I Need a Heroine
Power is an interesting notion. Even when not explicitly stated, it belies every interaction we have. Classic representations of power have embodied physical domination and strength, and is frequently associated with masculine traits. Since art imitates life, this is notion of power has been forever preserved in the classic super-heroes – Super Man, Bat Man, Captain America, Spider Man to name a few – men who’s purpose in life is to physically save the city/country/world/galaxy from certain destruction. Women introduced into the mix were largely a catalyst for discovering power (what better way to be a hero than save a damsel in distress), a conflicted love interest used by the villain to distract our hero (save the girl or save the world) or some sexy-librarian type intellectual side kick who can’t help but swoon under power’s intoxicating spell. Female counterparts to these classic heroes of the human race have failed to grab the popular culture psyche. Sure, we like the idea of Wonder Woman and Bat-Girl, but the comic world has yet to let them stand on their own two feet. Even with the introduction of X-Men and The Avengers, superhero cadres with strong female members, to popular box office success, it is the strong male characters (Wolverine, Ironman, Thor…) who are given their stand-alone glory at the box office. And despite cries for a female superhero-led feature, one does not seem to be on the horizon.
As a woman, I’ve found this trend troubling. Fantasy and science fiction have always attracted me because they are a world where reality is suspended, and they therefore do not have to mirror reality. Early Star Trek episodes captured this, with a multi-ethnic gender-inclusive crew was beamed into 1960s neighborhoods that were still largely segregated. So if Star Trek can do it, why have the superheroes fallen short?
Perhaps it is actually the definition of power that has failed us rather than the lack of female power representation. Male superheroes are lauded for their physical abilities. With the possible exceptions of Ironman and the Jedi Warriors, brawn is always favored over brains. And while I’m all in favor of women physically kicking ass, simply muscling up women, endowing them with a “power” and putting them in a skimpy outfit is not a recipe for success. If art imitates life, we need to look beyond physical domination when constructing a powerful female heroine. Sociology, psychology and political science are increasingly recognizing the power-differences between men and women. While physical power is the manifestation of male-centered domination, female power is centered on the intellectual and emotional as much as the physical. In short, a brawn over brain female superhero is so far-fetched from the reality of women in power that it is destined to fail.
With this definition of power in mind, it is perhaps time to reexamine the women in pop culture who could (and should) carry a feature.
Princess Leia: Yes, she is Han Solo’s love interest and yes, she is ironically remembered for her Jabba the Hut slave girl outfit, but Leia is far more than a pretty, distressed piece of arm candy. From her introduction, Leia is a leader. She is a member of the Imperial Senate and a spy for the Rebel Alliance. Her knowledge and skill is integral in the defeat of the Empire. Leia herself becomes a Jedi, and in the expanded Star Wars universe is the founder of the New Republic. Leia is the exemplar of strength and leadership and power.
Lady Jayne: First introduced in the 1980s cartoon series, Lady Jayne was a no-nonsense military professional. Though she was romantically linked to Flint, her merits stood on her own. Rather than make her a muscled-up over-the-top caricature, G.I. Joe crafter her as a counterintelligence expert who relied on her education and training to spur the Joes onto victory.
The New Girls*:
Katniss Everdeen: There’s not much to say about her that hasn’t been said. She saves herself, Peta, her district, starts a revolution… Essentially if you don’t know who she is or why she’s awesome you’ve been living under a rock.
Mako Mori: I won’t spoil Pacific Rim for those who haven’t seen it. However, as there are rumblings of sequels (or possibly prequels) in the works, and Mako deserves a bigger part of the action in the next installments. She has honed her mind and body towards the ultimate goal of destroying the Kaiju, and ultimately comes to find that both are equally necessary for success.
Segen (World War Z): The Israeli soldier has a much larger role in the book than the movie, and hopefully the sequels will do her justice.
Black Widow/Natalia Romanov: She may not have a suit that allows her to fly or mythical deity powers, but her femme fatale background of intellectual deceit, crossed loyalties and steadfast independence provide an endless array of options in giving her a title role. Black Widow is a feminist political scientist’s dream, as she is an agent of intelligence and violence, an influencer and leader, and equally successful working independently and as a team player.
Warrior Maiden Sif: This interaction says it all:
Thor: And who proved wrong all who scoffed at the idea that a young maiden could be one of the fiercest warriors this realm has ever known?
Sif: I did!
Thor: True, but I supported you, Sif.
We’ve seen Thor, and now we’re getting to see Thor again. How about a little more insight into her evolution as the fiercest warrior in the realm.
Heroines portrayed as boob-possessing mirrors of male counterparts have flopped. While they may provide fan-boy fantasies, they do not resonate with our understanding of what it is to be a strong, influential female leader. As I’ve mentioned before women are beginning to be accepted in leadership, but not for their physical domineering skill. Pop culture would do well to imitate life, and develop some of the above characters, heroines for the more than their brawn.
*I’m aware that some of the characters themselves have been around in comic books/novels for quite some time, however they have been newly introduced to pop culture.