The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
“She’s my favorite superhero” was a phrase that I rarely heard as a child. Growing up, I never saw myself reflected in superhero movies. Instead, female characters I could see myself in were relegated to the confines of comic books and older television shows, content I gobbled up until I had to start reading editions for the third or fourth time. But comics are niche, and most of my peers weren't interested in the hassle of tracking them down, facing the stale air of the below-cellar-level comic book shop in our neighborhood. Most girls become aware that some men will stare at you, and stare hard. I learned this, not in an objectification sort of way, but instead as the cashier would glue his eyes on me and all the other students who'd come in, making sure we didn't steal from the dollar bin. But as I've matured since then, these looks still manifest in the same way.
That's exactly where my love of Wonder Woman stems from. She questions why women aren't given equal rights, she's able to be strong and feminine, and she's constantly combating female domestic and helpless stereotypes — like when women are killed, raped, or severely injured to further the plot of the male protagonist — that still plague women across superhero franchises. She was everything I wanted to be and more, but eventually content ran out and I moved my attention towards a character that had a never-ending stream of new comics or movies: Spider-Man. And so my love affair with Peter Parker began.
When I was a child, I was sure Peter Parker was going to be my husband. Gwen Stacy had to die, so I could be Mrs. Spider-Man, and in my sick childhood brain that was okay. But there was more than a silly girlhood crush that drove me to Spidey: he was badass, funny, and from New York City, which is always a plus. While I loved Spider-Man — and still do — there was a different love between him and my relationship with Wonder Woman. I wanted to be like Spider-Man, all power and quick wit, but I never felt like I could. And in a childhood world where one could become a princess just by believing they were, in fact, a princess, this stung. It was hard to believe I could be your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, because there never felt like there was a role for me to play. Yes, there was Spider-Gwen, but she was an offshoot hero; a girl like me could never be at the forefront.
(White) Male heroes ruled the screens
This is a lesson that many girls have to learn early, because they're forced to: if they want to see themselves as a hero, they must begin to envision themselves as a boy. It’s reasons like this why girls are shown to have higher levels of empathy; they learn to understand people, because they have to in order to find the same caliber of fictional role models as their male counterparts. Anyone who says, “What about Wonder Woman?” doesn’t seem to understand the importance for children to see a character, and not just know of their existence. Comic books are often not accessible, and Wonder Woman only came out in 2017. For girls who were looking for a hero that kicks butt on screen, there was a huge gap went unfilled until very recently.
Young boys often are able to seem themselves reflected on the screen. There's movie after movie that reflects young men fighting against the forces of evil and triumphing. But that isn't to say that boys have always been able to find a hero to look like them, as these films have only just begun to diversify with Black Panther and Aquaman, which star BIPOC leads. But there never were any options for young girls, which have made them understand the need for representation in superhero films.
In a New York Times student opinion question, writer Jeremy Engel asked the question, “Do we need more female superheroes?” Out of the 220 responses, the vast majority of students who said “No” were male. Most female students cited a need for representation and role models for young girls — role models that primarily had not existed on the large screen previously.
Female heroes were hypersexualized and stereotyped
Previously, female-driven superhero movies have been few in number, though they have existed. The problem with these movies, however, was that in short... they were bad. All were helmed by men, and sexualized their protagonists. 2004’s Catwoman was not a film about female empowerment, but one to stereotype women and ogle at Halle Berry in her provocative catsuit; she even dies over face cream – because there's nothing more empowering for young women than knowing that the hero they are supposed to watch for the next two hours is willing to die for smooth skin.
The films that we watch and the heroes that we worship impact us from such a young age, shaping the way we see the world as adults. When young boys and girls see films portraying both powerful men and women, they begin to develop the notion that both men and women should be powerful, and are both capable of leading.
Girls shouldn't learn empathy because there are no super-women to look up to. They — and every other child — should learn empathy from watching films and meeting people from all cultures, because that's what should be reflected.
I fell in love with Spider-Man because there was so little content and so few resources for female superheroes I could better see myself in, and I don’t regret it — I had a Spider-Man cake for my birthday two years ago, and it was pretty dope. But it shouldn't have been my only option. It should not be hard to find a superhero that looks like you, but at this moment, for most people, it is.
Superheroes can define generations, instill values into the youth, so why can’t those values come from a woman?