“A SYTYCB entry”
My first contact with Wonder Woman came when I was in preschool. Upon hearing that many of the boys in my class pretended to be Batman during recess, I was upset that girls could not play too, and over the weekend my mother took me to the library to embark on my first quest to find a female superhero to embody. The graphic novel section obliged with a giant full-color anthology of Wonder Woman comics.
Being too young to delve into the words, I stuck to the pictures, but got the idea. By the time school started again on Monday I was ready to begin my days fighting crime.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, the earlier exploits of my peers had resulted in playground injuries, so much so that our teacher had declared superheroes off-limits on the playground. To my admittedly fragile preschooler ego, however, the declaration that “you can’t be a superhero” meant me, the girl, specifically. More than anything I was upset that a weekend worth of character research was now useless.
It would be absurd to claim that one preschool incident was the sole cause of my avoiding superheroes for much of my childhood and adolescence, or that a particular person is to blame. However, I have noticed in retrospect that the cultural messages steering me toward stuffed animals and Barbie dolls over action figures seemed to echo and reinforce the lesson of the Wonder Woman Incident. My interest in female superheroes was not completely shut down, but significantly slowed because of this incident and, (as I grew older), because I couldn’t see how women in comic books could fight crime in such tiny outfits, with bodies that no woman in history has ever possessed.
I would go to the occasional superhero movie, but I became more interested in the superhuman powers themselves, or occasionally the every-day power of the women in the stories (It was hard not to find a kindred spirit in fellow-writer Lois Lane.)
I have also heard well-reasoned arguments that superheroes, and their extreme emphasis on physical strength, are meant to be a fantasy for men in an increasingly urban, technology-driven world that places far less emphasis on the physical strength that was imperative in earlier human societies. If a man is not valued for his strength, and ability to hunt and kill food, what then, is his purpose?
While I see some truth in this, I can’t really shake the annoyance that this storyline denies women a shot at the action, and continues to define strength purely in physical terms, leaving those with different ability levels on the sidelines as well.
It is ultimately because of the above reasons that I have, much more recently, brought my attention back to the importance of female superheroes. I wrote a play featuring a female amputee superhero, and I’m on the lookout for shows that feature women, (think Lois and Clark). In the last few weeks I have discovered the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets comic books, which challenge not only gender norms in the superhero world, but race and body image issues as well.
I do not mean to tie up this narrative with a perfect bow, suggesting that I am now somehow an expert on the subject of women in comics, having battled back from cultural pressure in my childhood. For me the search for satisfying female superheroes very much an ongoing process, in which many of my friends have more experience. However, I do feel that this anecdote is of use to the Feministing community because it demonstrates something that I have found to be true in my life:
The so-called rules governing superhero gender are much like the rules that govern the English language: At first they look big, scary, and absolute, but practice teaches you that there’s almost always an exception to the rule and oftentimes people don’t bother to follow the rules at all.