In the past, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has often been critiqued for falling short with its development of female characters. In favor of action-packed movies, nuance and development of characters was often implied as background or crammed into origin movies. Of course, until 2019, no female Marvel character had been given her own origin film. Marvel’s first attempt at a female-fronted franchise Captain Marvel (2019), was underwhelming for audiences. Some have pointed out the sexism in the reviews against that film which is wholeheartedly true; however, I agree that the movie was underwhelming. Instead of seeing the origin of a badass female superhero who is arguably the most powerful, viewers got a confusing and underdeveloped storyline. Since then, Marvel has sprinkled in some female power scenes but has mostly shied away from any more female-fronted movies. Then entered WandaVision a show that was not marketed as female-fronted but is absolutely female-fronted and centered. WandaVision has raised the bar, offering viewers a fully developed and nuanced female hero origin story. In this blog, I discuss how WandaVision is not only a great Marvel series; it is also a feminist commentary on the lingering effects of gender roles in society. This not only shows the path female representation has traveled, especially the lingering impact that these gender roles have on us today. Wanda’s journey through stereotypical female roles provides a nine-episode timeline of the shifting gender roles of women in the U.S. Only when she can transcend those stereotypes can she step into her mantel as the Scarlet Witch, a powerful chaos creator.
This blog may be a bit difficult to follow for anyone who is not as familiar with the show or the MCU. However, I will give a brief overview, and hopefully, that helps! WandaVision follows Wanda (a powerful telekinetic) and Vision (a carbon-based synthezoid) after the events of the last Avengers movie. These characters and their relationship have been in the background of previous films--mainly used as a tool/narrative convenience. The show begins with the two of them arriving at their home scaled in black and white. This all seems odd because *Spoiler Alert* Vision was killed by Thanos in Infinity War. All that aside, this show features a very alive Vision and Wanda living in suburbia. As the show goes on, each episode moves through different decades of sitcoms beginning in the 1950s and ending around the 2010s. Viewers come to find out that Wanda actually created an alternate reality in Westview, New Jersey as a result of her grief over Vision’s death (as well as her twin brother’s). The show starts like a fluff piece; viewers get to see Wanda and Vision married with children away from the tragedies of the Avengers universe. However, not everything nor everyone is as they seem.
WandaVision has created quite a buzz for not only its cinematography but also for its take on grief and female power. The show is noted for not forcing feminist scenes and allowing the female characters to develop more naturally. A common critique of contemporary media is that representations of race and gender feel forced like they are just trying to check a box and not put any thought or care beyond that. As I will dissect later, Wanda does inhabit the roles of stereotypical sitcom females over the course of six decades. On the surface, that premise would seem to be a simple pastiche, pleasure-viewing for both Marvel fans and old TV sitcom fans. Instead, I argue that her inhabitation of those roles is working as a representation of the trends that female representation (specifically white, female, middle-classed representation) has gone through. This show is also working to correct questions revolving around the true depth of Wanda’s powers. Depending on the movie, Wanda’s powers are siphoned to fit the narrative; sometimes she is the most powerful avenger and other times a mere illusionist. The same can be said for Captain Marvel and Blackwidow, depending on the situation each of these characters would have their powers molded to fit the narrative. Each of these women is powerful and strong, but they are most often offset to allow the male superhero the spotlight. That practice leaves many viewers, especially female ones, to wonder why “this was a watered down representation of a formidable hero” (Phillips) rather than being on par with their male counterparts. With so much attention on this show and the conversations it is opening up about female representation, (particularly in the superhero genre) I want to focus on the aspect of what the show means outside of the Marvel universe. Yes the show is setting up future projects, but it is giving viewers a snapshot of where female roles began, what the lingering effects of those roles are, and where they can go from here.
A large part of the ‘gimmick’ of this show is the sitcoms that they are alluding to. Wanda has created a world inspired by American sitcoms such as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Full House, and Modern Family. As television critic Alison Herman writes, it is important to note that what “Wanda re-creates isn’t her own, but rather a manifestation of old-fashioned gender roles imparted by the American sitcoms of Wanda’s war-torn youth” (Herman). From the viewers’ perspective, most people are aware of at least one of the sitcoms WandaVision is drawing inspiration from. Each decade has its own gender expression and roles that sitcoms depicted when they aired. So by Wanda and Vision (contemporary superheroes) inhabiting these roles, it reveals the inadequacy. Both Wanda and Vision are exponentially more powerful than the roles they have been cast as. Viewers see Wanda using her powers to make dinner or turn off lights instead of holding buildings up from crushing people. Vision goes to work as a computer where he is exponentially faster than any of the other workers. His prowess at work would be more impressive if he was not a walking computer already. Wanda is using the simplicity of these roles as comfort--she and Vision never got to get married and have children, and probably would not have been able to within the Avengers universe. Clearly “the fantasy Wanda weaves for herself is one of domesticity” (Herman) To use the first episode as an example, it uses the 1950s sitcom as a template. A 1950s sitcom typically features a housewife and her husband at its core; the housewife true to the name stays home to act first as a wife then a mother while the husband goes to work. The very first episode “Filmed Before a Live Studio Audience” introduces Wanda and Vision, in black and white, driving through suburbia. Wanda is dressed in a wedding dress as Vision carries her over the threshold of their home. This opening sequence is immediately followed by Wanda in the kitchen dressed like the stereotypical ‘50s housewife. What follows is some classic sitcom hijinks complete with misunderstandings, mischief, and accidentally seducing your husband’s boss. Seeing Wanda playing as a housewife is a stark contrast to her usual role as an all-powerful Avenger.
In true Marvel fashion, there is a lot to discover and analyze on sight alone. For WandaVision there is an “Inception-like show within a show” (Guzman) layer that must be acknowledged when discussing it. The television show that Wanda and Vision inhabit is an alternate reality being viewed from a government-like organization [SWORD]. The television world is freely and easily manipulated through Wanda’s magic with the SWORD agents attempting to piece together what is happening and how to save the citizens of Westview. There is also the meta idea of casting that WandaVision plays with. Wanda has cast a spell over the people in the town which in turn casts them into her show, making them conform to her script. The show that Wanda casts is where sitcom tropes come in. All the classic characters are represented: the nosy neighbor, the uppity queen bee mom, the husband’s boss, etc. Wanda even casts herself and Vision placing them as the married couple that is always at the core of these shows. Wanda effectively puts everyone’s usual lives on pause as she escapes into her fantasy. Monica Rambeau, a Black woman, enters Wanda’s world and is cast as ‘Geraldine’. Geraldine and Wanda become close quite quickly after she is introduced in episode 2, “Don’t Touch That Dial”. The two women meet at a Rotary Club meeting run by the queen bee character. Neither Monica nor Wanda fit into this club, Wanda is trying to fit into this club of housewives when her past social experiences have been on battlefields, and Monica is trying to fit into Wanda’s show. Visually, viewers see Wanda trying to emulate the queen bee while Monica is the only woman of color in the club. As the two outsiders, they make fast friends.
Monica: “Say, those pants are peachy keen’.
Wanda: ‘Do you really think so? The other ladies are in skirts. I was worried”
(“Don’t Touch That Dial”)
As they grow closer Monica attempts to convince Wanda to release the people of Westview. Monica delivers Wanda’s twin boys at that point the two women have become very close. This is when Monica feels that she can get through to Wanda she attempts to confront Wanda with reality: the fact that her twin was killed by Ultron. In retaliation, Wanda blasts Monica out of her show sending her past the town limits, her Geraldine character is also written off the show.
This all sounds really sinister and it is, however, there is a larger scope than Wanda as a threat. First and foremost Wanda is a grieving woman; she has lost her parents, her twin brother, and now Vision. Emotional pain and grief are very real, human emotions that can make even the most centered person say and do crazy things. This by no means excuses her actions, but there is more happening here than meets the eye. We must examine ‘what’ she is doing and ‘who’ is telling us about it. For this show, Director Hayward (Director of SWORD) is a white man in power who took the job when his predecessor passed. That predecessor was a powerful black woman who planned for her daughter, Monica, to take on her role. Instead, Hayward stepped in during a lapse in power usurping Monica--this creates tension between this patriarchal white man and this powerful black woman. From his position of power, Hayward creates and spins the narrative that Wanda has stolen Vision’s corpse and maliciously held everyone hostage, painting her to be the villain who must be stopped at all costs. On the surface Hayward seems to be truthful; Wanda did somehow get Vision back and she has taken a town hostage. Monica cautions Wanda, “Don’t let him [Hayward] make you the villain” (“Breaking the Fourth Wall” 24:12-24:14). Hayward conveys his story to the characters but also the audience. Who should they trust? This dynamic between Hayward and Wanda and Monica reflects centuries of male-dominated narratives.
To look at Wanda’s character more closely, her story is treated much the same as many tales of a madwoman. A madwoman is a character often found in 19th-century literature. They are deemed ‘mad’ for some reason or another and as a result, are removed from polite society. Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert have studied this character extensively. They note that these works often involve “images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as asocial surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors” (Gilbert & Gubar xvii). When the madwoman character is further examined, her madness is not the result of something being wrong or being an evil villain. Definitions of madness are applied differently depending on who has the power. Historically, men have held that power and therefore have been able to define where the line between ‘sane’ and ‘mad’ is drawn. That line is often drawn to prevent women from becoming too powerful. Wanda is one of those powerful women, which is what allowed Director Hayward to spin the narrative making Wanda the villain
To a certain extent, Wanda does fit into the idea of a madwoman character. She has definitely created an image of both enclosure and escape. Where she differs from traditional madwomen is that she is not creating this alternate reality to escape a docile self--she is actually attempting to become the docile self instead of the madwoman. She retreats into the roles of wife and mother, but her latent powers as the Scarlet Witch cannot be ignored. In some ways, Wanda can be seen as villainous. For although she believes she is not harming the townspeople, she comes to find out that her casting has prevented them from moving, sleeping, and even seeing their own children if it does not fit into her script. At the show’s climax one of the townspeople says to Wanda, that “when you let us sleep, we have your nightmares” (“The Series Finale 11:23-11:27). Wanda is deeply disturbed and overwhelmed by this, she clearly had no idea that she was harming the citizens of Westview. If she was a malicious villain with no care for others her reaction to this news would not be so visceral. The madwoman character is never just a villain she is a complex, human character.
At the show’s conclusion, Wanda releases all the townspeople and allows her alternate reality to be absolved. In exchange, she has to let go of her family and return to reality. As she comes back into her consciousness she walks away fully shedding the constraints of the roles she had been inhabiting. She will never not be broken but she is now fully embracing herself, and all the complexities that come with it. Some said the finale was lackluster, however, the writer’s “understanding of the complexities of female melancholy provides a refreshing shift from traditional tales of male superhero supremacy in the Marvel Cinematic Universe” (Guzman). The final shot of the show has Wanda walking away looking determined and at ease for the first time the whole season. She will never be ‘over’ the loss of her children or Vision, but she has a purpose in her newfound powers. Wanda is no villain; she is a true hero. She has not only reconciled her grief but also realized her true feminine power.
Other Work Cited:
Schaeffer, Jac, creator. WandaVision. Marvel & Disney+, 2021.