• Confessions of a Superhero Fan Wanna-Be

    by  • May 19, 2012 • Essays • 5 Comments

    I don’t like superheroes. I want to, lord do I want to, but I don’t.

    Let me clarify.

    I like superheroes in theory. I loved writing for Silver Age Sentinels, the superhero RPG put out by Guardians of Order. Heck, I’ve even got a villain named after me in Mutants and Masterminds (thanks, Christopher). I even wrote superhero fiction at one point, set in my own world–no fan fic required1. I read superhero comics as a kid (and moved into collecting Vertigo titles as an adult). I am a fan of comics and graphic novels, though the titles I feel drawn to are sadly limited. I should be a sincere and devoted comics/superhero fan, with a pull box at my friendly neighborhood comics store and an unceasing font of enthusiasm and trivia for my best beloved heroes.

    I should be a devoted fan, but I’m not. And this irks me to the very core of my inner geek, because my exclusion comes down to the fact that both my inner and outer geeks are female, and as much as I’d like to get past that, I can’t.

    I don’t have this problem with superheroic RPGs, by and large. The art tends to be less about trying to show breasts and butt at the same time, the setting is more egalitarian, the stories are less exclusively male-focused. City of Heroes/City of Villains escapes this somewhat too, at least at lower levels, but (IMO) at the expense of a certain blandness in the storylines and quests, and a general absence of female NPCs at all levels. But in the end, it’s hard to escape that it’s still a male power fantasy, and finding my own place within that, when I’m not even certain what my idea of a power fantasy looks like in terms of superheroes, is difficult. If I strip off the four-color spandex long-johns/leotards and move to different implementation (pulp, dark heroic, etc) it’s easier. The question of why it’s so much easier, though, gnaws at me, and I find myself wondering if it’s really just me.

    For example, the ongoing Marvel series of movies should leave me thrilled and pleased beyond words. With the Avengers out , I feel this more than ever. And yet… it doesn’t. This lack of enthusiasm saddens my husband, who wants to share in this with me, but I can’t get past it. Black Widow aside (and she is still an aside, unfortunately), this movie is not for me. None of the superhero movies are for me, just as none of the mainstream superhero comics are intended for me. Not even the Batman series of otherwise awesome video games are for me, as evidenced by the ongoing breast, ass, and crotch shots of all the female characters, along with implausible states dress and, worst of all,  a lack of competency in combat for any of them, even in terms of the narrative.

    It’s true, Kenneth Branagh did a good job with Thor, the only superhero movie in possibly ever to both pass the Bechdel Test and use something like the male gaze on the male lead, from the POV of the female lead. It’s can be interpreted as a reasonably feminist superhero film, except that neither Jane nor Darcy nor Sif actually do anything useful to the plot other than talk people into things, accelerate plot, and act as a love interest. I could not help but feel that while all of the female stars are well cast and well-written, they are also thrown away. It is also true Joss Whedon is directing/writing, and he is at least (arguably, with emphasis on the “argue”) somewhat female friendly, which means that Black Widow gets some good lines and gets to do something in terms of plot, however small or ineffective in the end (and let’s point out that while everyone else gets awesome weapons, she’s making do with a pair of pistols–small caliber pistols at that, against a horde of alien soldiers and tech. SHIELD couldn’t have upgraded her a little? Seriously?). And yet–well, let’s put it this way. A guy who had to look for similar representation in a superhero movie would be watching a movie that never has been and likely never will be made. There wasn’t a Black Widow movie first and there are no public plans to make one, though there are vague Internet hints, which mostly boil down to people feeling hopeful that people will greenlight funding–I wish them luck with that, honestly. 

    The biggest problem with making me feel uncomfortable with being female and liking superheroes, though, is that it means I don’t feel good about given them my money. I don’t feel good about kids being exposed to this in their entertainment and thus being told it’s okay. I don’t feel good about promoting and supporting this stuff. I am not prepared to be excited about a genre in which women are only there for plot devices, adjunct blow-up-doll substitutes, or sidekicks.

    I’m not prepared to continue looking for the one token woman in a film about phenomenal cosmic power that–because it’s a superhero movie–mysteriously requires an expression of penis-as-“manhood” to take effect, externally interpreted as hammers, super-punches, thrusters, puncturing arrows, etc. I am unenthralled with the idea that this is all we get–a male-centric story line wherein women are only really visible one at a time as either window dressing, victims, McGuffins, or super-powered sidekicks. I am sad that observations about this still get sidelined with the comment that I should be glad for what I get, when no… no, I shouldn’t. I don’t have to be. That’s not the way life works. And that’s a big ol’ superpowered shame.

    1. Re: the story, I stopped working on it when I realized that the primary conflict was between two sisters and the younger’s feeling of abandonment and insecurity (she went supervillain in response to her sister’s heroic path)–and that the plot and the resulting fallout had no real place in the genre. That realization, which has only really come into focus for me recently, puts certain doubts I have about the place of stories about women in the superhero genre into perspective.


    I'm Michelle Lyons-McFarland. I'm currently a PhD student in the English Department at Case Western Reserve University, and I'm also a writer and editor in the RPG industry and have been since 2000. My husband Matthew McFarland and I have a game company together called Growling Door Games. I not only write and edit (and even some design) but I play too, everything from tabletop to console to card to board to occasional minis games (the cost keeps me from jumping straight in). I have a vested interest in gaming as a woman on both the macro and micro scale, from moderating on RPGnet to attending cons to finding work in the field.

    5 Responses to Confessions of a Superhero Fan Wanna-Be

    1. avatar
      May 20, 2012 at 12:09

      Good post. I felt a bit uncomfortable that Black Widow’s special interrogation skill seemed to involve her being abused by the people she’s interrogating (one scene where she gets tied up and is being tortured and another where she gets verbally abused by Loki) but then the writer tells us ‘she got what she wanted so we’ll call it a win.’

      No, a win would be a female character who is actually able to wield some power.

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      • avatar
        May 21, 2012 at 15:10

        I was fine with Black Widow’s “act helpless” technique working once, but I was kind of annoyed that that’s the schtick they gave her. If her thing is “can talk you into a confession,” OK, but some variety would have been nice, to avoid exactly what you’re talking about.

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      • avatar
        Michelle Lyons-McFarland
        May 23, 2012 at 18:43

        I was annoyed that her superpower was martial arts and being super stereotypically feminine. To some extent her character has always been problematic, and I get that… I’m just saddened that she wasn’t updated to something less annoying, AND that her information that they spent so long showing her be humiliated in order to get, was simply ignored in order to watch men bicker.

    2. avatar
      May 21, 2012 at 14:38

      As a great fan of comic books and graphic novels in general I have encountered a similar problem. Even though I find the medium (comic books and movies) appealing my interest in superhero genre is rather mediocre.

      I must say though though that when it comes to the Avengers movie I was pleasantly surprised by the Black Widow character. She is not just “that ass”, she has a strong personality and seems equal to other superheroes. The real problem for me is that she is the only woman with some personality. The other female character in the station, Agent Maria Hill, has neither personality, nor power and seems like a weak shadow of Nick Fury. The third woman in the movie, Ms. Potts, is not a character, but a personified function of “sexual interest”.

      I don’t need a female superhero. But I need a female character with a personality.

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    3. avatar
      June 28, 2012 at 08:47

      I’m not a Supers’ fan either. One might attribute this to my distaste for Paladins – that’s part of it, but there’s more…

      Let’s get the jokes over first. Gen Y seems to accept such things, but we Australian Gen Xers (and even more, my parents’ Baby Boomer generation) find it faintly ridiculous to idolize people who wear their underwear *outside* their body suits!

      Putting on my straight face now – however strange it may seem, my main objection to this genre stems from the particular brand of socialist politics I espouse. Let me explain – I oppose individual terrorism for many reasons, not least of which is that, by encouraging the oppressed to look to “courageous individuals” as their deliverers, it undermines their confidence in their own ability to act together in their own interests.

      So with superheroes – if Superman will “save every one of us,” if Batman-n-Robin are the “Dynamic Duo” whom the Mayor of Gotham City calls on to solve all crime in the city, what is there for the rest of us ordinary folks to do? Indeed, given the capitalist milieu in which they operate, one could ask why the ordinary folks should do anything at all.

      In my world – and in my preferred games – heroes are ordinary people. Sometimes they’re heroic just for living their lives, but sometimes they are placed in extraordinary situations and perform extraordinary deeds.

      And then there are the murky implications of “being saved,” ranging from the religious to the classist to the ultra-sexist. I don’t need ‘saving,’ thank you very much.

      [There is an essay here on the essential ‘American-ness’ and ‘christian-ness’ of the original superhero concept – one day I might get around to writing it!]

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