Do female superheroes have the power to combat comic book misogyny?

Broadside: Suicide Squad may have taken a beating from the critics, but Harley Quinn is one of a growing number of female characters in comic-book movies

Aside from giving critics a good laugh last week, the hysteria over Suicide Squad’s paltry 26 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes reminded us of the not insignificant influence that comic-book fans have on Hollywood’s superhero output.

Suicide Squad, a much-hyped Warner Bros/DC Comics movie based on 1980s comics, was slated by critics but also broke box-office records. As well as deciding the fate of comic-book films at the box office (by stampeding en masse over the bodies of critics to see the movie, in this case), fans are also credited with steering studios towards diversity, as this year’s Comic-Con demonstrated recently.

Marvel announced the cast of its first ever superhero film with a black character in the lead role, Black Panther. That was followed by still more screams of joy when the first ever female-led superhero film was announced as Captain Marvel, with Brie Larson in the title role. The trailer for Gal Gadot’s hotly anticipated Wonder Woman also had fans at Comic-Con frothing at the mouth; it should be worth watching, if the remarks of chief writer Patty Jenkins (“Why do white men get to be universal and everyone else has to be a smaller story?”) are any indication.

Then, of course, there was hype around Suicide Squad itself. Its posters and marketing predominantly featured images of Margot Robbie’s incarnation of iconic bad girl Harley Quinn.

At Halloween last year I ruined my night by confirming to myself that I was the worst sort of late-to-the-game nerd culture appropriator when I looked up the analytics for the most popular Halloween costume of 2015 before going to a party. It was Harley Quinn, and I was dressed as Harley Quinn. My self-disgust only increased when I later revealed to a horrified fanboy in a bathroom line that I had not known Harley Quinn was not an original DC Comics character but a figure from the animated cartoon who was written into the comics later due to her popularity.

Comic-book culture is making its way incrementally on to the feeds of unsuspecting women, becoming an odd bedfellow of feminist culture as female-led comic-book action movies finally get their moment. According to the Hollywood Reporter, 46 per cent of people who went to see Suicide Squad over its opening weekend were women. With this in mind, and in the spirit of being able to hold one’s ground when faced with future bathroom line fanboys, it’s worth knowing why current and future female superheroes matter.

Comic books have gifted us with some of the best expressions of misogynistic and homophobic tropes. There are motifs such as “fridging”, the practice of stuffing a woman’s dead body in a fridge or, metaphorically speaking, turning women into expendable plot accessories to further the hero’s arc. Then there is the expression “bury your gays”, the practice of killing off any gay character as soon as they step out of the closet. And it has to be said, the comic books were far better on the diversity issue than the action movies they spawned (see Miles Morales black Spiderman movie controversy).

[CF413]Fourth-wave cash-in?[/CF413] I don’t care whether movie studios are capitalising on fourth-wave feminism’s ability to sell anything from yogurt to screwdrivers, I am just looking forward to a new generation of female-led superhero movies and the benefits of a whole new selection of affirmative tropes.

It has been 75 years since Wonder Woman, and perhaps the next few months will see some new feminist superheroes in lead roles – they are long overdue. But I am also curious to see how the DC and Marvel universes manage to bring topical issues into complex plot lines and characters while pleasing both the comic-book fandom and the feminists.

In the case of Ms Marvel, rape is a problematic theme in the plot – so will the film do something around consent and rape culture? Will it do something about free the nipple or choice feminism? Will there be something about equal pay for women? After all, the original Ms Marvel was the editor of a women’s magazine and a self-consciously feminist creation.

There’s a lot riding on fourth-wave female superheroes, but I think there’s no way they can disappoint fans or feminists if they deal with the topics head on. I look forward to more kickass female costume options this Halloween.