(WOMENSENEWS)– Super . . . .girl?
A new TV show with a female superhero starts Oct. 26 called "Supergirl." I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if it will change any of the typical reactions I get when I wear my blue T-shirt with the emblematic red S.
For years now, every time I wear my "S" T-shirt in public, a man makes a negative or surprised comment, usually something like "Oh wow. So you are . . . like, what . . . Super . . . woman?" Then he gives a nervous laugh. Is it really so uncomfortable for a man to think a woman is a superhero? Or at least think she could be one? And not just the watered down "lite" version of the male superhero. When I wear my "Batgirl" shirt it draws no remarks presumably because Batgirl, diminutive and stereotypically "sexy" as she is, does little to disrupt the normative heterosexist discourse.
The female superhero genre is pretty limiting; usually hyper feminine and "sexy" gals with weaker powers than their male counterparts. Growing up, I watched "Wonder Woman," the "Shazam!/Isis Power Hour" and "The Bionic Woman." These characters and "Charlie’s Angels" were my female role models.
But looking back now, I see the message was pretty clear; even when strong, women are less powerful than men and they should always take care to look "pretty." Although Shazam/Isis is a hazy memory, according to Wikipedia, Isis was an Egyptian goddess brought back in the body of a female schoolteacher. Shazam, meanwhile, was about a boy traveling the country to fight injustice. Again, with Isis trapped in a traditional female role as a schoolteacher, this superhero narrative did little to encourage girls like me to dream outside the box or see ourselves beyond the limited gender roles that society had already long prescribed to us.
As a legal aid lawyer, I much prefer the Shazam model of fighting injustice. And as a lesbian who is not particularly gender conforming, I am sorry to see that the new Supergirl is another very feminine, blond, blue-eyed, skinny, white girl. That image sends a message to girls that only some of them can be superheroes and that they should not lose their traditional femininity along the way.
Nearly 50 years after I sat in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons, I would hope female superheroes would better reflect the diversity of our society and my dreams for equality and justice. So I will check out "Supergirl," but I am guessing that my simple blue T-shirt with the red S will still confuse men. And I bet that women will keep looking for the real superhero role models of their dreams.
Elizabeth Kristen is the director of the Gender Equity and LGBT Rights Program at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.
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