People who follow my Goodreads updates might have noticed that I’ve been spending this summer reading a lot of academic theory books on comics and superheroes. I’m currently reading The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid. Good book very insightful and very accessible even to non-academics. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in theories of female representation in superhero comics and I almost kind of wish that I had included it as a text book for the class I am teaching this fall.
Anyway, Madrid makes an interesting observation towards the end of the book:
There are a multitude of fleet-footed men in comic books—Flash, Kid Flash, Whizzer, Quicksilver, Max Mercury, Johnny Quick, Silver Streak, Speed. Very few women have this power. Spitfire, Jesse Quick, Doc Rocket, and XS to name a very few. Women apparently look better standing still than running. (Madrid 292)
I’m trying to decide if that’s true or not. I’ve never considered supers speed to be encoded as a particularly male power. That is to say, I agree that there are fewer female speedsters in superhero comics than there are males, But, female super characters are underrepresented in comics in general. There’s fewer of EVERY type of superpower. At least that’s been my experience. So my first question is, does it seem to comic book fans as though there is a smaller representation of women with super speed than there is with super strength… or flight… or eye beams… you know, whatever?
That also got me wondering to what extent people think of super powers as gendered. Some of them almost definitely are. For instance, I’d say super strength is almost certainly gendered as a masculine power in comics. Certainly there are female exceptions, but they certainly seem rarer than the already skewed representation of female characters, and in the occasions where a female character does have super strength there’s often explicit references that explain and justify it as either an exception to her femininity (Wonder Woman’s strength coming from magic and not her physique) or a requirement for her masculinization (She-Hulk). This may be changing. I can certainly think of more super strong female characters from the last 20-30 years of comics than I can from the first 20-30 years.
By contrast, super agility seems to be somewhat gendered female, but not as explicitly. Women are often acrobats, probably because of some association with grace. Sure there are male exceptions, like Spiderman. But in general, I’d say that female characters are more likely to be presented as more agile than their male counterparts. This is especially obvious in partnered characters of similar power sets. It’s certainly never explicitly stated (or at least not often) but it FEELS like Wasp is quicker and more acrobatic than AntMan and certainly more so than he is in the GiantMan persona. And even with all of the male acrobat characters out there (Daredevil, Nightwing, etc) it just somehow “feels” like super agility is a natural power for a female character in a different way (Elektra being a good example here). In general, I think defensive powers may classically be coded as feminine – Force fields, for instance. And certainly emotional or intuitive powers.
On the other hand, flight doesn’t seem to be a gendered power at all. Some characters can just fly. It doesn’t seem like being male or female is more or less likely to grant you that ability.
So I’m wondering a couple things. First, does it feel like super speed is a gendered power (more so than normal)? Second, what other powers seem to fit the gendered representation and in which direction?