In the late 20th century and early 21st century there was a rise in the production of superhero films and comics and this created hype in mass media. The most significant parts of the films were mainly centered on morality, ethics and the power of good over evil. So many people are blinded by these themes that they fail to notice the gender stereotypes, roles, and representations that the films depict. This might be due to the predisposition and conditioning of societies to see the males as the ideal figures of power, strength, and abilities. With that train of thought, of course our biggest and most admirable superheroes would be big strong men; while female characters are displayed in a more emotional or just not as strong or smart as the male superheroes. There’s also peculiar presentation of the villains as males. They posses that same stereotypical male power as the superheroes but they use it for evil, to be malicious, and/or become recklessness tyrants. As an attempt to unmask the different gender depictions and presentations, I use the 1978 film Superman.
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The power of a superhero is matched with a certain level of invulnerability. This is a power that many cannot comprehend, as with the case of superman’s (Christopher Reeve) power, a result of his Kryptonian origin. Superman is born Kal-El, in krypton as the son of Jor-El and Lara. When there is a threat of extinction on his home planet, he is sent to earth where Martha (Phyllis Thaxter) and Jonathan (Glenn Ford) adopt him as Clark Kent. Masculinity is often triggered or activated where there is distress, chaos, destruction, vulnerability, or in scenarios where they possess some form of uniqueness. Until he sent to earth, Kal-El was primarily an ordinary boy raised by parents who in the face of the others surrounding them, were ordinary too. However, it is until he descends to earth, a place that is millennia behind in technological advancement, that he realizes the powers he has. Earth is basically inferior to Krypton in terms of advancements, and this hence makes Superman’s powers a product of the environment he is within. This is perhaps a depiction that masculinity has been a growing phenomenon due to the potential societies have granted it. That many communities have voluntarily or involuntarily laid back and accepted men to rise in every occasion.
Masculinity is also depicted as a phenomenon that is mostly accelerated by the inferiority of females in society. This can be seen through the two characters, Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). When Clark joins the newspaper company, Daily Planet, he is a clumsy, inexperienced, shy and incompetent journalist as opposed to Lane who takes on various cases, follows her heart and even disobeys her seniors when it comes to the cases she wants to pursue. She does not confine herself to the office works behind the computers but also takes part in the field assignments. From this depiction, she seems like a strong, confident, brave, and daring woman. From the male gaze these are masculine traits, and if we see them in a female character there is always that feminine flaw to reinsure us of the woman’s place in society compared to the man. Clark in this case is the complete opposite of Lois, and his secret identity Superman. Clark even attempts to woo her on several occasions and is unsuccessful. However, as she undertakes an assignment to go and meet air force one, her jet encounters technical problems and crashes, and Superman emerges for the first time to rescue her. This is where we see that stereotypical femininity that is expected of her. She instantly becomes a girlish, shy, and flattery woman, just by the presentation of a stronger man than the ones she is used to. Women have been seen as the ones who often surrender their autonomy and strength, and let their guard down for the men whom they consider to be the ideal man. The man who society considers a “Superman”.
Secret identities are often a part and parcel of superhero films, and perhaps a masculine taboo. As Reynolds explains, the nature of hero work for superheroes requires a strict adherence to the two identities that the superhero has. Superman for instance has to be Clark while with his friends and coworkers, and be superman when attending to his hero business. Reynolds links this to the taboos that warriors used to engage in, including abstinence from sex, and eating specialized meals to conserve their energy for the battle field (Reynolds, 15). Superman, Clark and Lois are hence involved in a love triangle that in real sense only involves two people, at the expense of his secret identity.
Finally, masculinity has been linked to undesirable traits. While the majority of themes contributed by this Superman film include strength, loyalty, and bravery, within these films are also embedded themes of corruption, greed, selfishness, evilness, among others. The villain of this Superman film is Lex Luthor, basically an evil genius who possessed most of those traits. In the film he has invested his power in trying to outsmart Superman in effort to keep him from stopping his plans. He terrorizes the city and destroys properties to render certain areas unproductive and unattractive and declares them his property. He murders a police spy in cold blood and detonates a missile that puts thousands of people at risk. Luthor sees a threat in Superman, and thus captures and attempts to drown him. To men, masculinity is a matter of who stands above who, but not a case of what deed surpasses the other in terms of the greater good. Women can also be seen as a part of the crew that does the bidding of the villain as with the case of Eve Teschmacher, Luthor’s girlfriend in the film played by Valerie Perrine. Ironically, she learns of Luthor’s evil plans and ends up helping Superman. She also shares an unsolicited kiss with him which shows that even she was attracted to this ideal man. Like Lois, in a way she was smitten by the amazing traits of Superman, even in one of his weakest moments.
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While the 21st century gives us stronger representations of female superheroes such as Wonder Woman, The Dora Milaje of Black Panther, and even Elastigirl in The Incredibles movies, not much has changed in the representation of our beloved male superheroes since this Superman film. The women, however, are beginning to emerge from their conditioned inferiority and surpass the works that men have for so long been mandated to. This 1978 film depicted and exaggerated many stereotypes of masculinity and femininity that seem to be almost interchangeable in the society we live in today.
- Reynolds, Richard. Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1991
- Vitzthum L. Gender roles in superhero movies. Pp.1-24. Accessed on July 10, 2019. https://www.grin.com/document/355204
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