Women in Fantasy Aren’t Your Fantasies | A Critique of the Male Gaze in Sci-Fi and Fantasy Movies

Written by Lauren V. San Miguel

“Those women were our heroines, but to the men creating them—they were entertainment.”

As little girls, we were barely mundane. We were everything but human as children—obsessed with fantasy books and films that we sought after as our only forms of escapism from our limited lives in a patriarchal world. We indulged in the worldbuilding, in the magic, and in the culture of those worlds. So why is it that those worlds are simply not satisfying enough?

Look, fantasy films are great. They’re an under appreciated art form, but out of all the things that make me uncomfortable in these movies, are the women—or at least the way they’re portrayed, that is. I can’t say women make me uncomfortable in movies, as this is a women in film blog and not a Captain Marvel thread on Reddit. But the thing is, it is exhausting to go watch a fantasy movie all excited and ready to have your mind blown only to get the result of the male gaze thrown in your face as you sit through the entire movie wondering how you’d fight great evil in the same outfit Leeloo wears in Fifth Element. Because the issue is obviously not the women in the movies, but their characters. So let’s dive in and take a look at movies who did our fellow ladies wrong—whether it’s characterization or costume—and the ones who did it right. 

Oftentimes in these fantasy movies I see women as supporting characters, or as the audience meant for the monologues our male protagonist delivers at least ten times in the movies because the female character—she’s meant to look nice and add support. She’s mystical and completely out of our male protagonists league, yet the average guy with questionable morals feels that he’s what makes her who she is because he’s the hero and therefore deserves this prize. This ideal woman is meek and needs care, but can easily commit triple homicide with the most complex weapon ever made, and she’s tough and can make her own decisions, unless it’s our main guy who suggests anything, then she’ll bend to his will and follow him into battle or into the bedroom depending on our guy’s mood at the moment.

Gaumont: Mila Jovovich as Leelo in The Fifth Element (1997)

In most films, we are what grounds our men—what brings them back from savagery. Watching Troy—the 2004 action movie based on the mythological telling of the Trojan War, I find that it is a lovely example of female characters being used to elevate the purpose or ego of their fellow male characters. For most of the movie, Achilles (Brad Pitt) is outrageously and inaccurately straight to start, as we all know Achilles and Patroclus were not cousins but lovers.  Achilles in this film, spends most of his screen time killing people or being naked, the women in this movie offer nothing but allure and comfort. Nothing else. Just the two traits women can have in most movies, and especially fantasy movies can be—seduction and support. 

Seduction and support—the women in the 2006 movie Gods of Egypt (my villain origin story) with the most lines are 1. dead and used to motivate our protagonist and hero, or 2. a piece of meat used to give our second protagonist and hero a personality and a piece of meat the villain can have sex with while she learns his weaknesses and secrets using the power of seduction. On the other hand, the men (white men playing Egyptian gods) are all incredibly problematic and (through horrifying CGI effects) fight each other over honor and an eye.

The male characters have absolutely zero depth, and somehow the women have much, much less. Besides from having one personality trait other than sexy, the costumes in this movie for the women are visually stunning, but as an ever-awaiting fan of good Egyptian mythology content, I remain waiting for an ancient Egyptian costume that isn’t a bedazzled Victoria’s secret bra to further elevate the fact that the creators want something else other than their characters highlighted throughout the movie.

To further the topic of horribly sexy costumes in this genre of films, let’s talk about the difference between the costumes belonging to the Amazon warriors in Justice League (Snyder’s as much as Whedon’s), and the costumes in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. But before we look into how the costumes define the film, let’s dissect the film itself.

Warner Bros.: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman (2017) was the best thing I had ever seen at the ripe age of fourteen. I was young, insecure and easily seduced by powerful women. I had a lot of thoughts and opinions, I was very angry 24/7 and to be in a foreign country watching this movie where a goddess makes her own decisions, fights for what’s right, has flaws and solid character development that turns her into a compassionate being rather than a bitter hag—gave me a meth-like high and was the most beautiful and raw depiction of a mythical woman I had ever seen. It was so motivational I felt like I could climb mountains and mastiffs with no prior training.

To add to the masterpiece Patty Jenkins created, the Amazon costumes in Wonder Woman, I see outfits similar to ancient Roman/Greek outfits in movies. With tall, armored boots, chest plates, arm wraps and thick leather tunics to brace a spear or arrow—similar to Andromeda’s battle fit in Wrath of the Titans (2012). The detail goes deeper than the outfit, but into the detail of their hair. You see their hair braided, in ponytails, or just simply out of their face while fighting.

Unlike in Justice League (and many other films) where their hair is seductively let down in loose curls or maybe a half-up/half-down look that looks like a hairstyle straight out of a Miss America-pageant. In Justice League, very clearly differing from Wonder Woman, is the fact that their battle outfits are less like a traditional ancient Greek battle outfit and more like (as I mentioned before) a Victoria’s secret bra covered in gold-spray painted leather and leather underpants. Michael Wilkinson, the costume designer of JL, woke up the morning he designed the Amazon costumes and chose violence.

Side by side comparison of the Amazons in Wonder Woman (left) and Justice League (right)

Now, there are many sword-wielding women out there in fantasy-action films. Some are done extraordinarily right and some are done horrifyingly wrong. Another example of a Strong Female Character who fights in full armor is Eowyn (portrayed by Miranda Otto) in the Lord of the Rings-saga. Although there are not many women in Tolkien’s series, the women in them are all strong in their own way and know how to use a sword when they need to. The movies did a pretty satisfactory job at portraying them, and I was more than pleased to see Eowyn’s full-armor outfit while delivering the iconic line of, “I am no man!” while battling orcs.

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey—one of my most treasured films, there aren’t really that many women portrayed, but when Evangeline Lily’s character Tauriel was introduced, she was received with outrage. Now at the young age of twelve with bountiful amounts of internalized misogyny, I thought, “She’s not in the book, why is she here? Get her out now!” It wasn’t until now that I am older and much more woke that I realized that—though borderline desperate—the inclusion of another woman who makes her own decisions and fights in outfits made for fighting was the right thing to do.

The creative team behind The Hobbit-franchise saw the lack of female presence. And instead of creating another whimsical elf, they made the warrior I always wished to be as a little girl when I would self insert myself into the plot of The Hobbit when daydreaming. Hating on her character as a kid made me feel good sometimes, but now, watching her live out my dream as a warrior elf makes me feel even better. 

Warner Bros.: Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The male gaze is more influential than one thinks when watching movies for the first time, but if it wasn’t already obvious, take a look at Harley Quinn’s costume in Suicide Squad (2016, dir. David Ayer), and then her costume in Birds of Prey (2020, dir. Cathy Yan).

In Suicide Squad, she looks like she’s about to star in a Harley Quinn inspired porno, and in Birds of Prey, it looks like something she picked to express herself with. There’s nothing wrong with wearing bralettes or leather thongs to battle, but the point is that it just looks so forced and the point is for that character to choose this look and the comfort, protection that comes with it. It never crossed my mind to wear when thinking about what I’d wear to battle being a crop top.    

   

Movies based on comics can often be a very difficult thing to accomplish, especially with the choices made when it comes to the artistic liberties one can take. As I mentioned before, the Amazons were portrayed beautifully and poorly in two different situations, as was Harley Quinn… Suicide Squad and Justice League were both, funnily enough, directed by men.

Left: HQ in Suicide Squad & David Ayer, Right: Cathy Yan & HQ in Birds of Prey

Listen to our conversation with one of the Birds of Prey costume designer, Helen Huang on Spotify or wherever you get you podcasts: #18 | Empowering Outfits and Superhero(ine)s with Costume Designer Helen Huang

But a specific comic-to-screen character I would like to praise is our dear Wanda Maximoff, from the breakthrough TV sitcom WandaVision.

The show was truly a masterpiece in itself. From the way it played the entire audience multiple times with its vague and misleading format that allowed the plot to fall perfectly into place whenever the creators wanted, to Vision’s characterization, and Wanda’s intricate history and portrayal of someone in grief, was stunning to say the least. But if there’s one thing that made me jump out of my seat, it was Wanda’s Scarlet Witch costume. 

Designed by Mayes C. Rubeo, a Mexican costume designer (also known for Avatar (2009), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), and Jojo Rabbit (2020)), Wanda’s new costume shines and glows with innovation. Playing along the lines of the original costume—which was iconic but in a nutshell, a red swimsuit—the new costume gave Wanda pants, and a high-neck top that shows no cleavage, and looks both practical and cool enough for a female superhero. From the past costume, the only things left are two pieces; her tiara and her cape, which adds flair. The fact that there isn’t a corset is good enough for me. 

Disney: Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision

This is what costumes for women designed by women can do. Women designing for women allow these female characters to become multi-dimensional in films. If there isn’t any cleavage to base the entire characters personality on, then directors are forced to give the women something else to contribute. For more examples, Captain Marvel’s suit, Black Widow’s fully zipped up outfit… every new Marvel woman’s costumes are what they should have been in the first place, but it shows development nonetheless.

Costumes aside, from the mere characterization for women in films are so important to the actual characterization of the character. Now this isn’t a modest is hottest situation, but the point is that there is a moment designers and directors need to stop and think, is this what a woman would wear in a heist or bar brawl?  Or would this specific character actually like to wear this? Because as a writer and director you should know your characters pretty well, that includes your female characters. 

The point is, situational practicality is important with designing costumes. Like Rey wearing a cool outfit when fighting droids, or Elizabeth Swan wearing a jacket and pants when fighting ghost pirates—that’s situational practicality. Princess Leia wearing that bikini is not. If a movie character decided to wear something revealing in general to a party or just chilling, that’s more than fine, but the minute something starts happening that character better start putting some jeans on or I’ll throw my TV out of the house. 

Disney: Daisy Ridley as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Like I said, this isn’t a “modest is hottest” situation, this is a “my body my choice” situation. 

As I said at the beginning of this article; us girls are barely mundane. We all went through phases where we learned about self expression that defines our young adult to even adult lives, and most of those characters that we had to look up to where in one way, shape, or form, eye candy. Those women were our heroines, but to the men creating them—they were entertainment. As young girls, we wanted to witness the strength we’d eventually grow into, not a poorly angled shot of our ass. But that’s because these fantasy films weren’t made for anyone else but for men to indulge in. It was convenient for them to stuff in a man wielding a sword paired with a pretty young woman to elevate him. That’s all it ever really was. 

So for the young girls that had their pirate phase, fairy phase, mermaid phase that wanted more than anything to have something more profound too watch in movies, this is for you. We aren’t men’s fantasies—we are extraordinary women, and we must take back the narrative by the throat.


Written by Lauren V. San Miguel


Lauren is a contributing writer to the Women in Film zine and is currently based in the U.S. She focuses mainly on fiction writing, screenplays, and political journalism and plans to study law in the future. Her free time is spent learning new languages and listening to soundtracks, occasionally watching the movies that belong to them! Instagram: @LVSanMiguel

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