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Credit: Disney/Warner Bros. 

How the heroine has evolved this decade

Contributed by
Dec 16, 2019

Even just a decade ago, major film franchises felt a little … cozier. In 2010, Harry Potter and Twilight were beginning to wrap up with their seventh and third installments, respectively. The Marvel Cinematic Universe was practically a baby with its third film, Iron Man 2. And of the ten top-grossing films in the United States that year, only three were distributed by Disney: Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland, and Tangled.

A decade later, the landscape looks and feels radically different. Major film franchises whose releases function as pop culture events have largely been inescapable since the dawn of the millennium, but the studio power behind them has consolidated considerably in the last 10 years. In particular, Disney acquired Lucasfilm, Marvel, and, as of earlier this year, 21st Century Fox. Six of the 10 top-grossing films in the United States in 2019 were distributed by Disney, with one more being co-produced by Disney-owned Marvel Studios (Spider-Man: Far From Home), and I'd be shocked if Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker didn't become the seventh and eighth entries on that list.

And the financial expectations for these films have skyrocketed since 2010. It's now almost expected that one of these films will rake in at least $1 billion worldwide when everything is said and done. Obviously, inflation, the rising cost of movie tickets, and the good ol' 3D/4D/IMAX upsell definitely factor into this. But of the 44 films in the billionaires' club (unadjusted for inflation) as of this writing, only seven were released before 2010. As of August of this year, Disney claimed the record for most films released by a studio in a calendar year to earn $1 billion at the box office with five films. Again, I'd be shocked if Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker didn't balloon that number to seven in time.

A tentpole film is a film meant to be a sure-fire money-maker for a studio, propping up the rest of the studio's slate for the year and offsetting the costs or slimmer profit margins of smaller films with its boffo box office like a … tent pole. In 2010, tentpole films were already crowding the landscape; in 2019, it's impossible to move without cracking your head on one.

Spoilers for many, many films below.

In 1997, media scholar Henry Jenkins Jr. told The New York Times in a piece about fanfiction that it "is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk." Twenty-two years later, I think about this quote constantly, because it just gets more and more true.

Looking at these films, then, gives us a unique opportunity to track the evolution of the heroine and who she (and we) have been allowed to be in the last 10 years. In 2010, Rey wasn't on the radar. In 2019, Captain Marvel is explicitly the strongest Avenger. How did we get from here to there?

Credit: Marvel Studios

Black Widow

If we were trying to track the evolution of the genre franchise heroine in the teens through a single character, we could do it with Natasha "Black Widow" Romanova. Heck, her entire life span on the screen is contained within the decade, being introduced in Iron Man 2 (2010) and killed off in Avengers: Endgame (2019).

When we're first introduced to Natasha undercover as Stark employee "Natalie Rushman," it's sex appeal first. Pepper Potts immediately warns Tony Stark that "she is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that." After doing some on-the-spot research that heavily features "Natalie" as a lingerie model in Tokyo, Tony informs Pepper that he "wants one."

It's not a particularly auspicious start, even if "Natalie" is meant to be an identity irresistible to Tony to get Natasha where she needs to be. But it was par for the course in the early teens. Over at DC, Natasha's closest counterpart was Anne Hathaway's Selina Kyle in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, another slinky, catsuited white woman comfortable to use her sexuality and/or femininity to achieve her goals. When a lackey taunts her by asking if the high heels she wears for her criminal acrobatics make it hard to walk, she kicks him and sneers, in her sing-songy voice, "I don't know, do they?"

This moment highlights the narrow archetype Natasha and Selina in the early teens. This would be a good time, as a femme myself, to point out that the issue is never that a female character is femme, conventionally attractive, and/or weaponizes her sexuality. The issue is when we look around and realize that it's the only story we're being told about heroines. As author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned us at the turn of the decade, the single story can be dangerous.

Selina only appeared in one film, but Natasha slowly became more fleshed out. In The Avengers, she's presented as a working spy and a founding member of the Avengers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier ran with that take, presenting Natasha as a career spy doing her damnedest to do her job and do it well in an even messier world. Avengers: Age of Ultron shoehorned in a plot about Natasha's infertility to awkward and unpleasant effect, but she went out in Avengers: Endgame as the de facto leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. Seeing Natasha as a soldier struggling to grieve by doing the only thing she knows how (her job) made losing her all the sharper. A far, far cry from being a shiny object for Tony Stark.

And as Natasha became more fully developed, she was joined by other women. The girlfriends of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (pour one out for Betsy Ross, y'all) gave way to friends, sidekicks, and heroines, enough to populate an entire "big damn heroes" shot in Avengers: Endgame. A few notable entries, however, are Hope van Dyne, a legacy heroine in her own right; Gamora, whose deep complicated relationship with her sister Nebula rivals that of Thor and Loki; and, of course, the many and multifaceted women of Black Panther, who honestly deserve an entire book to sing their praises as a nuanced group of women across the age spectrum.

But it still took until 2019 for a Marvel heroine to headline her own movie (on her own; sorry, Ant-Man and the Wasp) in Captain Marvel — a milestone DC managed to beat with 2017's Wonder Woman.

Credit: Warner Bros.

I don't think it's useful to pit Captain Marvel against Wonder Woman; if there's anything I want you, dear reader, to take away from this, it's that the more stories about women (and other marginalized folks), the better. But I want to discuss them together because they both highlight and explore aspects of living life while being female (or read as female) that clearly come from lived experience. Carol realizing that her mentor is, in fact, a man so insecure he demands she fight him to prove herself to him when she clearly has the upper hand; Diana being frustrated in her quest for justice by the bureaucracy and social expectations of man's world. But as much as I loved No Doubt's "Just a Girl" kick in over a major action sequence in Captain Marvel, there's nothing compared to Themyscira.

Seeing a world for women, by women, where women over 40 not only existed but were powerful? Soulful? Didn't apologize for their faces or even think to appeal to men because they didn't think of them at all? I can still summon the chills I got the feeling the emotion from the women in the audience at my many screenings of the film as we watched Robin Wright's Antiope utterly destroy. Natasha opened the door for superheroines subtly; Diana kicked the floodgates wide open with her mothers and sisters.

Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney

Jedi

I've never forgotten a particular encounter between two female Star Wars fans I witnessed at Dragon*Con in my youth. The younger fan told the older fan she'd loved seeing female Jedi in the prequel trilogy. The older fan told her, "I had been waiting to see a female Jedi since 1977. Since before you were born!"

I think about that older fan a lot—she had bone-white hair down to her knees, a style I plan to adopt the second I turn 60—and I hope she loved seeing Rey in 2015's The Force Awakens as much as I did.

Rey obviously has female predecessors who broke representational ground in Star Wars. Leia, of course, who becomes Rey's mentor of sorts, and Padmé, but also well-developed characters like Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress in The Clone Wars. But she was the first female character in Star Wars to be presented as the protagonist the same way Luke was presented as the protagonist in the first film. Not only she is also a Force user from a desert planet, but The Last Jedi has her train under Luke as Luke trained under Yoda.

As brilliantly portrayed by Daisy Ridley, Rey gets to be heroic, funny, talented, and human. The Star Wars sequel trilogy subtly refocuses on characters with a lot more at stake, like a stormtrooper refusing to participate in senseless murder. So where Luke wanted adventure in the great wide somewhere, Rey yearns for belonging, because the idea that she was thrown away on purpose is far too painful for her to bear. Rey's emotional desire for something like family is allowed to sit alongside her incredible prowess with the Force and mechanical know-how; it doesn't make her weak, even as it drives her to explore a strange connection with her nemesis Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.

As wary as I was of the idea of Rey getting platonically cozy with the man who tortured her in The Force Awakens, it comes across more like an abandoned child unwilling to abandon someone else, especially if Luke refuses to help the Resistance. And, most importantly, it shows Rey walking away from that connection when she realizes that for all of Ren's talk of burning things down and starting over, he can only conceive of a galaxy where the two of them are in power … so long as she remembers that she comes from nothing. Being able to see a heroine make a mistake like that, survive it, and learn from it felt like a breath of fresh air.

But Star Wars' heroines on the big screen also suffers from the threat of the single story. While the sequel trilogy has been introduced more female characters and characters of color, the most important women onscreen in the Star Wars franchise are all, for some reason, petite white brunettes who talk rather posh (American or English accents accepted). Even Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, starred Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. It's something I hope The Rise of Skywalker disrupts.

Credit: Sony Pictures

All-Female Reboots and Long-Awaited Sequels

The film history classes of the future will be littered with endless papers about the 2010s passion for the reboot. While the reboot has been a part of cinema since the dawn of the art, the flooded reboot market of the 2010s stems from studios being eager to capitalize on known intellectual property they already owned the rights to.

But many studios decided that a fresh coat of paint was in order to make these reboots relevant. Shared Marvel-style universes being built out of extant properties were popular, like Split, a stealth sequel to Unbreakable, as were affectionate self-parody, like the excellent Lord and Miller Jump Street films.

But the trend of interest here is the all-female reboot. Despite the sheer amount of press coverage, the trend generated very few actual films. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was remade into The Hustle; Ocean's 8 was a sideways sequel to Ocean's 11 starring Danny Ocean's sister; and What Men Want was, of course, a genderflipped version of What Women Want.

But the centerpiece of those film history class essays will be Ghostbusters (or Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, as it's sometimes known). Paul Feig's reboot took the basic premise of the original—ghost hunters as exterminators played by comedians—and gave it to four female comedians. The resulting film is a fun riff on the original film, offering a different comedic approach, a more emotional buddy comedy structure, and Kate McKinnon licking a gun before kicking some ghost butt.

But the film faced a severe backlash, with comedian Leslie Jones, in particular, suffering so much harassment on social media that she briefly left Twitter. While the film certainly has its problems, the most vocal complaints came from people who saw the all-female cast as a gimmick or "too political," as if the choice to have the original film feature only men as Ghostbusters was somehow an apolitical choice.

Toward the end of the decade, the reboots began to give way to a different trend: long-overdue sequels. Rather than reboot the premise with women, why not just refocus on the women who were always at the heart of things? 2018's Halloween found Jame Lee Curtis reprising her role as Laurie Strode, now a long-term survivor more than ready to face her ultimate nightmare again, and 2019's Terminator: Dark Fate found Linda Hamilton back in the saddle as Sarah Connor for the first time since 1991. One of the benefits of this approach is that it inherently creates roles for women over 40. Fingers crossed that this trend sticks.

Where To Next?

While we remain far from our heroines achieving parity with their staff counterparts, genre franchises have come far in the last 10 years. Genre franchise films now feature more plentiful heroines and often engage with issues real women face, rather than focus on a more generic, male-gaze-y version of "girl power."

The 2020s already look promising. Harley Quinn, whose origin story of surviving an abusive relationship was elaborated on in 2016's Suicide Squad, is headlining her own girl gang film with Birds of Prey. Jane Foster will be taking up Thor's hammer in Thor: Love and Thunder, which may also feature Valkyrie looking for a queen. And not even death will stop Marvel from giving Black Widow her due, as she's due to finally receive her own film next year.

But it would be disingenuous to end this discussion without pointing out that nearly all of these heroines are white, cis, able-bodied, and (presumed) straight. I do love that I live in a world where I can see Carol Danvers and Maria Rambeau raise a child together on the big screen, but we can't pretend that subtext is as good as text, especially when the representative character isn't the lead. There is a lot of work to be done.

Work that is being done in independent films like Fast Color, a superhero film about a family of black women contending with superpowers in a water-scarce future. In the age of streaming, independent films that feature diverse representation are more accessible than ever. But the genre franchise heroine remains the most mainstream representation of what women are allowed to be onscreen and in popular imagination. Things have definitely progressed and improved since 2010 for women; I hope to say the same thing in 2020 along many other axes.

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