We Are No Birds: Super-/Em-Powered

I’ll be honest. I was never really interested in superheroes as a kid. Comics were something that boys read, and besides, they were all a bunch of beefy men beating each other up anyway, so what was I really missing? As I came of age, so too did superheroes, it seemed. When I was in high school, Marvel was popping out movies nearly every year. So, as someone who was desperate for friends at the time, when it was suggested we go see Iron Man or Captain America or Thor, I agreed, even though I didn’t really think it would be “my thing.”

While I did enjoy these movies—it turns out watching a bunch of beefy men punch each other can be fun—the budding feminist in me wondered where the women were. Sure, Iron Man had Pepper Potts, Captain America had Peggy Carter, and Thor had Jane Foster, but these women inevitably ended up in a romantic entanglement with the hero that turned her from a potentially strong character into yet another heart-eyed fawn. Even at that age, I was quite familiar with (and sick of) this trope. I would come out of the theater feeling like a superhero who could run fast, punch through walls, or fly, but this feeling wore off in about twenty minutes. These movies were entertainment, but they fell flat of having a real effect on me.

Then came The Avengers. Finally! I thought. A female superhero who gets to fight with the boys! And Black Widow did just that—at least, in part. I could never quite identify with Black Widow at the time because although I was thin, I never thought of myself as sexy, one key to Black Widow’s power. But I continued to go see Marvel movies, since, as I said, they made for a fun evening and gave me momentary feeling of power afterward.

That is, until Marvel released Avengers: Age of Ultron. By this point, I’d just finished my second year of college (and perhaps importantly, my first Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies class). When the stereotypical Forced Heterosexual Romance reared its ugly head between Black Widow and the Hulk, I lost all interest. The little autonomy Black Widow had had in the first Avengers movie had been completely eroded and her character had been reduced to a flimsy, man-dependent shell of what she had been. And thus ended my short affair with the superhero genre. Or so I thought.

Summer of 2017 had kept me busy, from graduating college to going on various trips. I had, though, still heard the buzz about Wonder Woman. I heard the movie was smashing box office records and critics were raving. Friends asked me repeatedly if I had seen it yet. Thinking all of these people had to be onto something, I took my boyfriend to see Wonder Woman in July, just before it left theaters.

I did my best to reserve judgment to keep from getting my hopes up, but ten minutes into the film, I was enamored with it. I left the theater feeling so much more than that fleeting sense of power I got after any previous Marvel movie. I came out of Wonder Woman feeling, in the fullest sense of the word, empowered. Here was a character who was not only physically strong (and more so than her male companions) but also emotionally and intellectually capable of engaging with the complicated world. Finally, Hollywood was depicting a female superhero as a feminist, the kind of hero who inspires and emboldens women like me. For example, rather than letting her grief for Steve Trevor prevent her from defeating the villain, Diana (Wonder Woman’s real name) overcomes this feeling to do her duty for the good of the world. And yet, at the same time, Diana expresses a variety of emotions, just like any real woman, a human being, would: she is angry at the all-male war council who refuses to listen to her; she is delighted to see a baby in the street; and she feels grief when inhabitants of the small Belgian village are killed and guilt at not being able to prevent the carnage. And while Steve and Diana do have a romance, Diana does not let her feelings for him impede her mission, thus avoiding the Forced Heterosexual Romance trope. Rather, as in the real lives of women who are feminists, romance and work coexist.

I could go on about what I liked in Wonder Woman, but my main point circles back to that feeling of empowerment. Here’s the thing about the superhero genre. Superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves. Even if the hero has been genetically modified or is from another planet, we still recognize them as human. Even if they have powers (like super speed, flight, or super strength) that mark them as non-human, their sense of ethics is what makes us respect them and recognize a part of ourselves in them. As such, putting aside their superpowers, we want superheroes to be as “real” as possible. We want them to have and express emotion, to make meaningful connections with other people. It’s no surprise, then, that when a superhero’s character simply fulfills stereotypes, rather than being “real” and complex, we feel disappointed. Characters like this fail to really resonate with an audience due to their lack of depth. Even if superheroes are supposed to be the best versions of ourselves, they still ought to contain the complexities and multitudes that your average non-super human does. When I saw superhero movies like Captain America, I was disappointed because the hero (and his female sidekick) did not resonate with my idea of the best version of myself. Although I admired Captain America’s sense of justice, the movie, for various reasons, supported a bias that supported the dominant, patriarchal power structure.

For groups who have been historically underrepresented, misrepresented, or stereotyped in Hollywood, seeing people like you on the big screen and portrayed in ways that do not perpetuate stereotypes is a truly great feeling. I don’t know if I have ever seen as many women on a movie screen at one time as I have in the opening scenes of Wonder Woman at Themyscira. And what are the women in this scene doing? Training. Being physically strong and athletic, without catering to the male gaze with “sexy” shots or with weakness in emotions or strength. I hope that there are more movies with unbiased tones like Wonder Woman to make women and other historically marginalized groups of people feel, well, super.