Structural Sexism: Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy

On the whole, I quite liked Guardians of the Galaxy, and if tumblr is any indication, it seems like most other people did as well. Again, though, if tumblr is any indication — I wasn’t the only one who felt that Gamora got shafted. But since I haven’t seen anyone else discussing the things that I found problematic, I thought I’d try to frame my misgivings with the movie into a coherent argument.

(It’s worth saying up front that my engagement with the sexism in GotG is shaped by the fact that I’m a gay dude, not a woman. Harmful stereotypes and their perpetuation are very important issues to me, but recognizing that a depiction of women is demeaning is not the same as having that depiction imposed on you. In essence, misogyny doesn’t hit me where I live. So if I say that I, personally, didn’t have a problem with an iffy bit of gender politics, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong there.)

First let’s talk about the specific lines that I’ve heard singled out for criticism, and then segue into the structural problems:

1) Peter to random girl-hookup on his ship: “I totally forgot you were here.”
2) Rocket suggesting that Gamora exchange sexual favors to get the tech they need.
3) Drax referring to Gamora as a “green whore.”

Number 1 bothered me on a logistical level, but not necessarily a sexist one. I mean — seriously? How could he have forgotten that she was there? It’s not a big ship. He must have rolled out of bed with her, gone upstairs, and then… his brain reset like a goldfish’s? How long did it take them to get from wherever to creepy salvage planet, that she stayed downstairs and silent the whole time? Why didn’t she come out during all the aerial shenanigans before? It was a very contrived setup, requiring more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to give, for a joke that wasn’t all that funny. (And, apparently, alienated a large segment of the audience.)

Number 2 I was actually okay with, but I think that’s only because it came from Rocket. He’s a raccoon; what the hell does he care about human sexual politics? He’s just pointing out a tool at her disposal. If it’d come from Peter, on the other hand, it would have been insulting and hella-skeevy, all but stepping up to be a pimp and expecting her to prostitute herself for them.

Number 3 threw me right the hell out of the story. Gamora is not a sex worker. Drax would not call her that. I would have been fine with Drax being a bit sexist, but the whole conceit of his character is that he’s relentlessly literal — you cannot set that up as a defining character trait and then ignore it for the sake of a punchline. That line broke right through the fourth wall, because suddenly it wasn’t Drax I was hearing, it was some careless brodude screenwriter. It threw me out of the story, the same as when Peter said that this was their chance to “give a shit” and Drax just nodded through it. Just — what? Who the hell greenlighted that? It makes no sense. Are you telling me that I caught, on the first time through, a mistake that somehow slipped past the hundreds of people on the production team? Or — more likely — that they noticed, and either thought the audience wouldn’t (newsflash: assuming your audience is stupid is never a good strategy) or thought the joke was funny enough to excuse it. Essentially, they went out of their way to toss in a bit of misogyny.

(Although it does beg the question of how the “No one says that about my friends” joke could have been retained if what Drax had called her was, in accordance with his character, relentlessly literal. Most gendered insults are not literal; they accuse women of sexual impropriety (slut, whore, slag) or equate them with animals (bitch, harpy), or perhaps reduce them to their body parts (cunt). The most insulting word I can think of that isn’t disqualified by its literal meaning is “wench,” which you’d have to pair with a pretty insulting adjective to get the desired effect. Y’all have any suggestions?)

So yeah, I’ll own that my issues with those two particular lines (1 and 3) are rooted more in aesthetics and quality-of-storytelling than in taking exception to their sexism. The sexism that bothered me in GotG was operating on a deeper level — and in my opinion, a much more insidious one. I am okay with putting sexist lines in a male character’s mouth — not all characters are paragons, and a bit of sexism tells us a lot about what kind of person they are. (Which can mean: a person we don’t like.) What is far, far worse is when the creator’s biases get written into the fabric of the world in a way that makes their prejudices appear to be objective fact.

Straightforward example of the difference between these two:

1) The protagonist of a book says that all black people are lazy and criminal. However, when black characters appear in the story, they are as honest and competent as anyone else. We can see the disconnect between the protagonist’s views and the reality of this world, and conclude that (A) the protagonist is a massive racist but (B) the author isn’t endorsing that worldview.

2) The protagonist says that all black people are lazy and criminal, and then every black character who turns up does indeed (by complete coincidence!) happen to be exactly that, completely validating that belief. Obviously, it’s now the author who’s a massive racist, and the protagonist is supposed to be the embodiment of common sense — because look, everything he says is undeniably true!

That said, being blatantly sexist/racist/homophobic is going out of style, but the struggle to erase our subconscious prejudices is not keeping pace. This results in a hybrid third situation:

3) The protagonist tells us that black people are great, smart and moral and competent etc etc… but then every black character mysteriously winds up being evil and stupid anyway.

Which is really, really dangerous, because it allows the creators to believe they aren’t being racist by virtue of the words they put in the characters’ mouths and it allows readers/viewers to accept the material uncritically because they don’t notice that they’re consuming something racist, all while we continue to internalize those stereotypes and take it for granted that those are objective depictions of reality.

And this is one of the problems in GotG. We are told, multiple times and by multiple people, that Gamora is a total badass. Question: can you remember a single instance of her actually being one?

I give them a pass for the first fight sequence between Peter/Gamora/Rocket-n-Groot, because that played more like a three way game of rock-paper-scissors, with no one getting or keeping the upper hand for very long. But then we see:

1) Gamora appearing more intimidated by their fellow prisoners than the raccoon. Even if she was scared, which would be reasonable in this situation, the woman’s spent her entire adult life around Thanos and then Ronon, she would know how to keep her game face on.

2) Gamora somehow getting overpowered by three other prisoners, who were unarmed but for a shiv. She knew she had enemies there; she would have known better than to let herself get cornered. Also, she later takes out a fully armed and armored guard, so how did those three mooks manage to restrain her?

…well, so that Peter could rescue her, of course. Damsel’d-Gamora tally: 1

3) Gamora’s pod getting blown up outside the giant floating head (why did she leave? They all knew the pods weren’t made for space), her losing the orb and requiring another rescue. Damsel’d Gamora tally: 2. (Basically, compare the number of times Gamora needs rescuing vs. anyone else, and you get a divide-by-zero error.)

4) Gamora struggling uselessly against two random ravagers who’ve got her by the biceps. I don’t think she’s even cuffed. Again, she’s supposed to be mind-blowingly badass, how the hell did they manage to subdue her? I honestly don’t mind seeing characters — even female characters — lose a fight if they’re sufficiently overpowered, but I want to see that whole goddamn crew have to dogpile her if they want to bring her down. Or alternately, have Yondu put his flying arrow to Peter’s throat to coerce her surrender, because that’s a character-making moment.

5) The only fight against a named opponent that she does get to win: against another girl. Considering how little sense it made for them to be fighting in the first place, it was hard to work up much emotional investment for that confrontation. Moreover, it suggests that no matter how badass a woman is, she’s only badass enough to defeat another woman, not a man.

Whether the creators intended it or not, the unmistakable message here is that women aren’t really all that powerful, even when they’ve got the trappings of it, even when everyone thinks they are.


The other structural problem with Gamora is her characterization, or more precisely, her lack of it. She is the only one who doesn’t get a character arc and, I think, the one whose characterization is most often sacrificed to meet the needs of the plot. And most damning of all — she’s the only character in this action-comedy who isn’t funny.

These issues are interconnected and at heart, stem from the fact that she’s female.

A character arc requires change — that there’s some flaw in the character at the beginning of the story that, through the various experiences they undergo, is overcome or transformed. Peter gets a character arc, which Chris Pratt himself summed up as, “He goes around space, making out with hot alien girls and just being a rogue and a bit of a jerk, and through teaming up with these guys, finds a higher purpose for himself.” Rocket is likewise convinced to step up to the plate and fight on behalf of people besides himself. The one-note Drax gets a character arc, through his humbling failure to defeat Ronon and the realization that he values the friends he’s made. Hell, even Groot gets his we-are-Groot moment.

It’s Gamora who remains static. She does not start as a villain and undergo a redemption arc; at the beginning of the movie she has already split ideologically from Thanos and Ronon, and resolved to thwart them when the opportunity arises. She has no worldview that needs to be broadened, no character flaws that need to be remedied, no tragedy that she still has to work through. There no growth. She is the same person at the end of the movie as she was at the beginning.

I think part of the problem is that her role in the story, the niche that her character fills, is too close to Drax’s. They’re both the humorless badasses with a tragic backstory, a history of isolation and self-sufficiency, and a personal grudge against Ronon and Thanos. Drax’s character arc involves coming to peace with his loss, realizing that he needs and wants friendships, and seeing vengeance done to Ronon. Gamora’s character arc would be… the exact same thing. Narratively, it doesn’t work. Having two characters with the same motivations and the same character arc renders one of them redundant.

Her similarity to Drax is also part of why she’s not funny. Neither she nor Drax are the type of characters who are intentionally funny — they are serious business badasses, after all — but Drax is often funny because of his obtuse literalism and the way other characters can play their humor off him. He’s the straight man to Peter’s and Rocket’s funny man. When it came to Gamora though, not only were the writers stymied because they couldn’t play the same schtick twice, it’s like they felt they couldn’t even make fun of her the way they make fun of Drax — because she’s the girl, and if they make fun of Gamora then they are making fun of women, with all the backlash that invites.

Which ties back in with her lack of a character arc — I think the writers were also afraid to give her flaws that would require her to overcome them because they are afraid to write flawed women.

Accordingly, her behavior and motivations are above reproach from beginning to end. She opposes the genocidal duo Thanos & Ronon, and as soon as they find out what the orb does, she’s the one who immediately and resolutely insists they should do the responsible thing and give it to Nova Prime for safekeeping. Every stance she takes is morally unimpeachable, not motivated by personal desire or misguided conviction.

Which makes her the conspicuous killjoy in a cast of lovable rogues. We’re not invited to empathize with her moral conviction; we’re invited to see ourselves in Peter’s streak of selfishness. We’re the kids who want dessert first, and she’s the mom telling us to eat our vegetables.


Obviously, writing a responsible and morally upright woman is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But that can’t be the only type of “good” woman who shows up in fiction, and all too often, it is. There are a lot of ways that women are allowed to be bad, but the range of representations for “good” women seems to be a lot narrower.

Someone else (whom I unfortunately can’t source) articulated this well, specifically as personified by Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. The male character gets to be so very flawed in so many fascinating ways, flawed enough that he loses some of the audience altogether — my British brofriend hates his face, thinks that Tony Stark is a disgusting misogynist, morally reprehensible for his arms dealing, and basically an asshole with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. My response is, “…he got better?” but I can certainly agree that what redeems Tony is in how he changes, not how he starts. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the Gordian knot of talent, ego, guilt, and daddy-issues that is Tony Stark, the female character gets to be… responsible. (This gifset sums it up pretty well.)

It’s the woman’s role to Know What’s Right, and either do it or expect the man to.

It’s the man’s role to do… what his personality and past experience lead him to.

“She’s too good” is a tricky thing to complain about, because objectively speaking, we do want our female characters to be “good” people — the solution is not to make them immoral and bitchy — and “responsible” is certainly in the spectrum of personality traits that women can have. The problem is when depictions of women are disproportionately limited to that one, incomplete archetype.

We don’t fall in love with characters because they’re without flaws — we love them because they’re fully-realized people. We identify with characters not because they’re perfect, but because we see ourselves in their strengths and in their weaknesses, their virtues and their flaws. That’s a mistake, but it’s the mistake I would make. I see myself in Felix from Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, in Calanthe from Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu; Calanthe who speaks for my sins when he says, “I have a conscience that stands by and lets me do terrible things so it can torment me for them later.”

They’re not perfect; they’re them. And us.

2 thoughts on “Structural Sexism: Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy

  1. ‘assuming your audience is stupid is never a good strategy’

    If only it weren’t so popular with so many audience members and hence so profitable.

    ‘Which makes her [the only female character] the conspicuous killjoy in a cast of lovable rogues. […] the mom telling us to eat our vegetables.’

    Almost as if the writers and the target audience were adolescent males used to hanging out in all male groups having fun and only ever even seeing women when one’s mom would come in and remind them of some sort of responsibility.

    Loved the post, and good to see you dipping a toe in the pop slop and writing about it now and then!

  2. Good points, all of them. I kind of also had a problem with some less prominent moments, like Gamora’s and Nebula’s hair (or the absence of it). Why is it that if a woman sports an unconventional hairstyle, she must be the “bad guy”? I mean, Gamora also leads a pretty active and badass life, presumably, and long hair must get in the way A LOT. It would only make sense she wore it short too. Actually, I feel it’d suddenly make GotG a great deal more interesting if the bald and cyberpunk-looking Nebula was on Quill’s side instead. Except, all good girls must be femme–obviously.

    Also, notice how there’s only ever one female in the team, be it the evil or the lovably-roguish one. Hell, there’s a total of three women that make any difference in the film, and I vaguely remember there was the fourth one doing not much of anything. Which makes it blindingly obvious they don’t exist to be characters, they exist because having no women at all is, apparently, sexist.

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