When Marvel released their recent cover featuring character Riri Williams as the feature, they were met with backlash enough to pull it before it even reached shelves. At first glance, this seems surprising. The cover does, of course, feature a woman with a sexualised body shape: large breasts, tiny waist, but still curvy where we expect her to be. Although this is clearly problematic, it is the same Marvel stereotyping of women that usually goes unchallenged.
Except in this case the character was not a woman, but a girl. Riri Williams is 15 years old, but J Scott Campbell gave her the body of a (Photoshopped) grown woman. What is equally disturbing is his ignorant response to the criticism he received. He complained via Twitter that he, “gave her a sassy attitude […]sexualising was not intended.”
Riri Williams is a young black girl and ‘sassy’ is a word that is used disproportionately to describe black women. The media, be it music, film or comics, seems to struggle to see a black woman’s strength or assertiveness as anything other than ‘sassy’. It is a rather lazy trope to base a character on, not to mention sexist and racist.
He has also created a girl in the same way he would a woman, without, it seems, thinking twice about whether this is appropriate. Evidently, sexualisation has been normalised to a point where it has lost its meaning to audiences, simply written off as ‘artistic licence’.
This is how Marvel constructs women: every time. The backlash against this particular cover is obviously justified, but Marvel’s persistent refusal to create women who are anything other than a donation to the male gaze of their audience warrants backlash in itself.
Marvel’s sexism is obvious enough in the fact that in the last 10 years, not a single film created by them has featured a woman in the title role. Black Widow of The Avengers-fame is the most notable female protagonist featured in their films, but her trope of a character does little except perpetuate Hollywood’s limiting roles for women.
There is nothing wrong with female characters being sexually active, or using their sexuality as a means of power. The character of the sexy, strong female superhero in a skin-tight suit is not harmful in itself, but it is not enough. Some women may identify with that character, but only some. It seems that Marvel are incapable of understanding women as anything beyond that trope, their part in the plots never extended beyond props to enhance the male storyline. Women are only ever romantic or sexual interests when they are not superheroes, and when they are superheroes, they still have to be involved in their male counterparts’ narratives in some implied way.
Tellingly, Jeremy Renner recently labelled Black Widow’s character a ‘slut’. It was a joke, and she is fictional, but his remarks were gendered and degrading, indicative of a general disregard felt by Marvel toward their only female Avenger. This translated into the non-fictional world of marketing; Marvel shamelessly produced very few Black Widow action figures in comparison to her male counterparts.
It is as if Marvel has not noticed its growing female audience, who now make up 46 per cent of their readership. If they have, they seem intent on reminding them of their limited role in the world. It seems that female fans of Marvel will only ever be represented in the narrowest idea of womanhood. To Marvel, a woman’s existence hinges on her sexuality and her relationships with men, even if she is 15.
Image credit: thwatchitshelf