A colleague/friend of mine is teaching a class this semester on the development of heroes and politics, focusing primarily on comics and graphic novels, but with a few prose works thrown in as well. We went over his syllabus together, and I saw some canonical choices: Achilles, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta. All wonderful characters and properties, mind you – I’ve taught a lot of these myself in my “Heroes and Monsters” courses, and there’s definitely a trajectory to trace in the development of heroism starting with ancient Greece up through today. I also think there’s value in looking at pop culture’s most revered and successful heroes – the money makers, the figures that audiences will flock to see in movie theaters. By reading original material, we’re more equipped to see how a hero/character has changed (or not) depending on the social and political climate in which they appear. The origins of James Bond, for example, shows us how the figure has been changed and adapted over time but still retains roots in a post-war era.
While male heroism has visible threads that stretch back to classical literature, female heroism is rather hard to spot, much less define. Lest you get the wrong impression, my colleague/friend is not neglecting prominent female characters. His syllabus includes Wonder Woman, Kamala Khan, and others where women play prominent roles (Jean Grey in X-Men, for example, and Irene Adler). But for many critics, the pattern of female heroism has been inconsistent: where women aren’t damsels in distress, they’re sidekicks or imitating violent masculinity. Where women aren’t scantily-clad sexual fantasies, they’re wielding power that’s either too much for them to handle or threatening to the male characters. The premise of the course got me thinking: Where does feminine heroism lie, and how does it exist in a form that isn’t imitative of masculinity yet is also not constructed as less valuable?
After a while, I realized I’m not really that interested in these questions at all.
Trying to define what “female heroism” looks like, to me, misses the point. It’s impossible to essentialize womanhood and femininity, just as it is impossible to essentialize heroism. While it is worth while to try to develop models of heroism for female characters that differ from the archetypes we see in movies, tv, and comics that privilege a certain type of masculine heroism, to say that female heroism is somehow, at its core, different from male heroism is to ignore areas where human behavior is not defined by gender and to insist on a gender binary that pop culture critics are struggling to overthrow.
This blog post will overview classical and folkloric definitions of “hero” and put them in dialogue with feminist criticism in order to reach a definition of “hero” that shirks gender identifiers. First, I will overview the “male as default” worldview and show how it affects fiction’s construction of the superhero. From there, I will propose turning to a de-gendered definition of “hero” which can help audiences avoid gender binaries and essentialism. Lastly, I will apply the de-gendered definition of “hero” to several models to show how heroism is at work.