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Superpowers for girls?

Jesse QuickNow here’s a concept I haven’t given much thought to.

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?


47 comments for “Superpowers for girls?

  1. July 29, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Amber Love you specifically might have thoughts here.

  2. July 29, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    The same concepts translate to the “Fighting” genre for video games. Almost all the women are extremely quick and agile/acrobatic where all the men are strong and slower.

    1. July 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

      yes. I’d definitely say that’s true there as well. And there’s certainly cross influence (in both directions) from fighting games to comic books.

  3. July 29, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Tbh the only female speedster in the MU that I can think of is a recent character in the Squadron Supreme.

    1. July 29, 2016 at 12:54 pm

      Ah yes you covered Spitfire, a minor character at best.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Superspeed is more common in the DC universe than Marvel. But off the top of my head, Northstar and Aurora are probably the most prominent after Quicksilver.

      Unless you count Whirlwind power characters…Which is sort of super speed but not.

    3. July 29, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      I can never remember. Does Aurora have super speed without her brother present?

    4. July 29, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Michael: Yes. They had additional powers when they touched in an earlier incarnation.

    5. July 29, 2016 at 12:58 pm

      Yeah, they originally had the additional power to generate light when they touched. Then it changed so she had the light power alone and when they touched they lost their powers.

    6. July 29, 2016 at 4:23 pm

      The other one I know of is Blitzen from Milestone (Keith says, with the obligatory Milestone reference from Keith).

  4. July 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm

    I don’t specifically think that superspeed is gendered, but I agree that female superspeedsters are not all that well known, even though they exist (Liberty Belle, Supergirl, Power Girl, and Iris West in DC, and Aurora in Marvel). Maybe it’s just an artifact of the general prominence given to male superheroes?

    1. July 29, 2016 at 12:52 pm

      But Aurora is more accurately a flier.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 12:54 pm

      I should clarify that I am speaking of the second Liberty Belle, who inherited her speed powers from her father, and the name and other powers from her mother, the original Liberty Belle.

      Which makes me realise that, of the four names I mentioned in the DC universe, two have inherited speed power from their fathers. So maybe… a bit more gendered that way?

    3. July 29, 2016 at 12:55 pm

      Peter: Apologies I assumed you were speaking of the character from Alpha Flight with that code name.

    4. July 29, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      I was, actually. But she does have superspeed, like her brother.

    5. July 29, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      He is talking about the second Liberty Belle who is also Jesse Quick, the character in the image for this post.

      Aurora (and Northstar) are specifically super speedsters. It’s just that Marvel seems to think that’s a boring power, so they can both also fly and they end up using that more. In effect though, their powers are pretty much exactly Jesse Quicks, only in DC she runs more often and in Marvel they fly more often.

    6. July 29, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Note that Aurora/Northstar are twins. just like Jai and Iris West. Apparently the twin brother and sister thing is somehow associated with superspeed…

    7. July 29, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      Bah, I stand corrected. Yeah Northstar and Aurora are both land speedsters too, but you basically never see that.

  5. July 29, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    Given the ratio of male superheroes to female superheroes, I think super speed closely matches that ratio. DC universe may skew a little male for super speed, but I think that is a result of the fact that the “Flash family” was expanded (a lot) primarily before comic book writers were making efforts to include female heroes in comic books. Admittedly, the only three speedsters I can name in Marvel are also male, but one is homosexual, which definitely had the stigma of feminine when the character was created.

    As for the other part of the question, I do think some powers definitely skew female. Psychic powers, for example, are primarily female, at least in Marvel. Professor X is the obvious big exception, but beyond that, I have trouble naming male psychics. Strife (not Cable due to technovirus) and Jason Wingarde are the only two that come to mind and the latter was turned female in later comics. As for women, Psylocke, Jean Grey (and clone), Emma Frost, Sage, the Cuckoos, etc.

    (Out of curiosity, how would you count Vixen? She often turns on super speed, but doesn’t have it innately.)

    1. July 29, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      Worth noting: Northstar was not established as gay when he was created. That was a detail added much later.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 12:58 pm

      Fair. However my analysis also ignored Aurora because I thought she was just flight and not super speed. So, my count would actually be four speedsters, one of which is female.

    3. July 29, 2016 at 1:19 pm

      I’m curious who the 3(well now 4) you thought of were.

      And yes, I’d definitely say mental powers skew female.

    4. July 29, 2016 at 1:26 pm

      Quicksilver, Northstar, Whizzer (and now Aurora). I can only name Whizzer because of one five episode arc in the 90s Spider-Man series.

    5. July 29, 2016 at 2:28 pm

      Oh. I missed the last question before. I would NOT count Vixen as a speedster. Not just because the power is incidental and not permanent, but more importantly because it’s not super speed in the same way. Its like I was saying about Spider-Man and the Beast. When she is running like a cheetah she is faster than regular people, buts she’s not fast in the same super way that Flash or Quicksilver is. Her power is mimicking an animal that is faster than people should be but physically possible. Their power is to exceed typical abilities beyond the limits of physics and thermodynamics.

  6. July 29, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    My first thought was about the Fantastics and invisibility.
    I can’t easily think of characters off the top of my head, but I think it would have interesting implications if true. Does invisibility skew female.

    1. July 29, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      If you count intangibility as invisibility (Kitty Pryde), I’d say pretty definitely yes.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 1:20 pm

      Yeah. I think defensive powers in general skew feminine. So invisibility, intangibility, force fields.

  7. July 29, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Just did some research. Also in Marvel comics: Surge and Speed. Along with the others mentioned, that is pretty much the super speedsters of the Marvel universe.

    1. July 29, 2016 at 1:24 pm

      Yeah. The problem with that is that it counts all “faster than normal people” characters.

      So while Spider-Man and Beast are “faster than humans” I wouldn’t consider them super speedsters like I would Flash or Quicksilver. More like Usain Bolt.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 1:25 pm

      Yup, or maybe a bit faster. Still superhuman, but not really what we think of when we think of “superspeed”.

  8. July 29, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    I think I read that book before. To me, there are some powers that are definitely gendered. You don’t often see bodies that aren’t sexy in women. Like why doesn’t She Hulk look ugly af like the Hulk? But there’s one, idk her name, that’s a female version of Ben Grimm. But her head doesn’t get deformed and stays pretty with an ugly body. So if they are going to give “rock” hard skin, it has to be visually sexy and feminine like Emma Frost. As for speedsters, that may change with the new show and movies. There are a lot of Flash characters besides The Flash and I didn’t know about them as a kid. I knew one guy, in a red suit, the end. I personally don’t see speed as masculine though. Archers are gender neutral. Firearms are too nowadays but I’m sure if you examine the sheer volume of male characters there are way more gun guys than gals because of military themes. Plants also seem feminine with a Mother Earth/Nature theme. Even Terra doesn’t become rock, she moves earth. 🙂

    1. July 29, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Yeah. It’s a good book. I had read most of it before but not all. So now I’m finishing it up.

      There is basically a whole chapter about she hulk and her masculine femininity as it corresponds to her sexuality earlier in the book.

      The female thing is Sharon Carter aka Ms. Marvel (another one) aka She-Thing.

      And plant control! That’s a good one. I mean mostly it’s probably associated with just one character (Poison Ivy) but I’d definitely say it’s coded as feminine.

      1. July 29, 2016 at 8:56 pm

        I think Amber is referring to Darla Deering.

        1. July 29, 2016 at 7:15 pm

          Yeah. Pretty sure that’s what she meant.

    2. July 29, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      As does Groot and Black Tom. Of course, object all they want, you are probably right, since the other major mainstream example of plant powers is this gal:

    3. July 29, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Sharon Ventura, not Carter.

      Also, I think Amber is referring to Darla Deering from the Fraction run. She uses the “Thing Rings” which summon a Thing Exoskeleton that Ben Grimm used when he lost his Thing powers/rock body. (I’m writing Thing so much that even I’m getting confused.) Instead of wearing a Thing Headpiece (which there is) she opted for some kind of “Invisible Bubble” technology similar to Sue’s force fields.

    4. July 29, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Ah yes. Ventura. Brain fart.

      And yeah, she must mean deering. I missed the part about the pretty head. But Ventura becomes a more interesting case since she actually does get ugly.

    5. July 30, 2016 at 2:05 am

      That’s it! Thanks Brandon Link Copp-Millward

  9. July 29, 2016 at 3:01 pm

  10. August 1, 2016 at 6:35 am

    Mike touched on this above but I definitely think it’s worth mentioning again. Mental powers were definitely the first thing that came to my mind when I thought of a type of power with a skewed gender distribution, far more so than I can think of for any other power. There are certainly a handful of notable and less notable exceptions, but by far powers such as telepathy, telekinesis, emotion based powers, precognition, etc. are far more common in women. Even powers such as Armor’s armor are often explained as having some kind of mental or emotional power behind them.

    I did find it interesting however that they changed Negasonic’s power set for the Deadpool movie, effectively giving her Nitro’s powers and removing her psychic gifts. Of course Tim Miller has stated they chose to include her exclusively based on her name, so my guess is that was less intentional and more a result of the movie’s creative team deciding someone with that name needs an appropriately flashier power.

    1. August 1, 2016 at 7:16 am

      Certainly that appears to be standard. There is probably some vestige the classic “team makeup” system that caused that.

      In the long long ago, girls didn’t have their own superhero books. They were mostly part of teams that were aimed at boys. The makeup of a team is as follows:

      • The leader,

      • The strong guy, The cool guy, The funny guy, The smart guy (choose any 3, of the 4… if you want all four, make the leader a smart guy)

      • The chick who dates the leader (or maybe is torn between dating the cool guy and dating the leader, but ultimately we know she’s going to end up with the leader)

      Since the chick’s ultimate goal is to fall in love, her powers are often tied to her emotions. They can go out of control whenever she is emotionally confused etc.

      Formulaic storytelling at it’s best.

    2. August 1, 2016 at 8:46 am

      “Powers of Nitro”? I thought the Deadpool movie Negasonic had the powers of Cannonball?

    3. August 1, 2016 at 8:51 am

      Actually yeah, I was thinking Nitro because she creates explosions, but the way she propels things via explosion is very Cannonball-esque as well.

    4. August 1, 2016 at 8:52 am

      It’s a small difference, anyway.

    5. August 1, 2016 at 8:52 am

      They’re kinda vaguely defined and exist purely in a “what does the plot need here?” kinda way.

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