Welcome to our new occasional series here at MCU Excahnge, The Index, featuring interviews which explore how elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe affect the world we live in — do we really need to be afraid of killer robots? Is a super serum really possible? And just how do the physics of Cap’s shield work anyways? (Yes, probably not, and Because Comics). We talk to experts in their field about what the MCU tells about our own less fantastic but no less strange world.
For some fans, feminism and pop culture have always gone together, but seems to have exploded into mainstream discussion, in recent years and this summer in particular, with discussions around the portrayal of women in films and shows such as Mad Max: Fury Road, Game of Thrones, and (most relevant for us Marvel fans) Avengers: Age of Ultron blowing up online. These conversations provided the perfect opportunity to speak to Sam Maggs, associate editor of The Mary Sue, feminist geek, Marvel fangirl, and most recently, bestselling author of the phenomenal A Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy. Maggs’s book explores the many intersections of fandom and feminism, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to be able to get Sam’s thoughts on Age of Ultron, women in the MCU, and what she’s most looking forward to most in Marvel’s TV, Netflix, and film offerings.
MCU Exchange: The reaction to Age of Ultron feels like a perfect place to start talking about the intersection of feminism and fandom. There’s been a lot of critical backlash, particularly towards Whedon’s portrayal of Black Widow, but in your review of the film you talked about how you felt it was really a great portrayal of women. Tell us a bit how you viewed Black Widow’s character arc and the more general feminist critiques of the film.
Sam Maggs: The thing people seem to be the most disappointed about with regards to Black Widow’s representation in Age of Ultron is the side-plot about her distress over the Red Room. But where some viewers read that moment as a devaluing of her self-worth, I interpreted it more to mean that Nat felt angry over having her ability to make those choices taken from her at such a young age – an age when you shouldn’t be able to voluntarily consent to such a procedure. Nat’s experiences in the Red Room left her without agency; brainwashed, coerced, and made, out of necessity for survival, into the weapon she is today. Part of that involves her own lack of remorse for killing, which is she in fact not entirely comfortable with – and it’s Banner’s very sensitivity to his own destructive potential that is part of Nat’s attraction to him. I think a moment of vulnerability for Nat doesn’t make her any less of a Strong Female Character, but instead helps shape her into what we’re all constantly demanding anyways: a complex and nuanced female character, with emotions and a traumatic past and an imperfect reaction to present circumstances. That being said, feminists don’t share a hive mind, and we’re all entitled to our own opinions, and there have been some very well-written and thoughtful articles about why some people found her character to be problematic. I think that’s just as important as a defense of her character.
MCU Exchange: You’ve also written about how Black Widow, as well other female MCU characters, have mostly been excluded from the various merchandise tie-ins, which both Mark Ruffalo and Clark Gregg have also drawn attention to. Why is this an important issue?
Sam Maggs: Gendered toys are a huge issue because it impacts the way we socialize our children, their development, and the way in which they view gender roles. Girls need to be able to picture themselves are more than princesses – they need to know they can be the heroes of their own story, too.
MCU Exchange: Iconic comic book author Gail Simone coined the phrase “friding” referring to when a female character dies purely in service of a male character’s emotional arc, and in the book you cite Frigga’s death in Thor: The Dark World as an example. Why is fridging an issue for female characters in particular, , and what distinguishes it from other characters who die mostly to serve the growth of main characters – for example Ho Yinsen in Iron Man, Coulson in The Avengers, or even Quicksilver in Age of Ultron?
Sam Maggs: Fridging a female character to motivate a male character is just lazy writing. It’s the same as having a female character be sexually assaulted in order to give her a traumatic backstory. There are so many other ways in which to motivate your characters that don’t involve unnecessary violence against women. Quicksilver’s death in Age of Ultron was remarkable because it was a reverse-fridging; it turns the traditional narrative on its head. But women have been fridged in service of male plot lines for centuries; it’s systemic. Just like there’s no such thing as “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism,” these examples are ultimately false equivalencies. Also, #CoulsonLives.
MCU Exchange: There’s often a critique that female characters in films are sexualized, and while that’s certainly true of the Marvel films – Black Widow’s jacket is always unzipped just so – the MCU films in particular have heavily sexualized their male characters as well, with most films featuring a pretty prominent shirtless scene for its leading men. How do you feel about the characters in the MCU who are overtly sexualized (or not)? Is it OK to sexualize male characters but not the female ones?
Sam Maggs: Again, it’s a false equivalence. The key here is the difference between the male gaze and the female gaze, and from which perspective we’re supposed to be viewing the film. Often, shirtless men in comics and in comic book movies aren’t meant to be female sexual fantasies – they’re meant to be male power fantasies. They’re still being played for the male gaze. There might be a couple of Thor scenes that are made for the ladies (or even, I would argue, Cap’s butt shot in The Avengers), but it’s generally a false equivalence.
[Ed. note: Whedon also noted that Age of Ultron “cut out an enormous bunch of shirtless Chris Hemsworth” and wryly added “You guys have to learn more about exploitation because you are not good at it,” though one assumes these cuts were for length reasons and not to deny audiences the sight of Hemsworth’s abs.]
MCU Exchange: You’ve talked a lot about your love of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and in particular how it handles its female characters. What is about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that you think is particularly powerful, and are there any lessons from it you’d like to see extended in to the films of the Marvel Universe?
Sam Maggs: I think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is remarkable simply for the sheer number of awesome female characters it presents – and they’re each powerful in their own way. May is silent and kick-ass; Simmons is smart and fierce; Bobbi is witty and takes no shit; Skye is quite literally Inhumanly powerful. It presents a broad range of women, and that’s really cool. Too often we see teams with The Girl, who then has to represent for all women, and that’s impossible. There are all different kinds of ladies out there, and it’s nice to see some represented on-screen.
MCU Exchange: Agent Carter was recently renewed for a second season, which has a lot of fans very excited. What were your feelings about the first season, and what are you hoping for from the next one?
Sam Maggs: I thought Agent Carter had brilliant storytelling and stood on its own incredibly well despite being part of the larger MCU. Hayley Atwell kicks ass, and I loved how it handled her moving on from Cap’s death, the sexism of the era, and even female friendship. Next season I’d like to see a little more diversity on the show (and I’d like Angie and Peggy to get together, though that might be a pipe dream).
MCU Exchange: Daredevil was the first of Marvel’s Netflix entries, and though the show primarily revolved around the male characters, it had a lot of great roles for the women as well. Karen Page and Vanessa Fisk in particular are often rather thinly sketched love interests in the comics, but in the show they really got to shine. What are your feelings about these characters, and the “love interests” of the MCU more generally, such as Jane Foster, Pepper Pots, and Peggy Carter in Captain America: First Avenger? Is it intrinsically problematic for the women to be in the “love interest” role or can they play that part but also be exciting characters in their own run?
Sam Maggs: I thought both Karen and Vanessa were examples of awesome women in the MCU who served their own purpose and had their own goals and agendas and agency. It was incredibly refreshing. Peggy and Pepper have also done great things, though I find Jane to be a bit of a weak link in all of this. Ultimately, women are going to continue to be relegated to the love interest or sidekick role (no matter how kick-ass) until we start getting more female-led movies and shows. I’m looking forward to Captain Marvel and AKA Jessica Jones for this reason.
MCU Exchange: Speaking of, AKA Jessica Jones is the next entry in the Netflix series and becomes Marvel’s second entry (after Agent Carter) of a female led show. Are you a fan of the original comic run? What are you looking forward to for her show?
Sam Maggs: I have to be honest – I know very little about Jessica Jones, so I’m very stoked about coming to this show as a new fan and discovering her story for the first time. I’m excited that a female character is going to get her own story. Both Daredevil and Agent Carter are wonderful, so I have high hopes.
MCU Exchange: You also mentioned Captain Marvel, and you’ve frequently talked about how Carol Danvers is your favourite superhero. What are your hopes for her solo film? Are there any particular stories you hope they adapt, or would you prefer they pursue an entirely original story (your suggestions welcome!)? Is there a particular actor or director you’d like to see on the film?
Sam Maggs: I hope they go with Kelly Sue’s current run on the comics – which seems likely, as it ties in well with the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thanos and that whole bag. Katee Sackhoff or Nicole Beharie are my top choices to play Carol. And I hope Chewie makes an appearance.
[Ed. note: “Chewie” is Carol’s pet cat – who is actually an alien creature called a “flerken” – and is named after the famous Wookie. To date, Star Wars/Marvel crossovers remain the sole providence of crazy Patton Oswalt speeches]
MCU Exchange: Finally, I want to end on a major theme of the book, which is the notion of “authentic” fandom. At the very beginning of the book, you talk about how people try to make arguments about who counts as a “true fan,” and you use the example of people saying “you’re not a true fan if you only like the Marvel movies.” Can you talk a bit about this supposed division between the “real” comic book fans and movie fans who are “fake geeks” or just bandwagonners? And how does this issue of “authentic” geekdom affect women in particular, within relation to the MCU and beyond?
Sam Maggs: Gatekeeping is a huge issue in geek culture, and it’s some serious bullshit. Whether you love the Marvel movies or the comics, we are all fans of the same characters and the same stories. If anything, I think it’s cool that the movies are getting new fans into the comics – and we all know comic readership needs the boost. It’s also bringing a new audience to comics, which Marvel is really capitalizing on with all its awesome female titles, like Ms. Marvel, Thor, and (my personal favorite) The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl!
Thanks again to Samm Maggs for taking the time to talk with us. A Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is available online and in all major bookstores, as well as smaller ones that exhibit excellent taste.