Female Superheroes - Empowering or Incomparably Strong?

Through comic books to films, superheroes have long captivated audiences as emblems of strength. Facing great dangers that cannot be defeated by humans, superheroes such as Superman, Ironman, and Wonder Woman are looked up to as empowering figures by both men and women, young and old. In recent years, female superheroes have increasingly gained traction with the rise of discussions on sexism, misogyny, and representation. In tandem with the development of the Internet, the awareness of female representation in the media has become a widely questioned topic among critics and commoners alike. 

Almost as if responding to this discussion, top superhero producers Marvel and DC have recently released a succession of works with either female leads or key female characters. Just to name a few, there is the warrior Valkyrie from Thor (Marvel), Wonder Woman from 2017 (DC), and the nearly all-powerful Captain Marvel in 2019 (Marvel). All films have received widespread attention for bringing strong female characters to the forefront. It is no surprise that fans, especially women, praised these films as feminist, celebrating in forms of cosplay and posts on social media. The media too has promoted and blared news on how these films are bringing a feminist wave, applauding the studios for being “progressive.” Though these films undeniably are a feat alone in terms of female representation, they fail to wholly empower women by realistic means – a feature that is often ignored from the glamour and excitement around the films. 

The biggest issue or flaw with female superheroes is their immense powers. It is true that fans are fascinated by their superhuman strength and abilities. Captain Marvel from the film of the same title (2019) is an illustrative example. On top of her identity as a human-alien hybrid, she has an array of powers that include enhanced strength, stamina, agility, and durability, as well as flight, and almost total immunity to toxins and poisons. Throughout the film, she pummels enemy after enemy with her fighting prowess and of course, her iconic ability to fire photonic blasts from her hands. Thus, she can be described as the ultimate superhero for virtually lacking any weaknesses. Even before the film was released, Marvel already managed to arouse enthusiasm with its marketing strategy. The decision to release the film on International Women’s Day (March 8) was initially seen as a sign of hope that the studio was serious on female representation. 

But no matter how revolutionary it may be for projecting a powerful female superhero, Captain Marvel is on a level that no woman can ever level up to. In other words, no woman can be on par with Captain Marvel. She has powers that no human has. It is difficult for women to relate to her because she has essentially no challenges to face as a woman; the film did not call out a lot of sexist behaviors, disadvantages women face, or how either of those translates into alien-land (outer space). The barriers that stand in her way are stellar to ordinary humans, women included. In order to solve problems, she simply uses her abilities. Hence, it is no surprise that the film received criticism for not "being feminist enough." Like others who described Captain Marvel (the protagonist) as shallow, one critic stated that she has limited emotions: frustration at failure, anger at insults, determination to succeed, etc. Besides the action scenes and amusing references to 1990s pop culture, Captain Marvel falls short on being a genuine feminist film. 

It is necessary to understand that superhero films like the ones mentioned above can still be seen as feminist. After all, films like Wonder Woman were met with acclaim. With a high score of 97% on Rotten TomatoesWonder Woman received positive reviews for depicting a heroine who was not only strong and feminine, but also for being empathetic. In contrast to Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman had a much complex character without embodying a bland, "girl power" persona. In a way, their otherworldly struggles can be interpreted as allegorical barriers to women in everyday life. Or instead, female superheroes can still be seen as empowering for just being strong; their existence alone feels like a fresh wind to a male-dominated field. Watching a female superhero barrage through a horde of aliens can incite a fighting spirit within a female fan. In the end, one must preserve a critical eye when it comes to female representation, no matter how appealing the work may appear. Films such as Captain Marvel proved how easily women are swayed into congratulating it as “empowering to women.” A female superhero truly feels inspiring when she confronts problems without fully relying on powers that no woman has – therefore, she is viewed as relatable.