The year was probably 1981, maybe 1982. I was four or five. We had just moved into a new house, the house where I would spend the rest of my childhood and that my mother just moved out of a couple of years ago. I wasn’t much help with the move (see “four or five”), so I was lying on my bed in the room I now shared with my younger sister (at the oldest, not even two), reading Electric Company magazine. My favourite part, in fact—the Spider-Man comic. Peter and Mary Jane were spelunking, a new word to me that was explained by the comic. I think Peter taught it to MJ. Definitely, he taught her that you could tell the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, because stalactite had a “c” in it and was on the ceiling, and stalagmite had a “g” in it and was on the ground. That is my first superhero memory.
I have a lot more since. Hell, I’ve written whole novels about superheroes, which I swear I’m going to work to get published just any time now. Really. Last year, I saw four movies with superheroes in them in the theatres. My boyfriend and I bonded over superheroes, and the only reason we didn’t name our child after one is that we don’t really like most of their names. (And my boyfriend insists that Robin is a girl’s name.) No way we’d name our child Kal-El!
I also knew, almost from the time I was reading Spider-Man while we moved, that nobody expected me to like the genre. A lot of people I know talk about the toys of the ’80s as if there was some gender-neutral paradise, but trust me—there were definitely Girl Toys and Boy Toys, and superheroes were for boys.
I haven’t watched the leaked Supergirl pilot, because illegal, but I am given to understand there’s a conversation in it about the term “girl” that completely misses the point. By and large, if a male superhero has a gender-designating noun in his name, it’s “man.” A female gets “girl.” Oh, there are a few exceptions—I give you Aqualad—but the exceptions mostly just apply to sidekicks. And the women are almost all sidekicks. Sue Storm was the Invisible Girl until 1985, by which point she had been pregnant twice. It was only after the trauma surrounding her miscarriage that she got to be the Invisible Woman.
It’s a tough line to balance on, for a lot of us. The perhaps unintentional insult in “Supergirl” is not “girl” as an embrace of femininity. It’s that “girl” is a parallel to “man.” It’s not about being feminine or not; it’s about being infantalized. I will also talk at great length, if you let me, about the expectation that all these women be meeting masculine expectations of appearance and behaviour, as exemplified by all those catsuits and boob-windows and so forth. Fine; so Ms. Storm-Richards designs costumes as a hobby. Fine. Someone has to. In my own universe, there are people who do it for a living. But you know, her costumes never look all that comfortable to me. I can’t imagine dealing with a toddler in one of them, much less a toddler and threats to the Earth.
The new claim is that all those failed superhero movies with solo female leads are proof that the general public doesn’t want superhero movies with solo female leads. Never mind that I, for one, am nearly desperate for one, and I always thought I counted as part of the general public. The real issue is that they failed because they already weren’t being taken seriously, as is evidenced by their failures of quality and the lack of marketing.
Elektra, for one, you almost expect to turn out to have been made as a tax write-off. Daredevil didn’t do that bad, especially given its February release, which all but assumes that the movie will fail, but it didn’t do well enough that you’d expect an automatic sequel starring the female lead who, not to put too fine a point on it, dies at the end of Daredevil. And, Gods love her, Jennifer Garner is not that great of an actress, not someone I’d ask to take the role—and from what little I’ve seen of the movie, it doesn’t have all that much to do with the comic book character in the first place, so word of mouth would have killed it even with a better actress.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Helen Slater Supergirl, and I don’t remember as how it was all that bad, but it did come out after Superman III, not generally considered the best of the lot. I mean, better than if it came out after Superman IV, but yeah. I’m also not entirely sure it had great advertising, expecting us to just go see it because, hey, it’s a spin-off of Superman.
And the less said about Catwoman, the better; it doesn’t seem to have even as much to do with the character as Elektra does about its character.
So it turns out the public doesn’t go see terrible superhero movies, is the lesson those teach us. Which we could have worked out from quite a lot of terrible superheroes starring male characters. We even got more Spider-Man after Spider-Man 3, and nothing will ever kill the idea that we all want to see a lot of Wolverine. (As a comic book fan, I am used to this expectation, which has never been true for me even before Hugh Jackman got into the act.) Still, this has become another case of “true for one woman is true for all women.”
Wonder Woman is the most iconic female superhero, and she’s never gotten a theatrical release movie. The TV show lasted three seasons back in the ’70s, and she was one of the founding members of the animated Justice League, which I guess makes up for the fact that she was the secretary, back when they finally allowed her into the club in the comics. Hell, she’s gotten one solo animated film, and even Green Lantern has gotten two. And a theatrical release. We’re getting an Ant-Man movie first, if I may switch universes for a second.
Let us linger for a moment, indeed, on alternate universes. Goodness knows the comics are full of them. Somewhere, there’s a universe where Angie Harmon is playing She-Hulk. Where maybe Morena Baccarin is Wonder Woman. Emma Stone as Black Canary, maybe. There are casting options galore, though I will also argue passionately about open casting calls and how we should have more of those for these roles. A universe where not all the female superheroes wear costumes emphasizing every curve, perhaps. And I mean, can you imagine the emotional weight behind really telling the story of how Batgirl became Oracle? And instead, we got Birds of Prey.
And a world, maybe, where trying to think of a list of female characters didn’t involve sorting through a ton of sidekicks to try to get a single woman fighting on her own terms. The audience is there. I have been part of it as long as I can remember. I’m just waiting for the movies to catch up to me.