Female Heroes Can Be Just as Badass as the Men
I’ve always had a thing for girls in capes.
I read a lot of comic books as a kid, but for some reason, Batgirl seemed more bad-ass than her benefactor Batman, and Supergirl was just a little more “super” than her cousin Superman. And Wonder Woman simply had no peer.
As an adult who remembers those comics fondly (and is therefore thoroughly enjoying the superhero renaissance happening at the local multiplex), it’s encouraging to see that the women of the genre are finally getting their share of the spotlight.
While not the top moneymakers in their specific universes, the film versions of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel (both directed or co-directed by women) are widely seen as some of the best installments in the DC and Marvel franchises, and not the exercise in pure camp that 1984’s Supergirl or 2004’s Catwoman were.
And please don’t get me wrong; I love camp and I sort of love these cheesy films despite my better judgment—but it’s also nice to see female heroes at the movies who can be just as bad-ass as the men.
If I’m honest, I think I know why I’ve always preferred the female heroes, despite the painstakingly drawn rippling muscles that showed through every skintight costume worn by the dudes.
It’s because I, like everyone else who seeks out stories, longs to be seen in them. And in the absence of any hint of gay heroism in the comics I read back in the 1980s, I looked to the women because they taught me you didn’t have to be masculine in order to be strong.
For the same reason that gay men in the generation before mine adored Bette Davis and the generation after mine worships Lady Gaga (and in truth, I love them both as well), I was drawn to Black Canary, Storm, and the Wasp.
I’m currently binging the latest (and, sadly, final) season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones on Netflix. In the comics, Jessica was a high-school classmate of Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man), gifted with flight and super-strength after being doused in chemicals in the car accident that killed her parents. She was known by corny codenames such as “Jewel” or “Knightress.”
In the Netflix show, she’s more of a hard-boiled gumshoe. Her costume consists of a biker jacket, ripped jeans, and a cynical, knowing smirk; she likes her bourbon neat; and her language is filthy. She doesn’t fly in this iteration, but can leap onto a third story balcony from the street, or lift a city dumpster with one hand. It’s not Ibsen, but there are no spandex costumes in sight.
Like many of the comics written since the 60s (most notably Stan Lee’s X-Men), Jessica Jones takes the identity of “superhero” as a metaphor for other targeted groups. “Powered” people are distrusted, dehumanized, and maligned. In fact, the primary villain of the series is driven solely by his hatred of those with extraordinary abilities, who he sees as “cheaters.”
And yet—ironically, LGBTQ people are seamlessly woven into the story and not otherized in the slightest. Jessica’s new assistant this season is played by a trans woman, but her gender identity has not even been mentioned once in the nine episodes I’ve seen thus far.
Jessica’s chief ally within the police force (the Commissioner Gordon to her Batman, if you will) is a gay man whose devotion to the job sometimes causes friction at home, as he and his husband are in the process of finalizing an international adoption.
Jessica’s sometime benefactress/sometime nemesis is a lesbian power lawyer with a fondness for asymmetrical necklines. And the object of her affections is a bisexual woman who is in an open, polyamorous marriage with a man (played by out actor John Benjamin Hickey).
The result, where a fictional community is marginalized while very real marginalized communities (people of color are also very well represented throughout) are embraced intentionally but without mention, is almost disconcerting. As a metaphor for identity and social justice, the show is at once an aspirational depiction of what the goal is, and a stark reminder of how far away the goal is.
And, metaphors aside, it features a cynical, hard-drinking, femme fatale who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and is never at a loss for a clever quip to punctuate a roundabout kick to the head. So, naturally, I’m in love. ▼
Eric Peterson is a diversity and inclusion educator and pop culture enthusiast living in Washington DC. He is the co-host of a weekly podcast about old movies; visit his website at www.rewindpod.com.