Culture

The Myth of the Female-Superhero Resurgence

Prior to the premiere of Supergirl on CBS, much anticipated by the PC social-justice crowd, the New York Times ran a piece celebrating the recent rise of female superheroes in popular culture.

Author Dave Itizkoff wrote:

Aside from the star-spangled Wonder Woman series of the 1970s, the formative film and TV adaptations of these comics were largely focused on male protagonists like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.

When Hollywood’s occasional attempts at female-centered blockbusters were flops, all women took the blame.

The critically acclaimed Jessica Jones is the latest series that critics have praised for its portrayal of a super-tough female lead — Jones is a heroic, if self-loathing, private investigator who wrestles not only with the demons of a city but her own as well. Vox praised the show in a piece titled “In Marvel’s Jessica Jones, Women Get Stuff Done while Men Just Talk about Women.”

Marie Claire headlined its gushing story “Why Jessica Jones Is the Woman TV Has Been Waiting For and Why the Landscape Will Never Be the Same.” Samantha Leal explained to the magazine’s readers:

In fact, Jessica Jones gives us something we very rarely *really* see on TV: a fully realized woman, battle scars and all, without apologies — and without being completely immobilized by the trauma she’s endured.

As many in the media attempt to pave the way for the first female president in 2016 (unless of course it’s Carly Fiorina), it makes sense that they would dredge up the complaint that women till now haven’t been accurately or fairly represented in comic action-hero entertainment, just as they haven’t been at the presidential ballot box. The media are trying their hand at social engineering by way of pop culture, paving the way for Superhero President Hillary Clinton; once we accept the ascendance of the female superhero in the culture, the election of 2016 will be nothing but a formality. 

The cultural landscape is shifting, say the media fans, such that we have more empowering female superheroes than ever before. One problem: This is simply not true.

Starting with the original Wonder Woman, female superheroes have been represented in TV steadily for the past 40 years.

Starting with the original Wonder Woman, female superheroes have been represented in TV steadily for the past 40 years. Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman enjoyed a brief four-year run (brief by today’s standards) on ABC but became a cult hit in syndication and is still replayed on retro cable channels. The Bionic Woman with Lindsay Wagner was a successful counterpart to The Bionic Man, though it didn’t run as long, lasting only two seasons. In 1975 and 1976, JoAnna Cameron starred in the title role in ISIS, a show about a female archaeologist who obtains a magical amulet that turns her into a form of the Egyptian goddess.

As ’70s campiness morphed into the flashy glam of the ’80s, animation began to replace live action. Jem and The Holograms combined the pop-music vibe of the time with heroic adventures and rescue missions. Penny from Inspector Gadget was the young brain trust behind the bumbling detective — she always bailed him out and was the one who in the end solved the crimes. Cartoons such as G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Thundercats featured female characters who were as badass as their male counterparts, in the same vein as Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the Avenger series.

#share#But it was in the ’90s that female superheroes really took off, countering the argument that pop culture ignored women up until the year that Hillary Clinton decided to launch her second campaign for president. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2003 and still has a healthy run in syndication, was the exception to the rule that a TV show can’t become bigger than its big-screen predecessor; the TV series was far more entertaining than Joss Whedon’s 1992 film of the same name and proved so successful that it became the tentpole show for the network that aired it.

In Buffy’s later years, the show focused more on relationships than on slaying annoying vampires, and it drew attention by introducing what was recognized at the time as the first openly lesbian relationship on TV, between the characters of Willow and Tara Maclay. Tara was eventually killed off, and Willow acquired a new girlfriend. The experimentation didn’t do much to affect Buffy’s fan base or popularity, but media critics in that era also weren’t trying to jam ideological agendas down the throats of viewers. Buffy was a success not because of politics but because of its appealing female leads and the strong writing of show creator Joss Whedon (also director of both Avenger films).

Lucy Lawless had the charisma and beauty to engage female and male audiences both on-screen and at sci-fi conventions.

Capitalizing on the nerdish success of Hercules (with Kevin Sorbo as the title character), Xena: Warrior Princess debuted in 1995 and lasted through 2001. Lucy Lawless, a former Mrs. New Zealand, was a Ronda Rousey–like pioneer, with a tall, powerful physique and a brooding presence unusual for a female TV star. But Lawless had the charisma and beauty to engage female and male audiences both on-screen and at sci-fi conventions. Her ululating war cry became as much a trademark of the show as its culture of bisexuality. As Internet forums and chat boards were born, so was the gossip about the sexuality of Xena and her constant companion, Gabrielle, and the show ultimately embraced the lesbian nature of their relationship.

Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, which ran from 1993 to 1997, had a modern, adult take on the relationship between Lois Lane and Superman. The character of Superman was almost an afterthought, as the writing each week focused on the rigors of being in an office love affair. Teri Hatcher’s blend of toughness and humor as Lois Lane stood out over Dean Cain’s charming but wooden performance as Kent/Superman, and the role propelled Hatcher to mild stardom in films.

James Cameron’s detective series Dark Angel, which ran from 2000 to 2002, helped Jessica Alba land roles in big-screen comic-book adaptations such as Frank Miller’s Sin City and the box-office bombs of the four Fantastic Four movies. Birds of Prey, featuring an all-female main cast centered around Batman’s Gotham City, showed promise, though it exited in 2003 after only one season and helped launch WB superhero spin-off series such as Arrow and The Flash.

Just as TV segued into animation in the ’80s, the same happened in the late ’90s into the 2000s. Lara Croft (later played in movies by Angelina Jolie) was introduced to video gaming. Though criticized for her pixelated physical proportions, Croft was one of the first and most recognizable characters to enter early-generation digital-gaming platforms with the Tomb Raider series (one could argue that the earliest was Metroid’s Samus Aran, also female, for Nintendo).

Lara Croft, an adventurer in the mold of Indiana Jones, wasn’t a kooky, geeky hipster saving the world from oil billionaires and evil bankers. Buffy battled blood-sucking vampires instead of explicitly challenging gender roles. That Buffy was a cheerleading vampire killer challenged gender stereotypes all on its own, an idea lost on many modern-days critics pushing political agendas.

History demonstrates that TV shows and films featuring female leads in superhero roles don’t stand or fall on the gender or politics of the main character. As with male superheroes, they succeed or fail based on the writing and execution of the material. The enthusiastic way our media and cultural elites are responding to the current crop of female superheroes has nothing to do with equal representation or social justice. Their rave reviews merely reflect their own biases about how a female superhero should look, act, and think.

— Stephen L. Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He publishes The Wilderness, which focuses on viral politics and social media.

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