Making Female Superheroes Mainstream
Have you heard this riddle before?
A boy and his father are driving down the road and crash. The father dies. The boy is rushed to hospital and when the surgeon walks in says, “I can’t operate on him, he’s my son.”
The first time my husband recounted this to me, I looked confused because I didn’t understand why it was a riddle. “The surgeon is the Mother… why is it a riddle?”
As a child growing up in the 90s, my brother and I used to read comic books. I used to love reading X-Men, and we used to have this Top Trumps deck of cards that were DC Heroes. Characters like Rogue, Storm, and Jean Gray from X-Men were a source of fascination for me. While other girls were designing their wedding dresses, I was spending hours deciding what powers I would have if I could have any.
This continued into my teenage years, as I’d be there faithfully on the front row at the cinema when each film was released. These were strong, athletic women that were just as strong as their male counterparts.
I wanted to show that women are empowered and strong, and don’t have to be saved by some male hero, but they can take care of themselves using their intelligence and power.
Gal Gadot, Actress (Wonder Woman)
Fast forward three decades later and throughout a string of hugely successful Marvel films, suddenly those strong women have disappeared into the background. They became the backup and sidekicks. The ones that become optional to include in a pack of action figures. When did making female superheroes mainstream become unimportant?
It is October 2020, and my 6-year-old daughter wants to dress up at Halloween as an Avenger.
Not any Avenger though, Black Widow – her favourite character. She doesn’t just love her because she is a woman but because she qualifies even though she doesn’t technically have superpowers. She is surrounded by men with superpowers yet she still stands her own without them.
As she asked to dress as Black Widow, I remember thinking to myself that I was relieved as the market is saturated with Avengers. It would be easy to find a costume, and I wouldn’t have to make one. I was half right. Every supermarket chain had almost every fancy-dress costume character – they even had Groot and StarLord (Guardians of the Galaxy). Almost that is. Every single character except Black Widow and on a side note – no Gamora or Nebula. Instead what they did have was almost every Disney and Pixar princess costume on hand for girls.
Now just to be clear, I don’t have anything against those costumes. Both my daughters have the Elsa and Ana dresses, the Princess Jasmine costumes, angel dresses, and even a fairy costume or two. But it makes me really, really cross is that according to popular culture, those are the only things they are encouraged to be at that age. The supermarkets tell me this as do the films coming out of Hollywood.
Boys’ cartoons are always about leadership and being the best. Girls’ cartoons are all about being part of a team and friendship.
This means girls then automatically fall into a follower role and perhaps do not consider themselves to be natural leaders. This is what they see everywhere around them. It took years for films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel to be released and up until 2021 for a film solely about Black Widow to come out. Even as a grown woman, I still feel a thrill watching films like those mentioned above.
Thankfully, the stars aligned. I managed to find a second hand Black Widow costume on eBay. I cannot tell you have excited she was when she saw it. She absolutely loves the Avengers, she reads the basic comics to practice her reading, and she watches the Disney+ cartoon series. She plays Avengers with her friends at school, and everyone knows Black Widow is her favourite. One of her friends even drew a Black Widow in her Christmas card for her. You should have heard her squeal when she opened it and saw it.
The Superhero Obsession
Lastly, you would think this obsession has made Santa’s job this year pretty easy. I wish that were true! What I have found is that most of the girl action figures don’t come in the multipacks. The one I found that did have the character was triple the cost of the other ones. There appears to be a bizarre assumption that boys aren’t interested in playing with a girl action figure. If this is the case, then I fear something needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Since having two daughters and being a family who clearly loves graphic novels and all things fantasy-themed, we have talked about this a lot in the last few years.
Perhaps comics were originally only bought and read by boys and men. But we all know this is a stereotype that needs to stop and thankfully, it slowly is. More and more women are working in the comic book industry and are changing things from the inside. Perhaps female characters will stop being overtly sexualised with breasts popping out of carefully unzipped lycra outfits. Must be pretty difficult fighting when your wobbly bits are in danger of falling out or your long luscious hair keeps getting in your eyes! There is a beautiful shot in the film Birds of Prey when all the women are fighting in an abandoned arcade and the camera pauses on one of them as she stops to put her hair up. You should have heard me yell, ‘FINALLY!’
With the recent releases in the last few years of comics with just female superhero characters – Avengers A-Force, I am thankful that my girls will grow up in a more evolving world of comics.
One where the ratio of female superhero characters is equal to male superhero characters. Children copy what they see, hear, and read. If in real life we are petitioning for equality of women in all areas of life, then why not petition the same in the worlds that our children are absorbed in?