Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – has been long perceived as a predominately “male” interest, and perhaps prior to the past ten years the majority of fantasy fans were male. Most fantasy was marketed towards men, and sadly – it still is. It has only been in the past month that Marvel has announced female-led blockbusters Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, where the past ten years they have been producing exclusively male-led superhero films. There are only two Avengers who have yet to receive a standalone film, and one of them is the franchise’s only female superhero, Black Widow (and there are no solid plans for this film). The opening weekend of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a 44 per cent female audience, and yet the main female character in the film, Gamora, was the only main character to not receive merchandise.
It is only later this year that Marvel is producing a miniseries based on Captain America’s Peggy Carter. A female fan who attended the 2014 San Diego Comic Con related her experience asking for merchandise for the show on her blog:
“This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.”
Doctor Who is another fantasy series with a large female audience, and yet the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat, has been criticised for his handling of female characters on the show. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in the characters’ personalities.
“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”
Additionally, there has not been one single female writer on the show during Moffat’s tenure.
According to statistics from Nielsen, approximately 2 million women are tuning in to Game of Thrones on average each week – about 42 per cent of their total 4.8 million viewers. A rather large number, considering its show runners draw female viewers in with promises of strong female characters while simultaneously including a large gender disparity with shown nudity, sexualised violence that is extraneous from the source material, and behind the scenes problems such as firing a recurring actress because she amended her contract to include “no nudity.”
Why don’t these franchises respect such a large portion of their audience?
It would appear that there is still a lack of awareness of the audience of science fiction and fantasy media, furthering a need to undertake more comprehensive audience studies in the area. Women make up more than half of the film-going audience, and yet only make up 15 per cent of leading roles – and this doesn’t even take into account the representation of women of colour and LGBTQ women (most female characters in mainstream film and television are straight and white). This misunderstanding of the audience’s desires is reductive both to the audience and to the profitability of the media itself.
Representation is also important to the audience on a personal level, as there is a noted link between self-esteem and representation. Whoopi Goldberg once spoke of her understanding of the significance of representation through her memories of watching Uhura, played by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.
“When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
Studies have shown that correlations between self-esteem and media are reflected by the representations of the characters themselves. Coded messages within media helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, through constant depiction of white male characters as powerful main characters, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as love interests. What results is white men having greater positive media representation from a young age.
All in all, it is evident that there is a long way to go before female characters and the female audience is afforded respect in what is perceived to be a male-dominated media.