Saturday, August 15, 2015

Where are the female superheroes?

While it remains to be seen whether my son will inherit my love for superhero comics, like most little boys, he has a lot of superhero stuff, including toys, a bedspread, and a couple of backpacks. That's pretty cool, but there's one thing that I can't help but notice.

On his Avengers bed spread, which features the team from the movie, Black Widow is nowhere to be seen.

On his Justice League backpack, you won't find Wonder Woman anywhere. There also isn't a pair devoted to her with his set of Justice League underwear. Sure, he has Aquaman underwear, but no Wonder Woman underwear. And no, I'm not expecting them to throw a pair of girl's underwear in there. You can have boy's underwear with a female character on it, can't you?

I find this troubling as both a father and as a fan of superheroes. I'll be the first to acknowledge that when it comes to representing women, comics haven't always done a great job. (Although I'd argue that things have been improving quite a bit lately with the current Black Widow, Batgirl, Starfire, Captain Marvel, etc. comics out there nowadays.) Female superheroes have always been outnumbered by their male counterparts, and this is always clear when it comes to superhero teams. Things were really bad back in the 1950s when it was Wonder Woman's job to act as secretary for the Justice League, and although that sort of a thing fell by the wayside, there were also bad periods, especially in the 90s, where the female heroes were there more to pose like porn stars than serve the story.

Like everything, there are exceptions, and it seemed like for a while there that things were starting to go in the right direction. The Justice League cartoon of the early 2000s at least featured two female heroes (with Hawkgirl joining) and then Justice League unlimited allowed for more of them to get the spotlight, like Black Canary, Supergirl, The Huntress, etc. I know that Teen Titans Go! had some popularity as well, with 2/5 of the team being female.

I should also point out that the X-Men comics have long been a good exception when it comes to representing female heroes. The above image is from issue #218 of The Uncanny X-Men, which featured a story with a small team of X-Men going up against one of their most dangerous foes, the unstoppable Juggernaut. The team consisted of three women and only one man. I was only in seventh grade back then, but I remember loving that story. I was big on the X-Men in general, and the team frequently featured more than its fair share of heroic women. I never associated it to be a girl's comic as a result - nor did I think that of its offshoot Excalibur, which had a female to male ratio of three to two. (Unless you count Kitty Pryde's pet dragon, I guess.)

One thing that I've been realizing lately as comics and superheroes have gone more mainstream is that there isn't anything inherently "for boys" about them. Traditionally they've been geared toward boys, but you see a lot more girls getting into them, and I've found myself talking comics with my female students as much as my male students lately.

This is why it's so troubling that these superhero products seem to leave out the women entirely. They've already gotten short shrift (with a few exceptions) and now they're being ignored all together?

I wonder where the problem really is. Is it that the people behind the decisions feel that boys won't want the backpacks/underwear/blankets if there's even one woman on them? Are they just out of touch? More likely, I'm afraid, is that they have good reason to think that sales will fall if the women are included. And if that's the case, the problem is much worse than I imagine.

I'm not sure how my son would react if Wonder Woman was included on his backpack. There have been times when both my wife and I have had to correct him when he said things about what "girls" supposedly can't do. He obviously doesn't hear that from us, but the message of female limitation definitely gets through to him, so we have to work at damage control. I pointed out to him the issue of Wonder Woman, and he didn't seem too concerned about it, but he also didn't act like it would be a problem if the Amazonian Princess was there next to Batman, Superman, The Flash, and Green Lantern.

I know that there's a lot of talk about feminism nowadays, and a lot of people like to attach meanings to it that don't really jive with my understanding of it. To me, it's all about treating people equally, but we use the term "feminist" to acknowledge that generally speaking it's women who aren't being regarded as full equals. While a superhero backpack might not be the most important fight along these lines, it's certainly a symptom of a problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My son was mildly obsessed with Wonder Woman when he was 2. He would run around pretending to be Wonder Woman all day. A friend asked me, "Are you comfortable with your son's Wonder Woman obsession?" I answered, "I'll love my son whether he grows up to be a fan of Marvel or a fan of DC."
I realize this story brings nothing to the discussion; I just like sharing it.