VIVIAN F. PEREZ-PLOCHARCZYK
One of the definitions of the word “Patriarchy”, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” This research explores how the construction of fictional heroes is affected by patriarchy. Women are not excluded from the realm of fictional heroes, but they are not usually treated with the same respect in comparison with men. In an article from Listin Diario, a Dominican newspaper, Dr. Nancy Alvarez, sexologist, says that men think they have the power by using the three Ps: “Preñador, Protector y Proveedor” (Impregnator, Protector and Provider). That idea seems to be reinforced by our popular culture and mass media as writers create male heroes with similar characteristics. In many cases, a hero is created (especially a male one) as a male fulfillment fantasy - the idea of what men would like to become. This paper illustrates how many female characters in story lines are treated differently than male characters. Most of these examples talk about Wonder Woman (DC Comics) for being considered the most famous super heroine of all times and how other fictional female heroes have been created that continue to reflect our waning patriarchy. But, there is also hope, new fictional heroines that reflect a more contemporary pinnacle reality.
When Dr. Nancy Alvarez talks about being an impregnator, she does not specifically refer of the fact of a man spreading his seed. She also refers of having the power to do it very easy, in other words, an incredible sexual appeal, a playboy, a player, someone who is attractive without losing his dignity. For example, in the Star Trek television series from the 1960s, Captain Kirk (character played by William Shatner) always attracts the attention of the women around him, just by looking into their eyes. He does not show a lot of skin, he does not appear to know the favorite color of any of those ladies or even if they share the same taste in music. At least, Captain Kirk and Superman (character of DC comics) show their faces. But some heroes like Batman (character of DC comics) and Spiderman (character of Marvel comics) are so covered from head to toe, but they still get (with no provocation at all) the infatuation of the women around them.
Heroines, or female heroes, do not have such luck, most are eye candy or represent some form of male sexual fantasy. One of the most famous fictional heroines of popular culture, Wonder Woman, is proof of that - a ‘feminist’ character drawn by men who do not have any idea of what a ‘feminist’ is. If Wonder Woman is the Princess of the Amazons, her weapons would likely be bows and arrows, swords and shields. She should be dressed with some kind of toga and armor. Instead, her weapon is a lasso; her attire, a bathing suit and red boots with high heels. She has the aspect of a very colorful dominatrix. Mitra Emad agrees and says, “by 2001, most images of Wonder Woman have become hyper-sexualized - large breasts and a costume that barely covers her body are prevalent not matter the artist or author.” (976)
Kelli E. Stanley writes, “that a character like Lady Death (Chaos Comics) has enormous breasts, with an awkward body, barely covered by clothes and, with a connection between women and sexual damage, a skull over her private part. Images like those represent the patriarchal fear of the danger of women and sex.” (158)
There are male heroes that wear something similar to a bathing suit as a uniform like B’wana Beast (DC Comics), Namor (Marvel Comics) or Tarzan. Nevertheless, the outfit never gets much smaller.
The second characteristic of the male hero is to be the protector. It is not only to be there to save the day, but he is also absolutely essential. Female heroes save the day too, but lots of them are treated as disposable. Anita Sarkeesian from the FeministFrequency.com has a video and a transcription entitled Tropes vs. Women #2 Women in Refrigerators that is mostly based on the web site of Gail Simone, Women in Refrigerators (lby3.com/wir) in which she talks about a “trend” that is affecting the female heroes. In 1999, Gail Simone made a list after reviewing over 90 comics where female heroes lost their powers, were violently raped, tortured and killed, usually as part of a story line, a motive or a reason for the male heroes to look for vengeance or justice. Gail Simone called this phenomenon “Women in Refrigerators” based of the Green Lantern #54, issue of 1994, in which the male hero sees the dead body of his fiancée, chopped in pieces, inside of a refrigerator.
Sarkeesian gives us another example, the character of Stephanie Brown (DC Comics) who has been a female Robin and the second BatGirl; she is tortured and killed with a drill by The Black Mask, one of the enemies of Batman. The image of Brown being tortured is so sexualized that some enraged fans call it sadistic pornography. Also from the DC universe, we have Big Barda (as strong as Wonder Woman) who is married to Mister Miracle. Even though, she is more powerful than her husband, he finds Big Barda, dead on the kitchen floor with no signs of a fight. Her assassination becomes a convenient way to make a new story line for her husband, where he could use a special equation that would give him the control of will power over others.
Male heroes are tortured and apparently killed in Comics, but they frequently return stronger and wiser than before. Sarkeesian illustrates an example, in DC Comics, Batman is attacked by a villain named Bane who breaks Batman’s back with his knee. Batman recovers completely and is back in action, but his female counterpart, Batgirl, has another fate. The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon (Batgirl’s alter ego), takes off her clothes and photographs her in order to make her father (Commissioner Gordon) crazy. She ends up forever in a wheelchair. Anita Sarkeesian also mentions that Gail Simone claims that there is a larger selection of male characters, but very few were murdered and they did not seem to be killed in the same way as the women. They tend to die heroically or go down fighting. Super-heroines are simply found dead in the kitchen.
Sarkeesian claims the situation can also be applied in other media like video games, TV shows and movies. In the TV show “Lost”, two female characters, Libby and Shannon are killed to give a twist to the story line of two men. In the TV series “Heroes”, many women lose their powers or are not able to control them. In video games like “God of War 1”, “Splinter Cell” and “Fable 2” the story is usually about a male character looking for vengeance as result of the murders of some women in his family.
Some heroines in comics come back from death, like Stephanie Brown (Batgirl), but the most famous one Wonder Woman, after being killed, revived and lost her powers, returns in her former glory, but not by the hands of the writers of DC Comics. Gloria Steinem, famous feminist and founder of Ms. Magazine, published the first issue of the magazine in July of 1972 with Wonder Woman on the cover. Steinem says that Wonder Woman saved her when she was a child. “The fate of most women in comics was dependent upon the male heroes not only to rescue them, but also to give them a sense of purpose. (Emad 965)”
Gloria Steinem describes the Wonder Woman of her childhood, “This was an Amazon super-hero who never killed her enemies. Instead, she converted them to a belief in equality and peace, to self-reliance and respect for the rights of others. If villains destroyed themselves, it was through their own actions or some unbloody accident.” (Emad 965) And this is how Steinem describes the version of Wonder Woman before her revival: “a female James Bond, though much more boring because she was denied h[er] sexual freedom.” (Emad 965)
Wonder Woman, since her creation in the 1940’s, has gone through a lot of changes. The most significant is the source of her weakness. Until the late 1970’s the weakness of Wonder Woman was not the exposure to a green alien rock like Kriptonite for Superman, it was that a “man” would bind her with a chain. If her bracelets were removed, she became maniacally, insanely destructive. If a man set foot on Paradise Island, Wonder Woman’s home, all the Amazons could lose their powers. (Stanley 148) The strongest woman in the world of DC Comics would lose her powers by bondage and male dominance.
Nevertheless, after her return in comics in the 70’s, Wonder Woman was still portrayed in bondage images tied with chains or ropes, like being bound with her own lasso to a giant bomb, with the appearance of a male body part (Wonder Woman 205, [March-April 1973]). (Stanley 154) While the feminist movement uses Wonder Woman as a symbol, by 1979, DC Comics represented her as too strong and she became a threat, a crazy powerful woman with no control. In 1980, she was changed into a no threatening image of a hair model. (Emad 968) Even though DC Comics resurrected Wonder Woman, there is too little of a change, if any, about their opinion of women.
In the 70’s, the TV media was also interested in resurrecting Wonder Woman. Around 1974, they made a TV movie with Cathy Lee Crosby as a no powerful blonde crime fighter. It was not successful. Not only Gloria Steinem, it seems also the audience, wanted the original version of the Amazon Princess. In 1975, Lynda Carter, as the famous heroine, appeared in a two-hour pilot with an improved classical version. It achieved sufficient popularity in order to make a TV series in 1976 refining the image of Wonder Woman in a less traditional manner reflecting a more mature view of women. (Stanley 156)
The third characteristic of the male fictional hero, the provider, is not only about being the family man supporting wife and kids, it is about being able to do it in a plentiful or dignified way in comparison to the female fictional hero. For example, the alter ego of Batman is the multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne. Peter Parker, the secret identity of Spiderman (property of Marvel Comics), is a poor humble photographer and a student of Science. Some male heroes like Gambit (Marvel Comics) have a criminal past as a thief, but so far, no fictional male hero has been a prostitute. Selina Kyle, also known as Catwoman (DC Comics), before being a thief and sometimes a hero, she has also been a waitress, a flight attendant, and also in 1987 (in the comic book story arc Batman: Year One), a dominatrix and a prostitute. Mia Dearden (DC Comics) becomes the new Speedy (the sidekick of Green Arrow) in January of 2005. Not only she has been a prostitute before being a female hero, she is also HIV-positive. Other heroines with the past of prostitution in the Marvel Comics universe are Miranda Leevald, also known as Stacy X, who had her first appearance in the Uncanny X-Men of 2001 and Mantis who had her first appearance in the Avengers of 1973. So, in some cases the male hero living in poverty is somewhat able to keep his dignity intact while the heroines have no other option than selling their bodies.
What about professions with a college degree? Marvel.wikia.com is a web site with a database of all characters (past and present) of Marvel Comics, according to it, between good and evil characters, the Marvel universe has 1,317 male Scientists and 107 female ones. It has experts in Genetics: 11 are males and 5, females; 40 male Geneticists and 9 female ones; 24 male Chemists and 3 female ones; 23 male Archaeologists and 5 female ones; and experts in Robotics, 3 are males and only one is female. Psychology is the only category where they are even with a score of 2 – 2. In real life, those numbers are very different. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the United States, from 2009 to 2010, in the level of degrees of Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s, women typically are a majority that hold each degree, meaning that currently a degree recipient is more likely to be a woman.
In “Working Women on Television: A Mixed Bag at Best” the Weekend Edition Saturday, radio show on National Public Radio, says that in 2013, the Geena Davis Institute and the professors of the University of Southern California did research about gender roles and jobs on TV. They searched around 11,000 characters and 44.3 percent of female characters in prime-time television are gainful employed. This is also similar to the real life number of 46.7 percent. It is better than children’s and family shows and movies where 81 percent of the working force are men. Yet, according to Jennifer Newson, director of the 2011 documentary “Miss Representation”, almost none of those characters have children, despite the fact that the 60 percent of working women are mothers. A character like Nurse Jackie is one of the rare exceptions, a working mother over 40, trying to create a balance between job and family. Forty and older are actually 47 percent of the population in the United States, but just the 26 percent of women on TV. The research also shows that prime-time programs depict women running a company just 14 percent of the time, when the reality is more like 25 percent. It looks like TV producers do not care to investigate if their fictional female characters are a close representation of women in real life.
Maria Pujalte as Laura Lebrel
The closest fictional female hero to contemporary reality is Laura Lebrel from the Spanish TV Series “Los Misterios de Laura” (The Mysteries of Laura). Mrs. Laura Lebrel (performed by the actress Maria Pujalte) is a homicide police inspector, 45 years old, with a brilliant detective mind for solving complicated cases. She has, in a certain way, a hero uniform: a beige coat, comfortable boots and a big purse. She is also divorced and mother of twin boys. She is not at all perfect, she is afraid of spiders and elevators. She is addicted to food and soap operas, and never has the time or the interest to look sexy. She never wears make up and deals a lot with the messy pranks of her twin sons. Her appeal is universal, she is not ugly, but she does not look like a fashion model. She is the average woman from any country in the world. The first episode of the series scored two points in ratings above the TV series CSI (in Spain). The show has become so successful that they are already making versions of the series in Russia and in the United States. NBC announced the first season of the show for the fall of 2014.
Debra Messing as Laura Diamond
The question is, “Will Laura survive the patriarchal concept of the female hero in the United States?” The answer is, “very unlikely.” For starters, the original European character is named Laura Lebrel del Bosque (Laura Greyhound of the Forest). Her last name is used sometimes seriously and sometimes like a joke, when Laura Lebrel says that solving a case is a question of using the sense of smell. Laura Lebrel never fires her gun or hits anybody and just because she does not wear sexy clothes, it does not mean she looks masculine or filthy. Laura Lebrel looks and behaves like a regular mother, arguing with the neighborhood’s butcher about the price of meat, worrying about placing her children in a good school, but with the mind of a Sherlock Holmes, putting the bad guy in jail and saving the innocent. The American version is named Laura Diamond and judging by the trailer shown on NBC.com, she looks like a contradictory character. There are bits of scenes, filmed in the city of New York, where she shoots her gun and hits male suspects, while she is dressed in a very messy and untidy way. Then there are also some scenes where Debra Messing, as Laura Diamond, wears a “bathing suit” or very tight sweaters. It is as if the producers cannot decide if Laura Diamond becomes a Tomboy due to power or if she is eye candy.
According to the Annual Firearms Discharge Report of the New York Police Department, by Raymond W. Kelly, the Police Commissioner, in July 1st, 2011, NYPD had 33,497 officers. In that year only 62 officers had to fire their guns. So, if a NYC police officer claims that he or she has never used his of her gun in the job, that person is likely telling the truth. This illustrates that the original European fictional character of Laura Lebrel is much closer to the reality without patriarchal back-up. Maybe the NBC producers want to make Laura Diamond, a more feminist and stronger character or, more likely, they want to turn her into just another dominatrix, by doing violent acts of corporal domination over men.
In summary, female heroes in the media are affected by patriarchy. While the image of the male hero is attractive, like a “Playboy”, the heroine’s image is sexed up like a “Playboy Bunny”. The male hero is always there, in control, to save the day and sometimes goes down fighting and returns from the death. The female hero can save the day, but sometimes she is prey of male violence, cannot control her powers, becomes a menace for the society she tries to protect and rarely recovers or comes back. The majority of fictional male heroes earn money with decency, dignity and usually with a college degree, very few female characters do the same. What Mitra C. Emad says about Wonder Woman can be applied mostly to any fictional heroine, “she is both the dominated and the dominatrix” and “her straight male target audience is not expected to identify with a woman, only sexually objectify her.” It is impossible to guess exactly what will be the future of a character like Laura Diamond, but Laura Lebrel is becoming very popular each year in more than 10 countries around the world. She represents the real female hero, our mothers who are paramedics, nurses, doctors, firefighters, police officers and judges, saving people lives or locking up dangerous criminals and still finding the time to read a story at bedtime to their children.
“B’wana Beast” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.
“Catwoman” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 3 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.
Emad, Mitra C. “Reading Wonder Woman’s Body: Mythologies of Gender and Nation” Journal of Popular Culture 39.6 (2006): 954-84. Print.
Herrera, Ruth, “Al Hombre Hay que Educarlo para que Entienda a la Mujer de Hoy (Men Must Be Educated to Understand the Woman of Today)” Listin Diario [Santo Domingo] 29 Nov. 2011, La Vida: 21+26+39. Print.
“Namor” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 Apr. 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.
Nation Broadcasting Corporation. The Mysteries of Laura/NBC. NBC, 2014. Web.
Radio Television Española. Los Misterios de Laura (The Mysteries of Laura). RTVE). 17 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 May 2014
Sarkeesian, Anita. “Tropes vs. Women #2 Women in Refrigerators.” YouTube. Youtube, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. 1 May 2014
Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. Beau Yarbrough, 1999. Web. 30 Apr. 2014
“Speedy (Mia Dearden)” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 10 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.
Stanley, Kelli, E. “Suffering Sapho!”: Wonder Woman and the (Re)Invention of the Feminine Ideal.” Helios 32.2 (2005): 143-71. Print.
“Stephanie Brown (Comics)” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 8 May 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.
“Working Women on Television: A Mixed Bag at Best.” Weekend Edition Saturday. Narr. Neda Ulaby. Natl. Public Radio, 18 May 2013. NPR.org. Web. 28 Apr. 2014