madler, 2015, p 1). DC Entertainment CEO Diane Nelson was quoted as saying, “DC Super Hero Girls represents the embodiment of our-long term strategy to harness the power of our diverse female characters” (Madler, 2015, p. 1). Thus, it appears DC Comics has taken the lead in making superhero toys for girls.

Perhaps the brightest (and perhaps the only) light in the female superhero pantheon is DC’s Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been in existence since 1941 and was the creation of, ironically, male psychologist William M. Marston, who wrote comics under the name Charles Moulton. Regarding her introduction in wartime, author Jennifer K. Stuller writes, “Wonder Woman symbolized women’s participation in the American home front industry during the Second World War— a time when superheroes were the embodiment of American patriotism” (Stuller 2010, p. 8).

The history of Wonder Woman has since waxed and waned, most notably after her appearance in television. While there has been a lot of support for Wonder Woman through the years, there has also been much criticism of her as well: “Just as comic book scholars have been hesitant to proclaim Wonder Woman a feminist icon, so too was Marston’s wife reluctant to align her husband with feminism” (O’Reilly, 2005, p. 3).

After failed attempts to rejuvenate the character in the late 1960’s, Wonder Women was connected with the growing women’s rights movement in the early to middle 1970’s. “Wonder Woman teamed up with the women’s liberation movement to restore the character with her former glory” (Hanley, 2014, p.198). Neal King, writing a 2006 critique of Lillian S. Robinson’s Wonder Women: Feminisms and Superheroes, explains, “by the 1990s, Robinson argues, a postmodern post feminism had set in; comic book heroines took their power to beat male villains for granted, but the heterosexual romance and voluptuous physiques remained the order of the day” (King, 2006, p. 423).

Wonder Woman entered the video age during the mid- to late 1970s, with a television series running from 1975 to 1979. The first season took place in 1975-76, when women had been in the work force for a lot longer. Some supporters might say Wonder Woman was truly a extraordinary in the 1970s because she held down two jobs: battling evildoers as Wonder Woman, and working for a government intelligence agency as Diana Prince.

In 2016, Wonder Woman appeared briefly towards the end of the Superman vs. Batman movie, with much positive response. “Wonder Woman managed to steal the show in her brief cameo” (Shepherd, 2016, p. 2). Following up on that success, DC will be showing a full-length standalone Wonder Woman movie, scheduled for release in June 2017. The movie will star newcomer actress Gal Gadot, and will not only be the latest media version of the amazon princess, but will provide the first full-length movie with Wonder Woman as the sole star.

What was Marvel Entertainment Group’s response to the new Wonder Woman movie? Marvel announced it would release a female standalone movie, Captain Marvel, with new actress Brie Larson playing the lead. Yet the film is not scheduled for release until 2019! That is two years after Wonder Woman will have been released.

In conclusion, the main reason for the lack of female superheroes in modern movies is nothing more than sexism. I have cited examples of how Marvel Entertainment Group, with its owner Disney Studios, has been less than willing to create female superhero movies as well as toys to go along with those movies, even when a female character is present as part of a team. In contrast, DC Comics has taken the lead in superhero movie and movie-toy production, perhaps due to the fact that DC has a female CEO.

There remains a silver lining for Marvel. In September of 2015, Vanity Fair published an article on a management change at the corporation’s entertainment division. Writer Joanna Robinson describes how Kevin Feige, head of Marvel Studios, would no longer report to Marvel Entertainment CEO “Ike” Perlmutter, who heads the entertainment group. Instead, he will report directly to Disney chief executive Alan Horn.

Thankfully, with this autonomy, Feige has already expressed an openness to making a Black Widow standalone movie. Whether or not the movie is actually made, and when it will be released, is open to question. But Robinson writes, “while there’s no concrete evidence that cutting Perlmutter out of the equation will leads to leaps and bounds in Marvel’s diversity, it might well make a significant enough shift in the company’s culture” (Robinson, 2015, p. 3).

Furthermore, in 2015, Marvel introduced Jessica Jones on Netflix, a series about a female former-superhero with dark themes. While using her powers to help people, she apparently cannot help herself deal with an abusive past, causing her to consume a great deal of alcohol. “Our titular hero spends much of her time dealing with textbook symptoms of abuse and self-blame…” explains Cannata-Bowman (2015, p. 2). The first season drew much positive response and a second season of Jessica Jones is reported to be in production. However, if Jessica Jones were to be eventually made into a movie, it would almost certainly be an R-rated film.

Another avenue to consider in the quest for more superheroine movies is through independent media companies. In her book Girls and their comics: Finding a female voice in comic book narrative, Jacqueline Danziger-Russell writes, “through independent comics, we begin to see a revolution taking place: the clear voices of young women are shining through this medium…” (Russell, 2013, p. 31). The same revolution might apply with independent film-producers and directors in making super-heroine movies. Small movie companies are on the rise, challenging the dominance of established of film giants like MGM and 20th Century Fox.

Moreover, more young men and women comic film enthusiasts need to speak out on the lack of gender diversity when it comes to female superhero movies. Movie companies have been taking steps in the right direction, but they clearly still have a long way to go.

Finally, consumer pressure must be brought on corporate businesses like Marvel to adjust their corporate leadership so as to allow women to become senior executives. Such a change would also increase the likelihood of more female superhero movies being produced and enjoyed by both female and male viewers.

Student Author: Paul Fontaine, Worcester State University


Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Dept. of Communication, Worcester State University



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Julie Frechette, PhD, is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Worcester State University, Worcester, MA. She is the co-editor of the book Media Education for a Digital Generation, as well as the book, Developing Media Literacy in Cyberspace. She serves as co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME).
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