Glamour magazine recently did an article on 'The weird sex things he secretly wants to try'. Number 6 was female superhero sex*. The text reads:
'Our female superhero crush isn't only about the fact they are drawn with proportions so pneumatic they make Barbie look like a Dickensian waif. They project power and confidence, yet they are always troubled. Sometimes they need rescuing, if only from their personal demons, and we're just the sensitive he-men who could do it.
The great thing is, any real-life woman can be a superhero - just be strong and confident, and let us know you need what only a man like us can give'.
First off, let's get John Stewart's views on this:
Secondly, that isn't a description of any superheroine I know of.
What is really bizzare about the text is that it's turning the costumed woman into a doll, existing only for the male lover. In the view expressed, the woman has no autonomy, that's all taken away to make all her actions, desires and characteristics about the man. She needs to be rescued by her great manly lover! He can soothe all ills and pains!!
This is a good example of how even women's magazines, supposedly writing for and about women, still publish stuff explictly from the male gaze point of view. They could have taken another approach to (or indeed criticised) this point of view, but no.
I realise that it is a fantasy, but fantasies reflect reality. Glamour talks about feminism and tries to put across some sort of pro womens rights agenda, yet they also include articles like this. Reading it I can't help but recall all those examples of bad anatomy, all Greg Land's pornface art and all those times when women's fierceness and independence is destroyed by comics such as Superman/Batman 72 (more Lois from that issue here), or other books where women's roles are relegated to the sidekick, or downgraded to being the love interest.
I recently read Going Under by Justina Robson. This is the third book in the Lila Black series. Lila is a cyborg on an earth where ther Quantum Bomb of 2015 brought the human, elf, demon and faery planes into co-existence.
On page 116 of the first paperback edition the nature of the hero and the heroine is discussed:
(This conversation takes places just after a female demon has died in a dramatic and senseless manner. She demon was young, beautiful and talented and so has been labelled a hero).
(Lila speaks) 'Heroes can't be self-doubters Malachi,' she told him. 'I read it in the book of rules. That means I can't be a hero. So at least I'm safe from that one.'
(Malachi speaks) 'That's the spirit!'. 'You could probably be a heroine though' he added. 'You're in love, you're racked with self-questioning, you're at the mercy of society's higher forces and you're riddles with a form of consumption. That's quite gothic'.
Why are the two definitions so different?
I'm fairly certain the description of the heroine is meant to be tongue in cheek, whilst still being a valid comment on Lila. Nevertheless, that idea of the weakened heroine is taken from a lot of literature, so why have female protagonists in literature been given this damaged role?
Given Lila's personailty and abilities you could add super to the front of heroine and still be making an accurate observation. By this book, Lila's machinery is melding with her fleshy bits and she can produce guns and other weapons out of her arms just by thinking about them. A bit like Guy Gardner as the Warrior. Lila may question herself and the motivations of those around her, but she's not a passive person drowning in her own worries. She gets on with things. She does what needs to be done. She's pro active. She may not like what she's become but she does know who she is. She's a pretty darn good fun character actually**.
Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett.
Withces Abroad is a Discworld story about stories. On the Discworld there is an element called narrativium. It ensures that stories happen according to basic fictional tropes, such as wheels that roll out of fires and gently come to a stop, or third princes embarking on and succeeding on a quest where their elder brothers have all failed. Page 8 of the 1997 paperback edition says this:
'Because stories are important.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it is the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.'
One of the main themes of the book is how you shouldn't treat people as if they are characters in a story. You can't make happy endings for people. It's immoral to attempt to do so.
The flip side of this is that as the text says, stories are important, they do have power. They give us a framework to navigate through life. They reflect our experiences and value within society, even when they don't feature us. When we have fiction we don't entirely like or agree with, we create our own stories and narratives to satisfy us. Any long time comic fan knows how this happens.
This role of stories is why I have included Witches Abroad in this post. What does it say when Glamour tells us a story where women will always need and depend on men? Where Going Under tells a story of how heroes are strong and heroines are indecisive?
And what is the significance of books like those in the Discworld series which highlights the existence of these narratives and give us a different kind of female protagonist?
*Yeah, cos that's really weird. I think Glamour may be jumping on a bandwagon here.
** According to the blurb this book is 'the work of a smart and sexy novelist having smart and sexy fun'. This description tickles me and so I mention it whenever I mention the book.