Remember in my “Meet The New Intern” post when I mentioned that a lot of my interests are pretty nerdy? Allow me to demonstrate:
In the minds of many, graphic novels (comic books) are not exactly the most respectful and pro-women form of literature. To many, the (often ridiculous) attire and improbable physiques of women are not encouraging. Groups of superheroes (and supervillains) in which there are one or two “token” female characters in a sea of men seem artificial and extremely male-centered. I understand that people would have a problem with fictional universes in which the heroic women are “objects” of contention between male protagonists, and villainous women are either femme fatales to tempt male heroes or only supervillains because they are getting back at a man who wronged them,* or not-genuinely-villainous antagonists whom men can seduce away from the “real” villains—who are male.
The most important thing to remember about this is that a lot of these graphic novels are outdated. Some of them were created when there were still restaurants in the United States that wouldn’t serve to women during certain times of the day. This does not make them okay—I do not buy the “it was a different time” argument.
But graphic novels are different, now. Not all of them—some writers are misogynists. Others are not. I think that it’s fair …
… to say that most are not. Now we’re seeing powerful, independent female characters driving stories in comics. We’re seeing same-sex couples as part of crowd on the cover of Spider-Man. We’re seeing same-sex weddings. Graphic novels are no longer the absurdly macho-man universes that they were in the 1980s. And that is wonderful.
One thing that people don’t talk about as much, though, is how superpowers are assigned. In college, one of my professors talked to us about the stereotypical differences in the superpowers of male and female characters. Essentially, males are more likely to have physical powers (especially super strength and invulnerability) and females are more likely to have psionic or magical powers, which require limited to no physical interaction.**
There are obvious exceptions (like She-Hulk, Mystique, and Wonder Woman). Outside of graphic novels, but still within the range of “things that you’ll see at Comic Con,” are contemporary fantasy stories. We’re seeing female vampires throw grown men across the room (and, oh goodness, I am not talking about Twilight. I think that the only group more negatively impacted by Twilight than women has been vampires). Even in the 1990s, shows like Buffy and Xena highlighted how you can tell a wonderful fantasy story with women as very physically combative main characters.
But I feel that it’s more important to note that these “girl powers” are not the same as the “girl guns” to which people refer in films. Female characters like Emma Frost, Jean Grey, Storm, and Scarlet Witch have “girl powers,” but they also happen to be some of the most powerful comic book characters, ever. Emma Frost and Jean Grey can read and control the minds of others. Scarlet Witch has the power to permanently redefine reality itself. As in, for everyone on Earth.
And all of this is why, at the age of seven, when so many of my friends were pretending to be Spider-Man or Wolverine, I was pretending to be Storm: the strong, black woman who can control the weather.
*Seriously. You guys remember that Green Lantern movie with Ryan Reynolds? You know the love interest character, Carol Ferris, played by the outrageously gorgeous Blake Lively? Well, she becomes the supervillain Star Sapphire (one of the villains to go by this name). Not because she’s ambitious or wants to steal things or create political change or because of some bizarre laboratory accident. She becomes a supervillain because Hal Jordan hurt her feelings. I only hope that this powerful, aggressively competent character whom we have seen in the first Green Lantern movie is portrayed with more reasonable motives on the big screen. Also, Blake Lively will look killer in any version of the Star Sapphire costume.
**As a writer, however unpublished, I think that female characters being given less violent roles might not be as sexist as we first imagine. Could part of it be about discomfort about violence towards women, or doubts about females being capable of violence? Probably. But, though I tend to prefer to give powers like super-strength and invulnerability to female characters, I run into a simple problem—it’s more inappropriate to write a story in which an invulnerable woman gets her not-so-invulnerable clothes ripped to tatters than it is to write the same fight scene with a man. It’s a weird and fairly specific problem, but it is a problem for writers. It would be an even bigger problem for people writing graphic novels who don’t want parents to forbid their children from buying them. Breasts are, apparently, just too awesome for some people to handle.