It's Hard to Be a Woman in the MCU

Not all women in the MCU are written in the same way, but a lot of them are suspiciously similar.
A screenshot of Tatiana Maslaney as She-Hulk
Image Source: She-Hulk

While Tatiana Maslaney lights up every frame she appears in, I can’t help but be apprehensive about She-Hulk: Attorney At Law. There just aren’t a lot of ways to be a woman in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There’s a lot to like about the She-Hulk trailer. It’s got a breeziness about it, and it leans into the zaniness of its premise (which is literally just, “girl-hulk is an attorney, hilarity ensues”). But it’s a little hard to get excited for a story about a woman in the MCU. The franchise doesn’t have an awesome track record for writing women, and I am wary of setting myself up to be disappointed again.

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Take Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Though Olsen imparts a lot of humor to the character, and once she turns villainous (again), chews the scenery with zeal, there’s just not a lot to the character once she’s been run through the gamut of both Marvel movies and her own Disney+ TV show. When you meet Wanda, she’s a refugee with misplaced anger, lashing out at the de facto heroes until they convince her to switch sides. After she joins the Avengers, she is put through so much trauma it’s like the character’s ability to hold complex concepts shrinks. Wanda just becomes an avatar of pain, one that is mostly centered around her ability to have and raise a family. 

If it was just the one character, that would be one thing. But Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansen, also has a major aspect of her character revolve around her inability to have children. In Age of Ultron, she tells her fellow Avenger the Hulk that she feels like a monster because she was forced to undergo a hysterectomy as part of her spy training in Russia. It doesn’t feel any better to see the scene in context. What’s just as worrying about both Scarlet Witch and Black Widow is that at the end of their character arcs they die, though Olsen says that she hasn’t discounted the possibility of appearing in future MCU films.

Parent-child relationships define a lot of other MCU women. Thor’s sister Hela is motivated by her father having imprisoned her in hell. Nebula and Gamora are defined by the torment they suffered at the hands of their evil adopted father Thanos. The Wasp acts largely as an instrument of her father’s will. Above all else, they’re men’s daughters.

When not defined by their roles as daughters or as people who can’t bear daughters, MCU women are often not women at all, but children. In Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, the titular doctor is joined by America Chavez, a plucky teenage girl. In Hawkeye, the titular Hawkeye is joined by Kate Bishop, a plucky teenage girl. Black Panther has a sister, Shuri, who is written exactly like a plucky teenage girl despite not being a teenager. Prior to the Captain Marvel film, most of the female characters in MCU movies were love interests, leaving Captain Marvel herself as one of the few female characters who doesn’t have a plot line or character arc revolving around wanting to be a mother or otherwise settle down. (There are at this point several Captain Marvels, one of whom is another’s daughter; their associate Ms. Marvel is a plucky teenage girl.) Even the ones who do have more going on in their lives than being a parent or child tend not to get a lot of focus. Jessica Jones, the titular hero of the Netflix TV show Jessica Jones, was a three-dimensional person, but although the character was well received, Marvel’s partnership with Netflix ended and there’s no telling if we’ll ever see that character again.

Not all women in the MCU are written in the same way, and characters like Valkyrie have potential, but it is telling when you struggle to think of women in the Marvel Cinematic Universe who aren’t primarily focused on having children or being someone’s child or aren’t basically children themselves. She-Hulk, as a lawyer who has starred in some very good and deliberately goofy comics, from which the show seems to be taking its cues, will hopefully represent a change, but as much as I am excited to see her literally lift up her date and carry him to the bedroom, it also makes me wary. Sure, professional women in their thirties do date and want to have children, but I hope that She-Hulk has enough room in it for this character to be defined by other things.