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!)