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Superheroes in Women’s History Month

“The kinds of heroes we offer our children, both boys and girls, matters,” writes U of R English Professor Heather King. (Photo by Gabriela Braga from Unsplash.)

Just in time for Women’s History Month, Captain Marvel, with leading actress Brie Larson, is hitting theaters with meteoric force. In fact, the opening falls on International Women’s Day, Friday, March 8; perhaps it should be renamed “Intergalactic” Women’s Day.

Women’s History Month was created in 1987 by congressional act, having begun as the more humble Women’s History Week in 1981. This year, the Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among other entities, are offering events to celebrate women’s contributions to American history. The Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative is showcasing women’s stories “to honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future.”

Understanding our pop culture narratives is also an important part of understanding our history. Arguably, few stories are more American than those found in the pages of superhero comics; the genre was forged in the melting pot of 1930s New York, and today a near-constant stream of big-budget films is shown around the world. Female characters have been in this mix from the beginning; Wonder Woman debuted in 1941, the same year as Captain America. Only Superman and Batman precede her (in 1938 and 1939, respectively). Captain Marvel joined the fray in 1968. Even though neither Wonder Woman nor Captain/Ms. Marvel was written by women until fairly recently, these superhero tales are a central component of the history of women’s stories.

The fact that both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel recently made the jump to the big screen has been a cause for celebration to many. The roads characters Diane Prince (a.k.a. Wonder Woman) and Carol Danvers (a.k.a. Captain Marvel) have traveled to get onscreen is instructive, showing both how much progress has been made toward equality between the sexes and how much work is left to do.

After Wonder Woman’s debut in 1941, the character carried her own title with only a brief interruption in the ’80s. Her creator, William Marston Mould, was decades ahead of his time in terms of gender politics. He felt that the future was female and that women would rule in a more compassionate way than in male-dominated power structures (he also had some personal quirks, but that’s another story; for more, see The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore). He believed that comics could have great influence on readers and that “not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power”; Amazon warrior Diana Prince/Wonder Woman was his attempt to give girls a hero to emulate.

In the ’70s, writers created a storyline in which Diana Prince has to decide between giving up her powers to stay in “man’s world” or leaving this dimension with the rest of the Amazons. She chooses to stay, opens a mod-boutique, and takes up martial arts with merely mortal abilities. This powerless phase can be interpreted as either a weakening of a strong woman or a way to show women can be strong without superpowers. Given the increasing influence of feminism at the time, the second option seems persuasive. However, the fact that her solo title was briefly suspended in 1986 after an issue in which Steve Trevor marries her—echoing the ending of fairy tales and many 18th and 19th century novels—suggests that the genre was struggling to figure out what to do with a strong, independent woman. The fact that in 2016 Wonder Woman was named as an honorary UN ambassador and then stripped of the title because of her costume indicates we’re still negotiating standards of female dress and behavior.

Captain/Ms. Marvel’s history is equally vexed, not least because of her costuming. The character Carol Danvers was introduced in 1968 as the earthling love interest of an alien (Kree) warrior named Mar-Vell. Her origin story has, like most long-running characters, changed multiple times, but her powers were first obtained by being in an explosion with Mar-Vell and absorbing his alien abilities. Once she obtains powers, she also gets her own title, beginning in 1977. As readers might expect from a character who has taken the then-controversial title of Ms., the character is vocally feminist, complaining about discrimination against women to her newspaper boss on more than one occasion. However, the costuming and cover art of this period works against the feminist message. Her original costume is a long-sleeved red bodysuit with large diamond-shaped cut-outs front and back, displaying her navel. As she takes on a more stridently feminist stance, her costume is changed to a black leotard with a gold lightning bolt on the chest, black thigh boots, and a red sash draped around her hips. Just as Wonder Woman is getting out of the swimsuit, Ms. Marvel is showing even more skin. And the problems don’t stop there.

The solo title was closed, she joined the Avengers, and in the next storyline, she was basically abducted by an intergalactic being, then raped. She returned to Earth, devastated (and pregnant) and sought refuge with the X-Men. Pre-X-Men Rogue stole her powers, so she worked with them as a pilot. She took on other identities—Binary, Warbird—and it wasn’t until 2012 that she reassumed the name of Captain Marvel, in a costume more suited to a pilot and space warrior. In 2014, the motto “higher, further, faster, more” was used as the title of a new story arc, and it is that vision of Captain Marvel that will be landing in the theatre this month.

In 2013, the Ms. Marvel identity was also rebooted, with a twist: Kamala Kahn, a Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey, is exposed to a mysterious cloud and develops powers. With Carol Danvers’ blessing, she takes up the Ms. Marvel moniker, but rocks a modest burkini over leggings instead of flesh-baring leotards (she complains about a wedgie after fighting one battle in the black swimsuit, explicitly choosing comfort over fashion).

And now, Captain Marvel makes her way to a solo film, which some skeptics claim is just Marvel’s attempt to cash in on or catch up with the precedent of the June 2017 film Wonder Woman. Dishearteningly, there has been an online campaign to leave negative reviews before the movie is even released in an effort to discredit it (the same tactic was tried with Black Panther; here’s hoping it’s just as ineffective this time).

As Mould—who was a psychologist in addition to Wonder Woman comic creator—the kinds of heroes we offer our children, both boys and girls, matters. The recent Wonder Woman movie offered a new definition of heroism, born not out of a will to power but of a desire to protect; motivated not by hate, but by love. In the preview for the new Captain Marvel movie, the heroine declares she has come to Earth not to fight our war but to end it. The trailers also declare that “you can’t spell ‘hero’ without ‘her.’” What stories will this character inspire, both in print and in real life?

As we encourage young women to seek careers in the sciences, politics, and other traditionally male bastions, these heroes matter. It’s important to remember that, although we’ve made much progress, there are still those who are not comfortable with the idea of women wielding power. Comics scholars frequently argue that our heroes tell us a lot about who we want to be. These two heroines seem to offer worthy aspirations for us all, as the stories from the Smithsonian well able to “honor the past, inform the present, and inspire the future.”

Learn more about the study of English: literature and writing at the University of Redlands. U of R alumni are cordially invited to join the English Department Facebook Group.