Thursday, August 4, 2016

Out of the Shadow of the Superhero

Comic books, like television, are a generally conservative entertainment medium, reflecting social change only after it’s taken hold in the culture at large. That makes it interesting to track the course of women’s rights in comics from the 1940s into the second decade of the 21st century.
Mary Marvel, Bulletgirl, Miss America, Namora, Golden Girl, Doll Girl, Batwoman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Superwoman, Aquagirl, Miss Arrowette, Fly Girl, Hawkgirl, Power Girl, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, even She-Hulk … the female knock-off version of the dominant male superhero was a venerable tradition, one that paradoxically paralleled American society’s growing recognition of female power even as it kind of condescended to the idea.
Take Fly Girl, for example. Introduced in Adventures of the Fly 13 (July 1961) as a traditional damsel in distress, actress Kim Brand didn’t play that role for long. In Adventures of the Fly 14 (September 1961), she was granted a magic ring by extradimensional emissary Turan that enabled her to duplicate the powers of attorney Thomas Troy, the Fly. She co-starred with him thereafter while appearing in solo stories in the Archie comics Laugh and Pep.
The trend even continued outside comics, with Six Million Dollar Men spawning Bionic Women.
Those female copies sometimes served as guinea pigs, trial balloons for plot developments that would later be visited on the more established male hero. Supergirl was “killed” before Superman, and Batgirl was physically disabled before Batman.
The 1979 movie Alien featured a female lead besting a space predator after her male crewmates had failed. And Joss Whedon’s innovative 1997 TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked a shift in the culture, featuring a no-nonsense superheroine in the lead who had copied no one, and whose adventures balanced the traditionally male mission of monster hunting with traditional female concerns about high school relationships.
And the permanent cultural shift that has taken place is even more apparent now. Hawkgirl, for example, has effectively supplanted her former mentor Hawkman, and Thor’s original love interest, Jane Foster, gained the powers, the hammer and the status of the thunder god.

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