This past fall when all the new pilots aired, those of us obsessed with television and interesting stories were excited to learn about the number of great roles for women we were seeing on our TVs every week. When it comes to variety in female roles, TV has done a better job in the past few years than movies. TV can afford to tell stories that aren’t expected. Women are becoming the intriguing characters and less often the token pretty faces, so these stories are more and more resembling the real world.
There has been a lot of conversation about needing more (read: ANY) female superheroes in movies and TV shows for many reasons. It would be nice to level the playing field to something resembling an even number of male to female heroes represented on the big screen.
When I tried to think of a list of female superheroes on screen, I realized how pigeonholed women are in superhero stories. It seems women are relegated to four roles: villain, morally ambiguous, hero, damsel in distress/pretty face/girlfriend. Before you light me on fire for crimes against feminism please let me explain.
Let’s take this one step at a time. Villain is easy to figure out; they are on the side of the bad guys. These are characters like Enchantress, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, Cupid, Psylocke, Angel Dust, Emma Frost, and Poison Ivy. The morally ambiguous toe the line. We tend to go back and forth on whether these characters are actually the good guys. Some of these include Jessica Jones, Black Widow, Catwoman, Elektra, The Huntress, and Mystique. Some of these are my favorite characters: They are compelling and interesting and for the most part not weighed down with a conscience.
The hero is simple. They are good characters fighting for truth, justice, and the American way. These include Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Vixen, Black Canary, and Captain Marvel. The damsel in distress/pretty face/girlfriend is a little more complicated. The damsel in distress is a trope to get the hero to where he needs to be. These characters are powerless in that they are almost always humans with no extraordinary abilities. These characters often change from pretty face to girlfriend, and sometimes they even make the leap to hero themselves, usually through some terrible accident or a result of being around other people with powers.
We’ve already seen TV come a long way. Before Supergirl was leading her own team in National City, the Black Canary (played by both Sara and Laurel Lance) and Speedy were on Arrow. Not to mention Felicity, who doesn’t have a costume and didn’t get a code name until recently, but is an integral part of the team. Despite Wonder Woman being set to appear in Batman v. Superman Dawn of Justice later this year and getting her own origin movie next summer, the movies aren’t doing a good job with representation. This isn’t news to anyone, but from the look at the Wonder Woman movie trailer, she’s alone. There are no other women around her. Granted we haven’t gotten a look at her home island of women, but I find this disturbing. I love the idea of getting more female superheroes on my screens, but these stories are missing something crucial. Let’s talk about the women around our female leads.
I’m not talking about a sidekick. I’m talking about a trusted friend. Or a friend who doesn’t know their secret identity, but who puts up with their lame excuses. In male led superhero shows, the women are there to lend a hand. Daredevil has a nurse who can conveniently patch him up when need be. Flash has Dr. Caitlin Snow who is also available for patch ups and Iris West who is the conduit between the public and the Flash. In the comics, Lois Lane serves the same purpose—to show how human Superman is, and most often to be bait for him as a quintessential damsel in distress.
Recently we’ve seen an uptick in female superhero stories in comic books. These roles often involve them having a life. They have friends or sisters or coworkers who they share their life with, and these relationships are just as important to include in the big superhero stories.
We need women around male superheroes who are more than eye candy. We need female superheroes with female friends. We need the stories of the female friends and sidekicks to be as interesting and unique as their male counterparts. In an effort to be more positive than negative, let’s talk about who is doing these stories well.
I love Arrow. It is one of my absolutely favorite shows. More than I love the show, I love Felicity. Despite being one of a large ensemble cast, she stands out as unique and fun. She is there to support the Arrow team, but we’ve also had the opportunity to learn more about who she is as a person and what drives her. The same can’t really be said for Laurel Lance or Thea Queen. They seem to fluctuate between being pretty faces and girlfriends (Thea is girlfriend to others NOT her brother). We did get some background and purpose for Sara Lance, then she died and things have been a little downhill for her since then. Before Felicity was a major cast member, Arrow had a revolving door of love interests for Oliver, some of which were antagonistic in nature. It’s nice to see Felicity being appreciated as the essential part of the team she is.
I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy Supergirl, but once this show found its rhythm I have really enjoyed the stories they’ve told. Where Clark is full of platitudes and cliches after a rough day, Kara just wants to watch TV and eat ice cream. But what this show does well is the relationships. Yes, Kara has superpowers and the weight of the world on her shoulders, but she’s surrounded herself with people who want to help her and people who love her. Even the antagonistic relationship between Kara and her boss, CEO of CatCo, Cat Grant is entertaining and full of truth about women in the business world. My favorite moment to date was an exchange on this week’s episode between Kara and her sister Alex. Clark would never forgive someone for killing someone else, but Kara understood her sister was so afraid of losing her that she just held her while she confessed. It was a touching human moment, which this show doesn’t neglect for the super stories.
I’ll be honest, I go back and forth on this show. Sometimes I’m pulled in by the characters and stories, and other times I find myself bored and waiting for a good moment. Overall, I think this show is worth the time. Aside from the air of mystery and the exciting nature of a woman trying to subvert everyone’s expectations of her, it has been nice to see Peggy Carter’s heart thaw after losing Steve Rogers (Captain America). Aside from her ability to kick butt, which is awesome, Peggy never fails to notice the other marginalized women around her. When her coworkers or superiors argue that there is no way Dottie could be such a threat, Peggy takes matters into her own hands because she won’t let New York suffer for one man’s opinions of what women are capable of.
Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane series
Aside from the fact the author has the last name of Bond, which is just so cool stories of teen sleuths never get old. I loved this story about a Lois in high school finding her love of journalism, uncovering corruption, and reporting the truth. Lois is a character that is insecure of her relationships to others, which makes her feel real and like someone I know. The banter between Lois and her secret internet friend, SmallvilleGuy is adorable and a refreshing change of pace from the Lois Lane stories that only require her to need saving. You can get the Kindle edition of the first book, Fallout, for $1.99 right now. There are also some novellas about Lois available on Kindle for free. The second book, Double Down, will be available in May.
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