Whedon's Women: Melinda May and Maria Hill as Transgressive Superheroines
Leanne McRae explores Maria Hill and Melinda May as a groundbreaking new type of superhero; one without powers who's nonetheless always in command.
The MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) is a series of films and characters that connect audiences across texts mobilising core superhero themes and icons, including Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. These characters and their films are emblematic of the rise in the superhero genre, particularly since September 11, 2001. Indeed, "since the year 2000, the United States has seen 70 live action and 41 animated superhero movies, whereas the previous 50 years produced less than half of this total" (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson and Collier 417). Such prevalent production suggests a contemporary consciousness of injustice and a popular desire to unpack, understand and heal the wounded "feelings of helplessness and terror that Americans experienced in the days and years following the [9/11] attack" (Hagley and Harrison 120) and be saved by suped-up masculinities patrolling the borders of the nation against transgression. These emotions, however, are not limited to American spaces and consciousness. "Iron Man 3 made twice as much money internationally than domestically" (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson and Collier 418), demonstrating the resonance of the superhero trope across multiple national boundaries.
This series of superhero texts deal with "the pervasive normative image" (Voelker-Morris and Voelker-Morris 103) presented within comic books predominantly and now in popular film "of a male superhero ... exemplified by autonomous, usually muscle-bound, physically powerful, violence prone, emotionally detached males" (Voelker-Morris and Voelker-Morris 103). These stories seek to reconcile the tensions of masculinity and "bind ... males to the larger community" (Coogan 24) by having them act as saviours who intervene when and where regular law enforcement or hierarchical systems of rule cannot or will not. These men, however, are enhanced – their bodies are armoured, radiated, mutated, alien or modified in some way. Their narrative struggles are emblematic of ongoing tensions created by controlling their aberrant bodies as well as cultivating the requisite literacies to combat out-of-control alien or foreign threats to social stability and national cohesion. As a result, the women who exist around and in combination with these men can sometimes serve as foil, but often ultimately reify the dominance of male narratives. In Joss Whedon's texts, these women are not in servitude to male prowess, or a romantic add-on to the action-based plot, but present a complex dialogue with difficult gendered hierarchies, bodies, and identities that simultaneously support and challenge conventional understandings of justice, saviour, and heroes.
This chapter deals with two women within this Marvel universe defined and crafted by Joss Whedon, who are not enhanced, "supped" or alien, but are, nevertheless, superheroes. Maria Hill and Melinda May function as adjuncts to the supers in the narrative, but serve to subvert the easy binary between male/superhero, female/victim. They are not simply "strong women". They do not fit elegantly or seamlessly into postfeminist ideals of physically competent "ass-kicking" babes. Both May and Hill offer their own trajectories through these narratives and articulate a consciousness beyond one-note archetypal constructs of "strong" femininity. Instead, they rupture bureaucratic hierarchies to both confirm and challenge the expectations of authority, gender and physicality. May and Hill move beyond masculine narratives of world-saving and community-binding, border-policing and morality maintenance. They slice through the facades of patriarchy and by their presence as effective and nuanced actors within this universe, present the double voiced constructs of gender, the divisiveness of power, and the duality of hierarchies.
Maria Hill and Melinda May offer rich terrain for investigation. While May is a character created for the Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series and is wholly defined within that diegesis, Hill has an extensive presence in The Avengers and other comic books. This chapter focuses only on her depiction in the MCU, where in combination with Melinda May she offers a new way to think through the role of superheroes that move beyond the conventional archetypes for femininity and masculinity and into spaces where inversion and resincription are normalised. While the men and supermen are permitted to act within the safe parameters of masculinity, protection of the nation state, and binding community consciousness to succeed in their missions, it is Hill and May that make this possible.
The pair rewrite definitions of the superhero. They are not inversions of this role – female heroes performing the male narrative. Female superheroes (like Wonder Woman or Catwoman who do possess unnatural physiology or alien origin) are often conflated with the "strong woman" narrative. Yet, in the comic book world, they remain "sexualised figures wearing scanty costumes drawn from pornographic visual iconography" (Kirkland 13). They reify social expectations of feminine embodiment, gazing structures and sexualised codification as well as performing the function of the hero as active, defined, and authoritative. Conversely, the action woman in the cinema of the '80s "downplayed their femininity, and adapted their ... images with body building and costuming in order to emphasize ... stronger masculine characteristics" (Funnell 666). These "bad-ass" women (Sarah Connor/Linda Hamilton, Ripley/Sigourney Weaver) epitomised the inverted male role. Later, the ultra-femininity of the film Charlie's Angels reconnected frivolity and excess to embody an unproblematic exploitative femininity. In all of these examples, the performances of "strong women" are regulated by heterosexual male gazing and patriarchal platforms for social sense-making. Tough women must allow a "true femininity" to be revealed "under a tough exterior" (Buttsworth 189) in order to be permitted to occupy a central position in action-based, world-saving narratives.
May and Hill are strong women, but they are not '80s action women nor are they incarnations of comic-book female superheroes. In The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. May and Hill function as reconstructed superheroes, coined by Funnell (2011) as the "Trinity Warrior" named after Carrie-Anne Moss's character, Trinity, in The Matrix films.
These action women share a remarkably consistent image which includes pale white complexion and dark brown or black hair often cut shoulder length or shorter. When engaged in physical combat, the Trinity warrior is costumed in a form fitting black leather or PVC jumpsuit, which outlines their feminine frame while keeping her body almost completely covered. (Funnell 74)
May, played by Ming-Na Wen, is Macau born, but the description holds. The Trinity warrior is "presented as a member of a unique class of male and female heroic fighters who possess extraordinary abilities" (Funnell 74). For Hill and May their abilities are located not only in their exceptional physical capacity or assertive demeanour, but also in the ways in which they interface, activate and rupture the hierarchies and frameworks of meaning that flow through the organisational structures they embrace. In S.H.I.E.L.D. Hill and May occupy positions of power and resist conventions of action heroes and strong women tropes. These women do not react or emote. They plan, decide and enact – roles traditionally connecting masculinity, military and science. Hill and May perform femininity as inherently heroic, transformative and powerful – as rational soldier and as decision-maker. Via these subtle meanings, they rewrite the rules of gender, sexuality and resistance in ways that appear unthreatening and conventional. Within a bureaucratic system that operates fundamentally to oppose women as incisive actors, they are catalysts for success. May and Hill are successful within a system designed to support patriarchy, but they do not reassert its structures unproblematically. Instead, they work in the spaces where patriarchy is blind to its radical reinscription. These are spaces overlooked, hidden and masked as attention is driven towards the successes, power and potency of the hierarchy – where the men and the superheros enact systemic violences in support of the status quo.
The "definition for the superhero" Judge Augustus Hand delivered in the 1940 Detective Comics Inc., v Bruns Publications Inc., ruling describes "mission, powers, and identity" (Coogan 30) as integral to defining the superhero. Augustus Hand determined that "each [Wonder Man and Superman] is termed a champion of the oppressed", both characters dress "in a skintight acrobatic costume" underneath ordinary clothing, and "are each endowed with sufficient strength to rip open a steel door". Coogan's definition is conservative and singular, silencing the complexities and nuances of its movement through social and political spaces. These conservative paradigms reify the superhero "as a crime fighter ... a reactionary whose concern is with the maintenance of the law and the status quo" (Shyminsky 289) and do not allow more complex motivations and outcomes for these characters to embody. More difficult definitions of the superhero can allow for greater flexibility in the types and styles of behaviour/characteristics included in the definition. Du Bose, for example claims Dr Gregory House in House as a superhero citing "three threads evident in recent superhero fiction that make House superhero- esque: a disconnection between the hero and the general population, favouring logic over God- based morality, and resistance to hierarchical models of authority" (24). Within this paradigm, House, with his modified physicality manifesting in disability, serves as a counterpoint to his super diagnostic abilities, which code him as superhero. House is not struggling with an excessively supercharged body, but one that is limited, contained and skewed. He is a superhero that mobilises contrary definitional structures to think through the manner in which he can act upon, control and redefine the organisational parameters in which he operates. Such mobility in definitions allows different types of masculinity and femininity to operate within the superhero trope. In the larger Whedon world, it enables Buffy or Echo to be considered a superhero along with Melinda May and Maria Hill. Both Hill and May possess a mission, superpowers (if we extend our understanding) and a secret identity which enable them in more subtle ways to resist the hierarchy they operate within while working to both reinforce and undermine it.
Key to this mobile understanding of superheros in the MCU in particular, is the appointment of Joss Whedon as director of The Avengers (2012). Through Buffy, Firefly and Dollhouse, Whedon normalises female experiences and allows them to transcend social expectations. The conventions of gender are always contingent in Whedon's worlds and the women are written into positions of precariousness, power and peculiarity.
The heroines of Whedon's texts are able to subvert the gender and genre conventions of the narrative they find themselves in because they change the narrative to accommodate their role instead of accommodating the patriarchal narrative set out for them. (Randell-Moon 273) ...
Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill
Do you want to read more about Melinda May and Maria Hill's resistance to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s male-dominated hierarchy? The rest of this chapter and more smart writing about the Whedonverse can be found between the pages of After the Avengers: From Joss Whedon’s Hottest, Newest Franchises to the Future of the Whedonverse, by PopMatters.
Dr. Leanne McRae is a lecturer in Internet Studies at Curtin University and the Senior Researcher for the Popular Culture Collective. Her current research interests include online pedagogies, popular cultural studies, accelerated modernity, and physical cultures.