Thursday, May 2, 2013

She-Hulk, Superheroines, and Seeing Ourselves as Heroes

The cover of Sensational She-Hulk #40
Enter Issue 40 of Sensational She-Hulk: She-Hulk bears all on the cover. An “off-screen” male hand hands her a jump rope while she tries to hide her body behind a newspaper. While essentially nude superheroines are nothing new to comics, She-Hulk laments on her cover “Hey-- No...! You’re kidding right?”.

The issue continues with her addressing the reader (breaking the fourth-wall) and discussing how ridiculous it is that a woman of her power and standing is reduced to this for some boosts in sales. Not only is the commentary hilarious, it is also poignant. Here is a woman in comics that is saying “Hey, do you ever notice how ridiculous this sexualization is?”.

She-Hulk doesn't care for your sexualization.
To male readers she may open their eyes to the double standard. Whether these pages and She-Hulk’s overall powerful lady persona do anything to change men’s minds about sexualization, I think She-Hulk’s true power lies in her ability to reach out to women and girls. She is a superheroine that makes no apologies. She’s strong, and often angry, and many of her comics (especially the Savage She-Hulk and Sensational She-Hulk versions) comment directly on sexist attitudes.

In the recent GDC panel on #1ReasontoBe, one panelist said that because the culture is hostile and the games sexualize and erase women, young women don’t think of themselves as gamers and thus don’t think of themselves as becoming game developers. Comics have that same potential. Women and girls often see themselves as sexual objects in comics. Even with superpowers, female characters are written and designed to be enjoyed by a heterosexual male audience. How can young women strive to be superheroes, strive to be comics artists, writers and editors, if the books that come out and the culture surrounding comics is so hostile to women?
She-Hulk is often aware she's a comic book character.
And yet there are beacons of light. I think that Savage and Sensational She-Hulk is an example of a great role model character. Unfortunately, she’s not an A-List hero. Her trademark break of the forth wall was popularized later by male superhero Deadpool and many write her off as “just a female Hulk” before they even pick up an issue.

Jennifer Walters is a successful lawyer who becomes the She-Hulk thanks to her cousin Bruce Banner. In her hulked form, She-Hulk gains confidence and speaks her mind. She doesn’t lose her ability to articulate, but she does gain physical strength. Once she learns to control her ability to hulk, she actually prefers her hulk form. She later becomes a successful lawyer who serves other superhumans in the Marvel Universe. She-Hulk is a member of the Avengers and a reserve member of the Fantastic Four, among other teams. She values strength, but also justice and compassion and her character is often hilarious.
Savage She-Hulk fights Iron Man, with intelligence!

She-Hulk isn’t a total win, though, because she is often sexualized. Her hulked out form increases her breast-size and she doesn’t get nearly as much muscle as her male Hulk counterpart. It’s important to recognize these components when discussing She-Hulk, even if you are fan of her, as I am.

I think She-Hulk and other strong, successful women deserve their own series. These superheroines not only give women (young and old) role models that can help them feel welcome in comic creation and comic culture, but these superheroines show women as they really are. Sure, real women don’t have super-strength, the power of flight or invisibility-- but real women do have incredible strength, emotionally and physically, are successful and are incredibly complex. Comics should reflect the complexity of women not just to help young women recognize their potential, but because complex women are a reality and we should celebrate that. We should be able to imagine ourselves as heroes-- because we already are heroes.


(For more on seeing women as heros, check out this ongoing Kickstarter and this excerpt from the Wonder Women! the Untold Story of American Superheroines documentary).

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