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The Wolverine: Let’s Look at the Women

The latest X-Men film, The Wolverine, has recently opened in theaters.  As you might guess, it’s about Wolverine–but I need to talk about the women.  As gender fail goes, The Wolverine is by no means an egregious offender.  In some ways, it handles its female characters well, but this is all the more reason to critique it: its gender fail not a fluke.  It’s not a movie that just happened to be penned by a sexist writer.  If anything, its handling of women is better than the norm for a Hollywood superhero flick.  Yet it’s still offensive, and we have to do better.  Now.

The Wolverine Cover Image

Wolverine, a.k.a. the Hero

Spoiler-lite summary: the film is set after X-Men: The Last Stand, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) killed an insane Jean-Grey-as-the-Phoenix (Famke Janssen) to stop her wreaking destruction.  We catch up with him haunted by dreams of her and trying to put his identity as “Wolverine” behind him.  But his past finds him in the form of an old Japanese acquaintance (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) he saved from the bombing of Nagasaki.*  This old man wants to see Wolverine before he dies.  Thus, Wolverine is whisked off to Japan where adventure ensues, including romance with his old friend’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto).  The story is based on one of Wolverine’s more famous comic book plotlines, but I’m going to address the movieverse as a standalone.

The film does some redeeming gender work.  One enjoyable character is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a multitalented mutant sidekick with amazing fighting skills, wit, charm, courage, and culturally plausible Japanese cuteness.  (But note the word “sidekick.”)  Mariko is also updated from the traditional damsel in distress.  Though not a mutant, she has some decent fighting skills of her own and is courageous, proactive, and intelligent.

But the greatest praise I can give the film is that it passes the Bechdel test multiple times.  The Bechdel test, named for its developer, Alison Bechdel, asks whether female characters in a work of fiction talk to each other about something besides a man.  In The Wolverine, Yukio and Mariko are plausibly depicted (if not deeply developed) as emotional sisters, and they discuss important, non-man things, including each other’s well being and running a business.  Yukio also Bechdel passes with villainess Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) on a more token level.  The sheer existence of Bechdel passes, sadly, is more than many films in the genre can boast, including The Avengers, written by über-feminist Joss Whedon: pulling a Bechdel fail out of Whedon says a lot about how deeply embedded misogyny is in the genre.

The Wolverine - Yukio

Yukio: awesome sidekick

Despite these encouraging signs, however, the film’s gender discourse disappoints on many levels.  In the just plain dismissible category, I place Viper, a mutant who spits toxins.  As a character, she’s a waste of time with no motivation beyond boredom and sociopathy.  But I don’t think this has much to do with her femaleness.  Women do not have the market cornered on excruciatingly boring evil.  See, for example, Toad (Ray Park) in the original X-Men movie, who had next to no identity and was just there fight X-Men with cool martial arts.  While Viper is clearly played for cheap sex appeal, with the typical skin-tight outfits and amazing hair, she mainly disappoints me as a villain, not as a woman.

In other fairly typical disappointments, it’s hard not to point out that all the women in named roles are gorgeous while not all the men are.  And the women generally have to be quite young (the exception being Janssen, reprising a role originated in 2000).  For context, Tao Okamoto (Mariko) was born in 1985.  Will Yun Lee, who plays the boy Mariko grew up with, Kenuichio Harada, was born in 1971.  Yes, Mariko’s childhood friend is fourteen years older than she is, and with respect to Will Yun Lee, he looks it.  I am forced to wonder why, given the “necessity” of casting the most beautiful young women, they couldn’t find a beautiful young Asian man; it’s not like they don’t exist.  Would he have been too much competition for the well-preserved but aging Hugh Jackman?  This is not a flippant question.


Viper menaces Mariko, or Two Women Get a Scene Together!

These are niggles, but they are symptoms of a background culture that enables a deeper dehumanization of women (and others).  So let’s talk about Jean Grey.  Spoilers follow…

Jean, as I’ve mentioned, shows up in Wolverine’s dreams.  This is the only place she shows up.  She is always in bed with him in a sexy nightgown, and she is never anything but a fantasy in his own head (I hope–because the alternative interpretation–that she’s a whiny, needy, helpless lost spirit–would be worse).  This film has reduced one of the strongest female X-Men characters to literally nothing but a male character’s bedroom fantasy.  For movieverse Jean, this adds insult to injury.  Apparently having missed the memo that X-Men: The Last Stand was a bad movie, the creators of The Wolverine have extended for another two hours the underlying narrative structure that made it so bad.

Spoilers follow for X-Men: The Last Stand

To recap this dud of 2006, Jean resurrected as the Phoenix, went bonkers, caused trouble, and got killed.  The film had the germ of a good story, a tragedy about the violation of a loving relationship between a spiritual father and daughter.  In this plotline, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) blocked off part of the mind of the young Jean (Haley Ramm) to keep her from accessing dangerous power.  More dubiously, he never told adult Jean (Janssen) he had done this, never gave her the tools to understand herself or choose how to be herself.  So when Jean died and returned with this part of her mind unlocked, it was completely wild, unknown territory that led her to kill, among others, her long-time lover, Cyclops (James Marsden).  She had no idea how to control this power; she only knew that the father figure she loved and trusted had done this to her, so she killed him too and lost her own humanity: a tragedy.

The Wolverine - Jean Grey

Jean and Wolverine: the picture says it all.

Or that’s the story it could have been.  In fact, it was about a zombie woman staring at things that blew up while Wolverine fretted about how much he loved her and finally saved the day by fulfilling her wish that he “save” her by killing her.

Do we all see what happened here?  Somewhere along the production line (explicitly or unconsciously), it became clear that a major superhero motion picture could not be about a girl and an old man in a wheelchair.  So it became about Wolverine, handsome, epic, action, angst man, who needs to save the girl of his dreams from having to deal with her own power.  And thus it became a horrible movie because it was narrating the wrong plot about the wrong character from the wrong point of view.

I was excited when I heard that Jean was coming back in The Wolverine.  Here they had a chance to repair some of the damage X-Men: The Last Stand did to her character.  The Phoenix does resurrect after all.  We could have seen an intimation of Jean’s return, of her learning at last to how use her own power.  Instead, we got Wolverine’s fantasy talking about Wolverine and Wolverine’s irrational guilt over killing said fantasy (because anything like the real Jean Grey of the first two movies was certainly not in his thoughts).

This treatment makes me angry on behalf of Famke Janssen, who has been astoundingly professional and gracious about the whole insult.  If you’ll pardon a digression into the Jossverse, this is the same treatment Juliet Landau got as Drusilla in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series: a good character is written out in an unsatisfying, underdeveloped way (Drusilla was the only one of the four main vampires who didn’t get a developmental arc); then, the production goes to the trouble of bringing back the actress and proceeds to do nothing with her but flashbacks to support other characters’ plotlines, never her own.  The similarity in these two storylines separated by about ten years is not coincidence.  It is symptomatic of a misogynistic media culture.

But this culture is not primarily motivated by a desire to degrade or dismiss women.  It is motivated by a desire to lionize the male hero-protagonist within a cultural narrative that identifies heroism (and being a protagonist) with a sort of solipsism in which the hero’s own feelings and actions dwarf everything else in his universe.  He is not a good lead if he is not center of everything that happens.  He is not a good protagonist if he is not the final victor in the big showdown.  He is not a heroic man if he doesn’t have a girl to save.  He is not a sympathetic man if he doesn’t have a girl to lose.  (I have been told exactly this by multiple people explaining to me how writing a “properly structured” story works.)

The dismissal and degradation of women (and of everyone who’s not the hero) is not the intent.  But it is a necessary side effect of this paradigm.  You cannot have Wolverine save the day and have Mariko save herself.  You cannot be sure everyone knows Wolverine is in charge and let Yukio choose where they will go for their next adventure.  You cannot show that Wolverine is properly stricken with grief for killing Jean if Jean comes back better and stronger than ever.

The irony is that this paradigm undermines Wolverine too.  I like him.  I do.  When the first X-Men movie (2000) came out, I was very impressed by Jackman.  I was excited to watch him on screen.  I liked Wolverine as the story’s Everyman.  I liked his big-brothering of Rogue (Anna Paquin), his falling for Jean, his snarking at Xavier, his rivalry with Cyclops.  I liked his telling Magneto (Ian McKellen) that he was full of s***: he was the perfect voice of truth to maximize the impact of the film’s one swear word.  And he repeated that role well in his cameo in X-Men: First Class.

All these things work because he is playing off other characters.  To take just one example, his telling Magneto off works not because Magneto is a cardboard villain like Viper but because he isn’t, because Magneto has been trying to sell everyone a line that his evil doings are for the greater good; he wants to believe that; he has a sense of morality.  But his behavior has been craven and murderous, and he is full of s***, and he needs a snarky, cynical, good-hearted Wolverine to tell him so.  Wolverine works when he is being Wolverine in relation to others being themselves.  When he’s reduced to the Hero surrounded by damsels, sidekicks, fantasies, and cackling villains, he’s no one.  He just a wind-up toy whirring through fight scenes or bedroom scenes.  I don’t want that for him.  I don’t want it for Jean or for anyone.

We as consumers of media need to reject this dehumanization of everyone (including our “Hero”) in the name of that Hero’s superhumanity.  We need to praise the stories that celebrate everyone’s humanity.  We need to give those stories support.  And we need to fling rotten tomatoes (figuratively) at the stories that spend millions of dollars to perpetuate egocentric falderal.  The Wolverine was sort of fun if you like watching fight scenes for a couple of hours or want to brush up your Japanese listening skills, but it gets a great big rotten tomato from me.  I’m tired of pretending this media culture is acceptable.


* The use of the bombing of Nagasaki to show a white man saving a Japanese man is a whole other essay, one I’m not qualified to write.



  1. This is an excellent critique — and unfortunately, I’m sure many readers will resonate with your experience of being told that stories like this should be your paragons.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for the comment, Rachel. Yeah, that story paradigm is very common. (A friend just sent me a writer’s outline designed around what the hero does, learns, how he will be victorious, etc. It doesn’t assume the hero is a man, my pronoun notwithstanding, but honestly even when it’s a woman, it’s still a very limiting model.) My first thought with this outline was “The Forwarder doesn’t have one hero…”

  2. Nicole Ciacchella

    Great article, Arwen. Your critique is spot-on. I think the never ending hoopla over why it’s impossible to make a Wonder Woman movie illustrates what you’re saying here. Like you said, the prevailing attitude does a disservice to characters of both genders by denying both male and female characters a chance to be developed in more nuanced and complicated ways other than the old damsel in distress/tragic death of the woman he loves tropes.

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for your comment. I’d love a Wonder Woman movie; it’s bizarre how that effort has died.

  3. Given the ‘meh’ reviews for The Wolverine, I actually liked it more than I thought I would…but I walked out SUPER pissed about the depiction of women and flailed at my husband about the reasons you talk about here.

    (can we talk about how Mariko was LITERALLY a princess in a tower, waiting for her hero to come??)

    • Arwen Spicer

      You know, it hadn’t struck me that Mariko was literally in tower. 🙂 I think she’s a good example of the problem with the narrative paradigm. She’s NOT a weak person. If we met someone like her in real life, she’d kick all our asses. But she just structurally has to be weak and needy to fit the “hero arc.”

  4. Wonderful, madam. While I don’t think the Bechdel test is a formal thing, I am amazed at how often we fail it in our narration. I don’t think films like The Thing or books like Lord of the Flies need to address the Bechdel test, but the moment a story has a woman in it I think the Bechdel test applies. Of Mice and Men fails the test miserably, but it is still an amazing novel.

    I look at my favorite movies, and I wonder how far off they are from the test. District 9 fails pretty badly. So does Apocalyto, but does Babe the Sheep Pig pass it? Does Pan’s Labyrinth pass it?

    Oddly enough, The Birdcage doesn’t pass it…

    Bechdel aside, I totally see what you are saying regarding the undermining misogyny within this genre. Compare Powergirl to any other caped super hero. Look at Batman versus Catwoman. It’s almost like Catwoman was formed from Batman’s rib.

    Speaking of which, I wonder how far back our misogynistic tales reach into human narrative… would I recognize gender equality if I saw it right in front of me?

    • Arwen Spicer

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! I agree. I also doubt I’d see gender equality if it were in front of me. Overall (with a few exceptions), I think Farscape did well with the Peacekeeper’s society.

      Sorry for a late reply to your comment. It came as I was in Haiti picking up my newly adopted kids.

  5. All thru the movie, I thought that Yukio’s red hair was a clue – that perhaps it was going to turn out that somehow she was actually Jean. Guess not. Would have been a nice plot twist though.

  6. Jerome

    Hmm…. I like the article and the thought behind it but I completely disagree with the idea that the women in the movie were offensive. I do agree that we could use a strong ‘front woman’ character in their own movie that actually stands out for something. I’m hoping that Wonder Woman can be that character in the Superman vs Batman movie coming up but that’s getting off track a bit.

    To coin (and retool just a bit) a phrase from another movie “This isn’t an American story, it’s a Japanese one”. Japan is vastly different in many ways from American culture and while it doesn’t jump out and say it constantly that is captured on a low level in the film. Mariko is stuck in a reality of male dominated tradition, respect, and honor which is straight from historic Japan. To think that she’d just jump out from that when he father dies and be something more is too much to accept for character growth. She also has to deal with the fact that her father didn’t die and was basically manipulating the situation from the beginning. Yukio was perfect for the film as she served as a great side kick, and yes her role as a side kick to Wolverine was the right decision for the film. This wasn’t an Xmen film or any other ensemble team cast. This was Wolverine’s story. Any character in Yukio’s role be they male or female would have been a side kick. I do agree that Viper was a throw away and I found myself flashing back to the earlier superhero flicks like Spiderman where they kept throwing in more and more villains for no real storytelling reason.

    I thought this was a great solo story for Logan. My hope is they build from it since he’s still such a draw in this role. If they do they could use this chance to flesh out Yukio and Mariko as their introductions were very “starting point” story wise. If they did they could bolster Yukio into an actual partner having trained with Logan and picked up new tricks. Or even better, dropping her into a New Mutants/X-Force styled team to let her break out on her own with Logan as a sort of mentor. In a new movie Mariko would no doubt had time to get her feet under her and fully take over her father’s business and become a force in her own right.

    As for Jean I feel the idea that she failed was wrong as well. She wasn’t a character in the movie she was Logan’s “caricature” of Jean. Logan was still clearly grieving and he couldn’t let her go. So the only way his mind could process it was to place him in his ideal situation with her. For Logan it was always some place calm, intimate, and loving. Some place he actually never was with her. Which is why she started to bleed when his mind couldn’t hide in his fantasy world anymore. People in real life do this sort of revisionist history all the time to try and cope with a serious loss. So I don’t mind in the least that Jean was shown in this manner. It wasn’t “Jean” it was how he wanted to remember Jean. If that was really supposed to be Jean then I’d be right there with you.

    I do however want to see stronger female characters however. My hope is that Billy Tucci can some how bring Shi to the silver screen. She’s lovely, fierce, strong, conflicted, and deep as a character.

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