I found this excellent New York Times Magazine piece on little girls and superheroes the other day, and then had a couple of people email it to me as well. Unsurprising, perhaps, as women and comics is well-known as my beat here and elsewhere, and my fascination certainly extends to little girls and the way they’re socialized.
The author writes from her own perspective: her little girl has graduated from Disney Princesses to Wonder Woman, and she’s thrilled. Like me, she finds Wonder Woman’s costume far less problematic than the gender-specific roles Disney princesses forced her daughter into, and she examines the unique lessons that the superheroine can provide for girls growing up in the current culture: where there are plenty of powerful female role models and yet their media portrayals always seem vexed in ways that their male counterparts’ are not.
In the end, that is the true drama of the superhero: the ordinary Joe who discovers that he has a marvelous gift, something that sets him apart from everyone else, simultaneously elevating and at least potentially isolating him, forcing a series of moral choices about the nature of might and goodness. It’s a story writ large about coming to grips with power: accepting it, demanding it, wielding it wisely. Those themes are rarely explored in the fantasy culture of little girls, yet given how problematic power remains for adult women — in both fact and fiction — perhaps they should be. Consider the connotation of Superwoman, who is more harried than hectic, not something I’d want for myself or for my girl. What’s more, Superwoman is subject to a unique form of kryptonite: the threat of being called a bad mother. Besides, who would want to be referred to as the Woman of Steel?
Little girls do like to feel powerful; in my days working in a nonprofit with elementary-school kids, I remember trying to spot the line where the confident, happy, energetic little girls began to be sullen, nervous adolescents, while their male classmates didn’t seem to cross any such line. I certainly can’t give all the credit for that to superheroes and other fantasy-fictional role models, yet I would love to see a world where these little girls are raised with more visions of female power that isn’t pathologized, in both the real world and in the media by which they are surrounded.