We Need (Regular) Female Superheroes

Superheroes are everywhere these days. Marvel-type superhero films have replaced the traditional sci-fi film as a genre. Avengers, Captain America, Spiderman and the like have become billion-dollar franchise machines.

Some killjoys lament over the ubiquity of franchise films and the decline of art-house cinema. But that is not my point: superheroes are fun and empowering! They’ve become so commonplace that they serve all kinds of purposes now, like team building and better management. Superheroes are now so mainstream that everyone has to be one: for example, it has even pervaded the world of management, as everyone is expected to find the superhero in them, have superpowers or wear superhero capes in team building seminars.

We’re even witnessing an inflation in the number of superheroes. Indeed one superhero is no longer enough: the more the merrier! Now you need entire teams of superheroes and they have to have some kind of team spirit for their operations to work. Talk about inflation: one superhero used to be enough, now you need a truckful of them to get the same value. Superheroes are not inaccessible loners anymore. They’re everyone!

Everyone? Oops. Not quite… There lies the rub: the demographics of superheroes are still overwhelmingly male.

To say the superhero genre has a gender bias is “like saying Superman is kind of strong”. Comics, for example, aren’t getting many new female characters. Much like the advertising industry, the superhero movie industry has long represented female characters as male fantasies… with very little in terms of lines or character substance. The few female superheroes are often inspired by video games that target men, like Lara Croft. And because these films have not always been hugely popular with women, the industry’s naturally concluded that women just aren’t interested in superheroes.

Women would probably be happy to identify with appealing sex objects… if only these characters had a little breadth. But there is often too little food for identification. Therefore girls and women have long been used to identifying with the more thrilling male characters instead: they are the ones with a little bit of substance and a little bit of text.

Sadly what’s true of action films is in fact true of all films: as shown by the Media Diversity and Social Change Initiative,

In dissecting the top 100 grossing films each year, the team have analyzed a total of 26,225 characters in 600 films for gender, body type, age, race and more… They found that in 2013, only 29 percent of (ALL!) characters were female, and a mere 28 percent of the films had a female lead or co-lead… The underrepresentation was more severe in movies catering to younger audiences. About one in four characters were female in PG-rated films…”

So girls (and women) have learned to identify with male characters in the thrilling pieces of fiction they do indulge in occasionally. By doing so from an early age on they’ve gained practice in the exercice of putting themselves in other people’s shoes. In short they have developed more EMPATHY. This constant exercice of imaginative identification is what anthropologist David Graeber calls “interpretative labor”:

“Women everywhere are always expected to continually imagine what one situation or another would look like from a male point of view. Men are almost never expected to do the same for women.”

Within relations of domination, the dominated are generally expected to perform “interpretative labor”, explains David Graeber. Meanwhile the dominant rarely have to make the effort. As a result, systems of domination are perpetuated because they are anchored in our imagination. No legislation can overcome this asymmetry between the dominant and the dominated in our mental representations.

Superheroes are characters that wield power, exude prestige, and have influence and money. Therefore identifying with one means picturing oneself in a position of power… and getting a kick out of it. The role of superheroes in the minds of the young is as critical as that of all role models in the professional world. Putting on an imaginative cape is a lot like daydreaming about becoming the president. Ambition requires imagination first.

Many women do “interpretative labor” so well that they develop extra empathy and creativity in the process. These are not bad skills to develop. Many of the women whose imagination and ambition were nurtured at home and school will continue to identify with the leaders they identified with at a younger age, to the extent of actually becoming these characters: superheroes, leaders, presidents, action leads, pilots and what not. Interpretative labor will serve them all their lives and not prevent them from becoming the leaders they want to be. After all, men CEOs, leaders, engineers and ambassadors can serve as role models for women!

Unfortunately many more women will naturally limit their ambition to the imaginative identification and not make the leap to aim at actually becoming the male heroes. Because these heroes are essentially male, both in fiction and in life, these women will internalize deep-seated gender roles. “It’s just not for me”. At some point they may even stop identifying with those characters altogether (because “what’s the point?”).

So female heroes and other role models are critical for two reasons:

  1. More female models (in life and fiction) will engage more boys and men in the interpretative labor necessary to develop empathy. Yes, female heroes should inspire more men!
  2. When they see that female models are quite commonplace, more women will make the qualitative leap from imaginative identification to professional ambition.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, some progress has been made in the past few years, largely thanks to the campaigns of women like Geena Davis who launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2007. The institute’s focus is to work together with Hollywood to increase the presence of female characters in media aimed at children and reduce stereotyping of females in the male-dominated industry. There is slightly more awareness in Hollywood and many more actresses have taken up the cause.

Geena Davis

Half in jest, Gillian Anderson recently announced she was applying for the role of Jane Bond, the first female Bond. “There is, after all, a fairly long history of manly enthusiasm for action films with women heroes. Ripley from Alien (1978) and Sarah Connor from Terminator (1984) aren’t quite as old as James Bond, but they’re both nearly as iconic”. However it’s clearly not the same to “feminize” an iconic male character and to create new original female characters. Women would probably prefer new inspiring characters rather than a female Bond.

Sarah Connor has inspired two generations of girls

The Marvel studios have more superheroes in store for us, some of whom are female (Wonder Woman is soon to be released). In real life women superheroes (CEOs, leaders and the like) sometimes resent being presented as models and flat out refuse to become feminist icons. They don’t want to be singled out.

But if there aren’t enough fictional characters, we need as many real ones as we can lay our hands on! Can these women really “opt-out” of being a symbol that inspires others? No. They can’t. It’s like suggesting Obama can opt-out of being a symbol for African-Americans. He can’t.

Some women want others to forget they’re women. They shouldn’t. Even if they don’t want to, they have a responsibility in that regard. We need real and fictional female superheroes to become more visible so girls and women can see them. “If they see it they can be it”. Once female superheroes are commonplace enough, girls’ and boys’ imaginations will be equally free to run wild.