The Superpowered Patriarchy: Superhero Mania and the Subtle Mediation of Misogyny
By David Metcalfe
July 24, 2018
Superheroes Are Cool (As Long As You Don’t Read About Them)
I walk through Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue on a regular basis. There is nowhere else in the city that has such eclectic subcultural expression, and it provides a wonderful setting for ethnographic study; which is like finding buried treasure for a sociologist. In a one hour walk on a Friday evening, one will encounter zealous religious fanatics, drag queens, homeless people, potheads, academics, punk rockers, and of course, the beer drinking hockey fans with trimmed beards and flat brimmed hats (a staple of Edmonton culture). One such group is “comic book nerds”, whose natural habitat can be found in one of the comic book/game stores. Now, I don’t mean to make crude generalizations about comic book nerds… oh wait, yes, I do.
The juxtaposition of reality and fantasy is fierce in a comic book store. A picture of an excessively muscular, good looking, wealthy man who beats up criminals for a living is held by a scrawny nerd who works part-time at Dairy Queen. A green skinned alien with pronounced female secondary sexual characteristics is ogled by an overweight virgin whose dating history is summed up by a few unwelcome messages on Tinder. From a brief assessment of the typical clientele, I might suggest the store also sell deodorant and shampoo, but I suppose it would go unsold. After a few minutes in a comic book store, one might begin to make a connection between superheroes and nerds, but that would be missing the primary media expression of 21st century superheroes: the movies.
In Edmonton’s South Common, you won’t find the vast array of diverse subcultures achieving the manifestation of their peculiarities in socialization, business, and fashion. Far from it, in fact; South Common is where the predominant culture finds and lives out its stronghold. The parking lots are filled with slightly used Honda Civics and Ford F-150s. A group of high school kids wear “Aeropostale” t-shirts, respond to snapchats as they cross busy streets, and Instagram their vente moccachino lattes. A range of ages, mostly under 40, frequent the area to visit various restaurants, clubs, recreation, and the popular “Cineplex Odeon” movie theatre. South Common has no comic book store, but that doesn’t mean there are no superheroes around.
The “Cineplex Odeon” in South Common is overrun by superheroes. As you walk in the entrance, several large posters of muscular, superpowered humans are showcased. Upon entering, it is not uncommon to see a life-sized cardboard cut out of “Thor” or “Iron Man”. Even if you choose to see a non-superhero movie (which still does exist, I’m pretty sure), your popcorn bag will still have a picture of “Batman vs. Superman” on it, and you’ll still walk by a few kids with “Iron Man” masks and “Captain America” shields.
Superheroes are now extremely popular within nearly every age group, social class, and even gender. While the 80’s comics were bought primarily by teenage boys, the movies are consumed by a significantly more diverse demographic. A quick look at the highest grossing movies of all time reveals their popularity fairly clearly:
1) Avatar- 2.8 billion
2) Titanic- 2.2 billion
3) Star Wars: The Force Awakens- 2.1 billion
4) Avengers: Infinity War– 2 billion
5) Jurassic World- 1.7 billion
6) The Avengers– 1.5 billion
7) Furious 7- 1.5 billion
8) Avengers: Age of Ultron– 1.4 billion
9) Black Panther– 1.3 billion
10) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 2- 1.3 billion
(Box Office Mojo, 2018)
Continuing on, we find “Iron Man 3” in 15th place, “Captain America: Civil War” in 18th place, and “The Dark Knight Rises” in 23rd place. And although I’ve only highlighted the very obvious “Marvel” and “DC” branded superheroes, one could also make the case that “Star Wars”, “Harry Potter” and “Fast and Furious” also fulfill the superhero genre. In “Star Wars”, certain characters (Jedi and Sith) have abilities to perform telekinesis (obviously superhuman). In “Harry Potter”, certain characters can perform supernatural spells. The “Fast and Furious” series gets gradually more sensational as the movies progress, to the point where Vin Diesel would clearly be dead if not for his astounding abilities to resist injuries, predict potential road hazards intuitively, and perform a variety of leaps, bullet dodging, and absurd driving maneuvers. Superheroes now dominate the big screen, and are a centre point of modern American culture. And as long as you don’t read about them, liking superheroes is considered cool.
The Men Are Here To Save The Day (oh and women can help if they are sexy enough)
“The Avengers” features a bunch of superheroes, most notably “Iron Man”, “Captain America”, “Hulk”, “Nick Fury”, “Hawkeye” and “Black Widow”.
The “Guardians of the Galaxy” consists of “Star-Lord”, “Drax the Destroyer”, “Groot”, “Rocket”, and “Gamora”.
The “Justice League” consists of “Flash”, “Cyborg”, “Superman”, “Batman”, “Aquaman” and “Wonder Woman”.
The “Fantastic Four” consists of “Mr. Fantastic”, “The Thing”, “The Human Torch”, and “The Invisible Woman”.
Do you notice a pattern? Each one is a long list of men, with one woman at the end. And this woman just happens to be sexually attractive. It would seem that in addition to having superpowers, a woman needs to be sexy enough to make it on the team, and needs to showcase it through tight leather clothing and/or mini skirts. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Alba are clearly sexual icons, and Gal Gadot is quickly becoming one. Zoe Saldana is not far off as well.
The popular “Dark Knight Trilogy” follows suit. Batman fights against various male villains throughout the series, until it is interrupted by a very sexualized Anne Hathaway in a tight leather catsuit. Basically, men like to see a bunch of tough guys saving the day, but they want to have one girl to ogle and impress during that time.
My question is simple: if superhuman powers are caused by random events (by birth, mutation, alien species, etc.) why does one gender happen to receive powers 10x more than the other?
Gendered Judgements in the Physical Divide
Athletes are praised excessively in our society. Know how to perform life saving surgery? You’re a no name who makes a comfortable living. Know how to throw a ball through a circle? You’re a celebrity with millions of dollars. When I think of the greatest athletes of all time, my mind goes to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Wayne Gretzky, Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi, etc. And what (besides being great athletes) do these people all have in common? Yes, their gender.
Here’s an important concept for why superheroes and athletes are so favoured towards one gender. Imagine that we were to test the intelligence of students at a certain university campus. The intelligence test consists solely of science questions. The results come in, and it’s determined that science students are the most intelligent, and the arts students are the least intelligent.
We can see why that might be an incorrect assessment…
It’s generally been found that men have about twice the physical strength of women. They also have increased height, pain tolerance, and aggression (Chen, et al, 2012). These are obviously helpful when it comes to things like fighting and sports. Men are at an innate advantage to do well at these types of activities. In early hunter gatherer societies, men hunted while the women picked food and took care of the children. During war time in early civilizations (and even into modern ones), men fought in wars as soldiers while the women stayed behind to take care of the homeland. All throughout history, men have been the primary workers in intensive physical labor jobs.
In these early cultures, strength was seen as a virtue. Killing a large animal, defeating enemy soldiers, and lifting large items was an important part of survival. The social superiority of men seemed very natural in this state. However, our current, modernized society has moved away from many of these things. We have animal farms to provide us with food, we rarely engage in warfare, and most jobs do not demand high levels of physical labor, due to dramatic advancements in technology. Career and life success is now based more on intelligence and morality. If someone is intelligent, studies hard, follows the rules, and proves themselves, they can do really well (law school interviews do not typically require a max bench press test, for example).
Since women are equally intelligent to men, their potential for societal contribution is now equal, and thus their social status is recognized accordingly. Their morality is actually superior, exemplified most notably in the fact that men are at least 10x more likely to be incarcerated than women (Loesche, 2017), more likely to use narcotics and excessive alcohol (NIH, 2018), and obviously, their increased propensity for aggression does not bode well in the modern work and familial environment.
We now have an essentially equal society. Of course, we do still have bits of sexism in certain areas, but the predominant culture clearly believes that men and women ought to be treated equally. However, if we assess people’s value based on their physical capabilities, we end up shifting the gender dynamic to inherently favour men. This is what happens in sport and superheroes. We are returning to our more primitive, less civilized state, where physical prowess is held as a great virtue. Since women, on average, will be less successful at these things, we end up shifting social superiority towards men.
How Do We Fix This?
In “Star Wars”, the first six episodes clearly favour men. All of the heroes (Obi-Wan, Anakin, Luke, Yoda, etc.) and all of the villains (Palpatine, Vader, Maul, Duku, etc.) are male. Women are side characters with lesser abilities. The more recent movies attempt to change that, with Rey as the center of the plot. She is not sexualized like other female superheroes. There are also many female leaders in the rebellion, and one important villain, “Phasma”.
In the case of Rey, it makes sense that the force would not discriminate on gender, and could just as easily give Jedi powers to a woman as to a man. But since the superiority of Jedi and Sith is based on physical power, it is putting an innate gender bias towards men when translated to our real lives, where physical power does discriminate based on gender. One of the key battles of “Star Wars”, however, is the moral battle going on. When morality is placed as the center of the plot, the movie can actually favour women. This is exemplified in the way that Kylo Ren fails to control his anger, and becomes inescapably evil, while Rey’s propensity toward peace and temperance maintains her goodness. Focusing on the moral component in the plot can increase the potential for the social status of women.
And many movies are actually beginning to do more of this. “Black Panther”, “Civil War” and “Logan” presented moral qualms as central to the plot. They were clearly void of advanced intellect, but they still offered some problems that needed to be solved through a bit more brains mixed in with the bronze than has been typical of other superhero movies.
That’s the most important aspect of things in our potential to fix gender inequality. Just like how civilization developed away from things that favoured men and into things that provided more opportunity for equality, our movies need to move past primitive conceptions of physical strength and violence as virtue and into the increased value of intelligence and morality. It is in capturing the essence of human experience that the best movies are made, and there’s no discrimination in that.
Heroes have always been central to our beloved legends that attempt to capture the pinnacle of the human experience. From the Ancient Greek demi-gods to the Roman gladiators to Middle age Knights to our modern day, superpowered idols, the expression has changed, but the underlying concept has not. But with these conceptions of heroism come a subtle misogyny that tips the scales in favor of the innate abilities within men.
Just as society has advanced in many ways towards intelligence and morality, perhaps we could do the same in our conception of heroes. We could look to Mahadma Gandhi and Mother Teresa as heroes of virtue, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie as heroes of scientific advancement, Bertrand Russell and Simone Weil as heroes of social thought, and the many other men and women who have done wonderful things in the creation of the world we are so privileged to live in.
So yes, I’ll watch superhero movies to better understand the culture we live in, and I’ll try my best not to be too pretentious and sanctimonious in my criticisms of them, but personally, I’m going to cheer on the heroes who have real potential for social progress.
Box Office Mojo. (2018). All Time Box Office. Retrieved from https://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/
Chen, G., Liu, L., Yu, J. (2012). A comparative study on strength between American college male and female students in Caucasian and Asian populations. Sport Science Review. DOI: 10.2478/v10237-012-0015-5
Loesche, D. (2017). The Prison Gender Gap. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/chart/11573/gender-of-inmates-in-us-federal-prisons-and-general-population/
NIH. (2018). Sex and Gender Differences in Substance Use. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use