Originally appearing in our inaugural Quarterly Almanac, The Invisible Woman is an original essay by Genevieve Valentine on a – sadly – familiar figure in superhero fiction. Enjoy!
AT ONE POINT IN BATMAN v. Superman, Bruce Wayne sits bolt upright in bed—he’s had a nightmare about his parents (again). Beside him is a woman, naked, covered just so by the sheets. Bruce’s body, propped up and panting in the foreground, blocks her face from us. We know she’s not important to the story, because Wonder Woman and Lois Lane are in the movie. Still, the movie makes sure we don’t accidentally get interested—she’s there to remind us Bruce likes women; sexual wallpaper. She has no lines. She doesn’t even get a face.
And we’re almost used to it. Women in superhero narratives—be they Bond flicks, Templar quests, or bands of metahumans—are notoriously sidelined. (Sure, most of them have faces, but honestly, that headless bedfellow hits closer to the mark than she should.) But somehow the most invisible woman in Batman v. Superman ends up being Diana Prince. Oh, Wonder Woman gets her big moment: the screaming electric guitars, the golden gauntlets, the slow-motion smirk. But in a movie that’s almost entirely constructed of narrative non-starters, she gets the shortest of a bundle of very short straws. She appears twice in the first act. The first time we meet her, she goes to a party to steal a photo from Lex Luthor, by snagging Bruce’s own tech—if she ever had a plan of her own beyond this stroke of luck, we never hear about it. The second time we meet her, she’s giving it back: it’s encrypted, and she can’t decipher it.
It’s a party-dress narrative eddy that exists primarily to assure the audience that Wonder Woman is alluring as much as strong—that she’s still a woman, and so has to put up with Bruce Wayne manhandling her until it’s time to suit up fight the real problem. And before she joins that fray, she watches the disaster ramp up remotely for a while, silently deciding whether or not to get involved. Any attempts to present a character outside that Amazon ex machina are hasty window dressing. Wonder Woman appears; Diana Prince is invisible.
The invisible woman is a familiar fixture in superhero stories; there are so many ways to make her vanish. There’s the superhero team with only one woman in it. There’s the superhero story in which women exist largely to be imperiled level-ups. There’s the superhero film in which he does it all for his gal. There’s the woman-superhero standalone movie that gets pushed back and back and back. There are the women fighter pilots cut from the original Star Wars. There are the faces that make it to the screen suspiciously white (Maria Hill) or who don’t make the cut at all: the first publicity still from the Wonder Woman solo movie is absent her mentor, the black Amazon Phillipus. There’s the woman reduced to feminine stereotypes in the absence of immediate crisis (Black Widow, the Invisible Woman herself). There’s the woman who starts at the center of the story and gets edged out by degrees. It’s a long list. The male internet backlash to concerns like these often contains a seed of that genuine bafflement. Is no woman ever good enough? With so many ways to be invisible, how can a woman ever actually appear?
As it turns out, it’s so easy for a woman in a superhero story to be invisible that when a movie features a woman with anything approaching three-dimensional characterization, she seems literally too good to be true. Characters like Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori and Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Rey become the equivalent of a rare-bird sighting: Backstory, interaction with several characters, emotional range, involvement in—or even driver of—central plot points. (The male internet backlash machine calls this a “Mary Sue,” a dismissive term for wish fulfillment that has the convenience of being gendered, so it sounds as though such a character is a failure of feminism and not a tweak of storytelling.)
This ongoing low-level disappointment is, of course, nothing new in the vast cinema playground of the superhero. We’re conditioned to recognize the woman who provides a plot function and a romantic function and somehow manages not to exist in the middle. This is sometimes called Trinity Syndrome—meant to mark a story with only one central female character, who surpasses the hero in ability but defers to his narrative. But the invisible woman can be subtler. In The Matrix, Trinity isn’t just lacking because Neo is the one who bursts the binary bubble in the movie’s final moments; she lacks because the other fighters on the Nebuchadnezzar seem hardly able to see her, except as punctuation. Everyone’s too busy looking at Neo. (When someone does remember to speak directly to her, it’s often Cypher. She’s his object of desire; of course he sees her.)
The default dynamics are so ingrained in the studio system that a movie with a woman in a traditionally-masculine arc can scan as vaguely ludicrous. Elektra is, objectively speaking, not a good film; it suffers from the same clunky early-2000s Superhero-Movie-itis as Daredevil, with added racist overtones regarding The Hand crime syndicate. What Elektra does have is a male antihero’s journey. Elektra’s an amoral martial-arts master helpless to avenge her mother’s death. She has nothing to live for… until suddenly she discovers the urge to protect a single parent (an often-imperiled love interest) and a precocious youngster. She’s often in peril herself, but of an ass-kicking sort. There’s nothing at all remarkable about Elektra’s quest for justice except there’s a woman at its center, and that no one makes an issue of it.
But sometimes, even when the movie doesn’t make an issue of it, audiences will. Franchise B-outing Alien vs Predator, which came out a year before Elektra, had a similarly all-business approach to its B-movie pick-’em-off—right down to Sanaa Lathan as Alexa Woods in the center of the cookie-cutter action. Alexa shows up with knowledge of the terrain; once things go to hell, she outsmarts the alien temple and proves herself against xenomorphs until the Predators themselves mark her as a warrior. It’s very likely the character was a nod to Ellen Ripley, the franchise predecessor who’s become the ne plus ultra of science-fiction scrappers. For some, though, Alexa was too close: outlets like Empire dismissed Alexa as “Ripley-lite.” (Setting aside the idea that a woman of color thriving at the center of a superhero narrative is even rarer than a white woman doing it, Alien vs. Predator came out in 2004. It had been seven years since Ripley herself had even appeared on the big screen; the field wasn’t exactly overcrowded. The space between instances of women superhero leads can also be invisible, to some.)
And as it turns out, there’s no woman no narratively secure that she can’t disappear. Snow White & the Huntsman, which refashioned the fairy tale as a superhero origin story, is also not a good movie. (The relationship between studio-friendly superhero narratives and quality is tenuous to begin with; those that manage to keep a woman at the center of the story almost all carry an air of endless other concessions.) The film was appealing enough to launch a franchise, without having much to recommend it except Kristin Stewart’s dogged earnestness and Charlize Theron’s ambitious dark-witch couture. But the Full McQueen witch wardrobe paled beside the most notable image of Snow White & The Huntsman: the paparazzi photo of Kristen Stewart and director Rupert Sanders that emerged a few months after the movie hit theaters. The married director was having an affair with his star. Stewart was dropped from the franchise almost immediately, and several months later, after a little public backlash and amid divorce proceedings, Sanders left the project. The second installment, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, clearly hoped to avoid the scandal, and fashioned itself a prequel in the advertising. But the film was a direct sequel after all. Snow White just doesn’t appear. Her husband explains the evil magic mirror made her ill, and she isn’t even mentioned again. There are other women in the film—evil Ravenna and her evil-ish sister Freya battle for the throne, two dwarf maidens join the quest, and the film conjures another love interest for the strapping Huntsman. But the character who started the franchise vanishes without a word, and the movie follows the Huntsman’s journey instead; a man moving to the center of the story, just like magic.
The reason superhero stories exist is to explore the power of hope; it’s that same optimism that keeps us coming back to the movies. Despite the homogeneity of studio briefs, and the string of invisible women, there are artists that still surprise. (Who could have imagined that one of the best-reviewed and most awarded films of last year would be an installment of George Miller’s male-led Mad Max franchise that centered a woman… and a dozen other women?) Wonder Woman is slated for next year—the first solo outing for the iconic superhero in theaters since her introduction in All Star Comics in 1941. Let’s hope we get to see Diana in it.
A quarterly collection of awesome, selected and edited by The Book Smugglers
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JUNE 2016): Tansy Rayner Roberts, John Chu, Genevieve Valentine, Susan Jane Bigelow, Sunil Patel, Charles Payseur, Roshani Chokshi, Jay Edidin, Ana Grilo, and Thea James.
THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC: Volume I – The TOC
- Introduction – The Book Smugglers • Essay
- Cookie Cutter Superhero – Tansy Rayner Roberts • Story
- Ninefox Gambit – Thea James • Review
- How to Piss Off A Failed Super-Soldier – John Chu • Story
- The Invisible Woman – Genevieve Valentine • Essay
- Medium – Charles Payseur • Story
- Where To Start With The X-Men – Jay Edidin • Essay
- Crimson Cadet – Susan Jane Bigelow • Story
- Captain America vs. Iron Man vs. Batman vs. Superman – Sunil Patel • Essay
- The Geek Feminist Revolution – Ana Grilo • Review
- On the Smugglers’ Radar – The Book Smugglers • List
- The Vishakanya’s Choice – Roshani Chokshi • Story
- Learn to Love Your Mary Sue – Carlie St. George • Essay
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