Since becoming aware of the extent and nature of gender-related issues in my late teens, I have had to re-evalutate many things that I previously took for granted. Many of my posts last year on Gender Agenda came from looking at things like, Tennis, the Airline Industry and specific films in a new feminist light, and seeing how they fit in to the bigger societal picture.
Achieving this analytical feat is potentially less straightforward or rewarding when it is applied to things closer to one’s heart. In particular, I have struggled recently in working out how I feel about superhero comics. I’ve always had a relatively strong geeky side, and I’m a big fan of various characters and sci-fi universes of this genre. If you talk to people who really know their stuff on comic books, they can tell you all about the ins and out of gender and sexuality dynamics among the various superheroes and heroines – I know, for example, that there is someone at Cambridge actually doing research on homosexual narratives in comic books (Robin is just the beginning, apparently). But it is clear that as a whole, the vast majority of creative energy that has been expended on these characters is in many ways pretty regressive, or unambitious at best, when one turns one’s feminist X-ray vision on it.
It’s not that all the strong/cool characters are men: I happen to be a big fan of Magneto and Batman, but many of the best superpowers/stories are possessed by women such as Wonder Woman, Oracle or – my personal favourite – Jean Grey (telepathy AND telekinesis, phwoar!). Many of these heroines are extremely kick-ass and explicitly fight for the empowerment of women. But they are sadly doomed to fail in such a task, for they are surrounded by a world of black and white morality, where the forces of good can only prevail through exclusively violent means, and where heroes and heroines conform to the norms of beauty and other desirable heteronormative qualities. How many superheroes can you name who aren’t ridiculously sexy, especially among the women? People say the appeal of the superhero is that s/he is just a normal guy/girl, who we can all identify with, who happens to have great power and, yes, great responsibility. But really a key part of our identification is that when the hero puts on the tight latex suit, s/he transforms from a mirror image to an idealised image of ourselves, with all the right curves and none of the blemishes.
I’m not saying that all superhero comics are one-dimensional or mainstream as this – clearly there are many great comic writers and stories, with depth and insight, otherwise I wouldn’t be a fan! Much of the best work has blurred/subtle morality and more realistic artwork. Some even tackles feminist issues head-on, though I’m not an expert on this and it’s not the point of this article. Rather, I want to consider the very premise of comicbook superheroes, or more precisely, of superpowers.
There are many different kinds of superpower, but ultimately, they mostly boil down to some kind of physical strength. Superheroes have to fight evil, because their powers are useless for anything else. Sure, they could become exceptionally skilled labourers, or ludicrously successful sportspeople. But these are activities that equally rely on the masculine quality of strength because our cultural system says that this is a prerequisite for doing well in them. Superpowers rarely allow you to cure cancer, run an convincing political campaign or teach humanity the meaning of empathy.
Rather, a superpower is supposedly an extension of the “natural” powers that all people have. Yet for some unkown reason, the creators of mainstream comics define this purely in terms of the physical. There’s always the odd telepath – but again, telepathy is a very general extension of masculine intellect. The most famous telepath is probably Professor X, who builds a machine capable of using his power to kill people. Where are the superheroes with the “power” to speak super-persuasively, or build super-effective communication channels between enemy factions, or super-conclusively deconstruct false dichotomies?
Obviously, there is nothing inherently masculine about physical strength – but this is its cultural significance and it is rarely challenged by superpower strengths. The reason this whole issue has any relevance to anyone who doesn’t care about the difference between Marvel and DC is that it reveals what our culture thinks about the concept of power (it’s all about the muscle), idealised versions of ourselves (must look good in lycra) and what gifted people should do with their lives (violently fight criminals). You can tell if we’ve reached our feminist goals by the kind of superheroes that are mainstream. Though our current failure in this regard is not going to stop me loving the new Batman film, unfortunately….