I recently went to see Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. I saw it two times actually. Readers familiar with my posts about cosplay and video gaming will not be surprised to learn that I am also a fan of comic book heroes and heroines; and Superman was my childhood favorite.
I was both attracted to and wanted to be like Superman, specifically, Christopher
Reeves’ Superman. One of my strongest childhood desires was also to fly like a bird. I remember jumping off the end of my parent’s bed over and over again, convinced that if I flapped hard enough and kept on trying that I could fly. The older I got, the more I realized that I also did not want to be “rescued” by Superman. Rescue from the difficulties in my life was an unattainable fantasy. So, I desperately wanted to be Superman. Though I knew this too was impossible, perhaps I had only to try.
Superheroes and superheroines often embody powers that give them more control than your average human. Some (though definitely not all) of these powers have exclusively violent applications, and the characters who use them can tend to reinforce dualistic notions of good vs. evil. Superheroes in particular are often mired in patriarchal religious narratives and symbols, a relationship that Man of Steel makes fairly explicit. When Henry Cavill’s Superman walks into a church to ask a priest if he should surrender himself to General Zod to save all of humanity, a strategic camera shot focuses on his face, framed, or perhaps hallo-ed, by the image of Jesus Christ in a stained glass window behind him.
One can perhaps, easily imagine why a child, like myself, raised within the paradigm of racist, heterosexist, capitalist patriarchy, might aspire to harness these god-like powers: I often felt powerless. However, I was also an extremely feminine young girl. Why not aspire to be like a Superheroine, like Supergirl? Simply put: I did not want to be Supergirl. She was a weaker and less interesting version of Superman.
My child-self had bought into the lie that power was more appropriately found in male bodies. While comic book superheroines do, in some cases, harness deified powers equivalent to their male companions, they are also subject to the same sexism as their female fans. Their goddess-like power is tempered for a male dominated culture.
I recently listened to a fascinating book by Mike Madrid called, The Supergirls: Fashion, feminism, fantasy and the history of comic book heroines. Madrid explains the evolution of comic book heroines, their appearance and their power as these relate to popular culture, the growth of feminism and fashion trends throughout the 20-21st centuries. The stories he recounts are sometimes very sad and angering: female heroes die, their comics are discontinued or their powers stripped because a dominant male readership is uncomfortable with women showing too much power.
Heroines are “girls,” not women, because this is less threatening and suggests paternal control. Supergirl can have powers like Superman, as long as she is obedient to Superman. (Madrid, 2009). In fact, Madrid points out that rather than singlehandedly saving the world like their male counter-parts, ultra powerful superheroines often become corrupt and threaten the world. Like X-men’s Dark Phoenix, these heroines are slain or restrained supposedly, ‘for the good of us all’ (Madrid, 2009). Patriarchy must, after all, continue to slay the goddess in the myths of HIStory, so to secure her repression (Keller, From a Broken Web, 1986).
Yet, Madrid also argues that “The Supergirls” are subversive, and as culture changes so do they. Furthermore, their narratives are becoming stronger. The Supergirls find ways to use their powers despite resistance and cultural gender norms. Some comic book authors wrote with specifically feminist or female empowerment goals in mind. Other authors worked to change the comic industry by showing how a female hero’s perspective might change the heroine’s relationship to newly discovered abilities. (Madrid, 2009).
One heroine in particular is an icon that represents work across decades to maintain a female presence in the world of comic book heroes. Madrid talks about her in almost every chapter. Daughter of an Amazonian Queen and imbued with the power of goddesses, her name is Wonder Woman.
So… you may have noticed a recent trend of Superhero movies at the box office. Man of Steel is one of a string of DC Comics Superhero movies that is supposed to culminate in a highly anticipated Justice League movie. Well, here’s the thing. There is no Justice League without Wonder Woman. And Wonder Woman, unlike many of her super-sisters, stands on her own without a Super-team to back her up, nor a paternal benefactor to whom she owes her name. Actually, she stood on her own on the cover of Ms. Magazine with the caption “Wonder Woman for President,” in 1972, and again, in 2012, running behind protestors who hold signs that read, “Stop the War on Women.”
Wonder Woman cannot burn holes in walls with her eyes. She does not even get to keep her super-human strength, as this power is taken from her in certain incarnations. One power, however, remains distinctively Wonder Woman: her golden Lasso of Truth, which requires people to tell the truth. I like that superpower—it is a power unlike the powers of those gods and goddesses in the rest of the Comic book pantheon. It is a power we can share.
Less than a week after my second viewing of Man of Steel, I saw real life women use such power. Texas Senator, Wendy Davis stood for 13 hours to filibuster Senate Bill 5, which attempted to close all but 5 of the state’s abortion providing clinics. Davis’ filibuster generated a force that required Republican Senators to tell the truth when they tried to cover up Davis’ success. The protest was powerful and inspiring, and beautifully feminist. I watched a Daily Show review of Davis’ filibuster a couple of days later, during which the producers showed a clip of the Senator’s epic speech under the caption, “Woman of Steel.” I nearly cried. She was not Superman. She and her supporters were Wonder Woman.
I do not know if DC will actually make a Wonder Woman movie (the project has stalled many times), but they should. The Justice League is incomplete without her. I hope that we can finally celebrate a goddess in this genre.
As a feminist and an ally to other civil rights workers, I cannot uncritically enjoy comic book heroines and heroes. Yet, I remain a fan of comic book characters because these super-men and super-women challenge the societies in which they live, and even, the kinds of powers they embody. Superheroines and superheroes often struggle with what it means to be human within hyperboles of the abilities we already have. Responsible fandom requires me to be aware and critical of the kinds of super powers society celebrates, and to ask, whom we allow to have these powers. But, as I continue to reclaim my own female embodiment of power, I am also learning to identify other people’s super powers and to celebrate the goddesses surfacing around me.
So, what’s your superpower? And who is allowed to have it?
 By the way, I had to add the word “superheroine,” but not “superhero,” to my word processing dictionary.
 The Justice League is DC’s superhero club, akin to Marvel’s Avengers. Just to give you a sense of the potential draw of a Justice League movie: the 2012 Avengers movie grossed $207,438,708 on opening weekend and $1,514,357,910 worldwide according to boxoffice.com.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.