“Girls Can’t Be Superheroes”

My daughter K is mildly obsessed with superheroes. And while I take full responsibility for having planted the initial seed (and watering it daily with encouragement and the occasional new superhero-themed book or shirt), she’s taken the idea and just run with it.

“K, what do you want to wear today?”

“A superhero shirt, superhero underwear and pants that tie…if we have them, please.”

When we first introduced K to superheroes – your typical Batman, Superman-type fodder – she expressed an interest in them, but it didn’t become a daily undercurrent. And in fact, her enthusiasm was dampened for a bit last fall when a classmate told her that his daddy said, “Girls can’t be superheroes.”

“Mommy, J’s daddy says girls can’t be superheroes. Girls can be superheroes, right?”

Needless to say, I felt the need to take immediate action and decided to dress as Supergirl for Halloween last year. Phase 2 of my nefarious plan was to begin introducing her to some of the female superheroes. Supergirl was a bit of a bust. Batgirl held her interest for quite some time. And then came Wonder Woman. And a whole new world opened up. And I love it.

In fact, K’s preoccupation with superheroes has apparently swept through her classroom – especially the girls – to the point that her teachers have decided to make next month’s theme “Superheroes.”

But I confess, I don’t love the body image that Wonder Woman projects. K focuses on how awesome Wonder Woman is at catching bad guys and how strong and brave she is – messages I want her to take away. And I hope she’s too young to absorb the sexualized and scantily clad aspect of the Wonder Woman image.

The reality is, though, that sexualization is at the core of the female superhero archetype.

The preschool teachers often like to send a special “guest” home with each of the kids throughout the month (“Scuba Steve” or “Buddy the Dinosaur”) and wanted to find a plush superhero for the kids to take home. In consideration of the number of girls in the class, they were hoping to make it a female superhero. After a fruitless night of searching for such an item, they nearly gave up in despair, with one of the teachers noting that his search ended up feeling like a walk through porn sites because everything that came back was highly suggestive and completely inappropriate for the preschool set.

Luckily, by turning to A Mighty Girl, I was able to find a few different options, including a Wonder Woman plush toy that might be appropriate (they’re also considering making their own, which I think is a fantastic idea), but the experience simply underscores the inherent problem in the superhero universe.

Cartoonist Kevin Bolk took this issue on last year, redrawing the poster for The Avengers and reversing the male poses to those traditionally held by females, and vice versa. Here’s the result:

The original Avengers poster vs. the recast version by Kevin Bolk

Feels ridiculous, right? And yet, this is how female superheroes – and for that matter, villains – are portrayed all the time.

The website Reel Girl showed off another example of this (particularly appropriate given the current Wonder Woman obsession in my household), this one by cartoonist Cynthia Sousa Rodgers (Theamat):

I’ll be the first to admit that superheroes are by nature fantasy creatures. Male superheroes have overgrown muscles and tight-fitting bodysuits too, so it’s not a phenomenon that is confined to females. However the sexualization is often the dominant undercurrent in plot lines with female superheroes – you simply can’t escape it. My friend Stephen has pointed out to me that Jean Grey from the X-men series isn’t sexualized, but when was the last time you saw Jean Grey-themed merchandise?

Superheroes are powerful – not just in stories, but in what they deliver to kids. Faith in something bigger than they are. An understanding of good versus evil. The value of courage, intelligence, civic-mindedness and helping those in trouble or in pain. And female superheroes have the power to show little girls everywhere that you don’t have to be a boy to be strong, brave, courageous and impactful. Ultimately, I think the good outweighs the bad, all you have to do is to look at this preview for the upcoming documentary “Wonder Women” to see how empowering a female superhero can be.

Now if only we could put some clothes on the woman.

In the absence of that, I give you a different sort of inspiration, courtesy of my buddy Paul and his Tumblr blog.

These men are window washers at a children’s hospital in Pittsburgh. Some might think the job is menial, but to the kids who are horribly ill, looking out their window seeing their favorite superhero at their window makes all the pain go away for a bit. And that would make the job worthwhile


Happy rescuing!

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