Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

Wo(men), Superheroes, and Gender Equity

Skill is the great leveler in abilities between men and women.

What does gender equity really mean? I’ve kind of accidentally been drawn into considering this important issue more deeply than I ever imagined. In my first book “Becoming Batman” I addressed this issue in the physical arena in a chapter called “Battle of the Bats—Could Batgirl beat Batman?” Because it was about superheroes who are gifted martial artists and who literally “fight crime”, I looked at the issue from the perspective of an actual simulated battle between Batman and Batgirl.

The bottom line is that there are of course differences between men and women. Things such as absolute strength or maximal running speed as examples. But I predicted that the fictional Bat-battle would be much closer than might be assumed, because of the critical contribution of intangibles like skill and strategy in such battles. Martial arts ability is a skill and men and women are on much closer ground there than in almost any other “physical” activity. As Rickson Gracie (of Gracie Barra Jiu Jitsu) has said of combat, “if size mattered, the elephant would be the kind of the jungle.”

Later, while writing my first attempt at a fiction-non-fiction hybrid book “Project Superhero”, I thought much more about the roles and expectations for women in our society. While looking through the eyes of my 13 year old female protagonist Jessie, I saw anew many groundless inequities between men and women that continue to exist. In fact, although this was a smaller part of the narrative at the beginning of writing, it began to expand and expand as experienced by Jessie.

In one scene in “Project Superhero” Jessie has a confrontation with her “nemesis” Dylan. He says “Comics are for boys. And most of the writers and artists are all guys. So there.” Later Jessie reflects in her diary that “I didn’t have much to say actually…He kind of got us there. Not that comics are for guys...But he was right that a lot of comic book people have been guys.” Later Jessie discovers and learns about the contributions of many female writers and artists.

While Jessie finds lots of examples of women doing great things, one of the discoveries that Jessie makes is that women aren’t often given the same initial opportunities or expectations as are men. In particular Jessie notices how the history of comic book writing and illustrating has had a fairly low proportion of women taking active roles. Jessie interviews a number of people on this issue and is encouraged by what seems to be an important increase in the representation from female writers and artists at the major comic book companies like Marvel and DC, as well as others.

Certainly there have been some important advances. Notably Marvel Comics has taken big steps to shake up many of its iconic characters. 2014 saw the introduction of Thor as a female “goddess of thunder”. This is an interesting (but not necessarily novel) revision of a major comic book icon, but will be written by a man. This is not a trivial point.

I attended and spoke at San Diego International Comic Con in July of 2014. One of the sessions I sat in on was a discussion about the upcoming year for a major comic book publisher. This panel had senior editors and many of the excellent writers at this publisher—all of whom were men. One of the audience members asked about female writers and representation. What struck me as an indicator that we are much further away from equity than I thought was the response from some on the panel. One person indicated that there were several “women of…” panels dedicated to female writers and female characters.

I thought this missed the point entirely. For this comment to make sense there would have to be “men of…” panels and “women of…” panels not a simple panel that is supposed to cover off everything and a smaller diminutive one for women only. I point this out, not to demean the efforts of some companies, notably Marvel Comics, who have been true leaders in incorporating different viewpoints, approaches, and men and women.

We won’t have truly reduced the inequalities until it’s not an unusual thing to have a woman writing Thor, Spider-Man, or Batman. That is to say, not a woman writing a newly created female Thor, Spider-Woman, or Batgirl. If it’s been acceptable for men to write and illustrate female characters, it should be just as common and okay for a woman to write and illustrate male characters in comics, too. On balance, there have already been examples of women writing and illustrating some of the big and iconic male characters, but not enough with extended runs over years and not as often with the main headliners.

This a big part of why I enjoy my own practice and teaching of martial arts. I’ve had some great female teachers and taught many outstanding female students. Skill is the great leveller. Tying into the theme of this post, I think it’s appropriate to realize that writing, drawing, inking, and coloring are skills too. Skills that can be just as effectively performed by men or women.

While I look forward to reading about the female Thor and her activities, I look forward also to reading about iconic characters like Spider-Man and Batman written and illustrated by both women and men. We'll know we have arrived at a good place when there is no story about the gender of the character or the creators.

© E. Paul Zehr (2014)

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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