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West University of Timisoara

American Studies M.A.


Communication and Media in the U.S. IV

Male vs Female Heroes in American Superhero TV shows


by Romanesc Ramona-Mariana

American media today is full of stories that promote heroes, whether these heroes are ordinary
people or fantastical beings. One just has to look at the current movie and TV productions to
realize that superheroes are a very popular attraction point. Superhero movies have found success
at the box office, while the small screen has created several hit shows that paved the road for
more superhero television. But the issue that stands out when looking at what television has to
offer refers to the different way in which female superheroes are treated, or, if they exist at all.
Both movies and TV shows are overwhelmingly male-oriented, with little space given to women.
Therefore, this paper will attempt to offer a comparative analysis of the female versus the male
superhero figure in four contemporary popular TV shows.
In the beginning of the paper I will give some theoretical background about the origin of the
superhero genre. After outlining the main aspects to be considered when it comes to superheroes,
I will move on to the analysis of the characters chosen. The final part of the essay will present the
conclusions drawn from the examination of these heroes.
Superheroes first appeared in comic books, which were the successors of the newspaper comic
strip in the 1930s and 1940s (Wright 2001: 2). The comic book medium, was considered to be,
at the time, more flexible as opposed to audio broadcasting and motion pictures. The makers of
comic books had the power to render that which could be conceived (Wright 2001: 14). In
other words, comic books allowed people to invent characters who had superhuman strength,
could run faster than a bullet and who were selfless enough to use their powers for the good of
mankind.
Turning to the actual definition of a superhero, he or she is described as:

A heroic character with a selfless, pro-social mission; with superpowers - extraordinary abilities,
advanced technology, or highly developed physical, mental, or mystical skills; who has a superhero
identity embodied in a codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, character,

powers, or origin (transformation from ordinary person to superhero); and who is generically distinct,
i.e. can be distinguished from characters of related genres (fantasy, science fiction, detective, etc.) by a
preponderance of generic conventions. Often superheroes have dual identities, the ordinary one of
which is usually a closely guarded secret (Coogan 2006: 30).

There are three factors to be considered when discussing this type of character: the mission, the
powers and the identity. In order for a person to be called a superhero, his or her mission cannot
be against the views imposed by society and cannot be in the advantage of the hero. The idea of
the mission is important, because in its absence, a superhero becomes just a helping hand,
someone who abuses his abilities for individual gain or a villain (Coogan 2006: 31).
Moreover, one of the hallmarks of the superhero genre is represented by the use of
superpowers, which refer to the special skills that each hero uses in his or her endeavors. The
superpowers are closely related to the identity convention, which has two constituents: the
codename and the costume (Coogan 2006: 31-33). The first refers to the name the hero takes on
while pursuing his mission, for example, Clark Kent becomes Superman, while the costume
refers to the clothes used by the hero, which complement their chosen persona. Despite the fact
that the mission, powers and identity establish the core of the genre, there are several characters
that do not adhere to these guidelines. For instance, Hulk is a superhero lacking a mission and
Batman reflects one that lacks superpowers (Coogan 2006: 39).
Throughout the years, superhero stories changed their content in order to remain meaningful.
Thus, they acquired more complexity and began displaying ambiguity when referring to justice,
violence, good and evil. Despite leaving the limits imposed behind, the superhero genre remains
faithful to portraying human desires, fears and beliefs. (Garrett 2008: 5, 7)
The following paragraphs will deal with the presentation and analysis of two male heroes and two
female heroes from contemporary U.S. television shows. The first character to be discussed is
Oliver Queen from the show Arrow. As the protagonist, Oliver is a former billionaire playboy
whose life is turned upside down when he survives a shipwreck and is presumed dead for 5 years.
During this time he acquires certain skills that allow him to return to Starling city and hunt down
the criminals that plague his home.

Olivers mission is to save his city from the criminals that threaten it, and while he does not have
superpowers, he is a trained fighter capable of using multiple weapons. His identity as a hero is
that of Green Arrow, an archer dressed in green, who roams Starling city and protects it from
harm. Throughout the course of 4 seasons, the protagonist goes from being a vigilante to a
superhero. He is a dark character, who goes through a crisis of morality, which emphasizes his
complexity.
The second male hero to be analyzed is Barry Allen from Arrows spin-off show The Flash. The
production tells the story of a forensic scientist who is given superpowers due to the explosion of
a machine called a particle accelerator. After waking up from a coma, the protagonist uses his
newly acquired powers to fight crime and help others. Therefore, his mission is to protect those
who cannot protect themselves from evil forces. As opposed to Oliver, Barry has super speed and
accelerated healing. His superhero identity is The Flash, a scarlet speedster.
Two seasons of storytelling portray Allen as young, hopeful and deeply moral character, in the
vein of Superman. Compared to Oliver Queen, Barry works with a team of scientists from the
beginning. Additionally, he learns more about his powers and being a hero along the way, in
contrast with the Green Arrow whose skills are already honed by the time he takes on a secret
identity.
Turning to the female heroes, it is important to note that there are very few shows that have
female protagonists. Moreover, while Arrow and The Flash have 4, respectively 2 seasons of
running, the female-driven shows only boast 2 shorter seasons for Agent Carter and 1 complete
season for Supergirl. The first female hero to be discussed is Peggy Carter from Agent Carter.
The story takes place in the 1940s, where Carter is relegated to a secretarial status in the SRR (an
American intelligence agency) after the war. During the conflict, she was able to have a more
important role in the agency, but the end of the Second World War made her superiors want to go
back to normal times when women were not considered to be useful field agents.
The show presents Carters struggles to become a full-fledged agent while helping to protect the
world from evil, which correspond to her mission. Similarly to Oliver Queen, Peggy does not
have superpowers, but she is a trained fighter and spy. Also, compared to the rest of the
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characters analyzed, Peggy does not have a secret identity, since her heroic actions coincide with
her job. Moreover, Peggy Carter has to constantly prove that she is just as good as the males
around her, fighting the sexism of her coworkers.
The last character to be analyzed is that of Kara Danvers from the show Supergirl. As the name
of the production suggests, Kara is the female counterpart to Superman, being his older cousin
who escaped the destruction of her home planet, Krypton. After living as an ordinary human for
multiple years, Kara decides to become a hero like her cousin and to use her powers to help
others. Her mission is to fight crime and protect others, while using her multiple superpowers
(flight, super strength, speed, heat vision etc). Her superhero identity is that of Supergirl, who
wears a similar costume to Superman.
As it is the case with Peggy Carter, Kara has to fight sexism as well as the villains that appear in
her path. At the same time her portrayal is stereotypical, having her wonder about romantic
relationships while fighting and being saved by men multiple times during the episodes. Her
superheroic pursuits are always compared to those of her male cousin and she is often times
presented as weaker than him, despite having the same set of powers.
In conclusion, it seems to me that male heroes are usually more complex, usually due to a simple
reason of more screen time. Furthermore, female heroes have to struggle with sexism as well as
their missions and stereotypes are more prevalent in productions featuring female protagonists.
Therefore, one can claim that we are still on the road to realistic and proportional representations
of female heroes in media.

Bibliography

ABC (2016) Agent Carter [online] available from <http://abc.go.com/shows/marvelsagent-carter/about-the-show> [02 April 2016]

Agent Carter (2015-2016) ABC

Arrow (2012-2016) CW

CBS (2016) Supergirl [online] available from


<http://www.cbs.com/shows/supergirl/about/> [02 April 2016]

Coogan, Peter. 2006. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. MonkeyBrain Books:
Austin.

CWTV (2016) Arrow [online] available from <http://www.cwtv.com/shows/arrow/


>[01 April 2016]

CWTV (2016) The Flash [online] available from <http://www.cwtv.com/shows/theflash/> [01 April 2016]

Garrett, Greg. 2008. Holy Superheroes! Exploring Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books.
Revised and expanded edition. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville.

Supergirl (2015-2016) CBS

The Flash (2014-2016) CW

Wright, W. Bradford. 2001. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in
America. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.