Thursday, August 24, 2006

Tangible vs. Intangible, or, Mom, Why Are All The Strong Superheroines Aliens?

A few posts ago, I promised you a discussion of tangible vs. intangible powers among the female superheroes, and never let it be said, Dear Reader, that I don't keep my promises! As a Card-Carrying Feminist, I've heard many strange things from my Sister Feminists, from my Sister Women, and from Others In The World. Some people say men can't be feminists (to which This Humble Author thumbs her nose!). Others believe that men can't write female-empowered characters or storylines (to which This Humble Author pooh-poohs!). Further still, some people believe that The Fight For Women's Rights is Over (to which This Humble Author faints in a fit of fury). It's simply Not True. As we enter what some may term the "fourth wave of feminism," we need to look not to the present but to the past. What has changed in the past 150+ years, since the first true struggle for women’s suffrage began?

Remarkable, vast legal changes: the right to vote, to divorce, to own property, to retaining children after divorce, to education, to employment, to career, to legal justice.

Remarkable similarities: women are still considered second-class citizens across the world, make less money than their male counterparts when All Things Are Considered Equal (education, experience, etc.), are relegated to the processes of their bodies (as maternal vessels, most particularly).

In that previous post previously mentioned, I discussed Wonder Woman as being all body by having a super-body, and thereby being relegated to the processes of that body. She is one of the few female superheroes that has meta-physical strength. While other non-empowered female superheroes physically fight (Huntress, Batgirl, Elektra), most empowered superheroines have intangible powers.

Black Canary has her ultrasonic cry; Kitty Pryde is intangible; Jean Grey is telepathic, as is Emma Frost; Vixen can summon animal powers, but they appear as ghostly images; Rogue gains power through touch (a vampiric lamia of sorts); Sue Storm is invisible, and has a defensive force field; Storm has power over weather; Gypsy is an illusionist; Zatanna has magical powers, the list goes on and on.

In summation, those female superheroes with tangible, i.e. physical powers are otherworldly: Wonder Woman from Themyscira; Big Barda from Apokolips; Hawkgirl from Thanagar; Supergirl and Power Girl from Krypton; Wonder Girl from Earth but empowered by Greek gods, as Mary Marvel is also empowered by gods; female Green Lanterns are aliens, all, as is Starfire; She-Hulk, when empowered, looks otherworldly; Molly Hayes, one of the Runaways, is super-strong, but a mutant, and therefore humans consider her questionable as a human.

I don't claim that this list is complete, Gentle Reader, nor do I claim that I am Absolutely Right. I am not up on my X-Men mythology, and I'm sure there are several physically-empowered female characters I am missing. But it seems for me an overwhelming number of otherworldly strong female superheroes.

Why must the physically strong woman be alien to us? And when I say physically strong, I mean the knock-'em sock-'em strength of the Big Boys, i.e. Those Women Who Could Hold Their Own Against Superman (and we've all heard This Humble Author argue that Wonder Woman could, indeed, hold her own against Superman, and, perhaps, kick his butt). Is it perhaps because strong women seem alien to us, overall? Biology seems against women. We are, in general, built smaller than men. We have lower centers of gravity. But is this because we haven't evolved to be bigger and stronger? Or because we're not encouraged to be bigger and stronger, and therefore can't evolve to bigger, stronger selves? What is evolution but necessary changes? What is survival of the fittest but the actual continuation of what is needed for existence? And if we keep telling our daughters that football and hockey are for boys, then we will never encourage them to strengthen their bodies.

Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus. Utter balderdash, of course, but it comes with heavy connotations. Men are from a symbolic warring planet; women are from a symbolic emotional planet. Mars, Venus. Ares, Aphrodite. War, Love. One is physical, and one is emotional. Emotional is sometimes hysterical. The word hysterical is derived from the idea of a womb (remember, Dear Reader, when women have a hysterectomy, their uteruses are removed). In WWI, men did not suffer from "hysteria," because that would be to suffer from an exclusively feminine malady. Rather, they suffered from "shell shock."

Even in emotions, women are separated from men.

Of course, we could argue that the superhero world is littered with otherworldiness, as powers have to come from somewhere, and I argue this gladly. Superman himself is an alien, and therefore otherworldly. Wolverine is a mutant, and therefore considered, by some, only human by default. But when do we see a female superhero at the peak of physical prowess who can outfight a male superhero of the same?

To wit, what if Huntress, say, and Batman, were to fight? Who would win?

Well, Batman, most likely. The reason would be that Bruce is in control of his emotions and therefore in constant control of his self, while Helena is always rash and somewhat out of control.

That begs another question: why can't Helena, who suffered near the same fate as young Bruce Wayne, control her emotions? Why is she sometimes "hysterical"?

But that is, perhaps, another post.


At 8:16 PM, Blogger Oxymoron said...

hysterectomy - i never made this connection. thanks for the knowledge, etta.

At 10:45 AM, Blogger Matthew E said...

The otherworldly-powers argument... I was with you, but then the examples started to seem like more and more of a reach.

What would you consider to be an example of a character (female or male) who has physical, tangible powers, and yet is not alien or otherworldly in some way? Because, looking at some of the examples you give (She-Hulk, Molly Hayes, Wonder Girl)... it seems like a hard category to qualify for.

I don't doubt that Batman would beat the Huntress in a fight, but that doesn't imply that the Huntress is flawed in some way. It's just that Batman has the advantage of being Batman. He's going to beat almost anybody. By the same token, if Wonder Woman was to fight, oh, I don't know, Barda or the Martian Manhunter or even Supergirl, she'd win, because she's Wonder Woman. Huntress could win a fight against... well, depending on who was writing it and whose book it took place in, potentially any non-powered or low-powered character (female or male). She could probably take Nightwing down if she had a good day.

I don't dispute the major point of your post, but I'm not convinced that your arguments give it much support.

(I posted something here once:

that's somewhat related to this discussion.)

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
You asked, What would you consider to be an example of a character (female or male) who has physical, tangible powers, and yet is not alien or otherworldly in some way? Because, looking at some of the examples you give (She-Hulk, Molly Hayes, Wonder Girl)... it seems like a hard category to qualify for.

And I respond,
I agree with your argument with my argument, which is why I made a concession. As I wrote through the post, I began to think about this very fact. There does seem to be a plethora of otherworldly powers out there, and not just for women. Superman, Martian Manhunter, etc. have powers because they are aliens, i.e. otherworldly.
I think the main part of the argument was the idea that most female superheroes have intangible powers, while so many superheroes have tangible ones.
Steel, for example, is a character who has physical, tangible powers that aren't otherworldly. Same with The Hulk (which is why my She-Hulk example probably doesn't work). While I was writing this, I began writing myself into another argument, I think, and the two started to diverge in strange ways.
But of the characters that have non-tangible powers, they are overwhelming female. Most male superheroes have strength, while most female superheroes have something untouchable.
Thanks for reading, and I'll continue to think about this :)


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