All-female reboots of classic all-male films have been coming thick and fast over the past few years, and there are more to come. At the same time, the comic mills of Marvel and DC have begun to translate some of the female superheroes that started life in the comic books into the mass-pop-cultural forms of film and television.
At their best, these films and shows offer a kind of revisionist thinking. They reclaim pop-cultural history for young female audiences. At their worst, they demonstrate the film and television industry’s cynical profiteering from contemporary feminist ideals.
The seemingly empowering message of these all-female remakes and superhero productions is that women can do anything men can do. However, just because the films and TV shows feature predominantly women, or a female lead protagonist, it does not mean that they are feminist.
Despite, or maybe because of, the misogynistic vitriol surrounding the run-up to the release of 2016’s all-female Ghostbusters remake, Hollywood is lining up a succession of women-led blockbusters that mostly take the form of reboots. Ocean’s 8, released in June, brought a glittering array of stars (Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, and Rihanna) to the classic crime caper previously headed up by George Clooney and, before that, in 1960, by the Rat Pack.
Disney is planning to remake the 1991 action film The Rocketeer, based on a comic-book series, with a female lead. Talks are even underway about an all-female remake of William Golding’s classic novel The Lord of the Flies. The 1988 film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin, is being remade with Rebel Wilson in one of the lead roles. And Splash, the 1984 Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah mermaid romance, is in the process of being gender-swapped with Channing Tatum playing the role of the merman.
Captain Marvel is also coming to the big screen in 2019. Carol Danvers, a US Air Force pilot, becomes superhero Captain Marvel when her DNA becomes fused with an alien’s during a crash. Jessica Jones, Marvel’s tough-nut private detective with super-human strength, has been captivating Netflix audiences and critics alike since 2015. Ms Marvel (aka. Kamala Khan), who is Marvel’s first teenage Muslim superhero, is rumoured to be the next candidate for big-screen release. At the same time, DC comics successfully relaunched Wonder Woman to popular acclaim in 2017 and Superman’s cousin, Supergirl, has been heading up her own television series since 2015.
These reboots and superheroes have been seen as a bold step towards equality in an attempt to feminize traditionally masculine roles. “See,” the trailers imply, “women can fight baddies/aliens/ghosts too!” In the case of Lord of the Flies and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, they will no doubt revel in the “novelty” of women being barbaric or roguish. In the case of Splash, won’t it be hilarious to see Jillian Bell sexually objectifying Channing Tatum?
Women’s visibility, it seems, comes at a cost. Instead of feminizing masculinity, we’re seeing an attempt to masculinize femininity, apparently because male role-types are what studios think audiences want. These films pay lip service to feminism by featuring more women, while continuing to tell the same old lucrative stories with the same values.
Superhero films and all-female reboots are part of the myth-making machinery of contemporary neoliberal feminism. Gender inequality is acknowledged, but responsibility for addressing the problem lies with individual women. We turn a blind eye to the social structures that uphold inequalities.
Take, for example, the structural issue of how few women are writing, directing, and producing our films and TV shows. Traditionally risk-averse studios shy away from new stories created by women. Among the top 100 grossing films of 2017, women represented only 8% of directors, 10% of writers, 2% of cinematographers, 24% of producers, and 14% of editors. The female ghostbusters, scoundrels and superheroes urge young female audiences to self-empowerment, but, at the same time, they often mask the value systems underpinning the stories themselves, as well as the politics of their production.
The first set of values emerges in the remakes: women can be more visible in front of the camera, as long as they stick to stories written by men and originally played by men. They just have to be better at it—as the criticism around the new Ghostbusters film demonstrated. This is the type of neoliberal feminism expounded by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in her bestselling book Lean In.
The second set of values, underlying the superhero genre, in particular, pertains to individual exceptionalism. Superheroes represent our imagined best selves. Contemporary female superheroes dazzle us with their ability to do and be everything, and if we were only to fully optimize and empower ourselves, we might be like them. The radical individualism of the most popular superheroes—culminating in the moment in every film or show when the hero must stand alone to face the enemy—reflects the narrative that neoliberal feminism pushes every day: you are responsible for your own success, and, if you fail, you have nobody to blame but yourself.
The #MeToo movement shows that collective action and solidarity among women can still effect large-scale social change. Yet a great deal of our popular entertainment continues to promote individual self-reliance and strength as the only option for truly “super” women. Without the possibility of aspiration being a shared social and collective capacity, rather than an exclusively individual undertaking, terms like “empowerment” become meaningless. Let’s leave the remakes and superheroes behind and take seriously the opportunity to tell some new stories.