In the summer of 2015, I bought a Supergirl keyring in the LEGO store in my hometown of Gouda, The Netherlands. The moment my eyes caught the keyring hanging on the wall I just had to have it. Although I had not yet seen the television show (it hadn’t been released yet), I liked the idea of having a female superhero on my keychain. This plastic figure with its fabric cape just called my name. I have liked superheroes since I was little, and this LEGO figurine spoke to the young girl I once was and the woman I am today. I still love superhero stories, especially female-focused ones.
Since their introduction in the 1930’s, superheroes have been known for their heroic crime fighting, usually depicted as beacons of hope in the societies in which they live. They fight to save the city (their city) and uphold justice while putting other people’s safety before their own. Despite being fictional characters, I have found that they offer a significant lens of analysis for understanding contemporary society.
Superheroes are traditionally depicted as male: Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America (the list goes on and on). This dominant presence of men as superheroes reflects the ways western society perceives (or idealizes) men: as autonomous subjects, strong, powerful saviors. It also reflects the ways in which women are perceived in society: as submissive (sexually objectified and beautiful) objects, weak and in need of saving. We are still used to seeing women in stories who are helpless, in competition with each other, needing men’s approval to define their character and exercising a general lack of agency. The female body is often depicted as something to be viewed, enjoyed and possessed by a man. Moreover, in our contemporary society, the female body is not yet seen as equal to that of a male. While I am writing this piece, the general assumption that superheroes are men is even highlighted by my spellcheck which does not recognize the words Supergirl and superheroine. With the popularization and slow adoption of feminist thought in popular culture, it was not unexpected that these perceptions would begin to be challenged.
There is now a strong demand for female-focused narratives and lead characters on primetime television and the big screen. So as someone who loves female superheroes, I was especially excited with two superheroine storylines—Netflix’s Marvel’s “Jessica Jones” and DC Comics Supergirl on CBS came out at almost the same time. I began to consider this article before the series’ even began! When “Supergirl” did begin, I remember sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee watching with my notebook and pen on standby to take notes like a proper anthropologist doing participant observation.
In “Supergirl” feminist thinking about the consequences of living in a patriarchal society as a woman is mentioned in nearly every episode. The show can be viewed as a coming of age story about a woman who learns to adopt feminism to create a new kind of superhero, which exemplifies and illustrates Simone de Beauvoir’s famous argument that “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman” (1973: 301) or, in this case, a female superhero. In the narrative of Supergirl, the spectator witnesses how Kara Danvers, her alter ego, structures her identity as a female superhero without being defined, constrained and compared to her cousin Superman. Because Supergirl is at the beginning of her journey of being a superhero, she is often compared by standards that have been set by her hero predecessors who have strong media presences, such as Superman. She becomes a hero using socio-cultural notions about heroism, but adds her own ideas and thoughts of being a hero to create the icon that is Supergirl.
The women in these series have highly accomplished positions, yet they are not allowed to be their true selves. Rather, they act out adjusted socio-culturally accepted versions of themselves in order to ‘survive’ and thrive in their society.
Jessica Jones however, does not want to want to be confined to the ideas of traditional superheroism. She invents her own ideas about how to protect people from the villain in the story. However, by doing so, she becomes a new kind of superhero: one who does not need to display or use her superpowers. The female characters in “Supergirl” also talk about the ways in which women struggle to break free of traditional gender roles and show how hard that is to do without falling back into familiar ideas of femininity. However, they sometimes fall victim to traditional and stereotypical ideas of gender roles. While they try to challenge socio-cultural notions about women, their narratives do not seem to allow our superheroines to change these fixed ideas. Instead of reimagining gender roles, the superheroines seem to get stuck in the ways society wants to see women: gracious and grateful beings who do not make mistake or ‘misbehave.’ This, to me, is a bit disappointing. The women in “Supergirl” have highly accomplished positions, yet they are not allowed to be their true selves. Rather, they act out adjusted socio-culturally accepted versions of themselves in order to ‘survive’ and thrive in their society. In Jessica Jones the women actively disrupt and reimagine these kinds of traditional gender roles and behaviour without necessarily engaging with questions of feminism explicitly in the narrative. Rather, they embody feminist thought and show the viewers that women are not weak, do not need to be sexualized and are not in need of saving- which I found very empowering.
We live in a society in which everything is ‘gendered’. We learn about this from a very young age. We are taught how to behave according to what biological sex we have. To say it bluntly: girls should behave and boys are allowed to misbehave. The idea of what and how a woman or a man should be, should act, should behave and look are all socio-culturally determined ideals which are often exemplified in popular and media culture. Judith Butler expanded on the argument made by Simone de Beauvoir by stressing that “Gender is not passively scripted on the body, and neither is it determined by nature, language, the symbolic, or the overwhelming history of patriarchy. [It is] what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure.” (Butler 1988: 910).
This is something that I have encountered myself throughout my life, because of my female body. I am a woman who likes dressing in a feminine way, but who also thinks it is important to be able to stand up for myself, be able to speak my mind, dress how I like, wear the makeup I want to wear and be independent. I do not want to be told what to wear or not to wear. I do not want to be seen as weak. I do not want to be asked to behave or to be in any way confined by traditional ideas of what being a woman is about. I want to disrupt traditional ideas of womanhood placed on me, like Jessica Jones, without being shamed or looked down on. However, like Supergirl I continue to feel the weight of comparison to men and expectations of how I should behave as a woman: have a boyfriend, get married and have kids. My not necessarily desiring these things could be seen as socio-cultural ‘misbehaviour,’ however this does not influence me because like Supergirl I am constructing my own idea of what it means to be a woman.
The characterizations in both Supergirl and Jessica Jones reflect the ways in which women are are starting to be seen differently in contemporary society. I would love to see more characterizations of women like Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars Episode VII and Marvel’s Agent Carter on ABC who are their own hero. What I would love even more is if there were more women of color portrayed as strong, independent heroes. These narratives help us to move away from the idea that women are not capable of saving themselves. They have the potential to change views about femininity, womanhood and strength. As I explore in my life what being a woman means to me, these stories help me to see what being a heroine means. And my LEGO keychain of Supergirl is my own personal reminder that I am more than capable of being my own Supergirl. ●
Beauvoir, de., S.(1973) The Second Sex. New York, Vintage Books.
Butler, J. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” in Theatre Journey 40:4, p.519–531.
Charissa Dechène is a cultural anthropologist (MA., BA.) based in The Netherlands. She has a special interest in representations of gender, sexuality and ethnicity in media and visual culture which she loves writing about at her blog observationsofthevisual.com. Currently she is looking for a job in marketing where she can combine her interests and passion for qualitative research.