Feminism and Television: Female Superheroes?

I was recently having a discussion with my father about feminism, Shakespeare, and modern television, in which I briefly brought up the point that I’m not entirely sure that I find female superheroes empowering*. What what, you say? How can I not find kickass ladies empowering?

Well, my grasshopper, let me tell you.

We were discussing more generally the role of women in Shakespeare and women on television (which, as crass as this sounds, really is the Shakespeare of our day: meant to appeal to the masses, accessible to all), and I was having a tough time coming up with examples of truly feminist characters on television. One of the genres which many people routinely identify as feminist is science fiction/fantasy, and I do think that this genre tends to be more feminist than others (which is a post for another day: to wit, why is it more feminist? What is it about this genre which has allowed it to be feminist? How is it that geeks can simultaneously be some of the most committed feminists I know, and the biggest misogynists?), but I’m not entirely sure that all of it is feminist.

My problem with superheroes of the lady persuasion is that they need to be “super.” Now, don’t get me wrong, I like superheroes of all genders, but I don’t think that a superhero is necessarily an empowering character, because when I see a superhero, I don’t see someone and think “oh, this is totally someone I could be. This is like someone that I know.” Female superheroes often are strong characters, which one might think would make them great models, except that they often get their strength from the superpowers, and that’s kind of alienating for those of us who don’t have access to radioactive spiders or what have you.

On Buffy, for example, I find the passing character of Sam to be almost more feminist, in a way, than Buffy herself. Sam, of course, appears in “As You Were” (Season Six, Episode 15). She’s the wife of Riley, Buffy’s ex, and she’s a badass commando who takes no crap from anyone. What makes her feminist is the fact that she’s incredibly emotionally and physically strong and talented, and it’s all natural. Yes, she fights supernatural forces, but she herself is a totally normal human woman, and that’s what makes her so amazing. Buffy, on the other hand (who is also a feminist character; I’m not trying to suggest that she isn’t) derives her powers and skills from a supernatural force, which instantly puts her at a remove from me. I could become Sam. I can’t become Buffy.

And this is why I find female superheroes troubling. Because I dislike the idea that women have to be endowed with supernatural powers to be awesome, amazing, powerful, super. It’s why Xena (played by Lucy Lawless) resonates with tons of women, while Wonder Woman doesn’t have quite the same draw. Wonder Woman is, in a lot of ways, a feminist character, but she’s not a woman that other women can relate with on the same level. And both characters, of course, are heavily objectified, with their tiny costumes and general presentation, which just goes to show you that it’s pretty much impossible to have a perfectly feminist character on television, no matter how much you try.

This is not to suggest that I think female superheroes should go away. I think it’s great if other women and girls can watch them and identify with them and feel empowered by them. And I like that there is increasing equality between the sexes in the superhero realm: if we’re going to have superhero dudes, I want my fair share of superhero ladies. But I, personally, find them a bit troubling at times, because I’m not entirely sure that they are sending the best feminist message. Women and girls need to know that you don’t need superpowers to be a strong woman.

So, who on television would I point to as a strong feminist character? Temperance Brennan on Bones springs to mind. She’s a female character who is blazingly intelligent, treated as a figure of respect, and allowed to evolve and change. She’s not objectified at every turn, and she has both strengths and weaknesses which stress that she’s a real person. Cameron on House is another instance of a fairly feminist character. She’s a strong, opinionated woman who also happens to be a very talented doctor. Abby Sciuto on NCIS is strong, compassionate, and brilliant, with an individualistic streak, and she’s a pretty delightful example of a feminist on a very mainstream television show. These women don’t necessarily slip into common stereotypes, although they are all played by classically beautiful women. I do find it interesting to note that all of them are working in the sciences, as well.

Some of the creators of female superheroes have specifically referenced feminism and a desire to create a strong female character, which I think is really admirable and excellent. I wonder if they’ve considered the implications of using superheroes as a vehicle for such characters. And, as comes up again and again in my Feminism and Joss Whedon series, sometimes creators have really good intents, but those intents can’t be fully realized or may even be subverted in service to the plot.

*Credit where credit is due: Sady at Tiger Beatdown put the germ of this idea into my head, and while it took me a while to mull it over and think about it, I doubt that this post would have been possible if she hadn’t said it first. I know, I know, two Tiger Beatdown references in as many days. (This should, of course, lead you to conclude that if you aren’t reading Tiger Beatdown, you should be, because if you think I’m all smart and interesting and stuff, imagine how much cooler it is to read the original source!)

13 Replies to “Feminism and Television: Female Superheroes?”

  1. I think an important point not mentioned here is that those superpowered women live in superpowered worlds. Having magical powers in buffyverse is only about as much of a leg up as being really smart, or maybe having lots of specialized training in this world. Being a full fledged hero somewhere like the buffyverse or the DC universe is going to require some powers.

    Also, it’s not like the fictional locales you mentioned have absolutely no strong female characters who happen to not have superpowers. If a show has non-superpowered female characters who are still special and strong, can it really be looked at as saying that you need supernatural help to be awesome if you don’t have a penis?

    I don’t really agree with not being able to relate to characters purely because they have powers, but I could see where that’s a more personal thing.

  2. You make a good point when you argue that having superpowers in a superpowered world is kind of akin to having a leg up in regular society; that is a point which I neglected to mention. And I certainly didn’t suggest that shows featuring female superheroes don’t have strong non-empowered characters, or say that I thought female superheroes shouldn’t exist. Look at someone like Willow in the Buffyverse, who has learned to harness supernatural forces and may have some innate talent, but hasn’t been blessed with a supernatural ability like Buffy’s superstrength. Conversely, Buffy is a heroine because of her powers, but she is a strong female character because of who she is, not because of the abilities she has been given.

    But…you missed an important issue when you talked about not relating to characters. I specifically stressed that my relationship with female superheroes is personal, and added “I think it’s great if other women and girls can watch them and identify with them and feel empowered by them.” The point of this post was not to argue that women shouldn’t relate with female superheroes, or to say that all women relate to such characters in the same way, but to talk about the fact that some women have trouble relating to such characters, and to explore why they feel that way. So much of how we interact with media is personal. There are no right and wrong answers, and we cannot come up with any sort of unifying theory, but that doesn’t mean we should not talk about it.

    Does my experience of not finding such characters always empowering negate your experience of being able to relate to them? Of course not. But, conversely, your ability to relate to such characters does not negate my experience of sometimes finding them alienating.

  3. As I said, I can definitely see where how one relates to characters is a more personal thing. I did not mean to imply that having trouble relating to superpowered characters was somehow wrong.

    I do think, though, that having powers is very common in fantasy and sci fi. If someone has trouble relating to such characters, regardless of genders involved, then aren’t those genres going to be more difficult to enjoy in general?

    Ideally, there would be plenty of strong female characters in all kinds of genres so that those who felt it difficult to connect to characters with superpowers could instead connect with characters without. But alas, reality.

  4. Well, a lot of people who have trouble relating to superpowered characters of either gender do in fact have trouble enjoying fantasy and science fiction, for the very reasons you discuss. But there are also people like me, who enjoy these genres, but sometimes find aspects of them troubling; is a refusal to surrender critical evaluation somehow a flaw? Should people not explore their personal responses to work, and ponder why it is that they struggle with certain types of characterizations? Should we not talk about the broader social implications of subjective responses to characterizations in creative works?

    I’ve noted on numerous occasions that fantasy and science fiction have a higher concentration of generally empowered female characters, whether or not they have superpowers, and it’s a trait in these genres which has been observed by other people. I’m not quite sure why this is and it is something which I would like to explore, but I am led to wonder if the acceptance of empowered non-supernatural female characters in these genres is related to the fact that people are often introduced to empowered women in the form of powerful supernatural ladies first. Do people need to be provided with an entirely implausible role model before they will accept a one who could exist in the real world? Because, if so, that’s really depressing.

  5. I’m not attacking your right to critique or evaluate. I apologize for giving that impression. It was really not my intent.

    I am disagreeing with your evaluation. I’m not drastically opposed, but something about it is throwing me off. Maybe it’s the Xena/Wonder Woman comparison. That certainly doesn’t strike me as fair. Xena is a warrior princess living in a world of humanized greek myth. Wonder Woman is a guy’s icky bondage fantasy living in a world of icons.

    Lastly, I very much agree with your final statement there. If entertainment is giving the impression that women *need* to have gifts completely apart from reality in order to be strong, something is very, very wrong.

  6. Xena and Wonder Women are, it’s true, not the best comparison. But I think it’s really, really important for you (and everyone) to distinguish between a subjective response and an objective one. This is very much a subjective discussion of female superheroes, discussing how some feminists subjectively respond to such work. There are, in other words, no right answers here, because it is impossible to turn a personal response (which this is) into an objective evaluation (which is something else entirely). You can say that you do not interpret the way in which such characters are framed in the same way discussed here, but that does not invalidate the criticism of female superheroes coming from some feminists who find such characters alienating.

    It’s sort of like if we went to dinner and ate the same thing and you hated it and I loved it. The fact that I loved it doesn’t invalidate the fact that you hated it, even though both of us can muster supporting arguments for our “side.” In the end, all we can do is say “I recognize that you loved/hated this dish, although I personally hated/loved it.” What’s interesting to explore here is not whether or not the dish is “good” by objective standards which everyone can agree upon, but why we responded to it in such different ways. Is it because we have different tastebud configurations? Because one of us had something with a strong flavour before dinner which colored our personal perception of the food? Because one of us is sensitive to salt? Because one of us has bad associations with the flavor of lemon? We can’t persuade each other to dislike or to like something, but we can talk about why we are responding so differently; our read on the food (or on female superheroes) is very much informed by personal experience.

    And, yes, the entertainment industry is, by and large, with a few exceptions, very much giving the impression that women must have gifts beyond the ordinary in order to be strong/worthy of respect/etc. This is, in fact, a fundamental problem with the industry, and it’s why shows which feature breakout female characters are so astounding, whether or not those characters have superpowers. It’s why creators who go out of their way to create strong female characters are applauded; if the entertainment industry was consistently modeling powerful female characters, or even some sort of vague attempt at equality, powerful women wouldn’t be at all remarkable, now would they? It’s sort of like how powerful men are not considered remarkable, because they are consistently being modeled in entertainment, which makes weak male characters interesting and remarkable.

    The issue, in other words, is not “I’m right and you’re wrong,” but “why do we perceive the characterization of female superheroes so differently?”

  7. Yes, I agree. I do totally get the subjective/objective distinction. That’s why, in my original post, I said I disagreed with not being able to relate to characters because they had powers, but I can see where that’s a personal thing. In other words, I have no problem about relating to super powered characters, but I could see where others might.

    I’ve not meant, in any of these posts, to come off as, “you’re wrong.” Something about this essay is niggling at me, and I’m sorry that I’m not doing a good job at teasing it out. I’m also sorry if I’ve come off as confrontational. Again, not my intent.

  8. No worries. Teasing out subjective responses is an immensely complicated tasks, and I’m actually really enjoying this conversation with you.

    I think that a good question for you might be (and forgive me if I am assigning the wrong gender to you): how do you feel about/respond to male superheroes? Do you find them more or less accessible to your personally because of their superheroes?

    Also, I think that you definitely recognize here (and in other comment threads) that there are some fundamental inequality issues for women and men in society, and that the world of entertainment/art does a varying job of responding to that. Sometimes it confronts it, and sometimes it just supports it. But our own personal experiences definitely colour how we respond to things; I wonder if one of the reasons that this post is niggling at you is that you aren’t (I think) a woman, and so you relate to female superheroes on a different level? Because that’s fundamentally what this post is about; I mean, I am very interested in the treatment of female characters in general, but here I am specifically examining female superheroes and how they are perceived.

    For me, I think what makes the difference between a (subjectively) good vs bad female superhero is this: is a female superhero intrinsically emotionally/characterwise strong, like Buffy, or is her entire characterization based on her superpowers? I, alas, am woefully deficient in the world of comic books, but critical reviews I’ve read of comics repeatedly bring up the issue that a lot of female superheroes are heavily objectified, and don’t really have personalities or personal characteristics beyond “super powers, tiny costume, big boobs,” whereas a lot of male superheroes get to have actual personalities. I wonder if women have trouble relating to female superheroes because we have a hard time in general relating to heavily objectified female characters who are primarily characterized as the owners of a single trait (a superpower, a really nice rack, blonde hair, etc).

    Which is to say that female superheroes are not intrinsically bad. I’m actually a big fan of superheroes of all persuasions. But rather that the characterization can be really tricky, and that I can see how women sometimes have trouble relating to female superheroes because I sometimes have trouble relating to them.

  9. As far as criticism goes for what costumes a female character may wear, or how their body may be shaped, shouldn’t and isn’t the same thing with male characters? They are all certainly handsome will muscles. You bring up Xena’s ‘tiny costume’ but she’s no more covered than the Greek soldiers there, who also wore skirts, and protective body armor (whereas a character like Red Sonja has a ridiculous metal chainmail bikini).

    I agree about Xena and Wonder Woman, but I think you got something a little bit confused with the Xena character. She is not *a* ‘warrior princess’. That title is not meant to be taken literally. Xena isn’t royalty. Autolycus is called the ‘king of thieves’ not because he is an actual King, but because he is the best at what he does – being a thief. Same for Xena. She is THE best warrior there is, i.e. princess.

  10. I think that the prominence of empowered women in science fiction and fantasy may be easily explained as being a side effect of the basic assumptions of the genres. While the roots of prejudice and inequality run very deep, the perception of them tends to be remarkably shallow. An author begins to peel away the layers of reality that get in the way of his story, the shallow bits of prejudice that would prevent an empowered female character easily fall away, perhaps without notice. This leads to there simply not being anything in the way of the author’s more readily open mind that would have prevented them from forming the character in the manner they did.

    I had intended to leave it at that, but I thought more on the subject and figured that it’s not simply a case of removing the shallow layers of prejudice. In many cases the author is moving the focus of this particular blend on to another group, often composed of beings which by most accounts do not exist in reality. The humans become a more cohesive group allowing less room for those divisions, the supernatural become the lower class beings.

    Seems like a good start to me.

  11. Well, I would argue that the objectification of female characters is far more problematic than the objectification of male characters, given that the objectification of women is a systemic problem in society. While objectification of men definitely occurs, it occurs on a lesser level and is less damaging.

    Furthermore, a lot of female superhero costumes are fundamentally impractical, whereas male superheroes may wear things which show off their muscles, but at least they are reasonably functional. Yes, it is a fantasy world, but I like some degree of plausibility; a tiny bra which provides no support and would probably result in a wardrobe malfunction in the real world is definitely not my idea of “functional.” Skirts are not inherently nonfunctional; one need only look to the Celts for that. Nor is nudity, with numerous athletes throughout history performing at a very high level in the nude, although nudity is not really practical for battle. Garments which do not provide support or protection, on the other hand…

  12. This is a really interesting point of view. I’ve actually been thinking lately about the lack of female superheroes on television and in movies lately (as opposed to, say, about 10-15 years ago, when “Girl Power” was at its height). I’m not sure if I agree that Sam from Buffy was more a feminist character than Buffy, because she seemed very much defined by her relationship to Riley. And that, to me, detracts from a character and makes it hard for me to relate. Subjectively of course, I do understand that this is all your opinion. Maybe it’s because, whether or not I believe I can have superpowers, I’ve always wished I could. I’m probably about as likely to become a commando as a get superstrength, so both character types are on even footing for me there. Then again, my friend and I have started watching Gossip Girl recently, and think that the portrayal of the teenage girls in that show is almost better than Buffy in a lot of ways. Maybe it’s because, despite their wealth (as unattainable to me as the Slayer’s ability) seems more grounded in reality. I’m sure it all comes down to what a particular viewer can connect to, aspire to, dream of, etc. but I think you make interesting points about superheroes being less accessible to connect to. I’m just not sure if that makes them less of feminist characters. But I don’t know, so I’m glad you brought it up.

    On an interesting note, it was often implied that Xena was the daughter of Ares, which would technically imbue her with the powers of a demigod (if any). She certainly displayed some abilities that others in the universe didn’t have, and I don’t think they were all just Hong Kong style ways of filming action, because Gabrielle rarely, if ever, showed the same kind of abilities, even when she was at her warrior best.

    And over in comics, to respond to Wittgen, there are a lot of characters without superpowers who are heroes. Basically the entire Green Arrow family, for example. Though some of the newer generation are implied to have special abilities (like Connor Hawke), Oliver Queen, Roy Harper, Cissie King-Jones, and Mia Dearden have no special powers at all, other than being really really good with a bow. Yes, they’re more rare than the characters with abilities, but they exist and they are definitely heroes. And then there’s Bat-family, none of whom have any superpowers, beyond some really awesome training in detective skills and martial arts.

    Anyway, I’m curious on a point of clarification. I don’t know that most of these characters would define themselves as feminists (for some reason, Sarah Connor is springing to mind right now), but obviously you define them that way. Does it make a difference to you whether they consider themselves feminists, from an in-universe (e.g. not the creators’) standpoint?

  13. Great question, Sam. I pretty much call out feminist behaviour when I see it; e.g., I would call Hillary Clinton a feminist even if she didn’t call herself one. I don’t think that characters explicitly need to identify themselves as feminist in order to be feminist, if that makes sense? I think there’s also a distinction between “feminist” as in “strong female character/feminist icon/feminist model” and “subscriber to feminist beliefs,” but I think that most strong female characters act pretty feminist anyway. I’m also not necessarily sure that just because I don’t connect with them, they can’t be feminist. I don’t connect with Gloria Stienem, but I wouldn’t say she’s not a feminist!

    I haven’t watched any Gossip Girl at all, because it doesn’t sound like my kind of show, but maybe I’ll check it out after your comment. On another token, Veronica Mars (often compared to Buffy) also has some great feminist characters who are also grounded in reality.

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