I love cartoons. Everybody who knows me very well can tell you that. I especially love cartoon series based on superheroes like Batman, Spiderman, The justice league, and The X-Men. Also cartoons like Scooby-Doo where there are mysteries to be solved.
It hit me though the other day that most of my favourite cartoons or stories revolve around men. Most of the fairy stories we read as children like Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and others were all about these beautiful princesses who were rescued by princes. The cartoons I watch usually have a superhero that has a beautiful sidekick or women falling all over him.
I wondered why there are no female superheroes with their own cartoon series or movie. There are powerful female superheroes like Storm of X-men, Wonder woman, Cat woman and others. Yet they usually are in the shadow of the male superheroes. Or even intelligent women like Velma from Scooby-Doo who usually solves the mystery while Shaggy and Scooby-Doo are running away. I wondered what kind of impression this gives girls growing up watching these cartoons get. Do they always feel like they have to be rescued by a man or can they emerge from the shadows and be the ultimate superhero? These are questions that disturb me.
I have gotten a writer I admire to write a Guest Post about this issue. Please give us your comments on this issue at the bottom of this post.
With those few words, I give you Wanjeri Gakuru’s Of Babes in Capes: What I Learnt from Female Superheros
I love cartoons and comic books. Always have. These days, if I come across these New Age cartoons on telly or in a publication, I give them a chance if the characters look halfway decent (I’m sorry Chowder, you and your lot look far too scary.) She-Ra, He-Man, Captain Planet, Gargoyles, Popeye, Archie & Veronica, Beano, Pingu, Dennis the Menace (both the sweet blonde and the dark shaggy-haired lads), Andy Capp, Ninja Turtles, Desperate Dan are some of the names that peppered my childhood.
In the innocent way of children, I enjoyed the antics of these diverse cross-sections of fictional characters at face value. That is until a friend on Twitter (@potentash) raised the issue of how female superheroes are stereotyped and how this influences how girls see themselves. Apparently, this discussion was had earlier in my absence but the general consensus (presumably) was that “Superheroes like Batman and Superman etc have their own series [while] women like Wonder Woman and Catwoman play supporting roles.”
Given that I have only encountered Wonder Woman in Justice League (when KTN used to run it) and Catwoman in the Batman cartoon and films, I cannot purport to be a strong authority on them. A little research tells me that the tough lady in (mostly) red, blue and gold is a DC Comics superheroine who first appeared in December 1941. Created by William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was intended to play a “distinctly feminist role whose mission was to bring the Amazon ideals of love, peace and sexual equality to a world torn by the hatred of men.”
Catwoman on the other hand made her first appearance in 1940 as a “whip-carrying burglary with a taste for high-stake thefts.” Given that these two are among the most popular female characters in the superhero/villain circuit, I’ll use them as case studies. I’d like to focus on three main things: costume, character development and social relevance.
Wonder Woman is Caucasian with a curvaceous athletic body and long flowing hair. She wears a strapless close-fitting corset and a golden belt that rims the top of her short shorts. She has a pair of fiery red boots and a golden tiara. Catwoman on the other hand is often depicted in a grey/black/inky blue body-hugging catsuit and a dark mask frames her eyes. She has two delightfully pointy cat ears on top of her head.
These women are scorching hot. Never mind their perceived strength, intelligence and agility; they were chiefly set out to be easy on the eye. One may ask that, isn’t that true of the boys too? I won’t deny that the muscle-bound Superman and Batman can gerrit however, there seems to be something extremely sexually hyperbolic in how these women are depicted.
And the same can be true of many female superheroines or villains. See Hawkgirl’s attractive rack, She-Ra’s catwalk model legs, or even Poison Ivy‘s wasp-like waist and strategically-placed green patchwork of leaves that pass for a garment.
Truthfully, they seem to be sketched with the intent to titillate the male populace. Granted, the traditional consumer of comics and cartoons seemed to be the socially awkward Adam, but these programs and comics were placed in a market accessible to both sexes. Did these characters match the aspirations of Eve as they did of Adam’s dream girl?
Again, I speak from my KTN and Batman perspective; however, these women were hardly stars in the episodes they appeared in. Save Catwoman– who I vaguely remember in a Batman flick–but who got her own title film in 2004 (which starred Halle Berry and STILL tanked). I’ve never really connected with these two fictional ladies. Who are they? I’ve learned more about Wonder Woman in one read of a Wikipedia page than I can recall from my 20+ years of dedicated cartoon watching.
Closely tied to the issue of character development are these female characters’ places in pop culture. When I hear the name Wonder Woman, the first-word association I make is wonderbra! Sexiness is the natural adjective attached to these two. What of the male cape crusaders? They are box office gold and poster boys for human values such as strength, tenacity, drive, and selflessness. We feel like we know them. We love and adore them and have let them into our hearts and mind (I have Batman earrings for crying out loud!). Why? Because it is through careful scripting and promotion that the entertainment industry has managed to blur the lines between fantasy and reality. It doesn’t matter that I’m a girl, I am Superman, Batman.
Looking back on my hardcore cartoon days, I cannot remember a time when I wanted to dress in leaves or corsets. Mainly because I was a bit of a tomboy so it was these women’s ability to kick ass that drew me in. But I was always aware of their sex appeal because of the pattern beginning to be set in the “real” world of TV.
There was always a pretty airhead girl (Hillary Banks, Fresh Prince) around whom men swarmed. A special variety with a slim waist and hips (Laura Winslow, Family Matters) who always got her way with men. It was happening everywhere, not just in the cartoons.
But listen, I’m not saying that gorgeous, athletic women do not exist! All I’m arguing is that because “power” in whatever form was wielded by people who looked, talked and acted quite unlike me, and many others, it was hard to identify with them. Take them seriously or think them significant. And that is sad because an opportunity is lost there to teach a young girl that beauty is good but having smarts, not dressing skimpily, and being resourceful and keen and ambitious will get you further ahead in life (well, Kim Kardashian aside).
Thankfully, some positive female superheroines and general arse-kickers have emerged who I love and “look up” to such as Kim Possible, Power Puff Girls, Juniper Lee and Super Gran! We can only hope that today’s girl child sees these, and other positive fictional characters, as role models and strives to be just as intelligent, kind and tough.
Read more of Wanjeri Gakuru’s work at www.wanjeri.com or follow her at @mawazo_mengi on Twitter.
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