What should a su­per­hero look like? Anne T. Don­ahue cam­paigns for comics to aban­don stan­dard pro­to­col.

Comic-book he­roes dom­i­nate cul­ture. It would be awe­some if they gave more pow­ers to women.

Fashion (Canada) - - Contents - By Anne T. Don­ahue

Af­ter what feels like an eter­nity, su­per­hero movies have be­gun to evolve. In the wake of the ’90s giv­ing us films de­fined by quirky sen­sa­tion­al­ism (here’s look­ing at you, Bat­man For­ever), the 2000s went on to de­liver an­ti­heroes and tor­tured pro­tag­o­nists thanks to The Dark Knight and var­i­ous Spi­der-Men. (Pick a Spi­der-Man, any Spi­der-Man—there are no fewer than 42.) But the 2010s have been dif­fer­ent. Su­per­hero sto­ries have con­sis­tently cen­tred around Big Tough Men sav­ing damsels in dis­tress. Sure, some­times the damsels ac­tu­ally help with the sav­ing—but if they do, they do it de­spite hav­ing an in­te­rior life that isn’t ex­actly rich. Now, though, Won­der Woman, Black Pan­ther, Avengers: In­fin­ity War and the up­com­ing Ant-Man and the Wasp and X-Men: Dark Phoenix have given fe­male char­ac­ters larger and more com­plex roles. It’s as if su­per­hero sto­ries have taken a page from their own char­ac­ters: Adapt or die.

And thank God. Be­cause as re­cently as 2015, Black Widow was still be­ing bumped from toy sets in favour of her male coun­ter­parts. And while her own solo movie is still a long way off (if it hap­pens at all), you can at least buy a tiny plas­tic ver­sion of her (#progress). This is good be­cause Black Widow isn’t just an ass-kick­ing, hair­style-chang­ing Hulk whisperer; she’s an im­por­tant teach­ing tool.

“Su­per­hero sto­ries can be tools that get av­er­age peo­ple iden­ti­fy­ing more per­son­ally with cur­rent events,” ex­plains cul­ture writer Devon Maloney. “They frame real is­sues in a more dra­matic, ex­cit­ing con­text that al­lows cathar­sis. Peo­ple can ex­pe­ri­ence the prob­lem be­ing worked through in a ‘safe’ space.”

Jonny Sun, the writer, il­lus­tra­tor and cre­ator be­hind @jon­ny­sun on Twit­ter, agrees. “At best, su­per­heroes tap into our so­cial and po­lit­i­cal zeit­geist and al­low us to see, process and dis­cuss top­ics that may be dif­fi­cult to ad­dress di­rectly, with­out the lens of fic­tion or myth,” he says. “I think our def­i­ni­tion of who a su­per­hero is al­ways ex­pands and is al­ways be­ing made more in­clu­sive of dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, cul­tures and rep­re­sen­ta­tions.”

Which, ac­cord­ing to Black Pan­ther’s box-of­fice records or Won­der Woman’s gar­gan­tuan suc­cess, or the hype that sur­rounded Avengers: In­fin­ity War, is ab­so­lutely right. There are only so many times we can watch tor­tured, sad, white, cis men tell us how hard their lives are. I didn’t grow up watch­ing su­per­hero movies. Star Trek, yes.

Star Wars, ab­so­lutely. The first su­per­hero movie I saw in the­atres was not one of the genre’s best: Bat­man & Robin was dis­ap­point­ing for per­sonal rea­sons, too. The movie in­tro­duced Bat­girl, a fe­male su­per­hero por­trayed by Ali­cia Sil­ver­stone (a.k.a. Cher Horowitz, the star of Clue­less), ar­guably the great­est su­per­hero of all. I was at the per­fect age to be in­spired by a fe­male hero, but some­where in be­tween the bat-nip­ples on Ge­orge Clooney’s suit and Mr. Freeze’s (played by Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger) re­fusal to say any line that didn’t in­clude a pun, the op­por­tu­nity was lost. Bat­girl was just an­other empty gim­mick in a film stuffed with them. I avoided all su­per­hero any­things un­til 2008’s The Dark Knight wherein Heath Ledger’s Joker in­jected some much-needed com­plex­ity into the su­per­hero uni­verse.

But even the Joker was a scarred man in an emotionally scarred man’s world—an­other male char­ac­ter who got to be com­pli­cated and tor­tured and dark while Rachel was strapped to oil drums and killed off so Aaron Eck­hart could be­come Two-Face. This has al­ways been the trope that keeps me at bay: Men get to be flawed, and women have to re­deem them or die to in­spire them. And while Mar­vel and DC have ob­vi­ously worked hard to el­e­vate fe­male roles, traits and his­to­ries, it still took un­til 2017 for a fe­male char­ac­ter to earn her own star­ring ve­hi­cle (un­less you count 2005’s Elek­tra, but who even re­mem­bers that one?). The next one? 2019’s Cap­tain Mar­vel.

“I think a lot of things still need to change, pri­mar­ily »

Su­per­heroes are for ev­ery­one, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters. (It’s also gen­uinely prof­itable, pro­vided it’s done well.)

when it comes to rep­re­sen­ta­tion,” of­fers Maloney. “For decades, comics en­gaged with is­sues like au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and op­pres­sion through the eyes of white male cre­ators who them­selves did not ex­pe­ri­ence much of that op­pres­sion. There’s a rea­son why there have been so many WW II plots and al­le­gories in the genre over the years and why it’s darkly hi­lar­i­ous that so many white dudes are not ac­knowl­edg­ing and con­demn­ing the neo-Nazis in our midst now.

“Now we’re see­ing a shift—but nowhere near at the level where we’re ac­tu­ally en­gag­ing with these is­sues in any use­ful way on a large scale be­cause we sim­ply don’t have enough peo­ple of colour, white women and LGBTQIA+ folks fram­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. When we have 25 Black Pan­thers—and we’re def­i­nitely get­ting there, if slowly—then we might be at a point where the genre is mak­ing an im­por­tant im­pact on our con­ver­sa­tions about cur­rent events.”

And that’s the thing about rep­re­sen­ta­tion: It’s not just about one movie or one story or one cast. Af­ter all,

Black Pan­ther wasn’t ground­break­ing be­cause of the num­ber of black ac­tors in it (though we cer­tainly need more black ac­tors and ac­tors of colour in star­ring roles); it was ground­break­ing be­cause its char­ac­ters were more than just their race. Which is what true rep­re­sen­ta­tion looks like: not peo­ple of colour, women or LGBTQ folks sim­ply ex­ist­ing on­screen. It’s about mak­ing them real, be­liev­able, com­plex char­ac­ters with agency—and not just in sup­port­ing roles but as lead­ers of their own ve­hi­cles. White, cis, het­ero men are not the only ones whose sto­ries de­serve ex­plo­ration.

“[Comics] do the work that all good fic­tion and art do,” ex­plains Sun. “Through sym­bol, me­taphor and all the tools of fic­tion and sto­ry­telling, comics al­low us to wres­tle with ideas that we may not be able to ad­dress di­rectly. Ad­di­tion­ally, when it is an in­clu­sive and ac­ces­si­ble medium, graphic sto­ry­telling has al­lowed us to ex­pe­ri­ence sto­ries, ideas and per­spec­tives from an ex­pan­sive range of artists and voices, and we are all bet­ter for it.”

And this is true: Su­per­heroes are for ev­ery­one, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion mat­ters. (It’s also gen­uinely prof­itable, pro­vided it’s done well.) And that’s why the changes we’ve been slowly, slowly wel­com­ing feel so over­due—be­cause they are. And while, yes, we need to see more sto­ries that cen­tre around women, we also need to see ones that cel­e­brate dif­fer­ent types of women. We need more su­per­hero sto­ries that re­volve around black women and women of colour. (The time for a stand-alone Storm is now.) We need more su­per­hero sto­ries re­volv­ing around queer women. Around trans women. Around non-bi­nary women. Be­cause it’s not just about rep­re­sen­ta­tion; it’s about ed­u­ca­tion—about re­defin­ing what a su­per­hero is and about us­ing su­per­heroes as a means of push­ing the main­stream to­ward ac­cep­tance and un­der­stand­ing.

And the thing is, Maloney is right: We can cel­e­brate the well-de­served suc­cess of Black Pan­ther and the im­pend­ing re­lease of X-Men: Dark Phoenix—and even next year’s Cap­tain

Mar­vel (star­ring Brie Lar­son). But the fact that we’re talk­ing about these movies in sur­prised and pur­pose­ful ways sug­gests that this evo­lu­tion is still such a nov­elty that we’re trag­i­cally far from rep­re­sen­ta­tion as an ac­tual norm. Af­ter all, Han Solo man­aged to get his own stand-alone movie and Princess Leia was the one who watched her home planet blow up and didn’t even shed a tear.

Which isn’t to say we should van­quish all sto­ries star­ring male leads from our hearts and our minds. (I get it: #NotAl­lHeroes.) But in­stead, we can be­gin to ac­tively en­gage with the he­roes and sto­ries that cel­e­brate di­ver­sity and gen­der equal­ity and aren’t only cast with ac­tors who look like the an­chors of a golf chan­nel. We can buy tick­ets, we can at­tend screen­ings and we can en­sure that by do­ing these things, we will make stu­dios aware that should they cast out­side the cis, white, het­ero box, we will be there to cel­e­brate it.

Pro­vided, of course, the push for rep­re­sen­ta­tion in genre films doesn’t feel like a “project”—or, worse, like a self­con­grat­u­la­tory cel­e­bra­tion of wo­ke­ness. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween to­kenism and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Rep­re­sen­ta­tion can’t be used as a kind of test to prove (or dis­prove) the im­por­tance of di­ver­sity. Black Pan­ther was great and made a lot of money. But even if it had failed, both ar­tis­ti­cally and fi­nan­cially, that shouldn’t mean that all other di­verse-su­per­hero movies will.

And as ex­cit­ing as any of the above-men­tioned movies are, they’re not enough. While rev­o­lu­tions tend to be no­to­ri­ous for tak­ing their time, the most mem­o­rable su­per­heroes have taught us to aban­don stan­dard pro­to­col for the greater good. Which, in this case, is even bet­ter su­per­hero movies.


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