I Wish Marvel Would Stop Normalizing the Fetishization of the Strangled Woman

Think it's just Mystique? Think again.
Publish date:
June 7, 2016
super heros, marvel, violence against women

I'm a fan of Marvel movies. More than once I've been the first in line for a Marvel movie its on opening night. And yet, when I emerged from Captain America: Civil War, the first text I sent to a Marvel-loving female friend said "my God, I never want to see another strangled woman in superhero movie ever again."

Sadly, I already knew that this was an impossible dream, since I was planning on seeing X-Men: Apocalypse a few weeks later. The trailer for Apocalypse features a shot of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) squirming helplessly in the grip of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who has her by the throat. The image, while striking, didn't sit well with me when I first saw it, but it was apparently only the beginning of Marvel's marketing campaign. Billboards and posters feature that the chokehold are popping up everywhere, especially in L.A., prompting actress Rose McGowan (and quite a few feminists on Twitter) to protest that using an image that trivializes casual violence against women.

McGowan says that "there is no context in the ad" except for the occasional tagline "Only the strong will survive," but personally I think that even in the context of the whole movie, this particular act of violence seems pretty unnecessary. The story, which is set ten years after the last movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, positions Mystique as an inspirational for mutants everywhere, and she spends the first half of the movie rescuing fellow mutants and generally being a low-key badass. She's important!

FOX has since released an apology and said that they've "[taken] steps to remove the materials" although, of course, the strangulation still happens in the movie. And I get that. The point of the image is to make Mystique, a symbol of mutant power and pride, look weak in comparison to Apocalypse and thus inspire fear in the rest of the mutants (or just movie-going humans). But here's the problem: This particular act of violence doesn't require superpowers. Real, everyday men choke real, everyday women all the time. It's not a "cool" or clever way to put another character out of commission. Choking someone is a simple act of brute force and dominance that has nothing to do with the individual skills or enhancements usually showed off in superhero battle scenes. It's brutal. It's gendered.

And Marvel does it to its female characters all the time.

In Civil War, fandom darling Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) strangles two female characters, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), arguably the best-known female character in the Avengers franchise, and Maria Stark (Hope Davis), whom he kills. To be fair, Bucky's other victim is Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America himself, but I think it's telling that, when I attempted to find a clip to rewatch that scene, I had difficulty finding one that included Steve's strangulation, whereas any combination of the words "Black Widow" and "strangle" or "choke" yielded plentiful results, some of them pornographic. And that should tell us something about the way scriptwriters and producers view female superheroes. Even when they're fighting, they're fetishized. Even if they're superpowered, they can still be incapacitated by a display of power regularly used by normal, non-powered men to dominate and control women.

But Civil War and Apocalypse are far from the only Marvel movies to have this problem. In X-Men: First Class, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) binds Emma Frost (January Jones) to a metal bed frame which he then uses to choke her until she gives him information. This particular example emphasizes the ever-present undercurrent in these scenarios: the sexualization of strangled women. Clad in underwear and forcibly lashed to a bed (albeit the foot of one), Emma looks less like superpowered villainess and more like the kind of helpless, submissive women so often featured in bondage porn.

There's even precedent for this. Way back in 2000, X-Men, the first film in the modern franchise, included an infamous scene in which Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) grabs Storm (Halle Berry) by the throat, lifts her up, and snarls "scream for me." Though the equivalent scene in Apocalypse contains less creepy, sexualized dialogue, they are strikingly similar. So similar, in fact, that I had to wonder if Bryan Singer, who directed both X-Men and X-Men: Apocalypse, constructed the shot a kind of messed up self-homage.

Female characters in the Avengers franchise don't escape strangulation, either. Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) casually chokes Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) in Iron Man 3. That same year, Marvel released a one-shot short film called Agent Carter about fan favorite Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), whose journey of empowerment was somewhat diminished by the fact that she wins her big fight only after being elaborately choked for a full fifteen seconds. In fact, between the short film and her two-season ABC TV series of the same name, Peggy Carter has been strangled on screen so much that a quick Google search leads to a video called "Agent Peggy Carter Gets Choked," which contains a mashup of her strangulations over the Cassie song "Me & U." The creator of the video observes that "Agent Carter gets her ass choked multiple times. Maybe she likes being choked."

This "maybe she likes it" attitude is what makes Apocalypse's highly publicized strangulation so dangerous. It shows the audience that any woman, even a superpowered woman, can be forced into submission by the simple act of a man's brute strength. Not fancy mutant powers, not gadgets, not straight-up cleverness. Not the stuff I actually come to a Marvel movie to see. All it takes, apparently, is a strong hand and the will to force a woman to obey. Add that to a culture that fetishizes the image of the strangled woman both on and off screen — a culture that implies maybe strangulation is what a submissive woman wants — and the prevalence of this trope becomes remarkably scary, especially to Marvel's female fans. Since McGowan and Twitter called them out, FOX has issued an apology statement and has promised to remove the promotional materials "quickly," but clearly this problem runs deeper than just one movie.

So, Marvel writers, directors, producers and various executives, here's my challenge to you: stop normalizing the fetishization of the strangled woman. Think of cooler, less lazy ways to incapacitate your female heroes. Stop choking them. Stop. Your female fans will thank you.