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What the Newest Superheroes Tell Us About Society's Views on Gender

If comic book characters mirrored real life, what would our heroes look like? Superheroes have been a staple of American culture since the 1930s; they’re in our TV shows, our fashion, our toys, our music, our theme parks, our Broadway musicals, and of course, our top-grossing box office hits. Although some may consider comic book superheroes to be childish entertainment or geeky collectors items, there’s little doubt that reading between the lines offers some valuable insight into who and what is valued by a large portion of society. If that’s the case, this month has brought both good and bad news. 

But first, how and why do our superheroes matter? An interesting Forbes article last month gave some good answers to this question, when author Christina Blanch gave some powerful examples of heroes from the past and present that have been overwhelmingly reflective of societal norms. From Lois Lane (who was strong and independent during the WWII era but became a deferent ‘damsel in distress’ type when men returned from war) to Sue Storm (the 1960s “Invisible Girl”) to Northstar (Marvel’s first openly gay character who tied the knot shortly after Barack Obama’s marriage endorsement last year), Blanch discusses how the art of comic books has imitated and reflected societal trends for the past 80 years—it’s worth a read.

So where are we today? In recent news, Marvel has just announced a plan to release novels featuring comic superheroines to target more women readers. But rather than incorporate female heroes into the existing superhero genre, they’ve made the frustrating decision to incorporate them into a dumbed-down ‘girly’ genre.  Take the description for the upcoming She-Hulk Diaries—in this chick lit novel, the hulk’s female cousin is “climbing the corporate ladder by day and battling villains and saving the world by night – all the while trying to navigate the dating world to find a Mr. Right who might not mind a sometimes very big and green girlfriend.” Similarly, their new novel Rogue Touch starring the female X-Men character with a mutant lethal touch is about “a young woman trying to navigate the challenges of everyday life and romance.” The cover image for The She-Hulk Diaries is green lipstick. Anyone else think these sound super-stupid, not to mention super-sexist?

Meanwhile, DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros, will be publishing a new Superman anthology, and their choice of hiring known homophobe Orson Scott Card to author one of the stories is rightfully seen by many as a step in the wrong direction. The Enders Game author is on the board of the National Organisation for Marriage, the anti-gay marriage group that spreads hateful propaganda in their fervent fight against equality. Card has famously spoken out against same-sex marriage as “the end of democracy in America,” and described gay people as “simply confused.”

Of course, no one is arguing that any and all 21st century superheroes must be avid and clear advocates and supporters of progressive agendas, or that the content of their stories have a duty to be political.  But what would have happened if the writer of X-Men, who created Northstar as the first and only gay superhero, thought that gays were “simply confused”? We’d have one less role model for already underrepresented gay children and teens, and the superhero world would have remained stagnantly hetero-sexist. Plus, why should we trust someone as comically villainous as Orson Scott Card to redefine heroism for a new generation? Many people, and even a few comic book stores, have already declared official boycotts of the new anthology, admirably showing that we’ve come too far to let bigots be the judge of good and evil. 

But it’s not all bad news. A brand new comic superhero series entitled “My So-Called Secret Identity” is introducing the world to what may become the best and definitely least sexist female superhero to ever enter the hero-sphere, and she’s not defined by the color of her lipstick. Will Brooker, the British author, academic, and comic fan behind the books Batman Unmasked and Hunting the Dark Knight created Cat, the new superheroine, because he was so horrified at the representation of women in comics that he created his own to change the game. Described as having a “feminist approach from the ground up, in terms of story, character, artwork and production,” “My So-Called Secret Identity” seeks to challenge the popular trend of female heroes acting as sexualized, peripheral to and weaker than male counterparts, and fulfilling antiquated gender stereotypes. The new comic has just been launched online and can be viewed for free, with an intention to create at least 15 episodes and publish at least five as books. While “My So-Called Secret Identity” probably won’t get nearly as many viewers as anything produced by Marvel, having a female PhD student superheroine is a necessary addition in an age where badass smart women like Elizabeth Warren are taking the Senate by storm, and women continue to earn doctorate degrees at unprecedented rates.

So do superheroes reflect society? This year, we have a traditional superhero penned by an ultra-conservative homophobe, stereotypically feminized and boyfriend-seeking hero-ettes, and a less mainstream feminist hero with super intelligence.  Yep, that seems accurate-- the fictionalized world of superheroes is getting pulled in drastically different directions, both backward and forward.