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Smoking hot and kicking arse: What makes a female superhero?

super women
It’s time for you lazy slugs to do some work. I have a book tour coming up in a few weeks, and I need to work on a couple of stump speeches. One of the topics I really wanted to look at was female action heroes.

I love ‘em. I love writing about them. Reading about them. Thinking about them when I awake before dawn and remember Charlize Theron in that black bodysuit in Aeon Flux and … uh, well… oh dear… okay… let’s just stick with the writing about them.

It wasn’t so long ago that we didn’t even have female action heroes to inspire young girls to become ultimate killing machines. We had to put up with sensibly dressed do-gooders and busybodies like Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, neither of whom ever snapped a guy’s head clean off his neck as far as I can remember, or fashioned a homemade flamethrower to weaponise a big, ass-kicking suit of powered armor like Ripley’s in the second Alien movie.

Indeed it’s probably Ripley we have to thank, not just for updating the image of the female hero, but for completely redefining it. There was a tiresome study by some hairy-legged wymyn’s institute a little while ago, criticizing female action heroes for conforming to “submissive gender roles”. The study’s author, Katy Gilpatric, complained that feminism was still not a source of power for most female action heroes.

I think what Katy really had an issue with was how smoking hot most kickarse superchicks tend to be. Like they should be snapping dudes’ spinal columns and kicking big holes in their torsos while wearing shapeless boiler suits and cheap, unattractive haircuts.

I digress, however, and before I digress further and start getting a little ranty, let’s get back on topic. Your topic. I know what I like in a female action hero; a smart mouth, an itchy trigger finger, and the ability to beat down any man who gives her grief without so much as smudging her lippy. But that’s me. Not everybody agrees.

When Without Warning was published I was fascinated to see how people quickly arranged themselves into different armed camps over who was their most or least favorite female character. The thing that really surprised me wasn’t so much the split between Jules and Caitlin, but the big vote that came in for Barbara Kipper. Unlike the other two characters, Barbara really brought nothing to the table in terms of arse-kicking awesomeness. She was, or at least she seems to be, a fairly average suburban mother. Jules on the other hand was a foulmouthed, morally challenged smuggler, a fallen daughter of the British aristocracy, and somebody who tended to do the right thing by accident rather than design. Caitlin was an assassin. An assassin with a brain tumor, admittedly. But for the most part she didn’t let that slow her down with the neck snapping and torso holing.

I could, and I probably will, spend a long time talking about both those characters in my final draft of the talks – they both have quite interesting relationships with their fathers, for instance – but for the purposes of research I’m kind of interested in why Barbara Kipper, the cookie-baking stay-at-home mom, seem to have a bigger following particularly amongst my male readership. I just didn’t see that coming at all.

Is there a model for this somewhere else in mass culture? Most of the female heroes I know, at least since the coming of Ripley, and the defining work by Joss Whedon in pretty much everything he’s ever done, from Buffy to Dollhouse, has emphasized the importance of strong female characters being able to physically, violently dominate their surroundings. I would also argue that Whedon in particular gives us a model of a female hero who struggles internally as much as externally, but for the purposes of creating an action story, of course, it’s the external struggle which engages us.

So, we get to your assignment for the day, my friends. What is it you look for in a female action hero, be they on the page on the screen? And is there a difference between those two media? Can screen heroines get away with a lot more because we have been conditioned to accept them as almost cartoonish superheroes, while your more bookish superbabez are expected to be a little thinkier and even neurotic.

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4 comments to Smoking hot and kicking arse: What makes a female superhero?

  • PM Ton

    The female superhero role models from my childhood (yes - they had tele back then)

    Batgirl - got this little gal burning around the backyard on her tricycle. Interesting that none of the batman re-booting has bothered with her.

    Emma Peel - guaranteed that I grew up never believing that the chick couldn’t save the bloke.

    Leela (Dr Who) - the first assistant who wasn’t an ankle-spraining-squealing embarrassment. She killed people. No assistant since has come close to her total awesomeness.

    More up to date - after Buffy what possible need was there for Twilight??? And another vote for BSG’s Starbuck who is iconic in all the right ways.

  • Orin

    Perhaps women don’t generally glom onto superhero archetypes not just because of the rather “male oriented” way that they are portrayed in media such as comics, but that women tend to prefer their heroes to be relatable archetypes whereas men prefer their heroes to be aspirational archetypes. Ripley works because she’s not extraordinary in any way other than the way that she deals with the crisis she is involved with. Batman kicks arse all the time. Men like female heroes that are aspirational, but those same heroes may put off a female audience simply because those aspirations are unrealistic in a real person. Put another way my very tentative thesis is that (generally speaking in a vague way) men like unrealistic heroes, women like heroes that are believably human.

  • Shell

    What makes a great action hero of any gender is intelligence. Any man with any common sense can see that he is only a little less vulnerable in the real world than any woman in any case. Without guns, weapons of all kinds, technology and the intelligence to use all gadgets well, no action hero would be safe from the evil-doers of the only-too-unrealistic movie world. It is all about empowerment. Believe me, men and women of the world, intelligence is the only real empowerment there is.
    So whether the super-hero be male or female, a sense of their own vulnerability, and the intelligence to protect themselves in whatever way necessary is the essence of all of the best action heroes. Personally, I love John McLean, James Bond (in a comic kinda way)…oh the list is endless really isn’t it? Any action hero with big, bad weapons, a sense of humour and a feel for the common people and a great body and gorgeous face (male or female) will win it every time! Names unnecessary. In the real world none of them would survive for very long now would they?

  • Shell makes a good point, but following the logic would presume that sherlock holmes is a superhero.

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