Gender Roles in Superhero Movies

Term Paper, 2015
24 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 The Damsel in distress

3 Women as Superheroes
3.1 Female Superheroes as the main character
3.2 Female Superheroes as part of a team

4 Female Superpowers vs. Male Superpowers

6 Conclusion

7 Primary Work

8 Secondary Work

1 Introduction

„Gods, angels… Different cultures call us by different names. Now, all of a sudden it‘s Superhero.“[1] This quotation, taken from the movie Hancock shows that the Superhero theme is as old as time. In ancient Greece, Hercules’ super strength came from him being a god and even in the middle ages, when religion was still very prominent, supernatural elements came either from God or from angels. Nowadays we call people who have extraordinary strength or other unexplainable abilities Superheroes. From the first issues of Marvel or DC comics, people were fascinated by these heroes and in the last twenty years many of the most popular Comic book heroes made it onto the cinema screens. When examining these movies a bit closer, one can see that the most successful Superheroes are almost exclusively male, although female Superheroes appeared as early as 1940 in comic books.[2] The goal of this term paper is to analyse the role of women in Superhero movies. What roles do women play and why are they not as successful as their male counterpart? In order to answer these questions, the first chapter will look at the role of women who do not have super powers because it highlights their classical role in this genre. The second chapter will then focus on the Superheroine. It will be divided into two parts, focusing on Superheroines as the main character and as part of a team. Are these characters more successful in a team, and what might be the reason for this? To answer this question, an essay by Betty Kaklamanidou will serve as the main source. In this essay, she suggests that women are subject to the “mythos of patriarchy”, thus they are not able to be completely independent. Before the outcome of the paper’s analysis will be summarized, there will be a final chapter, which will look at the different powers female and male Superheroes have and what can be the reason for this.

Movies that were based on comic books began to be immensely popular when Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie was released in 2000.[3] Since then, new Superhero movies have been coming out almost every summer. It can be assumed that the popularity of these movies can also be reflected in literature, which analysis this phenomenon on different levels. This is, however, not the case. There is hardly any scientific research in the area of gender in Superhero movies. This term paper takes into consideration what little research there is but also looks beyond the printed media into online newspapers and fan forums. The role of women is a highly discussed topic and much of the research has not been published yet, but is reflected in various interviews and newspaper articles online. The main focus of this term paper is, however, an analysis of various movies, which is why these will serve as the main source. As already mentioned above, many Superhero movies are based on comic books. No film analysis would be complete without taking these comics into consideration. An extended comparison of the movie and the comic will, however, not be part of this term paper and will only be done where it is relevant for the general understanding.

Before delving into the analysis, there is just one question that needs to be answered first: What exactly is a Superhero? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a Superhero as, “a character in a story, film/movie, etc. who has unusual strength or power and uses it to help people; a real person who has done something unusually brave to help somebody”.[4] This definition suggests two different types of Superheroes - the fictional who has supernatural abilities, and the real person, who is very brave. Both use their talents to help other people, whereas people who have superpowers who use them to harm people are called supervillains.[5] This term paper will focus on the fictional Superheroes with unusual powers but will also sometimes refer to the supervillain. Initially, it is important to consider the role of women as a supporting character in Superhero movies.

2 The Damsel in distress

In a genre, which is dominated by male characters, it is interesting to consider the role of women in these movies before comparing it to the female characters, which do have super powers. It is of course not possible to look at every Superhero movie, which is why two movies were chosen as a representation for the rest. The first movie is Superman, which was filmed in 1978, and the last one will be the newest adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, released in 2014.[6] This chapter will be analysing the role of women focusing on the leading female roles only. How far does the role change and can they be seen as strong women?

The remake of Superman in 1978 starred Christopher Reeve as the main character and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane.[7] It was tremendously successful, thus producing three sequels in 1980, 1983 and 1987. In all three movies, Superman, an alien from the planet of Krypton, prevents Lex Luthor to take over the world. In order to hide his super power, he creates a cover identity entitled Clark Kent, who works as a journalist for the Daily Planet.[8] It is on his first day at the newspaper that he encounters Lois Lane for the first time, falling in love with her instantly. Lois Lane, however, does not feel the same way about Clark because she admires a man that appeared out of nowhere, Superman. In her Essay The Evolution of Lois Lane in Film and Television, Don Tresca describes Lois Lane’s character as, “a strong committed independent career woman. [...] She is tough and dedicated, willing to do whatever it takes to uncover the ugly truth and expose ruthless criminals for what they really are. She is a brave and resourceful woman who is ready to get her hands dirty and her knuckles bloody if it serves a noble purpose.”[9]

Reading this description, one could say that Lois Lane could serve as a role model of a strong female character. Her job occupation alone is unusual for a woman of her time; although Tresca points out that there were a few examples of women in journalism even as early as the 1940s.[10] Still Lois’s job occupation was unusual especially because she also went into the “field”. Throughout the films, Lois can repeatedly be seen arguing with her boss about stories she wants to chase or how she would prefer to do things her own way.[11] If she thinks a story is worth pursuing, she disobeys Perry White, which Tresca describes in her characterization of Lois as “being brave”. This, however, puts her repeatedly into a dangerous position, which she cannot handle and results in Superman saving her. In the 1978 movie Superman it is not this bravery that puts her into danger. During the movie Lois is rescued twice by Superman. The first situation is at the beginning of the movie, where she takes a helicopter to fly to Washington but unfortunately, it gets caught in a cable and Lois falls down a roof.[12] Superman catches her half way down the building and flies her back up onto the roof. The most important element in this scene is Lois’ reaction to her rescue. Her whole character changes from tough to “fanciful, flustered and foolish.”[13] Larson continues her judgment by stating that throughout the movie, Lois is being tamed by Superman’s masculinity.[14] Just like Superman, Lois seems to have a dual personality. She is strong and forceful, when Clark surrounds her but as soon as she is in Superman’s presence, she is very “girlish”. The fact that she falls in love with Superman, where she can truly be seen as a woman, is viewed highly critical by Larson because it tells the audience that a woman “wants to be overcome by a strong man.”[15] Kidder’s Lois Lane can therefore be seen as a classical “damsel in distress” because her main purpose in the movie is to be saved by Superman and fall in love with him.

As a last example the focus will now be on the most recent film, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, which was released in 2014. In this film, April O’Neil, yet another journalist, discovers that four mutant turtles secretly fight crime in New York City. When a villain named Shredder threatens the city, Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael try to bring him down.[16] The difference between this movie and the other two is that April does not fall in love with any of the Superheroes. There might be three reasons for this. One could be that there is more than one Superhero but movies like the Avengers prove the opposite. In Age of Ultron, Agent Romanov falls in love with Dr. Benner.[17] This relationship will be discussed in more detail in a later chapter but it demonstrates that romantic relationships can happen in Superhero teams as well. The second reason could be that the Superheroes are still teenagers and April is much older. Finally, the Superheroes are also non-humans. More relevant for this analysis is April’s first encounter with the four Hero-Turtles. While the four turtles celebrate their latest victory against crime, April climbs up to the rooftop where they are celebrating in order to get a good picture. The camera flash, however, gave her away and the four Turtles approach her. During this specific scene, in which the four take April’s phone to destroy the picture, April does not say a single word. After the four leave April she loses her consciousness.[18] Before she encountered the Hero–Turtles for the first time, April risked her life in a hostage situation on the subway to prove a story that she has been working on. Even when dragged at gunpoint around the subway station, the image the audience perceives from her is a tough woman who does not fear danger. When she, however, encounters the four turtles, she is so afraid that she faints. This demonstrates that even in 2014, the theme of a damsel in distress is still valid. Just like the other two examples, April is an independent and strong woman but in the end, she still needs to be saved by the Superheroes before falling down a building to certain death.[19]

As a summary one can say that the supporting characters in all three movies have been strong, independent, and brave. Kidder’s Lois Lane was a character of her time. Superman was released during the second feminist wave and Lois Lane mirrors this. As time moved on, the character of the supporting female character did not change dramatically. April O’Neil, on the other hand, is the stronger character and moves the plot of the movie forward by also not providing a love relationship with a Superhero. Both characters, however, need to be saved by the hero and are used by the villain as leverage. But what if the Superhero is a woman? Do they still need a strong man at their side or is there an equivalent to a male damsel in distress? The next chapter is going to analyse the female Superhero in more detail. It will also be analysed if the there is a difference between Superheroines as the main character and as part of a team.

3 Women as Superheroes

“Girls, come on. Leave the saving of the world to men? I don’t think so.”[20]

The above quote, which was taken from Disney’s “The Incredibles”, shows that there is a new awareness of women in the Superhero genre. Is this also reflected in films which were made for an older audience? Marvel’s X-Men comics have always been recognised for dealing with issues of social justice and diversity.[21] The writers of this comic series were among the first who introduced an African American Superhero. Later on, we see the development of a Latino as well as Native American superhero character. Equal representation of women in comparison to men was also something they tried to achieve right from the start. Characters like Jean Grey, Storm, Mystique, or Rogue are important figures in the X-Men universe. In 2013 Marvel Produced X-Men #1 introducing a new team with only female Superheroes.[22] In the following chapters, it will be analysed whether the movies fall short of the comic books or whether they successfully achieved to transfer those strong female characters to the screen. The first part will examine female Superheroes as the main character of a movie, while the second part will analyse Superheroines as part of a team. The main focus especially for the second part will be to recognise the “Mythos of Patriarchy”[23] and in so far as it influences Superheroines within a Superhero team. First, however, the focus will be on Superheroines as the protagonist in a film.

3.1 Female Superheroes as the main character

In 2011, Imagine Games Network (IGN) published a ranking of the 100 top Superheroes. This list, although only representative of the publishers’ personal feelings, is interesting for two reasons: first, because it lists fifteen female Superheroes, and secondly, because out of the top ten, Wonder Woman is the only character without her own movie.[24] These fifteen super heroines listed in the top 100 are not recent inventions acknowledging the female emancipation wave. Their first appearances date back as far as 1940, where Catwoman gave her debut.[25] Since then, many other Superheroines appeared in comic books and also on screen. This chapter will focus on the more recent Superheroine’s films considering the latest two waves of Superhero movies starting in 2000.[26]

Since the year 2000, fifty-four Superhero movies were released for Cinema. Only two of them are films, where the protagonist is female and not part of a team. The first one was Catwoman, which was released in 2004, and the latest one is Elektra, which was released in 2005. Why is it, that so few movies of this specific genre have Superheroines as the main character? The answer to that question is an obvious one: money. Both Catwoman and Elektra did not even equal their production costs. With a production budget of $100 million and a domestic gross of only $40 million Catwoman was a huge flop.[27] Elektra’s situation is similar, although the budget was only $43 million.[28] Why did these movies not attract or interest enough people? Were they not interested in a female led Superhero movie? In order to answer these questions, the film Catwoman will serve as an example and be analysed in the following part.

The desire to do a Catwoman movie was born from the appearance of the same character in Batman Returns. The character of Selina Kyle alias Catwoman was played by Michele Pfeiffer and was according to Liam Burke “was not only the most interesting character of that film but of the entire series.”[29] In Batman Returns Catwoman helps woman who are being attacked or abused. After her performance in this film Michelle Pfeiffer also accepted the role as Catwoman for a solo film but left again before they began filming. In the end Halle Berry played the role and after 28 writers finished the screenplay, Warner Brothers began filming. The movie was released in 2004 and in it Patience Phillips, who later on becomes Catwoman, works in a cosmetics company. When she discovers that her boss develops an anti-aging cream that is addictive and dangerous, she decides to secretly take some pictures of the factory in which this cream is produced. She was, however discovered and died when she tried to escape. When her body was washed up onto the shore, a cat with magical powers breathed new life into her, turning her into Catwoman. From now on, Patience has cat-like powers, such as jumping from great heights and still land on her feet or having a tremendous amount of strength and being very agile. With her new superpowers, she successfully brings down the villain before she runs off into the night.[30]

There are various reasons why the film won the “golden Raspberry” labelling it as the worst movie in 2004.[31] One of these reasons is the plot of the film which is full of stereotypes of women. According to Burk, a possible reason for Patience Phillip’s occupation is to make the movie more appealing to a female audience.[32] This stereotype that women are only interested in romantic movies or in this case, movies about the beauty industry, is, however, not backed by statistics. These ideas show that there are an equal number of women watching Superhero movies, as there are men.[33] Another stereotype is that women solve problems by scratching each other’s faces off, which is what actually happens towards the end of the film. According to Kaklamanidou, this might be due to the fact that there is a lack of female screenplay writers.[34] As already mentioned above, a great number of screenwriters wrote the script for Catwoman but none of these 28 people were female.

The other reason why the film was not successful was also the character of Catwoman itself. Pitof wanted “his” Catwoman to be different from the ones in Batman Returns. When he was asked if he had read a lot of comic books to get familiar with the character of Catwoman he answered:

“No, not really. I checked out some to see how Catwoman is treated in the comics, to make sure that our Catwoman was in the same vein. But I didn’t want to be too influenced by the comic book, because the whole point of the movie is to be first a movie, and to be different. Different from “Batman,” different from “Spider-Man” – this movie has its own identity. I tried to find my sources more in the character of Catwoman herself. To me, the Catwoman we’re filming now with Halle Berry is in the continuity of the others. She’s different than Michelle Pfeiffer’s character, different from anybody who’s played Catwoman in the past. But she is Catwoman. When you look at the differences between the comic book Catwoman and the TV or movie Catwoman, they’re all different-but there’s a feeling that they are all Catwoman.”[35]

There are three points that sum up this answer. First, that Catwoman was not greatly influenced by its original comic character. Second that this Catwoman was supposed to be different from all other Catwomen in previous movies. Lastly, that Pitof wanted the movie to be different from other Superhero movies. Making the movie different from earlier comic based productions is an understandable desire. What Pitof misjudged was the nature of Catwoman’s character. Ryan Lambie even accuses the scriptwriters that they wrote Catwoman out of her own movie.[36]

Before Patience Phillips became Catwoman, she was an ordinary graphic designer at a beauty company. During that time, she met a detective called Tom Lone, who later on will be responsible for tracking down Catwoman and putting her in prison. Patience meets Detective Lone, however, before she becomes Catwoman. During one scene, Patience sees a cat outside her window and because she thinks it is stuck, she climbs out onto a ledge and nearly slips. Detective Lone, who comes to her rescue because he thinks she was trying to commit suicide, spotted this scene.[37] The character of Patience Phillips in this scene is very similar to that of Lois Lane or April O’Neal insofar that she represents a damsel in distress. The only difference between these two characters is that while both April and especially Lois Lane can be seen as tough characters, Patience Phillips’ personality is rather weak. Compared to the life of a journalist who does not run from but towards danger, Patience’s occupation seems to lack an opportunity to plunge into danger. Another difference between a strong damsel in distress and Patience Phillips is that while, for example, Lois Lane needed to be rescued, it took a Superhero to do it, while Catwoman’s former self was rescued by a detective, who according to Lambie, is a weak character himself.[38] A final similarity between Patience and a damsel in distress is that because Detective Lone rescued her, they start to develop a romantic relationship.[39]

When Patience Phillips becomes Catwoman, she changes completely. There are changes that enable her to become a Superhero, such as, being able to jump from great heights or being super strong. She also develops new features, which are due to the fact that she is only half human and half cat. Just like a cat, she avoids rain and eats cat food. She can squeeze through narrow gaps like prison bars and even hisses at dogs.[40] While Pitof wanted his Catwoman to be different from the others and even refused to be influenced by the original comic book character, this interpretation seems to be over the top. Lambie’s comparison sums it up very well when he says: “It’s a bit like making a Batman movie where Bruce Wayne emits high-pitched squeaks and eats moths.”[41] In other words, this interpretation of Catwoman is not only too far away from her original but also lacks dignity.

In conclusion, one has to say that Pitof’s interpretation of Catwoman was unsuccessful because he did not know how to handle a very complex character and downplayed her abilities. His attempt to make the movie more appealing to a female audience meant that Catwoman was concerned about “killer cosmetics while her male contemporaries [where] out saving the world.”[42] Apart from the protagonist’s character, it was therefore the plot that did not draw many people into the cinema. Catwoman was the biggest flop in the Superhero genre but other female led Superhero movies suffered a similar fate in that they had poor plots but more importantly, downplayed the Superheroines’ powers. By simply looking at the DC and Marvel universe, it is evident that there are a great number of Superheroines who are very successful. Most of them are part of a Superhero team. The next chapter will therefore be analysing in how far these heroines are different from the ones in the previous chapter.


[1] Hancock. Dir. Berg, Peter, Sony Pictures Home Etertainment, 2008, DVD.

[2] Cf. IGN

[3] Burke, Liam, Superhero Movies (Oldcastle Book: 2008), 10-11.

[4] Oxford Dictionary:

[5] Cf. Oxford Dictionary:

[6] Cf.

[7] Cf. IMDb:

[8] Cf.

[9] Tresca, Don The Evolution of Lois Lane in Film and Television. In: Farghaly, Nadine “Examining Loise Lane: The Scoop of Superman’s Sweetheart” Maryland 2013, p. 11.

[10] Cf. Tresca Don, The Evolution of Lois Lane, p. 12-13.

[11] Cf. Superman. Dir. Donner, Richard. Warner Home Video, 2002, DVD.

[12] Cf. Superman. Dir. Donner, Richard. Warner Home Video, 2002, DVD.

[13] Larson, Anna-Brita: [accessed 12.07.2015].

[14] Larson, Anna-Brita: [accessed 12.07.2015].

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cf. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Dir. Liebesman, Jonathan. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2015, DVD.

[17] Cf. Avengers: Age of Ultron. Dir. Whedon, Joss. Walt Disney Studio Motion Picture, 2015, Theatre.

[18] Cf. Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles. Dir. Liebesman, Jonathan. Paramount Home Entertainment, 2015, DVD.

[19] Cf. Ibid.

[20] The Incredibles. Dir. Brad Bird. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2005, DVD.

[21] Cf. CNN:

[22] Cf. CNN:

[23] Kaklamanidou, Betty “The Mythos of Patriarchy in the X-Men Films”, in: Grey, Richard and Kaklamanidou, Betty, The 21st Century Superhero. Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film (Macfarland: 2011), 61.

[24] Cf. IGN:

[25] Cf. IGN:


[27] Cf. Box office:

[28] Cf. Box office:

[29] Burke, Liam, Superhero movies (Oldcastle Book: 2008), 113.

[30] Cf. Catwoman. Dir. Pitof, Warner Home Video, 2005, DVD.

[31] Cf. Razzies:

[32] Cf. Burke, Liam: „Superhero Movies“ (Oldcastle Books: 2008), 115.

[33] Cf. Ibid.

[34] Cf. Kaklamanidou, Betty “The Mythos of Patriarchy in the X-Men Films”, 63.

[35] SuperheroHype:

[36] Cf. Lambie, Ryan, „10 remarkable things about Catwoman”, Den of Geek!, [accessed ].

[37] Cf. Catwoman. Dir. Pitof, Warner Home Video, 2005, DVD.

[38] Cf. Lambie, Ryan, „10 remarkable things about Catwoman”, Den of Geek!, (2013).

[39] Cf. Catwoman. Dir. Pitof, Warner Home Video, 2005, DVD.

[40] Cf. Ibid.

[41] Lambie, Ryan, „10 remarkable things about Catwoman”, Den of Geek!, (2013).

[42] Burke, Liam: „Superhero Movies“ (Oldcastle Books: 2008), 114-115.

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Gender Roles in Superhero Movies
University of Duisburg-Essen
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Superheroes, Gender, movies, Superhelden, comics
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Lucia Vitzthum (Author), 2015, Gender Roles in Superhero Movies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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