I grew up on comic books. My brother and I were allowed to purchase one comics digest every two weeks when we did the grocery shopping. It was a very big deal and we always went for the biggest bang for our buck - highest page count vs lowest price. As we got older and exchanged comics with friends we branched out into the X-Men, Spiderman, Avengers and all the DC titles: Batman, Superman and, of course, Wonder Woman.
While I can still certainly appreciate all the Amazon drama that comes with Wonder Woman, there are a lot of other super heroines that I have followed much more closely. (And yes - I still buy comic books each and every month.) I fell hard for Barbara Gordon, the original Batgirl who continued to remain powerful through her vastly superior intellect even after she was shot by the Joker and left paralyzed from the waist down. I can't get enough of Storm (who was woefully underused in the X-Men movies) and Catwoman (who is a heroine as much as a villain and really the love of Batman's life) and Spiderwoman and Kitty Pryde and Jean Grey and Jessica Jones, who's much lamented private detective series Alias (the better Alias in my opinion) is sorely missed, and then there's my absolute favorite: Power Girl.
Plain and simple, Power Girl rocks.
As much as I enjoy the superheroes (and also "non cape" comic books and graphic novels), I've always been bothered however by how many of the heroes are male and Caucasian. One of the reasons I enjoy Justice Society of America (as opposed to Justice League) is that there are a ton of female characters and the group is also more multi-ethnic than about any other book. (They also are led by Power Girl!) So does it matter if girls only have Wonder Woman to read about as a major super heroine and that all the other women are relegated to "supporting" status? Are we missing something important or is this just all too testosterone fueled anyway? Do girls even want more super heroines?
I turned, as always, to our panel for some answers. This week we welcome Neesha Meminger, author of Shine, Coconut Moon, to the group. It turns out Neesha has blogged about this very same topic in the past and points us to her lj entry from last year on rewatching Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman a couple of decades later - the show doesn't exactly hold up.
WAGW regular Zetta Elliott also sent along a link to this post on the Black superwomen in comics - a lot of folks I'm not familiar with but happy to hear about, that's for sure! Now here's the question I sent out for this week:
Are girls missing out on something by not having a kick butt heroine to look up to? Is it all just testosterone for boys and girls don't need it? Should we find our heroes elsewhere? Am I wrong to pine for a world where girls can have a superhero birthday party with only female characters and everyone knows their names?
Kekla Magoon:" I am not a comic book reader, but I do love superheroes. Comics were never part of my childhood experience, and I don't know how much gender has to do with that. Maybe everything. Comics simply weren't introduced to me--books were. But the few I've tried to read more recently have shown me that the graphic style of storytelling just doesn't resonate with me, for whatever reason. I love the stories themselves, though. My brother used to watch the X-Men cartoon on Saturday mornings, and I would pretend to grumble, but watch out the corner of my eye because it was awesome. When I found out Storm was supposed to be black (yeah, sorry, but I didn't get this by looking at her) I was so excited because she was already my favorite.
Today, I'm still a sucker for superhero stuff, when it's in non-comic book form. I like X-Men and Superman best, but I learned their stories through TV and movies. I like the social commentary, and the subversiveness that is inherent in some of the storylines, and the secret identity business is off the hook. We definitely need more girl heroes, though! And I hate to say it, but I wonder if it's too late. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Hulk...they're legends, magnified by time. I don't think anybody who comes new on the scene is going to be able to compete with their iconic status. Wonder Woman doesn't even stand out in my mind, in comparison. Maybe she needs a comeback! Or maybe our best bet is superhero teams, like X-Men who feature the likes of Jean Grey, Storm, Rogue and Mystique, holding their own with the menfolk.
As I said, my frame of reference is the movies, and I wonder if Hollywood slips on its gender goggles before making superhero flicks. I watched the X-Men series thinking that some un-cool gender stuff played in. Rogue is portrayed as your typical damsel in distress, and is further defined by the fact that she can't touch other people, just in time for puberty and her awakening sexual interest. Jean Grey is so powerful that she has to have her mind controlled by an older man who knows best. Storm seems with it, but is basically a background character. Mystique gets her very awsome shape-shifting power revoked by Magneto, who then casts her aside as useless. Even before that, he treated her like a pet. Some of that doesn't sit well with me, even though I easily get sucked into the action. Since everyone here keeps mentioning Buffy, I want to watch her series because I do think we need more butt-kicking women out there as role models to counteract all the "girly" stereotypes. Girliness definitely has its place, but we need to show young women (and men) the full spectrum."
Sara Ryan: "It's easy to remember the superheroes that meant a lot when I was a little kid. One of my earliest journal entries relates with alarm that "Bruce Wayne is capchurd and Robin is going to be diceed". Somewhere there's a photo of a seventies Halloween party featuring Batgirl (me) and two Batmen. And I am a member of the Superfriends generation: "Wondertwin powers: activate!"
But once I got past childhood TV memories, I was drawing a blank. Surely, there were stories with kickass female characters that were meaningful to me. Surely, I hadn't gone through adolescence and young adulthood devoid of larger-than-life fictional role models. I started muttering out loud, trying to return to my past self, as I have so often when responding to Colleen's great questions in this series.
Come on, picture that first group house you lived in when you moved out of the dorms, early freshman year. Hasper the Friendly House. Okay, I see it. One housemate is in the kitchen, doctoring Ramen. Another is bent over the coffee table, making chain mail. And there I am in the papasan chair, and what am I reading? "Oh my God. Sword and Sorceress."
Sword and Sorceress, in case you don't know, is a long-running anthology. It was created and originally edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley that began in the mid-eighties, specifically designed to address the lack of strong female characters in sword-and-sorcery fantasy. And for a while, it was my highest literary ambition to get a story into one of its volumes.
So why was it so hard for me to remember S&S, as I used to affectionately abbreviate it?
In short, because soon after that I learned to be ashamed of my affection. Series fantasy was irredeemably cheesy, higher-brow pals explained. "And have you noticed," snickered a friend who worked at Borders, "that all the Mercedes Lackey fans have weight problems?"
Fat acceptance was a foreign concept to me then. So was the idea of embracing any and every kind of story that spoke to me, regardless of whether or not it came from an Approved Genre. Mentally, I put S&S into a box and shoved it so far away from my self-concept that it nearly took a regression exercise to get it back. Now I'm thinking I should take another look.
I did recall, easily, one authentic comics superheroine, though she certainly won't be showing up in middle or high school libraries any time soon. I discovered Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist in my early twenties.
I remember showing an issue to my comics-loving boss (who has since gone on to write many excellent graphic novels, btw). He flipped through it with interest, handed it back with a smile, and said cheerfully, "That was not designed for me!" He was right, it wasn't. Hothead lives up to her name. If men invade her personal space, for instance when she's riding public transportation, she responds by chopping off their encroaching limbs. Hothead does have calmer moments -- relaxing with her cat, Chicken, or listening to the spiritual insights of her lamp, Lampy. (Lampy is actually a deity who also answers to "Donna Summer.") When the female characters in mainstream superhero comics get you down, Hothead is an excellent restorative." [See a Pop Matters review of Hothead Paisan - CM]
Neesha Meminger: "I absolutely think we need superheroes for girls. They act as role models of sorts. I have two daughters, ages eight and five. I've watched them both transform from knowing exactly what they like and want into not being sure if what they like and want is "acceptable." And by "acceptable," I mean "lovable." Then I've had to sit back and watch them pretzel themselves into blonde, white Barbies or Disney princesses (while there *are* -- two? -- brown Disney princesses, the "popular" ones are always Snow White, Belle, and Princess Aurora . . . and sometimes, Ariel).
This infuriates me on so many levels. Through these myths and archetypes, my girls learn that the way to love and acceptance is to be a woman who is (a) focused on physical beauty, (b) waiting for rescue and (c) passive and acquiescent.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of the best-selling Women Who Run With the Wolves, retold traditional tales from all over the world, then picked them apart to look at the social/psychological lessons these parables and tales impart to little girls. Psychological studies have proven that myths and archetypes are powerful behaviour modification and learning tools. That's why storytelling is so powerful, particularly in the form of myths and tales that are passed down from one generation to another. It engages one on many different levels simultaneously. The fact that Disney princesses are introduced to young girls so early in the developmental process is distressing because those stories have deep, lingering impact to girls as they become women and learn how to navigate the world.
If, instead of the princesses waiting for their princes, we were to populate the worlds of young girls with stories of female protagonists who rescue themselves, speak powerfully and with authority, work collaboratively and interactively to nurture Nature and one another, pay as much attention to strengthening their bodies and souls as to their appearances, become leaders as well as followers . . . what kind of a world could we be living in?"
Zetta Elliott: "I didn't read many comic books as a kidâ€”I'd sometimes look at my big brother's Spiderman comics, but mostly I remember Archie trying to choose between Betty and Veronica; I think there was a black girl in Josie and the Pussycats, but in terms of powerful women, I didn't see that in the comics I read. I did, however, grow up watching The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman on TV, and the Star Wars films did have one feisty female character (all of them were white, of course). Today I'm a fan of some speculative fiction (namely Octavia Butler's novels) and I'm still interested in films that explore power, privilege, and deviance. Butler's novels are compelling because it's always the most vulnerable woman who's destined to lead others to create a new kind of community; her black female protagonists are marked as deviant in some way, yet what others see as pathology, Butler transforms into power (or its potential).
Black feminists of the '70s saw the future in a similar way: those at the very bottom of society have the most to gain by restructuring social relations. Though I never read the comics, I do love the X-Men films (Wolverineâ€”he's Canadian!) in part because they're based on that same idea: the persecuted and marginalized are deeply invested in, and best suited to effect, social change. Jean Grey's return as Phoenix in the third film absolutely captured my imaginationâ€”what happens when men try to keep a woman from fully knowing her own power? TOTAL ANNIHILATION! The downside of comic books is the hypersexualization of women's bodies; the upside is an alternative way of thinking about biological difference. Interestingly, most of the female heroes I admire don't really have a choice when it comes to their "special gift," and they aren't always fully in control of their own bodies. Perhaps that's part of the appealâ€”and what makes them recognizably human.
Loree Griffin Burns: "I was surprised at this question, and at my own answer. It brought me immediately back to my childhood, to those days when outdoor imaginative play was everything. I have incredibly vivid memories of playing superheroes with the neighborhood kids, pretty much all the time, but especially on weekends after we'd all had our fill of the Hanna-Barbara cartoons. As the oldest girl on the block, I was always Wonder Woman. (My kid sister would team up with one of the boys and be the girl Wonder Twin, but I couldn't even remember that purple kid's name. Wikipedia to the rescue: Jayna.) Anyway, those were heady days of crazy good-versus-evil fun, and the memories are shockingly bright.
I hadn't thought much about any of this until you asked this question, Colleen, but guess what? Being Wonder Woman was incredibly powerful for me. I remember being invincible (not feeling invincible, mind you, but BEING invincible). And I remember thinking it was spectacular, just absolutely delicious, that the coolest Super Friendâ€”by farâ€”was a woman. I was grateful I was a girl, in fact, because to be a boy would mean having to choose between a mere man of steel and the king of fishes â€¦ and that would be a real drag. Blech. Never once, not then or later, did it occur to me that we women had been gypped in the super heroes department. I guess Wonder Womanâ€”with her bullet-deflecting bracelets and invisible jet and kickin' bootsâ€”was enough for me.
Which has, of course, got me thinkingâ€¦
I've seen so many female firsts in my lifetime: the first American woman in space (Sally Ride), the first female Supreme Court justice (Sandra Day O'Connor), the first female vice-presidential candidate (Geraldine Feraro), the first female US Secretary of State (Madeleine Albright) â€¦ and many more. Of course we need more than the first, of course we need more female super heroes. These women change how girls think about themselves. Theyâ€”from Wonder Woman to Madeleine Albrightâ€”changed how I thought about this world and my place in it. Everyone needs to see themselves in the real world ... being successful, working with leaders of the free world, beating the bad guys, flying an invisible jet into the sunset. Good grief, where would we be without these role models? Where would I be without Wonder Woman?"
Lorie Ann Grover: "I was not a comic book reader growing up. At the most, my mom would buy one for us before a summer road trip, and it was usually Archie, I guess. Which I didn't actually enjoy. As an adult, I don't even read newspaper comics.
So, I definitely didn't grow up with female superheroes, aside from Wonder Woman on TV. I despised her costume but thought it was cool that she was so tall. In some measure she gave me reassurance for my body type. I remember glimpses of Cat Woman, but something told me never to trust her. I still don't.
How interesting that there is a vacuum of female superheroes in teen lit. Every time I think I've thought of one, I realize that they don't truly have super powers. They are just super smart or strong. I'm thinking of Kiki Strike and Cammie of the Gallagher Girls series. It's almost as if this generation's superheroes wear urban fantasy masks: Aislinn from Wicked Lovely, Kaye in Ironside.
As a YA author and reader, I do get the same kind of reading enjoyment through fantasy characters that I get from male superheroes on screen. I will say it's a blast to have a true female superhero like Claire in Heroes!
I think we girls will always demand character depth and growth in our superheroes, Powers just aren't enough. But it can be done. So maybe Colleen is on the cusp of a trend that might start right here... "
Beth Kephart: "Do we need superheroines? Do we already have them? Do I actually have an answer for this? I am a failure at fantasies, preferring to dig around in the ether and nether of real life, which is fantastical in its own way and which produces (and we do not need to look too far) girls with strength and verve, girls with power. We had the Pink Power Ranger in our house not long ago, protecting the world from Rita Repulsa; I wasn't nearly as invested in the outcome as perhaps I should have been. I thought Lynda Carter and her Wonder Woman bangles were fine enough when I was a kid; I am not sure I grew up a better person because she fought the Axis on our behalf.
I recognize all of this as a failure in myself. I suspect I'd be more plot heavy and plot talented in my own work if only I'd paid more attention to all those nefarious goings on (not only that, but I'd be able to follow along with all my husband's favorite movies without having to squint at the TV wearing my making-mental-notes face). I also suspect that I would throw better parties, and maybe I'd have a better sense of humor, and maybe even a
better figure. I know that I'd have better jewelry.
But alas. I am just who I am. Looking for everyday heroines in everyday life, and loving them most when they arrive unannounced in T-shirts and jeans.
Melissa Wyatt: "I'm afraid I have never been a big superhero fan. I like my drama mortal-sized, so I never read superhero comic books and therefore, never really noticed or reacted to the lack of female superheroes.
But I will say one thing: If there are going to be more female superheroes, I'd like to see their....superheroness have specifically female qualities to it. The main problem I've always had with the kick-butt girl archetype is that she so often achieves kick-butt status by acting like a guy. Maybe it's the fact that I have little upper body strength myself, but I've never bought into the riot grrl characters who have a purely physical approach to problem solving. Especially since they also have to look hot in a skin tight outfit while doing it. Would a female superhero burly enough to convince me that she could take down a man really find a market? A further annoyance is the fact that these girls are then often emotionally clueless.
It bothers me when the qualities we are asked to admire in a kick-butt girl are masculine qualities and feminine qualities are seen as a hindrance.
I don't know. I dislike confrontation and physical activity in general, so I'm probably the wrong person to ask about this!"
[Post pics: Wonder Woman, Rogue (X-Men), Hothead Paisan, Storm (X-Men), Jean Grey (X-Men), Power Girl (JSA), Claire from Heroes, Birds of Prey cover - that's original Batgirl now Oracle with the laptop in the center - and Buffy, Season 8 - because she's superheroine enough for all of us.]