On March 7, or the morning of International Women’s Day in China, Disney released a Chinese version of “Reflection” from the live action Mulan, sung by the lead actress Yifei Liu. The song is intended for the end credits of the movie, which is set to be released in the U.S. in two weeks. The Chinese lyrics of “Reflection” are all about following one’s heart in pursuit of love and freedom. The studio posted the music video on their official Weibo account, accompanied by a message celebrating the courage, strength and individuality of incredible women around the world.
It was a nice tribute to the occasion, and I was beyond excited about finally having Mulan sing a song in Chinese. Just an hour later, though, Marvel Studios’ Weibo account followed suit with a video message from Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh — the leads of the upcoming Black Widow. The two talked about feeling honored to be among the ranks of strong MCU women, and how they look forward to “another ten years of kickass women.” At this, I started to sober up.
Many have criticized Marvel for taking ten whole years after her cinematic cameo to finally make a Black Widow movie. In fact, without the success of DC’s Wonder Woman, it might have taken even longer for them to realize that female superhero standalone films can in fact be profitable, and maybe Captain Marvel wouldn’t have happened. However, once it did happen, they tried to make Carol Danvers not just the solution to every problem in the movies, but also the ultimate solution to Marvel’s problem with female representation, too. It started with the trailer editing of Captain Marvel, which highlighted the “her” in the word “hero.” It ended with Carol leading all the female Avengers into battle in Endgame, which paralleled the scene where Natasha and Okoye come to Wanda’s rescue in Infinity War.
I’m not going to lie and say I didn’t cheer when I first saw that scene on opening night, but I also started to feel uneasy when it became one of the biggest talking points in the promotion after. On social media, behind the scenes photos and selfies from the actresses’ lunch that day went viral. And while I don’t doubt it was a beautiful memory for everyone involved, the studio was also certainly playing it up as one of the movie’s greatest achievements in representation instead of what it really is — a token female empowerment moment.
With a reiteration of the line “she’s not alone,” it was the studio’s way of being self-satisfied: “Look at how many female superheroes we have now! There are enough of them to fight together!” It is borderline pandering to Hollywood’s political correctness mindset, especially when they purposefully put a shot of this scene the Oscars campaign posters.
I didn’t take this realization too seriously at first, though. Sure, it didn’t fix the industry’s issues with strong female characters, but it was a nice sentiment after all. And it certainly didn’t do any harm, right?
That was until, on a whim, I decided to run some text analysis code on Avengers movie scripts. I was particularly interested in how much female Avengers talk versus male Avengers, and the results were staggering: None of the four movies made it past 20% for women. And while Endgame in fact had the highest percentage, it was only a small 2% increase from the first movie. Infinity War, which actually had the highest number of female characters present throughout, somehow did even worse. Yet those two “kickass women” scenes tricked me into believing that women, overall, now have a much greater presence and impact in the MCU, almost equal to that of the men — which may be true by headcount, but certainly isn’t by how much they get to speak. The male characters are still driving the conflict and story development, while the female characters are silenced in a way that’s not even easily perceivable anymore.
So therein lies the issue with tokenism and using female representation for marketing. While on one hand it’s certainly an indication that the market for female representation is driving capital, and Hollywood is, in fact, trying harder, they’re only willing to try as hard as it takes to get a passing grade. Emphasizing representation in promotion is basically cheating for that passing grade, and makes us believe they’re doing better than they actually are. Marketable feminism may not necessarily be disingenuous, but it can certainly mask deeper issues and create an illusion of equality and equity while making it difficult for people to notice and criticize.
That is not to discount the merits of visibility, especially in big franchises, but stopping at visibility is dangerous. It should only be the first step. If the material of the movie is female-centric, and its promotion boasts women empowerment, does the story actually live up to that expectation? How many women are actually on the creative and executive teams? Are they being paid as much as their male counterparts? Are they considered equally and evaluated fairly for major awards and film festivals? It’s highly probable that the answer to one or more of these questions is no, yet the marketing tactic might prevent us from remembering to ask these questions in the first place instead of simply assuming based on what’s on the surface.
With their respective female-led creative teams, Mulan and Black Widow may very well turn out to live up to their marketing, which is the most ideal scenario. However, until most productions manage to do so, be cautious of marketable feminism, and keep fighting the good fight.
Andrea Yang is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.