By Nicholas Ray, Worcester State University
Ever notice how the majority of superheroes in DC Comics are white, heterosexual, hyper-violent American males? According to Julianna Aucoin, author of The Superhero Diversity Problem,
“aside from their popularity, superhero movies enforce cultural and moral norms. When Superman explains to Lois Lane that he stands ‘for truth, justice, and the American way’ in the 1978 film Superman, his famous line asserts that his identity is intrinsically connected to America. …The phrase ‘American way’ implies a way of thinking. By protecting the “American way,” Superman conserves American ideology. This 1978 film, the first widely popular superhero movie, established for film audiences that superheroes are American symbols who reflect idealized American citizens” (Aucoin, 2015).
Not only does this kind of symbolism create a eurocentric idealism of superheroes, it also creates the stigma of non-American characters as un-heroic. So why do representations of superheroes matter? According to Justin Martin, “… superheroes influence children’s development of moral values. Similarly, Bauer and Dettore advocated adults’ and educators’ monitoring of children’s superhero play to help children foster cooperation and conflict resolution skills” (Martin, 2008). Given the growing production and reception of superheroes in corporate media franchises, and their impact on children, it is important for increased character diversity to emerge. Fortunately, there are four DC Comics superheroes that can be useful in helping children, teens, and even adults develop moral values and conflict resolution while assessing representations of diversity. Namely, they are SuperGirl, Martian Manhunter, Agent Alex Danvers, and Cyborg.
Given the male domination of superhero characters, it’s especially important to diversify representations of women and girls within the superhero genre. SuperGirl is a positive role model for women because “the ascribed and acquired roles that women typically held post-WWII through the sixties, such as wife, mother and secretary, are nearly duplicated in comic books. The Rosie the Riveter era gave us women who could handle, ‘men’s work’ (Dunne, 2006). Just like Rosie the Riveter, SuperGirl emerges as a strong figure in a television show. Like her cousin Superman, she is equally capable of saving people. When male characters beckon her to “just kill the bad guy,”—an expedient ploy in most action movies—, SuperGirl replies, “ there is always another way.” In addition to countering violence as the only means of power, female superheroes must also challenge the over-sexualization that comes with their inclusion in film. Most female superheroes “…while physically powerful, are primarily sexual figures…The nature of their fighting leans heavily on sexuality. Mystique often chokes people with her legs, and the Black Widow wraps her thighs around bad guys’ necks” (Aucoin, 2015). Although most female superheroes are depicted with revealing costumes in comics, including SuperGirl, the television show provides a more modest costume fit for a superhero instead of a cover girl for Playboy. In one episode, when SuperGirl tries on a revealing costume, her best friend (played by the African American superhero Guardian) questions why on earth she would want to wear something skimpy.
Fittingly, SuperGirl’s physical strength is exemplified and shown to be equal to those of Superman. However, just as her identity is reduced to being a Super “Girl” rather than Super “Woman,” the first season of the program conforms to traditional gender narratives through romantic interests more typical of a lovestruck teen than a twenty year old journalist and superhero. Luckily, this shortcoming has been modified in more recent season, with SuperGirl concerned about the ethics of being a superhero as she contemplates the moral outcomes of her decisions. Although she has a new love interest, the gender roles are reversed with her male companion serving as the damsel in distress. Among her powers, SuperGirl uses her intellect, wit, and rhetorical persuasiveness to help free her city from the mind control of a villain who uses technology to control the people. She admirably appeals to her people with powerful words:
“We have been attacked. Mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, children, everyone, suddenly stopped by a force of evil as great as this world has ever known. Your attacker has sought to take your free will. Your individuality. Your spirit. Everything that makes you who you are. When facing an attack like this, it’s easy to feel hopeless. We retreat, we lose our strength, we lose ourselves. I know. I lost everything when I was young. When I first landed on this planet, I was sad and alone. But I found out that there is so much love in this world, out there for the taking. And you, the people of National City, you helped me. You let me be who I’m meant to be. You gave me back to myself. You made me stronger than I ever thought possible, and I love you for that. Now, in each and every one of you, there is a light, a spirit that cannot be snuffed out. That won’t give up. I need your help again. I need you to hope. Hope… that you will remember that you can all be heroes. Hope… that when faced with an enemy determined to destroy your spirit, you will fight back and thrive. Hope… that those who once may have shunned you will, in a moment of crisis, come to your aid. Hope… that you will see again the faces of those you love. And perhaps even those you’ve lost.” (Imdb, n.d.).
As such, SuperGirl opts for diplomacy instead of hyper violence to save the day.
For superhero fans, Martian Manhunter (MM) may not sound like a hero who would be a good influence on children and others alike, but in fact he has admirable qualities that make him a positive role model. His backstory is that he comes from the planet Mars, which has experienced ethno-racial segregation. As the story unfolds, we see that his race of green Martians were rounded up and put into hard labor camps by the superior white Martians. Martian Manhunter hides out on earth as a refugee and uses the disguise as a African American government official to avoid detection by the ruling class of white Martians on his planet. The depiction of MM is a step forward in that this character used to be portrayed as having a white male alter ego. What’s more, casting MM as a member of an oppressed race allows the superhero genre to address important social issues related to racial politics. For instance, MM declares, “people in this world don’t have much tolerance for others that look different. I say that as an alien and someone who’s worn the face of a black man for 15 years” (Imdb, n.d.).
Not only is Martian Manhunter an African American character, but he is also a hero with depth as he has a mental illness, namely post traumatic stress disorder. Typically, the hegemonic powers that influence action and superhero movies depict male characters as hyper violent men who show no emotion, and are consummate womanizers. This is in direct contrast to Martian Manhunter’s character, as his PTSD reveals his emotional side that relate to the loss of his family due to the genocide of his people on his former planet. He also defies the loner trope because he has Supergirl and Alex Davers by his side as a team of equals. Finally, he doesn’t engage in killings, not even in an act of revenge against the white Martian that killed his family.
Although character depictions like Martian Manhunter represents progress, “as superhero films progress, black characters remain in supporting roles. Characters like Avengers’ Nick Fury, Man of Steel’s Perry White, and Captain America: Winter Soldier’s Sam Wilson are an important part of the core group of characters, but they are never the leader” (Aucoin, 2015). There are times when race trumps gender in that Martian Manhunter, whom SuperGirl addresses as “Boss,” is in charge of the government program that aids her. Although an admirable friend, his role is patriarchial in that he is a fatherly figure to both SuperGirl and Alex Danvers. He will stop at nothing to protect them as the primary parental figure.
Agent Alex Danvers
For those seeking diversity of gender and sexuality, Agent Alex Danvers may be a contender. As Supergirl’s adoptive sister, Alex Danvers is a hero in her own right with skills that emanate from her military training. Moreover, she is a non-sexualized lesbian female hero. She is depicted as a hard working, independent woman who can hold her own by fighting against evil alongside other superheroes, such as SuperGirl and Martian Manhunter, whose lives she’s saved. Within the superhero genre, attempts to include LGBTQ characters have often been dominated by the ‘sexuality as choice’ trope: “The X-Men franchise uses the concept of mutation to stand as a metaphor for homosexuality. X-Men 2 features a mutant coming out scene in which Bobby’s mother asks “Have you tried not being a mutant?” This question echoes the conservative argument that being gay is a choice, and that you can “choose” not to be gay.”(Aucoin, 2015). So although much work remains to be done for LGBTQ representation among predominantly straight heroes, Agent Alex Danvers offers promise. After a realistic portrayal of a coming out story, her family and friends are supportive and treat her relationship with her interracial girlfriend the same way that they would treat any relationship.
Imagine a superhero who is both African American and disabled. Look no further than Cyborg. As a character, Cyborg imparts important lessons and morals that embolden individuals to defy setbacks and preoccupations of what other people think about them. Part machine, part human, he can interface with any technology—yet he works hard to retain his human qualities, claiming that the strongest part of him is his spirit that soars beyond mindless drones. Perhaps the biggest challenge to this progressive figure is the way he has been transformed into the minstrel character, one in which slapstick, and stereotypes of laziness, prevail. More recent cartoon episodes have him obsessed with television, to the point where he tells children that they will become zombies if they don’t watch TV. Likewise, progress in the live action movie was short-lived, as Cyborg was cancelled ” due to budget cuts.”
Although there is promise for the diversification of superhero characters that appeal to multifaceted audiences, the superhero genre remains a work in progress. In addition to enlightened depictions of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, etc., plots and narrative structures need enhancement. Just imagine the impact that diverse screen roles and plots would have on children’s development and self-esteem! In the words of the actor Victor Garber who plays the older half of the superhero Firestorm, “the very thing that makes you different is what makes you special.” Learning to analyze identity politics and representations through superheroes is not only enticing for contemporary viewers; it may be the means to defy conventions and capitalism within the commercialized comics franchise.
Aucoin, J. (2015). The Superhero Diversity Problem – Harvard Political Review. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://harvardpolitics.com/books-arts/superhero-diversity-problem/
Dunne, M. (2006) “The Representation of Women in Comic Books, Post WWII Through the Radical 60’s,” PSU McNair Scholars Online Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 20.
Martin, J. (2008, June 05). Journal of Moral Education. Retrieved November 22, 2016, from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03057240701325381
Quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2016, from http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5238972/quotes
Student Author: Nicholas Ray, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Dr. Julie Frechette, Professor and Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University.