Superheroes have long embodied everything that young men and women of America aspire to be. From the strong, and brainy Peter Parker/Spiderman to the demi-god Thor, countless blockbusters and remakes of these heroes’ tales show America’s fascination with the concept of a hero saving society from itself. Yet amidst the flurry of science-experiment-gone-wrong-turned-beautiful-man-gone-right stories, there is a startling underrepresentation of the diversity of America’s population in the various leagues of justice that exist in the universes of Marvel and DC Comics. Even more so, in a general sense of superhero depictions, when women or minorities are featured, their roles are typically supportive at best or gross stereotypes of the various groups to which they belong.
Societies from ancient Egypt and Greece to modern day America have constructed tales of glory and gore, and at the centers of these epics are men who embody every desirable virtue, providing the masses with an aspirational moral goal. Superheroes, however, with their godlike powers, became popular with the rise of the comic age in the 1930s, when America needed strong role models to look to during the Great Depression. World War II provided a battleground on which superheroes were equipped to fight and save America. Captain America, on the cover of his first issue, was pictured punching Hitler in the jaw, complete, of course, with the compulsory star burst drawing of the pain that America was delivering to all those who opposed truth and justice.
Meanwhile, the women in these comics were portrayed as accessories. Tied up to train tracks, locked up in buildings about to explode, or simply held hostage in the grasps of villains, women were portrayed as powerless victims. While the ingenuity and charm of superheroes’ leading ladies were many times the only thing that got them out of sticky situations, for the better part of 50 years women in comics were only there to make the men look better.
Today, there are plenty of strong female superheroes who are not just popularized. Spider-Woman, the daughter of a scientist in a terrorist cult, has similar physical abilities to Superman but completely different moral dilemmas. Zatanna is an illusionist who uses magic to take down her enemies while using humor rather than cynicism to deal with strife. Manhunter, whose real name is Kate Spencer, is a former federal prosecutor who takes justice into her own hands when the criminals she detains try to evade the legal system. Manhunter has appeared on the CW’s Arrow yet how many young girls know about her? Not enough, if any at all. Because while nearly all children who have watched television could point to a picture of Superman, Spiderman, or Batman and identify them, it’s almost impossible for them to recognize a picture of a strong female crime fighter and identify her by name. This isn’t new.
From the beginning of the “comic age,” women have been depicted as hyper-sexualized, helpless damsels in distress. Even when women demonstrate strength, intelligence, and power rivaling that of their male counterparts, they still remain sidekicks. Modern day cinema might try to deny this, but how much screen time did Scarlett Johannson get in the Avengers when she took down aliens and saved Iron Man as the Black Widow? Surprisingly, she received the third most out of the superhero team, with a total of about 33 minutes and the most unbroken dialogue scenes. Yet the Black Widow is still not the central character of the story. While some could argue that movies like Catwoman depict female superheroes in a positive way, their plot lines tend to focus on how well the women wear leather pants and not on how they choose to fight crime.
Minorities are another underrepresented group in the flurry of adoration and money that is thrown at superhero movies. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of African-American or Latino or Asian superheroes to choose from. No, wait, that’s exactly it. Araña, the new Spider-Woman is alive on the pages of Marvel comics but has yet to see the big screen, as does Miles Morales, the new African-American/Cuban next-generation Spiderman. There are hardly any superheroes of color and the few who exist are minor sidekicks.
If American children are supposed to envision superheroes as aspirations of character, people to emulate, whom are young girls or young children of color supposed to look up to?
Perhaps, Hollywood needs to reevaluate the superhero movies that it chooses to make. Consider Art Spiegelman’s Maus for example, an anthropomorphized tale of the Holocaust told through the struggle between cats and mice, that as a graphic novel won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize. By making the main characters mice, racial identity is eliminated and the struggle of a mouse to survive in a world of cruel cats becomes universal. Every man and woman could relate to the smallness the mouse feels, the powerlessness and fear.
Not every new superhero movie can or should be about mice, but Art Spiegelman’s model of using a neutral canvas to allow universal accessibility to a story that is easy to sympathize with but not always easy to understand should be emulated. Modern superheroes serve the same purpose, giving the hard lessons, sometimes dealing with impossible odds and rising above. But graphic novels like Maus, or even the more modern Walking Dead, present characters without extraordinary supernatural gifts but strength of character. While Wonder Woman is admirable, so too are the female mice in the stories of Maus who sacrifice so much to save loved ones and the strong black characters in Walking Dead who take on leading roles in the story. What greater gift can a comic book hero give than showing a young girl or a young child of color that despite impossible odds, for a character that is very much like them and not just their white male friends, success and triumph are possible?
If the point of a superhero is to embody what young children should look up to, then those role models need to be people with whom everyone can identify. Too often, superheroes are all white men. By limiting superheroes to this demographic, comics narrow the scope of what it means to be a hero. Instead of heroism being characterized by masculinity, comics such as Maus reveal the potential for a hero’s character to take precedence over all else. By doing so, comic book heroes can transcend the constricting demographic of white males and become accessible to all, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Creating a new Justice League that has universal accessibility would be a super-feat that Spiderman himself would envy.