Superheroes. That very word invokes a very distinctive image in the minds of many readers: Superman flying high above Metropolis or the silhouette of Batman crouched on the top of a building, keeping watch over the citizens of Gotham City. Comic books have been an institution in American culture for years. 1938 brought about the introduction of the first American superhero, Superman. From his introduction, he was loved and admired by children. From the 2003 History Channel documentary “Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked,” the introduction of Superman is explained: “In 1938, the first, and greatest superhero of them all, Superman, leaped from the pages of Action Comics number one into the imaginations of children everywhere.” For many Americans, their childhood is laden with supermen and superwomen leaping tall buildings in single bounds, defeating evil enemies, and saving the day. Growing up, I was one of those children captivated by Superman and the rest of his super friends; Batman, the Hulk, Captain America, Wonder Woman — the whole gang was there. As I grew up though, I noticed there weren’t quite as many “super women” in the boys’ club that is the comic book world. It should be pretty obvious if you look at the list of heroes I idolized as a child that the gender ratio is off.
Entering middle school, I started getting into darker comics, like “X-Men” and was shocked to see major female characters in a heavily male-populated group. Jean Grey, one of the main members of the X-Men, was one of my idols. She was the kind of strong and powerful woman I liked to look up to, much like Wonder Woman when I was younger, or so it seemed. Comic books always showed powerful men who couldn’t be defeated, but as I grew older, I noticed that those seemingly powerful women were not really all that powerful.
When I was in college, I did a research paper and examined the distribution of superpowers based on gender. I examined how superpowers are doled out amongst the male and female superheroes on the X-Men and Justice League teams, examining powers that are considered “masculine” and “feminine” and I studied the superpowers that female and male superheroes typically possessed. Since I had such a huge subject matter to study (all comic books everywhere) and only one semester to do the research, I limited my paper to the two most notable comic book teams in popular culture; the X-Men and the Justice league. But these results are not only true about just these two teams. It is easy to compare Wonder Woman with Jean Grey because they both work within male dominated teams, so they have similar environments, even if they are from completely different universes.
I figured I would look at Marvel and DC alike, as to not show any bias, which provided me with many examples of how superpowers are distributed based on the gender of the superhero. These superheroes are walking exaggerations of American ideals and gender roles. Even though Wonder Woman was given great physical strength, something that is not typical for female superheroes, she is weakened by the rigid American gender roles. She is strong, but she cannot look physically threatening, so she is given props that subtly show women as submissive (the chains and bracelets that can be used to bound her, making her helpless) while also feeding into sexual fantasies.
Themes of Female Superheroes
It is a common theme within comic books that female heroes must earn their powers and acceptance as a true hero through trials and assessments while their male counterparts blaze their own trails, creating a path and destiny for themselves. Their decisions to become a hero and fight for justice are never questioned; being a male with a cape automatically makes a hero. A prime example of this is Wonder Woman. She had to undergo a series of dangerous, potentially deadly trials to prove to the Amazon Queen, her own mother, that she was worthy of the title “Wonder Woman.”
Superman, her fellow Justice Leaguer, just decided to fight for justice one day, so all he had to do was put on his cape and he was suddenly “super;” he didn’t have to prove his worth to anybody. He was born with his powers, and, when he decided to dawn a cape and become a champion, defending and fighting for Earth, no one questioned it.
The same is seen in the X-Men universe. The majority of the women in this universe, in spite of their individual personalities, how they look physically, or actual powers, share the same developmental patterns. Virtually all of the females possess powers that are mental, psychic, or all together invisible and operate indirectly. These types of powers only affect others in a roundabout way and often without the heroine’s knowledge or control, by altering the mind, physical world, or both. Powers such as these exhibit the traditional stereotype that women are emotional creatures who operate indirectly, as to avoid conflict, to achieve their goals. These mental powers do not challenge the physical superiority of the male members of the team, since the female superheroes’ powers come from mental, not physical, abilities.
Grant Morrison addresses the phenomenon mentioned above, when powers cannot be controlled or contained. Morrison addressed that in the 1950s and 1960s, DC followed a trend of showing superheroes that were formerly invincible, such as Superman, and showing them with powers that they temporarily could not control. That phenomenon was called the “feminizing” of powers.
So, it appears that the majority of the female superheroes within the comic book world are given powers that are emotional or empathetic (mental powers) and are difficult to fully control. One popular exception to that is Wonder Woman, but she is easily detained (her bracelets bind her). These superheroes continue to perpetuate such rigid gender roles, both in appearance and how the superpowers are distributed, typically allotting physical strength to the male superheroes and mental strength to the female superheroes. These comic books tend to take the typical American views on gender roles and exaggerate them in the characters that fans then idolize and seek to emulate.
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