The topic at hand recently seems to be women superhero movies—as in, whether they should exist. Thera Pitts started things off with her Silicon Rope article "Why the Comic-Book Movie Industry Needs a Female Superhero," in which she takes film makers to task for their uninspiring takes on female characters in superhero movies. Citing oft-repeated criticisms of casting choices, she asks, "Did you ever stop to think that it isn’t just the actresses who sully your favorite movies but the comic book movie industry’s lazy attitude towards women characters in general? The actress is only as good as her material, and the material is seriously lacking."
Kate Rich then took up this argument at Cinema Blend, speculating that the Silk Spectre in Watchmen might be the Great Female Hope, but ultimately resigned to the probability that superhero movie-makers will be "sticking to the male-centric kind of stories that have been guaranteed moneymakers."
It isn't just these two women who long for superheroes of their own gender: the Gawker women's blog Jezebel linked to Pitts's article and received more than 300 comments, most from women, that basically say, "Why, yes, yes we do want a female superhero movie!"
To which Cinema Blend's editor in chief Josh Tyler says, "Oh, you might say that, but, really, you don't" in his response to these articles, "We Don't Need More Female Superheroes." And if you, a woman, dare say, "No, I really do, actually," he will inform you that you are an atypical woman and if you were like most women, you'd much rather be watching a Julia Roberts movie. (By which Tyler means a romantic comedy, as he is seemingly unaware that in the current decade Julia Roberts is more likely to play a kick-ass spy, string-pulling political operative, or canny con artist than a starry-eyed ingenue.)
A little hint to guys without much experience in matters like these: Women don't like to be told what they want, what they need, or what is good for them, as if they don't know their own minds. For proof, visit Jezebel's pulls-no-punches response to Tyler's article, "Dude Says we Don't Need More Female Superheroes, I Say Bullsh*t," and the ensuing comments. The kind of condescension in Tyler's article and his replies to comments on his article make me sputtering angry. Unfortunately, it's an all-too-familiar feeling. It's the feeling of being denied a voice.
What I see here isn't so much a simple argument about women superhero movies. It is a fight for ownership. It is a fight for influence and for power. That is a fight that women in comics—and everywhere else—are all too familiar with. Even though there are more and more women who read comics and work in the industry, there is still definitely a feeling that you are encroaching into the boys' clubhouse. It is hard to speak up because you dread the expected responses, being told that, in short, you do not matter—that you are making a big deal out of nothing (no matter how you feel about it), that you are in a world that has been largely shaped by male tastes, and you'd better just get used to it.
But are superheroes exclusive to male tastes? (Whatever those are—I can't presume to speak for an entire gender that is not my own.) Tyler argues that "Men are interested in heroes blowing things up and saving the girl." But good superhero stories are notabout the outer trappings of the genre. They are about empowerment. Bruce Wayne as Batman is the powerless child, now grown up and able to fight the crime that took his parents from him. Peter Parker as Spider-Man is the awkward and insecure guy who finds confidence with his new powers. Batman and Spider-Man are men who have been empowered. And here is what it comes down to: Women want to be empowered, too.
Often women's points of view are marginalized, our concerns are brushed off, and our opinions are perceived not as something we are allowed to decide for ourselves as individuals but as something that can be dictated to us. Just how satisfying would it be to see a hero that understands this, who has had the same cultural pressures on her all her life as on other women, who has learned to stand up for herself?
I am sure other women can empathize with this. In my upbringing I was taught—perhaps not overtly but implicitly, in what behavior was rewarded and what punished—that I, as a girl, should be unassertive and non-confrontational. Right now, it is dawning on me that these are traits that have not served me well as an adult and that others have taken advantage of. What's worse is that I feel guilty about not having stood up for myself. I have let down the little girl I used to be, the one who loved Wonder Woman (the picture with this column is of me at four).
I idolized Wonder Woman. But now that I am older I can see where her shortcomings as a role model are. Wonder Woman comes from someplace else, a land where empowered women are a matter of course. While this does offer an intriguing foil to our world, it does not show girls and women a model for overcoming the oppressive feelings of powerlessness that we experience.
Women, for the most part, have had to look to the real world for those kinds of female models. But as writers like Douglas Wolk and Junot Diaz have pointed out, superheroes can be powerful metaphors, symbols of our own experiences and capabilities. Men aren't the only ones who need to be inspired and empowered. I'll repeat: Women want to be empowered, too. Not just that—we need to be empowered. There is a longing among women to see our potential writ large, larger than life. The superheroine worth her powers is where we can find this.
Jennifer de Guzman is editor-in-chief at the independent comics publisher SLG Publishing. She also writes fiction—mostly in prose, occasionally in comics—and holds an M.F.A. in literature and creative writing from San Jose State University. The opinions expressed are her own and not necessarily those of Publishers Weekly or PW Comics Week.