The Female Superhero

This post is essentially my commentary on ‘Alan Moore’s Misogynistic Legacy’. I read it on that blog following a link posted at When Fangirls Attack. The comment section of the post are closed so I had no choice but to come here. You may want to read the post before continuing just to get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

I watched the movie version of Watchmen while I was in Glasgow. I was staying with my friend’s parents and they introduced me to a Batswana girl because they thought we’d get along. She turned out to be great and just so we could hang out longer, we decided to watch a movie. I remember (now with regret) that we had choices. There were great choices of movies to watch instead of Watchmen but I chose Watchmen because though I haven’t had the opportunity to read Alan Moore’s work, I knew it was a comic book. I also know that usually comic books made into movies are horrible but I thought Watchmen would actually be good (lame excuse I know). That movie was useless.

I was particularly disturbed by the rape scene where Edward Blake a.k.a The Comedian almost raped his female colleague The Silk Spectre. He was spying on her as she changed, anyway when he approached her, she hit him first. The man then proceeded to beat the hell out of her and violently pushed her onto a table. It was then that he would have raped her if his other (male) colleagues had not come to Silk Spectre’s aid. My first thought while watching the scene was this ‘Isn’t this woman supposed to be a superhero? Why one earth is she still so damn weak?’ That scene was enough to put me off Watchmen for life except that Silk Spectre had a daughter and guess who the father of that child is? It is The Comedian! I am not really sure what exactly happened but it is either that Silk Spectre slept with The Comedian, a man who tried to rape her or that he raped her a second time. It is ridiculous! I’ll put aside the idea of women this sends out and instead try to focus solely on the female superhero and her power as compared to her male counterpart.

Am I the only person who notices that female superheroes are never as strong as male superheros? Okay, I’m sure they are exceptions and I’ll like to be notified of them. However in most cases the female superhero is always weaker. Now I know that in reality, the average man is physically stronger than the average woman. But these are superheroes! What on earth stops a female superhero from being as powerful or even more powerful that her male counterpart? It is really disturbing especially in Moore’s case where some of his female superheros are raped and beaten. Silk Spectre is one example, as seen in the link above, Mina Murray the vampire from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is also beaten black and blue by The Invisible Man.

Now I have never actually read Moore’s comics and I’m probably never going to because of the issue at hand. I was interested in Promethea but that comic has proved hard to find in stores in the UK. I’m just going on what I saw when I watched the Watchmen movie and also one what I read in the post linked to above. I noticed the comments mentioned that the author of that post didn’t get his facts right but that doesn’t matter to me. The problem is actually bigger that Silk Spectre in Watchmen, for me it has become about the portrayal of the female superhero.

The female superhero is constantly drawn as sexy, that is okay there is nothing wrong with sexy the problem comes when they are constantly objectified or stereotyped as caricatures. The male gaze is always present so we (women) are constantly reminded when we read (some) comics that a man definitely drew this. For example, please take a look at Marvel’s new ‘female-centred’ comics which includes the upcoming Marvel Divas. Really what is the point of that, you know female superheroes in a Sex and the City style scenario comic. Who are they really creating this comic for? We, the fangirls or the same old male fans? Several people have complained to Marvel and in reply Joe Quesada the editor in chief of Marvel basically said that if we don’t like Marvel comics then we shouldn’t buy them. Thanks a lot for his concern, I wasn’t going to buy it anyway. If you want to know more about this you can read more here.

Another disappointment is Wonder Woman. I read Wonder Woman comics as a teen and she was always the badass female. However it turns out that there have also been cases where Wonder Woman couldn’t handle too much power. This is another trend I have noticed, female superheroes are never as strong as their male counterparts and when they finally get that power there is always a disadvantage or they cannot handle it and end up going mad because of the power. X-Men (both the comics and that old cartoon…I don’t like the movie at all) is also associated with my childhood. My best mutant is Rogue, Rogue is great she is beautiful, talented and also very very powerful. Rogue can stand up to any male superhero but notice how she is disadvantaged. Because of her ability to absorb memories, skills and power of others through skin to skin contact, she can never touch someone lovingly without the protection of the gloves she always wears. So even if she falls in love, she can’t enter physical contact with her lover because of her power. She put a guy in a coma because she kissed him, let us not think what will happen if she were to have sex with a man even if he is a superhero. This is just one example of how (too much) power disadvantages the female superhero.

The female superhero is thus shown as one who cannot handle to much power. I mentioned that I want to keep this solely in the realm of superheros but this reflects on women in reality. Women are stereotyped as though they cannot handle power. I remember writing about feminist thought in International Theory and apparently early in those days, it was assumed that politics was something that the female mind could not comprehend. I remember reading Cynthia Enloe’s work* when she mentioned that governments look like men’s clubs. I want to draw a parallel between this idea of women in politics and the female superhero. It is undeniable that the superhero world does resemble a men’s club with a few women allowed to join in the mix.

On the idea of women occupying high places in the government and the female superhero, some men will say that a woman should never be allowed into a high place in government because woman are inherently anti-militaristic in other words they believe that women are naturally opposed to war and may not make the ‘right’ decision when it is needed. Others will use examples such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi to say that women can also be militaristic. The message to me is that women cannot handle power, we are naturally caring and nurturing and will not want to go to war. Alternatively it is also suggested that women are also bloodthirsty even more so that men when given power. Just a side comment, when I was searching online for information on Queen Amina, I stumbled across a forum. And basically someone must have left a comment along the lines of ‘look at the only Hausa female leader and all she did was go on rampages killing people and taking male slaves’. That may not have been exactly the comment but it was along those lines.

Now to the female superhero, she has power but is still not as capable as her male counterpart and when she does get power there is always a price tag. Sometimes this female superhero goes mad with the power and switches over to the bad side a la Jean Grey when she becomes Phoenix.

One of the comments on the post I linked to asked why such a big deal is made when female superheroes face violence as compared to when male superheroes face violence. Whoever made that comment must not realise that even in reality women face the highest cases of violence especially in war situations. A much used example is the Bosnian war, the men were shot while the women were raped, forced to perform humiliating acts and mutilated (I have also read somewhere that gay men faced as much suffering as women). My argument is that in the comic world, women do not have to be disadvantaged as such. The female superhero does not have to be riddled with the creator’s image of women as either nurturing or crazily violent and incapable of managing their power.

The female superhero similarly faces an unequal amount of violence. I have mentioned Silk Spectre and Mina Murray above, but I wonder how many of you have heard of Women in Refrigerators. Women in refrigerators is a site that discusses the issue of violence against women in comics. Male superhero comes home after a hard day fighting villain, the house is empty then he notices a note. The note says something along the lines of ‘open the fridge, there is a surprise for you’ and our male superhero opens the fridge and what does he find? If you guessed a mutilated woman, you’re correct! The way I see it the comic world should not necessarily reflect the real world. I know comics make commentary on current issues but I notice it is always a cafeteria affair, the authors pick and choose. I see so much opportunity in comics regarding women. I’ll surely like to hear when a male superhero is almost raped or a female superhero comes home to find a male body in the fridge. Female superheros do often meet very horrible ends and this is more so when compared with their male counterparts. For those interested there is actually a list of women in comics and how they were untimely killed or met their end, here is a glimpse;

Phoenix I (evil-dead-who knows)

Rogue (just plain messed up)

Storm (depowered, repowered, periodically crazy to one degree or another)

Wonder Woman (killed, revived, but lost goddess powers)

Note: Among the list of wrongs against women in comics include rape, torture, mutilation, separation from children, mind control, crippled and depowered. Some women also go crazy. Lord have mercy on the women in comics!

I have created my ultimate female superhero. She is powerful and at the same time capable. She is ruthless and enjoys the thrill of war (just like the male superheroes) and at the same time is nurturing. As I am me, she is inspired by three goddesses. I must explain that I do love goddesses, honestly I love reading about them and imagining them as real people. When I think about it, it is possible to view goddesses as the female superheros of the olden days. My chosen goddesses are from different cultures but they are very similar. They are Oya, Kali and Sekhemet. I like discovering similarities between religions and those goddesses are very similar. The three above-mentioned goddesses all represent war and destruction in some degree, Oya is a Yoruba deity, Kali is Hindu and Sekhemet is from ancient Egypt. Though they are from different places I think they get along famously.

Oya controls winds and tempests. She is also one of Shango’s consorts (among Oshun and Oba) except she fights beside him in battle. She is a fierce warrior usually holding a sword or a machete. She is associated with death and in Haitian voodoo is married to Baron Samedi who is the guard of graveyards. Oya is a deity of change, what she destroys she does to make room for better. She is also thought to guard people who have just died in crossing over between realms. Most interesting she is also a protector of women, she is also a goddess of fertility. I should also mention that Oya is associated with magic, I think that makes sense since she is also associated with change. Basically Oya is a witch and I’ve come to have a soft spot from witches in folklore, an upcoming post will explain this in detial. Anyway, I like Oya a lot (no kidding) my favourite Orisha used to be Yemaya (who is also fierce) until I learnt more about Oya. I first heard of her through a song I was listening to and on it she was called Yansa. It may not be that important but Oya’s colour is purple and it is no secret that I love purple.

Kali is the Hindu deity of destruction, she is also known as the Black Goddess because she turns black once in a while. Kali wields much power and dances the dance of destruction. Around her neck she wears a necklace of skulls. Kali’s destruction also symbolizes forthcoming change. Apparently the reason Kali came to being is because when she was fighting the Lord of Demons, she sucked his blood. You see anywhere his blood dropped on earth, thousands of demon replicas arose, thus in order to vanquish him Kali drank all his blood and consumed the replicas. After winning the battle Kali danced and danced on the battlefield drunk on the blood she had consumed. In some myths Kali dances on the body of her husband, Shiva and is only calm when her husband calls to her, however in the more interesting myths Shiva appears in the battlefield as a crying child. Upon hearing the child’s wails Kali stops dancing and hurries to the child, she kisses the child and breastfeeds it. This story to me shows Kali as self-sacrificing, she is in no way irrational. There is also a glimpse at the maternal Kali. It took a while for Kali to grow on me. I only started liking her when I noticed her similarities to Oya and I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere that she is a misunderstood goddess and I’m a sucker for anything misunderstood.

Sekhmet is the ancient Egyptian goddess of war and destruction (there is a definite trend here isn’t there?). She is a warrior goddess and the ultimate hunter. Sekhmet is depicted with a lion’s head, she is the symbol of Ra’s frustration with the waywardness of humans. Ra was unhappy with the actions of humans who no longer listened to him so he tore out his own eye and threw it at the world, this eye because Sekhmet who set about butchering humans as a lioness and drinking their blood. Ra got worried upon seeing her blood lust and told her to stop but she didn’t listen because she enjoyed it. She was finally calmed after being fooled into drinking a mix of beer and red ochre paint (she thought it was blood). Though Sekhmet is a violent goddess, she is also associated with healing. She also never destroys unless there is reason to, she brings the plague and also has the ability to stop the plague. She is always right and her actions can be seen as rightful vengeance. Sekhmet is a new goddess to me, I like her aspect of destruction but I’m relatively unfamiliar with ancient Egyptian goddesses. Even while I was writing this post Oya and Kali came to mind immediately while I had to search for ‘the Egyptian one’.

Now that I’ve given enough background information, I shall describe my ideal female superhero.
The first thing my female superhero gets is a power. Oya manifests as wind, she ranges from a gentle breeze to hurricanes. This is my female superhero’s ability along with creating earthquakes at will. Like Oya she is also a defender of women, in modern day lingo we’ll call her a feminist. Like Kali, she is willing to put herself on the line selflessly to protect those loyal to her. She does not shy away from war like Sekhmet and I see her as someone who is angered by the injustice in the world. Like all 3 goddesses she destroys when she has to but is also a symbol of hope. She is not weak at all, certainly not compared to her male counterparts, my female superhero doesn’t run out of control though. Both Kali and Sekhmet are shown as loosing control but the thing to remember is that in both cases there are adequate reasons as to their madness, there is no implied assumption that they are crazy simply because they are female.

So this is me venting my frustrations and unhappiness with the female superhero and women in comics in general. Until my ideal female superhero becomes a reality, I’ll make do with the ones I have(I sure as hell am not reading that Marvel Divas nonsense). I’d like to know if anyone else has an ideal female superhero and if she already exists then I’m also interested.

*Enloe Cynthia (2000), Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Updated Edition), (USA, University of California Press)

**All the lovely pictures of the goddesses are from A-Muse-ing Grace Gallery

I found a list of war goddesses on Wiki, I’m excited and will definitely check them out later. I’ll probably profile them here because they deserve to be known (not to mention they are good for inspiration)


  1. Thought provoking. I did watch the watchmen too by accident lol. I didn’t think it was a great movie. The thing is male superheroes also have their kryptonite. I guess in writing a story a strong character has to have weaknesses otherwise they would be invincible. I think it is an integral part of story telling. I love the African and Hindu examples that you gave!! We have stories too in Kenya and quite often the central character is a woman. I cannot recall any of them today but I really should look them up

  2. lol the funny thing about the movie was that after it, i heard a woman saying that she thought it was a great movie.and i’m glad you mentioned the kryptonite thing, i had forgotten about character flaws. i’m not sure though but sometimes i do get the message that male superheros are invincible but you’re right even Superman has a weakness…though i’m not sure about Wolverine. i admit this post is very one-sided, it is okay to have weaknesses. however i still feel that the female superhero is more disadvantaged that her male counterpart. please if you find those Kenyans stories let me know. i’m definitely interested.

  3. You’re most certainly NOT the only ne with these opinions. In fact there is a whole community of feminist bloggers out there such as yourself who agree with the ridiculous portrayal of females in Marvel Comic Books. This one was particularly funny:http://community.feministing.com/2009/04/dear-marvel-comics-fuck-you.html This is an entire website dedicated to this issue:http://girl-wonder.org/girlsreadcomics/Misogyny can be traced throughout numerous media within respective societies. It takes a trained eye to be able to notice this. Men are usually blind to their own sexist beliefs but as a woman, it’s of the utmost essence to be critical.

  4. So this is totally offpoint but there’s like a mini war on my blog and it’s fucking amusing but also irritating. I think you’re already caught up in it. Kai, I get tired sometimes.Yes, anyway. So the whole female superhero thing sucks because even though she’s more powerful than the average human being she’s pretty much always limited in some way and this often shows when she has a battle with a male superhero. It’s like the male superhero is more superhero-y than the female and so he’s more powerful. Either that or if she has absolute power then she has to be fucking crazy (e.g. The Phoenix Force) or it won’t go down well.I feel like women are fighting a losing battle everywhere we turn.

  5. I agree with you that comic books don’t necessarily have to be a representation of the real world. However, a lot of people think that this is the only way a story can be relevant: if you can draw parallels between the real and fictional worlds.From this perspective, the comic book genre, as a whole (generalizing here) is a decent representation of the real world, because in the real world, women are subject to more sexual violence than men. They are also more likely to be killed because they are (in general) weaker and less accustomed to dealing with violence. Take that however you will. I take it as proof that women and men are not treated equally to men – never have been, and won’t be truly for a long time.In relation to Watchmen, the movie (which I considered a good movie), you have to consider that the Silk Spectre was not the only person subjected to extreme violence. Remember the criminal who was taunting Rorshach in prison? He and his friends met a very nasty end. I’m not saying that the near-rape scene wasn’t shocking or painful to watch – I’m just saying that this wasn’t the only example of extreme violence in the movie. Therefore you can’t really say that Alan Moore is misogynistic (as the writer of that article tried to assert) for portraying violence against females and female superheroes. Especially if in the real world, if women did have superpowers, they would probably still be disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts, and still subject to sexual violence. As one commenter in that article said (the only non-biased one, in my opinion): his attitude towards violence against women is one that needs to be discussed, but only after a thorough analysis of his work to come to an objective conclusion.I also don’t agree with what you said about females always being portrayed as not being able to handle too much power, being mad or turning evil. First of all, Phoenix I (Jean Grey) wasn’t evil: only Dark Phoenix was evil, and she eventually becomes good again. She is probably the most powerful mutant in the whole series (she’s Phoenix – she can NEVER die), and when she loses her powers, she loses them along with 80% of the mutants in the comic. (Same thing with Storm: when she lost her powers, it was when most mutants lost hers. The idea of power corrupting is one that isn’t reserved for only female superheroes: many male superheroes experience it too. And Rogue, I think, competes with Phoenix for most powerful character in X-Men. Unfortunately, that power comes with a price. If this only happened to women, then I’d see your point (or the point of the person who wrote that list). But this is SUCH a common theme in fiction. A lot of characters in stories get power but then find they have to sacrifice, willingly or unwillingly, to have it. I don’t think by showing Rogue experiencing this, or by creating Storm and Jean Grey’s storylines the writers of X-Men are representing women negatively in comparison to men. All characters, both male and female, have their flaws and struggles. I can’t speak to Wonder Woman, but you get my point.I think we’re more sensitive to violence and bad things happening to women than to men because in real life, this is what happens and we’d like to see something different for a change. That’s why we get mad if there’s violence against women in our entertainment. And that’s fine. But, in analyzing portrayals of women and female superheroes, I think it should be done within the context of the world of the comic, and the body of work of the author, so that we don’t jump to conclusions like JR did. BUT, I think that more strong women need to be shown in comic books overall. X-Men is really ahead of the game in that regard, which is why it’s still one of my favorite comics. And Bleach, despite Orihime being a sissy, still has like 5 other really strong women, so I’m satisfied :)The goddesses are amazing. It’s interesting that you moved from talking about violence against women to goddesses of destruction. That could be a whole other discussion… 🙂

  6. @Miss Sheeba, thanks for the links. i’ll be sure to check out the site. yes i’ve noticed that most men are indeed blind to sexist beliefs as can be seen in Joe Quesada’s case.@Sugabelly, i’ve seen that nonsense. please just ignore that person it is really unbelievable. i’ll be optimistic and believe that the battle will be won someday.

  7. mellowyel, i tend to disagree with with the way in which comic books (or other media) choose to represent the real world. i mean we live in this world so we are affected by it. i understand if certain themes were used such as in some sci-fi works however i’ll definitely be happier if the works provided a solution rather than just simply displaying random violence. there are actually many reasons i don’t like Watchmen, i just decided to choose the most obvious one to me. Silk Spectre’s almost rape scene is number 1 on my list of why i don’t like Watchmen. in fact compared to those prisoners Silk Spectre did not face violence. she was beaten and almost raped. the problem is that it is suggested that she went back to sleep with her would-be rapist. this is the message that pisses me off. and yes i know other characters faced violence in that movie but think about it how many characters were female in the first place. i remember 3, the lesbian superhero that was killed violently, she was shot which suggests that a human killed her. really how many times have superheros been killed by human beings? the other two are Silk Spectre and her daughter. there lies the problem, if the comic world is representative of the real world, the question to be asked is ‘where are all the women?’. if there were more women and some women faced violence, yes i’d be disturbed and i’ll probably complain but i won’t call it a trend. i maintain that women are disproportionately exposed to violence in comics. not only are their numbers few they also die frequently. i’m not really saying that Alan Moore is misogynistic, i’m just saying that i’m not happy with the way he presents women in his comics. he does have comics with strong female heros and i mentioned Promethea in the post (if you clicked the link to the Wiki page). i did say that i’m not expert on Alan Moore and am just expressing my own opinions.thank you for correcting me with Dark Phoenix, i just cannot for the life of me remember when a man who recieved power suddenly also had a ‘dark’ aspect to him. if you have some examples please let me know. i do really want to know the men who have been corrupted with power. i get your point and i disagree, it would okay if some women got depowered but if all or most women did therein lies the problem. and you are right indeed when you say we are more sensitive to violence against women. yes we are especially me and the thing is that i believe the world of fiction can be a sort of respite for women. there is nothing wrong with a woman fighting wars and experiencing violence in comics the problem is that MOST women in comics have such experiences.

  8. i tried to keep this to the world of comics but i quickly realised that the world of comics does not exist in a vacuum (hence the referred to Enloe), you mentioned the parallels. that is why i made sure to link to women in refrigerators, that is a list of women in the comic world. women are a minority in the comic world and when minorities are objectified, stereotyped and then killed off violently that is a problem. X-Men is alright but Joe Quesada has said that if we don’t like what Marvel does then we shouldn’t read Marvel. it is not my favourite comics though because there are better out there with better female characters. I still love Rogue though i didn’t start hating on her because of how she is potrayed. I am also a fan of Misty Knight, she is great. Bleach was great because of the diverse characters and the women in it. though i do have problems with the way some women are drawn and if you are reading the current chapters you’ll realise that only Rukia and Soi Fon are engaged in battles. i’m this close to giving up on Bleach and not because of Orihime but because i feel it is getting boring.haha feel free to have that discussion here. i mentioned the goddesses of destruction for a reason obviously and that is simply because i don’t like dichotomy in the image of women as either nurturing or evil, either the princess or the witch. firstly i do like those goddesses a lot and they do inspire me. secondly, these goddesses both represent aspects of nurture and destruction. they are complex and not two-dimensional (the way i feel women in comics are potrayed). hope that made sense.

  9. I am mad late to this discussion but wanted to say this was a great post. wow…I'm completely engrossed by what I have seen on your blog so far.Women are seen as "weaker" and "nurturing", but I also believe the reason heroines are portrayed the way they are is a fear of powerful women. I mean, think about what we women can do that men cannot: women can give life. (and some choose to take life as well).Anything men can do, women can do PLUS this. Where does this leave the man? If heroines had equality in terms of fighting power and strength, I don't know if men could handle it. Therefore they "program in" the weaknesses.I think this is a natural outcome of human nature, although I despise it. The so-called "top dog" will always want to remain on top. Depiction is powerful and whether done consciously or sub-consciously, it is a tool that I believe does reflect to some extent the pecking order and the reality of the "real world".@JC brought up an interesting point about characters being given weaknesses. I wonder how comic strip writer's religions or backgrounds affect their hero/heroine portrayal. If you look at Judaism/Christianity – they've got an infallible, invicible, miracle-working God. A male one at that.Contrast with Hinduism, various mythologies from other regions and you don't see this type of portrayal. Anyway, I'm rambling now and forgot what else I was going to say 🙂

  10. puregoldlady, rambling is always welcome here! thanks for reading this blog so far! you went really really far back lol. i personally believe that the ability of women to give life is possibly what scares (some) men so much. it's quite sad but when you look at it, there has been a general loathing for women since the beginning of time. i mean if you believe in Adam and Eve, then you might blame Eve for causing the fall of the human race. it makes me think this will never go away and what just disturbs me is the apparent normalization of violence against women. i agree with character weakensses, every superhero should have his/her kryptonite. it just sucks that the female superhero has to worry about rape, mental illness, losing her powers, going crazy etc while her male counterpart gets some mysterious gem from outer space as his only weakness. it's NOT fair! and perhaps religious background plays a role but i believe patrairchy and misogyny plays an even bigger role. also the assumption that only men read and create comics.

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