The name’s not Bond

If, a few years ago, somebody had suggested that 007 should be a woman, they would have been laughed off the studio lot. However, today, someone in the production chain sees the possibility or retiring the “sexist, misogynistic dinosaur, a relic of the cold war” that was James Bond, so described by M (Judi Dench) in Golden Eye (1995), and replacing him in what has been called a “popcorn-dropping moment” with a black woman, played by Lashana Lynch, ticking off two inclusivity clauses—race and gender-- in one stroke. She will be the new 007, once Daniel Craig steps out of the successful spy franchise. It would be too much to expect her not to be beautiful and sleek; it will be a while before a globe-trotting spy is short, plain and overweight.

According to a report in metro.co.uk, “Lashana’s character is called Nomi – and she won’t be taking any nonsense from Bond. ‘Bond, of course, is sexually attracted to the new female 007 and tries his usual seduction tricks, but is baffled when they don’t work on a brilliant, young black woman who basically rolls her eyes at him and has no interest in jumping into his bed,’ a source told the Daily Mail. ‘Well, certainly not at the beginning.’”

While people must be still digesting this, come reports that the new God of Thunder, Thor, will be played by Natalie Portman, picking up the hammer from the hunky Chris Hemsworth. According to a report in screenrant.com, “Jane Foster might be known as one of Thor's love interests in Marvel Comics but she eventually took on the mantle as Female Thor. Jane's transformation into the Goddess of Thunder will occur in the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, Thor: Love and Thunder.” She will be called Mighty Thor.

In recent months, Captain Marvel has been played by a woman—Brie Larson. These superheroes (007 comes close without the ability to fly!) were not originally written as female like Wonder Woman (played in the film by Gal Gadot), whose success probably nudged Hollywood honchos to somewhat feminize the all-male club of superheroes.”

American comic book legend Stan Lee, who passed away last year, at the age of 95, and is credited with creating some of the most iconic superheroes in the Marvel Universe, meant to make up what could be years of chauvinism—the world superheroes remains resolutely male-dominated, the word superheroine seldom used—by creating his last superhero, a Chinese female character, called Jewel. The way he saw her, she was a pop star by day and a superhero by night. There have been female superheroes—or superheroines—in the past, but till the film based on Wonder Woman was released in 2017, became a world wide blockbuster, very few even took women seriously—they were just secondary characters, vamps or sometimes sidekick or love interest of the hero. The first known female superhero is believed to be writer-artist Fletcher Hank’s Fantomah (1940), an ageless Egyptian crime fighter. But the one who became famous, Wonder Woman, was created as early as 1941, but not by Stan Lee. Her creator was William Moulton Marston, said to be a strong supporter of female empowerment and inventor of the lie detector test, which is probably why Wonder Woman's weapon of choice is the Lasso of Truth. Of his Amazonian superheroine, Marston had said, “She encourages women to stand up for themselves, to learn to fight, and be strong, so they don't have to be scared, or depend on men." Which was revolutionary thinking when popular culture did everything to portray women as damsels in distress. Children grew up on fairytales about helpless princesses, rescued from servitude (Cinderella), coma (Snow White), imprisonment (Rapunzel) by a Prince Charming. Some writers like Enid Blyton wrote stories about a plucky tomboy Georgina who preferred to be known as George, and Nancy Drew stories were popular for a while, but these were few and far between.

A Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed in 1954 to regulate the visual, textual, and thematic content of all comic books published after 1954, and is still active—in diluted form—today. Because of this, superhero comics made after 1954 tended to appease conservative ideology, and gender roles appeared rooted in tradition (according to information on the net). After the CCA came into force, DC Comics reportedly had an Editorial Policy Code that stated, “The inclusion of females in stories is specifically discouraged. Women, when used in plot structure, should be secondary in importance, and should be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of feminine physical qualities".

So there was the girlfriend brigade of the time that included Louis Lane who worked in The Daily Planet with Clark Kent aka Superman, Jean Loring, a lawyer and girlfriend of Ray Palmer or The Atom, Carol Ferris, boss of Hal Jordan or Green Lantern. Careerwomen and somewhat positive role models, but with no superpowers. Batman's supporting cast, beginning in the 1950s, occasionally included journalist Vicki Vale and and heiress Kathy Kane, whose alter ego was the motorcycle-riding masked crimefighter Batwoman. There was Black Cat before her, with superpowers and a make-up kit. When Atlas Comics became Marvel Comics in 1961, many new women superheroes were introduced, but in supporting roles—the first being Invisible Girl or Susan Storm, a member of the Fantastic Four. DC Comics had a Supergirl, but she was clearly not an equal of her cousin Superman. Still, female costumed crimefighters were among the early comics characters—like Miss Fury and Jungle Queen Sheena. They just haven’t been converted to Hollywood movie franchises as much as the male superheroes. The universe of comics has had other superheroines like Catwoman, Ms Marvel, Poison Ivy, the antagonist of Batman and Superman, Kitty Pryde of X-Men, Harley Quinn, Valkyrie, Wasp, and later Shuri and Gamora, but they struggled to be given the same status as the males.

In the 70s, when the women’s movement was on, the number of female characters, both heroes and villains, increased substantially. It was inevitable that the era would have stereotypical female characters like the man-hating Thundra or angry-feminist parody Man-killer. But Ms Marvel made her debut in 1977, who, out of costume, was editor of Woman magazine. However, it is accepted that the female characters, oversexualised, with impossible vital statistics, were targeted towards a predominantly young male demographic. Amanda Shendruk analysed gender representation of 34,476 comic book characters, and concluded that “the comics industry has had a complicated relationship with female characters. They are often hyper-sexualized, unnecessarily brutalized, stereotyped, and used as tokens. They're also rare. Only 26.7 percent of all DC and Marvel characters are female, and only 12 percent of mainstream superhero comics have female protagonists.”

Which is why, it is good to note that positive female role models are coming into the picture, and even Disney Princesses are no longer white, blue-eyed blondes. The times make it possible for a kickass Lisbeth Salander to spring to life and make more of an impact than the curvy adventurer, Lara Croft. However, just in passing, the questions comes to mind, about why Fearless Nadia did not inspire Bollywood’s leading ladies and whatever happened to Modesty Blaise—created by English comic-strip writer named Peter O’Donnell in the 1960s, when he decided that “it was about time that somebody woke up and produced a female who would be able to do all the hero stuff as well as—or perhaps better than—most men.”

Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai based columnist, critic and author.

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