Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Strong Woman... Literally

Superhero comics are often described as being white adolescent male power fantasies, which is, in my opinion, exactly what they are. That’s one bit of conventional wisdom that seems clear. Exactly what it means in terms of having, say, a woman in the lead role, however, is less clear. Does one need to subvert the traditional male power fantasy and create, instead, a female power fantasy? Do women even have power fantasies?

It seems to me that most women do have power fantasies (and the ones that don’t probably aren’t reading superhero comics). If we take as a given that superhero stories are, at least in part, power fantasies, is there a basic power fantasy common to both the male and female (as well as people of other colours, cultures, and sexual orientations) variations?

It seems to me -- again -- that there is, and that the commonality is the very thing intrinsic to all superheroic fiction: the presence of characters with extraordinary powers, talents, or psychological traits. Where the story goes from there -- who has the power, what they use it for, and how the super individual relates to the world around them -- is where most of the differences come in.

We all, though, I think, can agree that being invulnerable could have its uses. Being able to turn invisible, too (though whether this one breaks down as females fantasizing about turning invisible so as not to be seen, and males fantasizing about turning invisible so they can look at women -- though not the invisible ones, of course -- or if those generalizations don’t really apply, is an open question). Most of us, I think, have wondered what it might be like to fly.

In The Matriarch, the webcomic I do with Steven Yarbrough about a superhero who is also a single mom, the power fantasy plays out largely as having the power to help the ones you love. Again, this is something I think most of us can relate to (although it doesn’t strike me as a particularly adolescent trait). Sherry, our protagonist, enjoys having and using her powers. There are times when she gets into trouble, of course -- times when things go poorly despite her making all the right choices -- but, generally speaking, having power beats having had no power.

We’ve been running for about a month now -- updating every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday -- and the majority of folks I’ve gotten feedback from (facebook, blogger, MySpace) are female (though that may be sample bias owing to the relatively small sample size).

As a writer, the most interesting thing about superhero stories (which, again, I see as largely white male power fantasies) is seeing what happens with someone else in the driver’s seat, whether it’s a woman, old people, or even an alien pet. But ultimately, in terms of expanded horizons (both for comics as a medium and for human beings), do we want to expand white male power fantasies to include everybody, or do we need to erect new fantasies reflecting the needs, wants, and desires of other people with other experiences? Are we ultimately more alike than we are different, or are we more different than we are alike?

women comics feminism feminist matriarch webcomic

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