I’m about to make a claim here that I will attempt to support with a look at the woman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This post may have spoilers to any number of the Marvel movies that have come out so far, especially Guardians of the Galaxy. You have been warned.
I have a theory, ladies and gentlemen: Gamora may be the best independent woman of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’m laying it out there on the line and saying it. And now, I’m going to try to explain why.
There’s no doubt that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereafter referred to as the MCU) has represented some kickass women characters, with large roles or small ones. Yet when looking at each of the women in the context of their own films, we might see some seriously problematic relationships that these women have with their own power and agency within the narrative. No matter how each character strives to escape from the stereotypical tropes that have plagued women characters in cinema, in one way or another they fall into those very pitfalls. These top pitfalls are:
- Are introduced as love interests or sex objects,
- Kept passive for most of their role or only given agency to act when commanded by a man to do so,
- Are given such a minute role as to be two-dimensional or incidental.
Let me say one thing before we continue too: Just because a woman character has problematic issues in regards to their agency in the narrative or their being created as relationship fodder does not make them inherently uninteresting or valueless. Narratives have problematic characters that we can still like, and women characters that we can look at critically within the narrative structure. This is not an aim to knock ‘weaker’ women or ‘traditionally feminine’ characters. This is talking how these women stand up to the rubric of being women characters that operate with their own agency and have their own character arch outside of being a love interest.
With that said, the women that we’ll look at in this article that will stand up beside Gamora are everyone from Nova Prime to Jane Foster, Black Widow to Peggy Carter. And each time, the characters come away with something problematic. Let’s start from the top.
Women Introduced As Love Interests / Sex Objects
In most male-driven films, women have been alternately introduced as associates or most often both a love interest and a sexual object to be stared at (the object of the sexualized gaze). When a woman character is introduced into the narrative this way, it is often with the intent of making them reactive to the needs of the man in the plot, or to provide emotional sway over the male characters by the woman being put in danger. This is the case for such potentially interesting characters as Jane Foster, Pepper Pots, and (unfortunately) even Peggy Carter. All of these women have varying degrees of their own character arcs, but are inevitably turned into the emotional crux upon which the man’s narrative turns. Jane Foster, the brilliant physicist, is turned into an appendage to Thor or a damsel in distress. This is true of Pepper Pots, who despite developing her own narrative for three films remains under the power of Tony Stark. Peggy Carter and Black Widow stand out as two women who nearly escape this problem, but Peggy is the developed love interest and emotional crux of Steve Rogers’ entire storyline, and Black Widow was first introduced as a sex object for Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. Though she has developed out of that original interpretation, the focus on Widow’s sexuality in the first film mars her more nuanced representation in Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Women Without Agency
One of the points cried by many about the women of the MCU is that they represent a step forward in being ‘strong female characters.’ However much I happen to love this term, I only love it when it means what it actually says it means. This wonderful article talks more about what’s called ‘Trinity Syndrome’, or the way in which a female character will initially come across as a badass, independent, thoughtfully designed woman character with agency, when in fact they are just the same passive characters rewritten with a shiny ‘tough girl’ wrapper. I unfortunately must place one of my personal favorites, Lady Sif, into this category. She is coded to be the tough woman, a woman warrior among men, when in fact she is a completely reactive character who makes no impact on the story that isn’t in support of her unrequited love interest, Thor. The villainess Nebula from Guardians of the Galaxy is in the same situation, as she acts only upon the orders of her father or, later, the deadly Ronan the Accuser. Peggy Carter in the Captain America: The First Avenger film is very much coded this way. Though she is presented as an intelligent, brave, outspoken woman, she remains passive throughout most of the film and reactive only when spurred by the needs of the men around her. (Her television series will hopefully break her of this issue). Black Widow’s character arch is all about her attempt to find independence from the machinations around her in many ways, and the end of Captain America: Winter Soldier has her finally acting instead of reacting to everything. Yet we have yet to see Natasha really reach that point.
Women As Background
Then we have the background characters that are simply too underdeveloped to give us a clear picture of what they are. Maria Hill in the Avengers, Nova Prime in Guardians of the Galaxy, and Frig from Thor 2 are like this. (Frig has the double issue of not only being a background character, she is also killed to induce emotional impact on her son’s Thor and Loki, invoking the often-used Women in Refrigerators trope).
There is one background/sidekick character given agency and movement, and that is Darcy, Jane Foster’s assistant. However she is such a background character that her impact on the story is nominal. Yet she perhaps is one of the closest to defying these pitfalls, and would be a great representation if not for the fact that she was a background character.
So who does break these patterns?
Gamora as written in Guardians of the Galaxy operates within the confines of what is expected of an action movie heroine and then defies those expectations. She has a character evolution over the story, acts as the catalyst for the action by acting with her own agency, emotes without being forced into the role of the emotional crux of a love interest storyline, and is not overly sexualized in the film. Instead, she exists in a place in the narrative as a woman who is respected (even feared), is competent at what she does and is never belittled for it, and who shows emotional depth and vulnerability as well as unbelievable strength and will.
Gamora is the adopted ‘daughter’ of Thanos, who kidnapped her as a child and turned her into a killer for him. Seems he does this a lot, because he has other children who do his bidding. Yet Gamora, despite her position as a killer for her ‘father’, retains some ethical lines that she will not cross. When she discovers that Thanos has promised he will destroy a planet for Ronan the Accuser, she turns against her father to save millions of lives. She operates with her own set of moral and ethical boundaries and intercepts Peter Quill with the orb and ends up tossed in prison when she, Peter, Rocket, and Groot are caught fighting by the Nova Corp. Despite the fact that she is in prison with people who want to murder her for her former allegiance to Thanos, she remains composed and focused on her mission. She never backs down from her ethical choice: to help stop Ronan from destroying that planet. Unlike Drax, whose mission to stop Ronan comes from his own personal vendetta, and unlike Quill and Rocket (and Groot?), she isn’t in it for a payday. She genuinely is fighting to stop a genocide from happening, one woman condemned by those she is trying to protect. Each time she is put in a position to make a choice regarding continuing with this deadly course of actions, she remains steadfast in trying to stop Ronan’s plan, and in fact sways Star Lord towards a more altruistic choice by her own continuous conviction.
Gamora also stands as a woman who defies the stereotype of a female love interest in an MCU film. There is no doubt that GotG codes the ongoing relationship between Star Lord and Gamora as a flirtatious one. Yet from the minute she meets Peter, Gamora is inured to his charms. Every time he flirts with her, including the scene where he introduces her to music through his headphones and tries to get her to dance, Gamora revolts against Star Lord’s moves. She calls him out for basically thinking that space girls are easy, a fact that Star Lord has proven early in the film with his randy escapades. And she does it with flare too. I mean, come on, pulling a knife and saying she won’t fall for his ‘pelvic sorcery’? Throughout the movie, Gamora might start finding Star Lord a little more attractive, yet never does she become ancillary to the plot in order to simply be his love interest. Far from it: Star Lord is the reactive one, who cedes the power in decision making to Gamora’s drive to save the universe. Gamora explores her feelings as an equal, capable of remaining active and in charge of her emotions and even physical wants (if those exist) without losing her agency, identity, and integrity.
Gamora also defies the stereotype of the hyper-sexualized comic book heroine. Sure, she’s dressed in tight leather in the film, but so is the frickin’ raccoon. The camera does not linger any longer on her body than it does on the equally attractive Star Lord. While there may be one shot that could be considered questionable (it lingers on her ass for a moment), its intent seems more to focus on the weapons on her hip than on her rear. Gamora is not created in this space as a piece of flesh to be stared at, but a woman who carries her beauty as just another part of her, and certainly not as a part of that is coded specifically to be stared at as a sexual object.
(And yes, at the very end she wears a little dress. Women wear those without being sexual objects on screen, and the manner by which she is cinematically presented in that scene indicates that the dress is not meant to showcase her sexually but present her as simply… wearing a dress. Which is something women do. To indicate that she can’t like a dress or wear as skirt is prescribing what a strong, independent woman should and should not wear outside of concerns of how they are being presented for viewing. And that, friends, is sexist in its own way).
There are some that say that Gamora’s plotline is contrived, that she turns too quickly towards the heroic path. And indeed, another article about Gamora points out that so does the entire cast for the sake of the speed of the film. I will push it one point further. I will say that Gamora, like all the other Guardians, is at a crossroads in their lives. They are each searching for some place to belong, or something to believe in, and are at a turning point where the events of the movie produce a profound change in them and bonds them to one another. I believe Gamora, of all the characters, transforms the most gracefully. She had already made the choice to betray Thanos and Ronan before meeting the other soon-to-be-Guardians. She had made her own choice to go it alone against some of the most powerful men in the galaxy because of her ethics. Yet when offered aid, she respects the growing trust between herself and the other characters and has the emotional acuity to transform from loner to reluctant ally and eventually friend through the course of the film.
Its that emotionality that also sets Gamora apart, as she is given the room as a character to show a full range of emotion. She can show vulnerability, rage, indignance, confusion, and even heartbreak. Her relationship with her sister Nebula is a tumultuous one that, if it can receive any criticism, perhaps could have used more screen time. Yet Gamora shows how much she cares for her sister, even when she has to fight her to protect the universe. This is not a woman pigeon-holed into one emotional mode, but given range to be complicated. You know, just like any great male character.
In the crucible by fire that is the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora emerges a graceful, nuanced, fleshed out character that drives the plot and exists outside the stereotype of sex object in leather. Gamora escapes being pigeon-holed as a fake ‘strong female character’ by actually BEING a strong female character. And in that way, Gamora sets herself apart from the lip service paid to strength in other MCU characters who all fail to escape being pigeon-holed into traditional women-in-film tropes in various ways. The success of Guardians, driven by Gamora, will hopefully signal to not only Marvel but to other filmmakers that a woman with such a well-developed role outside of stereotype can and should drive films in equal measure to male counterparts. Meanwhile, Gamora stands not only as the most dangerous woman in the universe, as she’s known in the comics, but as the most dangerous woman to sexist portrayals in film in quite some time.