Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Black Cat, Sue Storm, and Jean Grey. Your typical female superheroes, right? Not so much. I did a quick search of my library and on the internet and learned a very interesting fact; there are only three superheroines in the legends and myths – Atalanta, Caenis, and a warrior from the Mahabharata. Atalanta and the Mahabharata heroine refused to marry, and when they were finally forced to both women lost their martial abilities. Caenis was raped by a god and asked in return to be made a man. Caenis, or Caeneus, is a good symbol for all three women. To be considered a superhero, a woman traditionally had to give up being a woman altogether.
Not so with the comic book genre. Wonder Woman was created in 1942, and in that very same issue she fell in love with Steve Trevor. The feelings were returned, and the couple have carried on a romantic relationship. In the 1960s and 1970s the Invisible Woman and Jean Grey were similarly able to have marriages, with both women eventually marrying. Interestingly, in all three cases the women were more powerful than their mates.
Batgirl, Supergirl, and Black Cat have all had more complicated romances, but they have had relationships. And in no case have they lost their powers because of the fact that they were allowing themselves to love. With these women, too, they have been more powerful than most of their romantic interests.
In this regard, the development of the superheroine has been a tremendous step forward for women. That a woman could have both her full abilities and a romantic partner would have been unthinkable before the twentieth century. The functional fixedness of women’s perception; as either intelligent and forceful or a wife and mother was ingrained not just into the public’s thoughts of their heroines but of society’s thinking toward women in general.
That a woman could be more powerful than her man would have been unthinkable up until the last few decades. In our society, the thought that a woman could be better, at anything, than a man continues to be an issue. I just watched Hancock again, and there is a scene where Charlize Theron asks her husband to open a bottle she is having trouble with. It’s silly, and I laughed at the irony. But the scene is so honest it’s also frightening.
With all the advances being made, there is still one point in which women are well behind the men – intelligence. Mr. Fantastic’s powers are no match for his wife, but he is a powerful mutant in his own right. On the other hand, he is possibly the smartest human in the Marvel universe while the Invisible Woman was a model before she became part of the Fantastic Four. His brains are why he is the team leader. Similarly Cyclops is generally portrayed as more intelligent than the more powerful Jean Grey and he is the field leader of the X-Men. Wonder Woman defers to Steve, despite the fact that she is supposed to be more intelligent than him. Supergirl is the immature cousin of Superman. Black Cat is the ethically challenged sometime partner of Spider-Man. Batgirl only became intelligent when she was crippled. Comic heroines have moved perceptions of women well beyond their mythological role models but they still have some distance to go.