She-Hulk: The first superhero origin story told from the female gaze

As part of a roundtable, The Digital Fix spoke to Kat Coiro and Jessica Gao about how She-Hulk is a game-changer for female superheros

She-Hulk female gaze

In a genre where women are largely sexualised or reduced to damsels in distress, how can we make superhero movies and TV series more feminist? For Jessica Gao, the lead writer of She-Hulk, the key is having a “tapestry” of women’s experiences to draw upon. During a press roundtable where The Digital Fix were present, she tells us that “what’s great about having so many different women work on the show is that women are not a monolith.”

“One person, one or two people cannot be expected to be representative of half the population of planet Earth,” she said. “You know, it’s an unfair burden. It’s an impossible task.” Fortunately, in assembling the behind-the-scenes production crew, Marvel Studios executive Wendy Jacobson ensured that women were driving the series’ creative direction, not just in terms of writing, but also in terms of directing. 

Kat Coiro, who was also present at a roundtable, was director for the majority of the episodes of She-Hulk: including its pilot and penultimate outing.

Speaking to The Digital Fix, Coiro said that Jacobson was “very intent” on ensuring She-Hulk was told from the female gaze because, as a superpowered woman, the series has a “wish fulfilment element.”

In one of the early episodes of She-Hulk, Jennifer experiences the very thing every woman dreads: trying to go home alone, at night, only to be grabbed by a group of sinister-looking men. But wait. As she looks at the camera, Jennifer and the audience realise she doesn’t have to deal with this anymore — she can just Hulk out and fight the men off her. So she does. 

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“It has a fantasy element,” Coiro explained. “Any woman who’s ever been in a bar and been hit on by a guy, or any woman who’s ever walked down an alley at night wishes that she could transform into She-Hulk. So we thought that was a really important element to be told by women.”

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The peculiar thing about She-Hulk is that despite being able to transform into someone completely new, her status as a woman means that she is still subject to a level of misogyny and scrutiny that her male heroic counterparts aren’t.

The reason those men attacked Jennifer is that they couldn’t quite believe a woman was capable of being powerful, one of her Tinder dates calls her a “specimen”, while one of her fellow lawyers accused her of ‘Hulking Out’ in order to win a case. Subtle misogyny and sexism run rampant whether or not Jennifer is in human or Hulk form. 

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“A lot of the series is about that exploration of, you know what it means to be yourself if people see you in a different way,” Coiro explained. “And definitely explore the way rage is perceived in women versus men. We’ve seen so many male superheroes allowed to reach this level ten range, but what happens when our female superhero reaches a level five?”

Like Ms Marvel, a big part of She-Hulk is how the news and social media are reacting to this new hero — but what makes She-Hulk different is that it explores how internalised misogyny and living in a patriarchal society ends up shaping that coverage: whether intentional or not.

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In the female-heavy writers room for She-Hulk, Gao recalls extensive discussions they had about the way women were portrayed in media in comparison to men — one example that came up a lot, she said, was the way OJ Simpson’s female lawyer was portrayed in comparison to the male lawyers in American Crime Story.

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“We really talked a lot about the double standards and how media covers and scrutinises women as opposed to men,” she said. “And like, realistically, if we lived in a world, there were superheroes, there would, for sure, still be that double standard.”

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Ultimately, while Coiro calls the She-Hulk we see on TV  a “reinvention” of the comic-book version, she makes it clear that the fundamental “essence” of She-Hulk as a woman unafraid to take up space remains. “I remember being a really young kid and seeing her on the cover of a comic book and feeling so excited by her presence and her power and her strength,” she said.

“And part of the journey of the series is taking a woman, like Jennifer Walters, who is used to disappearing a little, and having her own this large business and take control of her own story.”

New episodes of She-Hulk drop every Wednesday from August 18 on Disney Plus.