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.
Defining the Hero: Undoing “Male as Default”
One of the problems with defining female heroism is the problem of defining “hero” more generally. Merriam-Webster offers a few definitions, the first using language that more or less is open to interpretation: “hero, noun. a) a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability; b) an illustrious warrior; c) a person admired for achievements and noble qualities; d) one who shows great courage.” Already, there’s room to argue: what constitutes “great strength or ability?” What are “noble qualities?” Every audience will have different ideas of what these terms mean, so the definition of hero in itself is slippery.
Literary scholars such as Otto Rank, Joseph Campbell, C. G. Jung, and Erich Neumann have defined “hero” more or less consistently as a figure that follows particular patterns rather than one that has admirable traits. As Lee R. Edwards summarizes:
“The hero, then, is a perpetually recurring figure who, forcing society to acknowledge its need, emerges out of an often reluctant collaboration between the collective and the private. The actions as well as the psychological configurations that result from this collaboration seem also to follow a kind of typical pattern… Whatever dissimilarities of detail emerge in their various accounts, certain elements seem always to be constant: parents who are absent or, if present, hostile; strained or combative relations between the heroic figure and the parents or their surrogates; a sense of specialness, of uniqueness, and also often of isolation developing within the hero in response to these particular circumstances of birth and early life; the undertaking of a journey-literal or symbolic or both-as an attempt by the hero to put distance between the self and the opposing society or set of conflicts and to develop the self in isolation from society; the endurance of trials and tests of both physical and psychological strength, including, typically, an encounter with death itself; a return from this journey, marked, if the hero is successful, by a capacity to harmonize the reborn and fully developed self with an altered social order or, if the quest has failed, by a concomitant failure to affect changes in one or both of these terms” (Edwards, Lee R. “The Labors of Psyche: Toward a Theory of Female Heroism.” Critical Inquiry 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1979): 34).
Many of these criteria apply specifically to classical or folk heroes: Hercules, for example, has a divine parent and undertakes a symbolic journey in the form of his twelve labors. Achilles must decide whether or not he wishes to accept his destiny as the world’s greatest warrior. But some of these characteristics have survived into the modern era and to some extent, they are present or adapted in the stories of contemporary heroes: Superman’s alien origins are mysterious, and he has a sense of specialness from a young age due to his powers.
But Merriam-Webster also offers another definition: “hero, noun. A) the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work; b) the central figure in an event, period, or movement.” It seems that male characters simply need to be at the center of a narrative (whether fictional or historical) in order to be considered heroic. No special powers are required or crises of identity. No special feats or journeys, literal or symbolic. Instead, heroism is the male experience of the world. Powers or divine origins are just a bonus.
Feminist criticism hasn’t missed this tendency to view “male” as the default gender, tempering everyday experiences and expectations, heroic or not. Men are rarely treated as gendered beings, and so their outlook on life and the world are accepted as baseline, with “female” genders and experiences being treated as the derivative. Simone de Beauvoir writes in her landmark book, The Second Sex, the level that language plays in shaping gender categories (at least in French) and the history of gender in philosophical thought:
“The relation of the two sexes is not that of two electrical poles: the man represents both the positive and the neuter to such an extent that in French hommes designates human beings, the particular meaning of the word vir being assimilated into the general meaning of the word ‘homo.’ Woman is the negative, to such a point that any determination is imputed to her as a limitation, without reciprocity… Woman has ovaries and a uterus; such are the particular conditions that lock her in her subjectivity; some even say she thinks with her hormones. Man vainly forgets that his anatomy also includes hormones and testicles. He grasps his body as a direct and normal link with the world that he believes he apprehends in all objectivity, whereas he considers woman’s body an obstacle, a prison, burdened by everything that particularizes it. ‘The female is female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities,’ Aristotle said. ‘We should regard women’s nature as suffering from natural defectiveness.’ And Saint Thomas in his turn decreed that woman was an ‘incomplete man,’ an ‘incidental’ being… ‘Woman, the relative being,’ writes Michelet. Thus Monsieur Benda declares in Le rapport d’Uriel (Uriel’s Report): ‘A man’s body has meaning by itself, disregarding the body of the woman, whereas the woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male. Man thinks himself without woman. Woman does not think herself without man.’ And she is nothing other than what man decides; she is thus called ‘the sex,’ meaning that the male sees her essentially as a sexed being; for him she is sex, so she is it in the absolute. She is determined and differentiated in relation to man, while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated by Constance Borde and Shiela Malovany-Chevalier. (New York: Vintage Books, 2009): 25-26).
If society is built on the idea that man is the center of all experience, as de Beauvoir criticizes, the hero becomes just another male gendered model with female heroines becoming “derivative” by their very existence. Resources and blogs such as Epic Heroism for the 21st Century: a Multimedia Web Resource has “the female hero” listed as its own category. Epic Heroism’s page for female heroism lists the following definition as its criteria: “The Female Hero is classified first by her gender. She can also fit into other paradigms like the Righteous Avenger, Savior Martyr, Underdog, Orphan, Genius, and the Ordinary Hero” (my emphasis). As evidenced here, female heroism is set apart from other kinds of heroism by gender before it can “fit into” pre-existing paradigms, which are presumably male by default.
However, nowhere in Edwards’ overview of folkloric models does the author use a male pronoun to describe the hero. Edwards’ overview is genderless, which suggests that the classic paradigm can theoretically apply to persons of any gender, not just men. So how does heroism become something which is primarily focused on male experience? On the one hand, if we look at the characters as people, it’s clear that throughout history, men have typically had more opportunities to follow the hero’s journey than women. But we’re dealing with fiction much of the time, and fiction doesn’t have to be constrained by realism. In thinking about the ways in which audiences receive heroes and the qualities on which they focus, Edwards writes about society’s tendency to become caught up less on the ways in which a hero engages with the world around him or her and more on qualities which are desirable in a particular culture in general. Edwards argues:
“The hero, then, exists as a particular kind of character involved in a particular set of actions with a particular relationship to a social and metaphysical universe. Existing within these controlling matrices, the hero is defined by them rather than by any of the more obvious qualities of authority such as sex, class, economic position, physical strength, or military prowess that we more usually count as such definers. Our common apprehension of the hero tends to focus disproportionate attention on these singular traits and fails thereby to see their importance as part of a larger controlling pattern. We thus define the hero typically-and, I believe, mistakenly-as a strong man, highly born and wealthy, whose principal concern is the acquisition of power, and who acquires this sovereignty directly as the result of some combination of cunning and brute force” (Edwards, “The Labors of Psyche,“ 35).
Personally, I like Edwards’ assessment over the Merriam-Webster definition of heroism as it helps us avoid falling into binaries. If we assume a hero is a character which possesses admirable qualities, as the dictionary suggests, men and women are bound to be separated based on what is “admirable” for each gender (despite how far we’ve come in rejecting those stereotypes). Male heroes are still, on the whole, rich (or at least not poor) and white and adept at combat (your Batmen, your Tony Starks, etc.) while female heroines are attractive and nurturing while they may or may not imitate the things that make male heroes appealing. By focusing on qualities that are reflective of society’s superficial values rather than deeper, intangible ones, “hero” becomes a definition plagued by characteristics that can only be achieved by certain people – mostly rich straight white men. Heroes can only be the cream of the crop rather than the everyman (or everywoman).
If, however, we avoid separating heroism in terms of gender and instead focus on characteristics that “forc[e] society to acknowledge its need” then the heroic experience is de-gendered and specific qualities (sex, class, economic position, physical strength, or military prowess) are secondary characteristics that simply allow for variety in characterization rather than icons of heroism themselves. The “needs” also are forced to be more universal – the best heroes tend to address more abstract needs like justice and acceptance rather than physical ones like wealth and power. Heroes who “force society to acknowledge its need” do so by challenging the pitfalls of society rather than people’s individual betterment. (My colleague/friend calls this a “Robin Hood” hero – one that attempts to change society at its roots. Robin Hood, while he stole money from the rich and redistributed it to the poor, called attention to the ways in which the monarchy was corrupt. The goal is to revolutionize the whole system rather than make quick fixes.)
Take the example of Steve Rogers (Captain America). Few fans would argue that Steve’s heroism stems from his physical prowess. Despite the fact that he is genetically enhanced to become a super soldier, audiences admire Cap for his ability to stand up for what is right rather than his ability to punch as many people as possible. This is especially apparent in Captain America: Civil War when Steve chooses personal loyalty over government control, freedom and morality over surveillance and restriction. It’s not presented as an easy choice, and it’s true that Steve is admired for qualities our culture deems as desirable or admirable (loyalty, courage, integrity, etc. but none of these are tangible). More than that, Captain America’s greatest moments occur when he makes decisions that resonate with our modern social and political climate. When Cap rejects the Sokovia Accords, he at once has to navigate the collective and the private (his feelings for Bucky, his belief in government oversight as a whole) while also calling into question our culture’s tendency to treat people as objects or weapons (through Wanda we can draw parallels with modern-day proposals for Muslim registries). I could go on about Cap’s history (especially in WWII when the cover depicting Cap punching Hitler made a jarring political statement that, for the time, was less popular than we’d like to think), but making hard choices that go against political norms is what makes Captain America one of the USA’s most beloved superheroes, not his status as a super soldier.
Batman, arguably another one of the USA’s most beloved heroes, also follows this model, but only in certain adaptations. The Christopher Nolan films, I’d argue, focus more on traditional masculine heroism, highlighting Bruce Wayne’s wealth and fighting skills more so than his animated series or comics counterparts. The films are dark and gritty, which themselves aren’t bad things – but as DC moves forward in trying to recapture the success of the Nolan trilogy, the studio has pushed for films that look to be ever-focused on grit and violence rather than the way in which Batman uses his privilege to change Gotham at its roots (though to be fair, the Nolan films do offer glimpses of the hero we love – his avoidance of guns, his willingness to take the fall at the end of The Dark Knight, etc.). The more heroic versions of Batman, I suggest, are the ones in which he addresses the corruption of Gotham without punching his way through a bunch of goons (however satisfying the choreography may be). His sense of real justice and selflessness draw audiences to him, not just his fighting style and costume. He may be gruff and insist that he “works alone,” but underneath this emotionless masculinity, Batman shows a remarkable amount of compassion in the way he handles villains and takes on sidekicks. Take Batman: the Animated Series, for example. Batman has numerous opportunities to fight evil, but we also see Bruce showing compassion to those who are victims of mental illness and inequality. He understands when evil is evil versus when bad behavior comes from factors that aren’t the fault of the one transgressing society’s rules. Such compassion works against single-minded thinking that criminals need to be punished rather than understood (which could touch on issues of prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation).
While I’ve given the above examples of Captain America and Batman, those models are male. For the de-gendered definition of heroism to work, it must apply to women as well.
Audiences are frustrated when female heroines try to imitate the violent masculine heroism that, as Edwards has argued, is less a marker of “heroism” and more a distraction. For these reasons, the “action chick” is rejected and “warrior women” can waver depending on what other qualities the heroine possesses. In the attempts to differentiate female heroines, creators often make women polar opposites of traditional male heroes, and arguments as to whether non-violent, diplomatic, and “girly” characters can be considered heroines with their own agency or stereotypes spring up as a result.
Wonder Woman, for example, seems to follow the archetypal “warrior woman” mold, but her popularity and iconicness stems less from her martial prowess and more from her compassion. Wonder Woman’s origins show her rooted in a culture where women form communities and support one another, thereby highlighting pop culture’s reluctance to value female relationships and the default option of having heroes use violence to achieve their goals. Gloria Steinman writes in an essay,
“Wonder Woman’s family of Amazons on Paradise Island, her band of college girls in America, and her efforts to save individual women are all welcome examples of women working together and caring about each other’s welfare. The idea of such cooperation may not seem particularly revolutionary to the male reader. Men are routinely depicted as working well together, but women know how rare and therefore exhilarating the idea of sisterhood really is. Wonder Woman’s mother, Queen Hippolyte, offers yet another welcome example to young girls in search of a strong identity. Queen Hippolyte founds nations, wages war to protect Paradise Island, and sends her daughter off to fight the forces of evil in the world… Wonder Woman symbolizes many of the values of the women’s culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment both of ‘masculine’ aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts” (Steinem, Gloria. Wonder Woman. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 1974. Quoted here.)
It is perhaps due to Wonder Woman’s value of human life that she was used in health awareness campaigns, particularly in raising AIDS awareness, and even today with arguments for and against the valuing of certain lives over others, Wonder Woman’s compassion highlights the need for ending violence and privileging acceptance.
This is not to say that Wonder Woman can’t have some badass fight choreography. There’s definitely a sense of pleasure that occurs when we see Diana pinning Bruce to the ground under her foot or using her lasso to disarm her opponents. But Wonder Woman’s most badass moments are when she uses her strength to stop violence rather than incite it. In The Hiketeia, for example, Diana demonstrates her ability to take Batman in a fight, but all her efforts are in the attempt to honor her oath to protect a woman from Batman (despite the woman’s involvement in crime). Her heroism, then, is less due to the fact that she’s a woman who can fight – rather, her heroism lies in using her strength and martial prowess to save lives.
Female heroes (and heroes of color) occupy an interesting space, moreover, in that they can use identity markers to their advantage in ways that archetypal male heroes cannot. When heroines use identity (sex, class, economic position, physical strength, or military prowess) to expose a need in society, the heroine is more successful than if any of these qualities are the point in themselves. Kamala Khan, for example, is heroic in that she is a derivative from the norm. While previous female heroes have been, on the whole, white and either non-religious or Christian, Kamala’s heroism stems primarily from her participation in a world which has excluded her. Her status as a Muslim girl whose culture is a combination of American and Pakistani elements highlights Western pop culture’s starvation for diverse voices and the tendency to privilege perspectives that are deemed “universal” (i.e. male and white). She draws strength from her family and the Quran, the latter of which is stereotypically judged as “promoting violence,” but which she uses to inspire herself to save and protect individual people (rather than the whole world). Kamala’s story also attacks Western culture’s beauty standards and the devaluing of the millennial generation by having her reject the opportunity to remake herself in the image of her idol, Carol Danvers, and shamelessly embrace activities that older critics tend to mock – texting, writing fanfiction, etc. Her confidence in being what society tells her isn’t the ideal (especially when Islamophobia is rampant) is what makes her so revolutionary, not the fact that she can shape shift.
Identity markers fall apart, however, when female heroes challenge nothing. To return to the idea of the “action chick” – creators who expect audiences to be satisfied with women based solely on their gender tend to receive a lot of criticism. The “action chick” may be a female character, but when she, as an attractive female, embraces her sexuality while insisting she’s “not like other girls,” audiences can see that she only underscores the value placed on beauty standards and Western culture’s not-so-subtle misogyny. This is not to say that women who engage in action violence are not heroes; rather, it isn’t enough to expect audiences to be satisfied with characters who wholly embrace negative societal values and call them “heroes.”
It’s also worth mentioning that men can be proud of their gender identity in ways that deviate from the norm. While men priding themselves on their masculinity is a given in pop culture, much less privileged is the pride lgbt+ individuals take in their sexuality. LGBT+ men can have gay pride despite being men, while straight men can also embrace a kind of masculinity that is non-threatening and non-violent (which also deviates from the norm). I bring this up to avoid suggesting that Kamala’s embrace of her identity is unique to her because society devalues women or that only women can take pride in themselves in a way that is revolutionary.
Neither Wonder Woman’s nor Kamala’s heroism is dependent on their gender. Wonder Woman’s compassion and valuing of human life isn’t a uniquely feminine trait, though pop culture likes to force a binary between men/violence and women/non-violence. Likewise, Kamala’s confidence in herself, while revolutionary for a culture that profits off of women’s insecurity, promotes acceptance of people of all cultures. Their heroism shifts the focus from a male-centric worldview to one that seeks to challenge contemporary paradigms and acknowledge “the needs of society,” whether those needs are openly acknowledged or not.
“Female heroism,” therefore, is not fundamentally different from “male heroism.” Rather, the trappings of masculinity that pop culture tends to prize are mistakenly conflated with “heroism.” This is not to say that feminine qualities can’t be revolutionary or that women, by being socialized differently than men or experiencing the world differently than men, don’t have approaches to heroism than men typically do not perform, but essentializing female experience disallows a variety of female heroines. By insisting that women perform a type of heroism that is in all ways different from the ways men perform heroism, we insist on a binary that doesn’t exist.