Professor of Politics, Economics, and Law at the SUNY, College at Old Westbury
The use of violence by female superheroes has been written about mostly in terms of its subversion of dominant cultural narratives of gender, as well as in terms of readers/viewers’ pleasure and feelings of empowerment. I would argue, further, that for those who find the subversion of gendered norms discomfiting, the palatability or popularity of female superheroes’ violence also lies in stories that: 1) conform them to raced and classed notions of gender performance, 2) present them as seemingly naturalized to such behavior because they were born to it via an alien and/or exoticized monoculture, 3) accentuate their similarities to popular male superheroes, and 4) surround them with familiar military tropes and trappings. The subversion of gender norms attracts a more progressive audience; the containment of that subversion through these techniques attracts a more conservative audience, thus ensuring marketability across the political spectrum.
This presentation is part of a larger project that analyzes these female characters’ use of violence, their service in military organizations, and their protection of vulnerable “others” in their comics and films. The book explores to what extent such stories can embody the more collective feminist politics from which the characters originated and for which they are touted by some fans, while also being enmeshed in postfeminist, postrace, neoliberal, and neoconservative rationalities that emphasize individualized empowerment for some and reinscribe inequalities for most.
Wonder Woman and Captain Marvels’ 2010s comics employ all of the practices noted above. First, most female action heroes and female superheroes, like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, are white and conventionally attractive and almost always portrayed as heterosexual—not women of color, not working-class, not impoverished, not disabled, not queer, not transgender. They may be subverting norms of gender with their superheroism, but do not provoke further anxieties about race, class, and sexuality.
Second, these two characters are presented as naturalized to their behavior through their biology. That is, since their revised 2010s origin stories, both characters are now descendants of warlike, othered, exoticized monocultures: Captain Marvel is now part Kree because her mother is Kree; Wonder Woman is now part Greek god because her father is Zeus. No longer are their powers chosen or earned, but inherited from a non-human parent in a way that explains and softens their exceptionality—their subversion of gender norms via their physical strength and use of violence—in the male-dominated superhero universe.
Third, recent changes to their power sets, personalities, and dress frame them as more akin to popular male superheroes. Wonder Woman has become much more like both Superman and Thor. Like Superman, she now flies and is so strong as to seem undefeatable except by aliens or gods. Like Thor, she can call lightning to her and redirect it at others, and just as he carries two weapons (a hammer and axe), the 2010s Wonder Woman does as well with her sword and magical bracers. Her revised parentage as a daughter of Zeus rationalizes these new powers in a way that her gender and Amazon training apparently could not. Similarly, Captain Marvel has become more akin to Captain America through their military “dress blues” uniforms with red accents and a mid-chest star, and that military connection is reinforced in their calling each other “Army” and “Air Force” and in their allies calling both of them “Cap.” Neither will stay down in a fight. She is also increasingly similar to Iron Man Tony Stark: both are hotheads who live with alcoholism, defuse tension with humor, shoot beams of light/energy out of their hands, fly, love Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, and are affiliated with the U.S. government and military.
Fourth, while each of the above techniques frames these heroes in ways that increase their militarism, none does so more than surrounding them with military aesthetics. They are repeatedly shown surrounded by uniformed people, institutional weaponry, and military hierarchy such that their transgressive female strength is contained. At the same time, they are presented as heroes with diverse allies who protect the vulnerable against injustice. Rarely are the costs for their faceless or othered enemies shown. As such, their use of deadly force to engage in conflicts is normalized and can more easily be celebrated by a variety of audiences (see Figures 1 and 2).
Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel’s whiteness and non-queerness, ancestry, similarities to male characters, and military attachments as contextualizing their use of violence can ease anxieties among more conservative audiences about their being feminist superwomen. Their being feminist superwomen who work with allies from marginalized groups and who seek justice for the vulnerable can ease anxieties among more progressive audiences about their military violence. Their militarism works both with and against their feminist origins and story histories in ways distinct from their male counterparts and contributes to their global and politically polysemic popularity.
More broadly, these types of portrayals render the feminism performed by these characters highly contestable and illuminate debates about the diversification of both the military and the superhero genre. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel embody the success of liberal feminist advocacy for inclusion in the armed forces and in media representations as a mark of equality. But they also embody other feminists’ critiques that women’s participation in such institutions as they currently operate is tokenistic and conservatizing, serves an unjust and imperialist nation and a capitalist system that discriminate against and physically harms multiple vulnerable groups in the U.S. and abroad, and undermines the potential for more liberatory actions done collectively and/or in solidarity.
Carolyn Cocca is Professor of Politics, Economics, and Law at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. She is the author of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel: Militarism and Feminism in Comics and Film (2020) and the Eisner-Award-winning Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation (2016). She has written numerous articles and book chapters about gender and popular culture as well as about gender and law. She is also the author of Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States and the editor of Adolescent Sexuality. She teaches US politics, constitutional law, and gender studies.
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