Women as (Super) Heroes

The Buffalo News’ Rich Heldenfels asked an interesting question yesterday– Why are there so few women superheroes? Heldenfel takes a brief look at some failures and less than spectacular successes in film and television, concluding that since the writers are male and their target audiences are primarily males who have limited (or unrealistic) expectations, movie audiences aren’t going to get much in the kine of women superheroes.

I disagree. Yes, there are some issues when it comes to strong female characters and how they are portrayed in the media. Yes, it is unrealistic to expect that a heroically proportioned female would wear some of the stuff that is seen in current comic book art whilst out kicking bad guy butt. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman never had a hair out of place on TV. Halle Berry’s Storm running around (& I mean literally running) in 4-inch heels and tight pants in the first X-Men movie was totally ridiculous. Now that I think about it, why 4-inch heels anyway? Berry is 5-9 or something; she needs 4-inch heels like I need a giant hole in my head. See? As an audience, we all are capable of being distracted by all the window dressing.

All distractions aside, I believe we need to take a deeper look at what a hero really is in the classical sense, then apply that to a female character. At that point we should have a realistic female superhero. Right?

A quick look over at Wikipedia tells us that a hero is someone who must display ingenuity, courage, overcome adversity and perform an act of self-sacrifice for some greater good. (Form fitting yellow spandex costume optional.) So an emergency room doctor who works round the clock during a disaster, maxes our her skills and opts to stay with her patients rather than evacuate with her family qualifies as a hero. No costume, no mutant powers, meta-genes or anything else, but still a hero, and a very realistic one at that. Everyone would agree with that assessment, yes?

Which brings me to one of my favorite comic book superheroes, who happens to be a woman: DC Comic’s Oracle. Here is a woman, Barbara Gordon, who used to be a member of the cape-set as Batgirl, crippled by a gunshot wound, wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. Still driven to rid Gotham City of crime, she takes her library research and computer skills and transforms herself into the Oracle, the one-woman CIA for the DC universe and leader of the Birds of Prey. No costume, no powers, just an iron will and razor sharp mind. Gail Simone did a fantastic job with the Oracle character in her runs on the Birds of Prey comic series. She wrote very realistic dialog for her female characters, capturing what the modern woman sounds like. More importantly, Simone used her characters to show the audience what it means to be a hero, which is what made her stories work.

Birds of Prey was/is a cult television hit because Oracle, as portrayed by Dina Meyer, is a very believable character. Sure, the series had its flaws – what show doesn’t – but at its core it gave the audience strong characters and good stories. As readers and film fans, we want to see strong, believable heroes, regardless of gender. If a storyteller delivers a believable character regardless of gender, age and power set, the audience will come. Just ask J.K. Rowling. Or, Stan Lee.

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