What's wrong with this picture?
Jennifer Lawrence was cast as the powerful super villain turned superhero, Mystique in the film "X-Men Apocalypse," but billboards promoting the film showed the actress as a tiny, wide-eyed, helpless, victim in the grasp of a gigantic male character.
The billboards have been removed from major cities by 20th Century FOX studios after actress Rose McGowan took to social media to voice her outrage, over "violent imagery against women" being used as a Hollywood marketing ploy.
Would similar ads for Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man ever show those heroes at someone's mercy, or fighting the good fight? The last time Ms. Lawrence grabbed headlines over the disparity in gender treatment in Hollywood came after Forbes revealed that Lawrence makes far less than her action-hero counterparts. As more women fill the roles of protagonists in popular films, fans and actors alike are quick to point out how these characters – and the women who play them – are portrayed.
But some culture critics feel that the real issue that needs to be discussed here isn't gender parity, it's the rampant depictions of violence in film and media. And that making female characters as powerful and violent as male characters isn't necessarily the best road to equality and empowerment in Hollywood.
Feminists and film buffs alike point out that violence itself is an issue being parsed – since Lawrence's character, Mystique, takes on the role of leader of the X-Men in order to use her violent skills to save the world. While many support Ms. McGowan, some fans also point out that it is hard to champion women in the roles of superheroes or villains and then recoil from the inherent violence of those storylines.
"If society is to shun violence should it begin with shunning this female character [Mystique] choking and killing people in every film. If that's the goal in popular culture, to rid it of depictions of violence, then one could start with her character. But that doesn't seem to be the point of the debate," says Neal King, associate professor in the department of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech and co-editor the book, "Reel Knockouts, Violent Women in the Movies," in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor.
It's a fine line to walk, since super hero movies continue to break records at the box office and offer a seemingly endless narrative of lucrative roles to actors as movie houses continue explore the vast universes of super hero characters.
Julie Burton, president of the Women's Media Center in Washington, D.C. says that the feminist side of this issue is that, onscreen, women are outnumbered by men as film leads by a margin of 2 to 1.
"Which means the fact that Jennifer Lawrence is playing a lead character in an action movie is a big deal – one to be celebrated," Ms. Burton writes to the Monitor in an email. "Movies tell us who we are and what we can be and the marketers for this movie had a choice of the kind of image they wanted to portray to sell the movie. Rather than choosing a strong, affirmative action image of the woman character, they chose one where she was in the violent grips of a male character."
Some say the billboards should have remained in place for the purpose of sparking dialogue about how society views violence, victims, and the roles of heroes.
"Culture change takes time and this is a great opportunity to talk about the messages we send to men and women and what they say about male and female roles," says Burton.
While the billboards were in place, they generated a range of responses on Twitter but some say the discussion should be more nuanced than can be achieved by rapid-fire tweets.
"Taken out of context – for those people who know nothing about the female character and her history as a villain – the image is disturbing," Frankie Y. Bailey, a professor at the University at Albany's School of Criminal Justice and expert on crime and mass media writes in an email. "That the tagline 'Only the strong will survive' further complicates the image."
"I agree that people say they want to see empowered female characters in a greater diversity of roles – but context does matter, of course," writes Martha McCaughey, professor of sociology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., in an email. Professor McCaughey co-edited "Reel Knockouts" with Professor King.
King says the issue hinges more on the double-standard of depictions of heroism when it comes to male and female roles.
"Most male heroes find themselves feeling helpless for a moment near the end of action movies, but nobody tries to use their moments of fear to sell the movies," King says.
Professor Bailey says that rather than simply demanding the billboard be taken down, "we need to ponder the image and continue the discussion about men, women, and how violence is depicted."
Matisse Bustos-Hawkes, associate director, communications for the group WITNESS Media Lab would like to see more attention focus on the unsung heroes of domestic violence in our society.
"We believe that visual representations – including movies – can have tremendous power in shaping narratives, especially about women," she writes in an email. "This is particularly true for underrepresented women and survivors of violence," she writes. "We think these are the real super heroes of today's media landscape."