Since Christopher Reeves flashed across the silver screen in the iconic blur of red-and-blue in 1978’s Superman, superheroes have catapulted into American popular culture and captured our imaginations. If the 105 films that have followed, along with the recent additions of the mega successful and critically acclaimed The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises this summer are any indication, our heroes in capes and cowls are here to stay. This fascination with characters with extraordinary abilities battling the forces of evil in an effort to preserve some semblance of justice, peace and security isn’t exactly a new thing. The archetype of the hero dates as far back as the tale of Odysseus’ heroic journey back to Ithaca, as discussed and chronicled brilliantly in Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Heroes, he observes, possess ‘“the most valued qualities of [the] society” in which they exist and also that “It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse”’. Superheroes have always represented the values of duty, truth, and justice along with promoting the American way of life. With the White House releasing the first National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security and President Obama signing an executive order for its hasty implementation, the air is ripe with hope and excitement for the promise of greater female participation in peace processes. Social change however, requires more than a mandate issued from the top to take effect. In order for women and girls to truly believe that they can be active agents of peace, it would help if they could see themselves represented as such. Therefore, it is worthwhile to take a look at how women are represented in the modern American superhero mythos.
A quick Google search for “female superheroes” provides a pretty disappointing answer. To begin with, female superheroes are outnumbered by their male counterparts. The Justice League of America, DC Comics’ premiere superhero group was originally composed of seven superheroes, of which only one, Wonder Woman, was female. Other female superheroes such as Black Canary and Zatanna were added in the more recent assembly of this league but are still eclipsed by the larger numbers of their male colleagues. Marvel comic’s superhero team, The Fantastic Four has consistently only had one female participant in the Invisible Woman. The roster of Marvel’s the Avengers also consists of one female superhero at a time whether it is Spiderwoman or Black Widow as seen in the 2012 live action adaptation. The mutant superhero team X-Men fairs better in regards to female participation and hosts some of the more rare popular names in female superhero-dom; Storm and Rogue.
Low participatory numbers in the “big superhero leagues” aside, another problem with the representation of female superheroes is that they are depicted as the female counterparts to the primary male superhero. The Batman canon has given rise to three different Batgirls, Superman has his female equivalent in his cousin, Kara the Supergirl and Spiderman has his daughter, May Parker the Spider-girl. These female superheroes, despite having their own agency are confined to operating under the umbrella, resources and methodology of the superior male superhero. Along with adopting the exact same symbol and costume as the original male superhero, these female heroines go by titles that end with “-girl” instead of “-woman” implying a sense of inexperience or inferiority in skill when compared to the original male superhero.
Those rare female superheroes that do exist without any immediate association with a primary male superhero are not nearly well-known enough to be iconic fixtures in popular culture. Wonder Woman is perhaps the only instantly recognizable female superhero name comparable to the iconic status enjoyed by the likes of superheroes such as Batman and Superman. However, she hasn’t received nearly as much attention as either of the superheroes in the comic books and media. Since her conception in 1941, Wonder Woman has appeared in only one successful television series and one made-for-TV movie.
The female characters that have managed to attain iconic status in the superhero mythos are either not superheroes or are females who possess characteristics traditionally attributed to women. Lois Lane, superman’s legendary love interest is a popular cultural fixture since her debut in the comics in 1983. She is a hotshot tough-as-nails reporter but is primarily known to get herself in sticky and dangerous situations requiring to be rescued by Superman. Catwoman, another notorious female character associated with the superhero world, serves primarily as Batman’s love interest and when not prancing around Gotham flirting with him and stealing jewels, is walking the fine line between good and evil.
Similar to their fictional representation in superhero mythos, women have historically been underrepresented and sidelined in peace processes. According to Womenpeace.org, “women have represented fewer than 8 percent of participants and fewer than 3 percent of signatories, and no woman has ever been appointed chief or lead mediator in UN-sponsored peace talks”. Since the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 however, the issue of female visibility and participation is slowly beginning to take center stage. Secretary Clinton, who herself is not unlike her female fictional counterparts in being the token Wonder Woman among her male colleagues on the world stage, has said, “for years, many of us have tried to show the world that women are not just victims of war; they are agents of peace. And that was the wisdom behind the historic UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which was adopted a decade ago but whose promise remains largely unfulfilled.”
We are living in an exciting time where the new measures to ensure female participation in peace processes encourage us more than ever before to actively play a part in peace and security issues. One way in which we can help hasten this change in roles of women in peace and security is by changing the way we are perceived and represented in popular culture. We can fight for more accurate representation of our strengths and abilities in bringing about peace and stability in our fictional counterparts. It is now more than ever that we need to see greater numbers of strong, smart capable female superheroes joining the ranks of their male counterparts that have dominated popular culture since the 1930s. We need our female superheroes to inspire us, to be our muses,to be the female fictional agents of peace that make us believe that we the women too, can save the world. For after all, how can we be what we cannot see?