Can women be superheroes? Can women be superheroes?

Professor Yvonne Tasker

Wonder Woman

The prominence of the superhero within American cinema is a marked feature of contemporary culture. Despite the many available female characters in the comic book lexicon, women have occupied a marginal position within this genre, a neglect that points to wider issues of gender inequality within western culture.  

Research Overview

The adaptation of heroic figures from popular literature, folk tales and comic books is not new.  Yet it is undoubtedly the case that the most commercially successful action films and franchises of the twenty-first century have been fantasy, superhero and comic book adaptations. These superhero films form a distinct trend within the broader context of fantasy film. These are action films of a particular sort, emphasising spectacular set design, visual effects and action sequences that stage the extraordinary exploits of superheroes.  Superhero films effectively couple the comic book universe – with its back stories, evolving characterisation and bold design – with conventions and styles that have evolved through the Hollywood action cinema over decades. Sometimes violent, sometimes comic or corny or effects-laden or set in spectacular surroundings, action and adventure are fantasy forms. They are interested in the spectacular, implausible or even impossible.

So you might say if we are operating in fantasy worlds – in which the hero’s moral and physical qualities are exaggerated, and anything seems possibility – where better to consider the possibilities of a female hero? And yet American cinema has tended to struggle with the concept of the female action hero – the superhero is no different.  Thus multiple cinematic iterations of male heroes such as the darkly melancholic Batman or the wise-cracking Iron Man celebration men in motion. Female superheroes only occasionally appear and rarely fly, a vivid sign that the suspension of disbelief which defines popular cinema does not mean a suspension of gender codes.

What Next

Some 70 years after appearing as a comic book character, Wonder Woman finally featured in a live action film, Batman v Superman (2016). With Wonder Woman at the centre of a 2017 release directed by Patty Jenkins, will there be a change in the gender hierarchies of the superhero movie?  

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