Is Man of Steel bad for women?


Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

When it comes to self-identification, I would put “feminist” and “nerd” about on a par with each other. So, when something - or someone - causes those two belief structures to collide, you can expect me to fire up. This week’s someone is writer Alyssa Rosenberg.

In a piece for Slate’s XX blog that I have been stewing about between its posting and the film’s release in Australia, Rosenberg makes some pretty heavy claims about Man Of Steel. To wit: “Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, the Superman reboot that arrives in theaters on Friday, is quite possibly the most feminist action movie of the year. 

If you stuck a question mark on the end of that sentence and moved a few words around, the short answer to the question “is Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel the feminist action movie of the year?” would be either my collapsing in paroxysms of laughter, or simply the word “no”. But as I’m sure you’re aware by now, I don’t deal in short answers, so allow me to elaborate.

Now, the wonderful thing about film theory is that it’s all open to interpretation. In most cases, directors and writers don’t tend to say “Well this film is an allegory about [issue]”, leaving theorists and critics to come up with all manner of readings of cinema. This is how you end up with someone arguing (convincingly, as it turns out) that Edward Scissorhands is a western.


So, in that sense, sure, you can go ahead and do a feminist reading of Snyder’s take on [not] Superman, but to call it an expressly feminist film is nothing short of ridiculous.

The main thrust of Rosenberg’s reasoning seems to be that the presence of Antje Trau’s Faora - the uncompromising offsider of Michael Shannon’s General Zod - makes the film feminist because she’s a female villain whose motivation doesn’t stem from being wronged by a man. Fair cop, yes, that’s a decent bit of character development - the bare minimum, really - but Rosenberg conveniently ignores the myriad ways in which Man Of Steel is arguably anti-feminist.

Exhibit A in that department is the fact that the film belittles the role of the mother to an extent that is almost immoral. Kal-El’s mother, Lara (Ayelet Zurer), has little more to do than sob and program her son’s escape pod; once Krypton has been destroyed, so, it seems, has any memory of her. As for our hero’s adoptive parents on earth, when Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) tells young Kal/Clark the truth about his origins, he tells him “You are my son. But somewhere out there you have another father, too, who gave you another name. And he sent you here for a reason, Clark.” This, after the fanfare surrounding Kal being the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Uteruses, what are they good for?

Likewise, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) cannot hope to compete with the godlike qualities of Jonathan. With the exception of one fine scene in which she coaxes a frightened young Clark from his hiding place, she’s just there to potter around the garden, play with the dog, and cry a lot. Oh, and be strangled by Faora in a scene of girl-power that Rosenberg likely enjoyed.

(A moment, please, to appreciate this sublime blog post by spider-xan: “I would love more stories where the protagonist strives to live up to the legacy of a living mother rather than a dead father.”)

Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of the film offers a more nuanced critique of the film’s gender politics (or lack thereof): “The most striking and curious aspect of Man of Steel is the way it minimizes and even shuts out women. [...] The uncharitable might notice than when a stupid question has to be asked, or a trivial remark made, it's often delivered by one of a handful of women in a room full of burly guys; they may also note that while every significant male figure in Man of Steel is given an option to be physically brave under horrible circumstances — even grey-haired Pa Kent and Perry White have their moments — females exist, for the most part, to be saved, or to have things explained to them.”

See, these “women all over newsrooms and the military, not just in the bedroom” that Rosenberg is so thrilled by spout only questions that allow for “as you know, Bob...” expository dialogue or, worse, cute lines about how Kal-El is “kinda hot, sir”. Thank you for your service, soldier. 

As for Lois Lane, despite Amy Adams’ best efforts, in Man Of Steel she’s but a shadow of Margot Kidder’s definitive take on the plucky reporter in 1978’s Superman (which you can confidently say was a feminist reading of the character, which might explain why so many fanboys loathe Kidder’s performance).

Exhibit B is the fact that Zack Snyder is to feminism as General Zod is to the human race. The man made Sucker Punch, one of the most execrable films in recent memory, for god’s sake. (If you’re in the mood for a few thousand words of apoplectic rage, here’s my old review.) The man doesn’t have gender politics so much as he has a vague idea that women exist.

You could also argue that - since feminism is, generally speaking, anti-war - the obscene levels of destruction in Man Of Steel are yet another strike against its alleged feminist status. (Destruction that, according to a disaster analyst, would have meant “129,000 known killed, over 250,000 missing, and nearly a million injured. [...] In terms of the strictly physical damage done to the city, the initial estimate is $700 billion. To put that in context, 9/11’s physical damage cost $55 billion, with a further economic impact of $123 billion. Overall, WTC estimates that the damage would be $2 trillion.”)

Rosenberg’s saying that Man Of Steel is feminist because of the presence of Faora and a few other women is akin to those who think a film’s passing the Bechdel Test (which, SURPRISE! feminist masterwork Man Of Steel passes) automatically guarantees its feminist credentials.

A far more convincing argument for a superhero movie’s feminism was offered about Kenneth Branagh’s Thor, which took in everything from the film’s glut of tough, workaholic female characters to the cinematographer’s employment of “the heterosexual female gaze” and the ways in which the film “breaks down sexist narratives is by challenging the traditional hypermasculinity of the superhero”. This is in direct contrast to Rosenberg’s reading, in which one badass female character with vaguely functional armour is sufficient to declare a film “feminist”.

Look, Man Of Steel is certainly worth seeing: Russell Crowe is brilliant as Jor-El, and Henry Cavill is very handsome (and I’m tempted to reinstall World Of Warcraft just to run around Azeroth until I find him). But let’s call it what it is: a brain-numbing, fairly joyless (not to mention revisionist) iteration of the Superman mythos. If you want a feminist superhero action movie, well, you better write one yourself.