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Sunday Reflections: I’m Holding Out for a Hero, a Female Superhero

I have such conflicted feelings about this year’s superhero themed Summer Reading Club.

As a big superhero fan myself, I was at first incredibly excited. But the truth is, for those of us raising daughters or working with the female gender – which coincidentally makes up half of the population – it’s a bit of a double edged sword when you start to realize how little female representation there is in the world of superheroes. And the representation we do get is often incredibly sexualized and often in service of the male characters.

And then there is the merchandising.

Sure, in Big Hero 6 there are two female superheroes out of the six. A full 1/3. But you’ll be hard pressed to find them on any of the merchandising, particularly if you go looking for fabric to make your own clothing.

The Marvel Universe, also a Disney house now, isn’t much better. If you go looking for Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers merchandise you will be lucky to find any including Gamora or Black Widow. As The Mary Sue points out, you can only find a hand full of Black Widow on the new merchandising efforts for The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

And if you go looking at Star Wars merchandise, you won’t find a lot of women there either. As Carrie Fisher recently pointed out, our primary image of Princess Leia from the Star Wars universe is the one where she is being held captive and sexualized in the gold bikini. Interestingly enough, at a recent Star Wars panel author Anthony Breznican (BRUTAL YOUTH) asked about female representation in the Star Wars universe and they seemed to at least acknolwedge there was a problem and they were working on it. Skip to the 5:30 timestamp in this Force Awakens panel to see the discussion.

I noticed this myself when we took our Girl Scout troop to a Build a Bear for a reward party for selling far and above the amount of cookies we thought they could sell. They worked hard and were incredibly successful. But if they wanted to build a superhero themed bear their choices were Thor, Hulk, Captain America and Iron Man.

And during Easter season I snapped this picture of Superhero dolls you can purchase to fill baskets. Not surprisingly, there was not a female one in the offering even though they were both DC and Marvel based heroes, which means they could have at the very least included Wonder Woman.

The results weren’t much better when I went looking for superhero Legos for my Lego based Makerspace. The problem, of course, is that there are far less female superheroes to choose from. So when I found a pack of 24 superhero Legos for only $24.00 on Ebay – a fantastic price – it was not surprising when they came in and only 4 of them were female. My tweens and teens like to make stop motion Lego movies and we’ll be making our own superhero themed ones, but it looks like our representation won’t be much better than the big screen given how few options we will have.

There was a glimmer of hope when the recent Ms Marvel comics were released – and they are good. Bonus points because we get a female superhero and a woman of color to boot, done well. But the male superheroes still far outnumber the female. And there isn’t a female superhero movie in sight for 2015 or 2016. A Wonder Woman movie has been tabled for years, currently slated for 2017. However, the pressure for a female led superhero movie to be successful is so stressful that the current director recently jumped ship according to MTV news. There is now a new director attached to the picture, Patty Jenkins, but if this movie fails many in the industry will see it as a sign that no one wants female superhero movies, which is nowhere near the truth.

My 6 year old daughter’s favorite movie is The Avengers (and sometimes Sharknado). She watches it again and again and again. I am mesmerized as she watches the scene where Black Widow busts out of a chair that she is tied into, surrounded by men who think they have the upper hand. I see how she feels empowered and is taking in a simple message: even in the most seemingly dire of situations you can be powerful, you can be strong, you can save yourself. In a world where a majority of the images our girls will see involve them being rescued by, objectified by and in service of men, it’s such a powerful message. But then when we can’t find any superhero merchandise in the stores, that message is undermined.

To make matters worse, some of the Avengers themselves were on a press tour this past week when they reminded us all that powerful women who embrace their sexuality are “sluts” and “whores”. In a recent interview with Renner (Hawkeye) and Evans (Captain America), when asked about Black Widow maybe having a relationship with Hulk, the two men joked about Black Widow being a slut. To add injury to insult, they went on to suggest that because her character has a prosthetic leg (which I hear makes no sense because it is not true) and she was “leading everyone on”, which is troubling ableist language. And they pointed out that “she’ll always be a sidekick anyway”, a seemingly direct slap in the face to every fan asking for a Black Widow movie.

Just this week WB and DC announced a new line of superhero stuffs – JUST FOR GIRLS. Which you would think would make me feel less conflicted, but it only addresses the female half of my concerns. Yes, I want my girls to see girl superheroes. But I also want boys growing up being told by marketers and authors and society at large that girls are not other, that they are in fact worthy of their time and attention. I want boys to be just as comfortable wearing an Avengers shirt with Black Widow as my girls are expected to be wearing a shirt with Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk. As Chuck Wendig points out in his discussion of the WB/DC announcement: “Society will get better when boys have to learn about girls the same way girls learn about boys.” It’s not just about wanting superheroes for girls, is about wanting our boys to grow up in a world where they embrace the value of girls. But that’s what gendering does, especially since it is catered to the males among us, it others females in such a way that our boys grow up being told that girls are not worth their time and attention, unless it is as a sex object.

I dropped my daughters off at school today. I kissed them goodbye and told them I love them. I sent them out once again into the breech, this world that continues to tell them that in subtle and not so subtle ways that they are less than their male counterparts. I think they deserve better. I think they deserve to see female superheroes who remind them that they can be fierce, they can be brave, they can be honorable – that they can be their own heroes. And I think they deserve to grow up in a world where boys are learning that girls and the things that girls like, produce and consume have value. And this can be done to some extent when they have their own superheroes to look up to, but even more is accomplished when we create a superhero universe for all fans – male and female – that represents a wide variety of genders, ethnicities, abilities and more. Representation matters.

Sunday Reflections: I’m Holding Out for a (Female) Superhero!

The Tween read each & every comic book yesterday

Yesterday was Free Comic Book Day and I celebrated – with my Tween daughter – by handing out free comic books at my library. The night before I took her little sister to see the new Spider-Man movie. We’re pretty big superhero fans in this house. In fact, we watch The Avengers movie a couple of times a month. Which is why I can’t help but wish that someone would remember that girls can be a superhero too.

Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Superman, Spider-man . . . they all get their own superhero movies. But female superheroes, they get to be part of a team. Yes, there are female superheroes (ish) in The Avengers movie (my husband argues though that Black Widow is not an Avenger but an agent of Shield). And yes, there are superheroes in the X-men movies. But there are no female led superhero movies. Where is Wonder Woman? Well, it was previously in development but it is now dead, dead, dead and they say it is never going to happen. There is talk that there may be a Black Widow movie, but there is nothing in development right now.


For a brief moment I, the superhero fan, was excited when my friend and fellow librarian Maria Selke tweeted me a picture of an ALA reading incentive campaign with a variety of posters.  And then Robin tweeted me, “Psssst, where is Black Widow?”  Where IS Black Widow? Or any female superhero.  ALA is an organization that prides itself on diversity; it is one of the library’s fundamental rallying cries. And yet here is an entire read campaign that utilized nothing except for white men to promote reading. I mean, I guess there is diversity if you consider the fact that the Hulk does turn green and Thor is quite literally from another planet. That part was sarcasm, for the record.  But they could have included Black Widow and The Falcon. And with the new X-men movie coming out, there are a variety of women to choose from there as well.

ALA Catalog Image Tweeted by Maria Selke @mselke01


At the same time, Maria brought a Scholastic reading campaign to my attention. Yep, same problem. In fact, basically the same superheroes.


I will say in their defense that after we started Tweeting at Scholastic about our concern about this campaign, they did inform us that they were only given a select few superheroes to choose from and that they would take our concerns to the marketing team.  Imagine though what a statement it would have made when given those choices from either Marvel or Disney, who holds the copyright to the Marvel universe, if they had said I’m sorry we can’t work with you under these terms because it is direct contradiction with our core value and commitment to diversity. If more and more of us start making those kinds of statements, perhaps then we can see greater change in the ways women, people of color and other marginalized people groups are represented in the media.

And make no mistake about it, representation does matter. I watched Wonder Woman on TV as a young girl (not that young!) and it is empowering to see a female superhero. It is empowering for little girls to see themselves represented in these positive ways. And yes, I’m totally going to ignore the incredibly sexualized and impractical costume for the moment. Just as it is empowering for children of color to see Falcon in the new Captain America movie.


The 5-year-old dressed up as Spider-Man

More importantly, seeing a broader scope of people in the media encourages empathy to those that are different than us. When we continually focus on men as superheroes, white men, it communicates that all others have less worth. This becomes the standard, the ideal. Anything that doesn’t fit into this standard is seen as less than worthy. That’s the message that is communicated to our young, impressionable generation when they continually see such a strong emphasis on one type of person. Representation is one of the most significant tools we can use to help promote kindness, equality, and mutual respect.

I want in my lifetime to take my girls to see a movie that features a female superhero. I want them to walk out of that theater inspired, empowered, and hopeful. And I want fathers to take their sons to a female superhero movie so that their sons will grow up respecting and valuing woman as equal members of the human race. And I want people who are in the position to put together these reading incentive campaigns to remember ALL little kids, every single one of them, and to demand better representation.

It’s easy to look at the success of the Marvel universe and think, we need to tap into that. But true change comes when we take the harder road sometimes and demand more from those who are still failing to understand what the world we live in today looks like. If we care about our future, we need to work on the messages we are sending today. And this is why diversity matters.

The title for this post was inspired by the Bonnie Tyler song Holding Out for a Hero.

In the meantime, I guess we’ll keep watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards since that revolutionary show reminded us all that girls could kick butt too.

For more on these topics, see these posts:
“If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”
Beth Revis: I See You, Representation Matters (great post, read it)
Ramp Your Voice: Why Representation Matters in Children’s Books and Media
Actually, just Google “representation matters” for lots of great posts

More Diversity at TLT:
Racial Stereotyping in YA Literature
Race Reflections, Take II
Building Bridges to Literacy for African American Male Youth Summit recap, part 1
Friday Reflections: Talking with Hispanic/Latino Teens about YA Lit
See also the Diversity in YA Tumblr by Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo

More on Gender and Sexuality at TLT:
I’m Just a Girl? Gender issues in YA Lit
Girls Against Girls
Teach Me How to Live: talking with guys about ya lit with Eric Devine
Let’s Hear It for the Boys: Boys and body image
Who Will Save You? Boundaries, Rescue and the Role of Adults in the Lives of Teens
The Curious Case of the Gender Based Assignment 

You want to put WHAT in my YA?
Taking a Stand for What You Believe In
Annie on My Mind and Banned Books Week on My Calendar
Queer (a book review)
Top 10: For Annie and Liza (Annie on My Mind)