Is there a difference between a hero and a heroine? Should there be any difference? Comics more than any other form of media have presented the widest set of examples in the way of female heroes (as the politically correct term goes) from the demure to the overly aggressive. But in such creations as Power Girl, Wonder Woman, Thundra, and She-Hulk, all attempts at kowtowing to the feminist ideal, the industry might as well have made them male characters for all their busty bosoms and flashing legs. In fact, by powering up these females in the way of physical strength, male writers have done a disservice to women, falling into the feminist trap of equating men with women, in effect merging the two as if they were interchangeable.
Why do women need to be defined by such male qualities as physical strength? Why not have them defined through their own particular strengths and play up to that? Aren’t their own unique qualities as valuable as those of men?
Women are no less courageous than their male counterparts of course, but where men are likely to be aggressive and bombastic, women are kind, caring, and protective. Because they are not as physically strong, women frequently have the advantage of being able to hold back and think a situation through before barging ahead. In reality, men are physically stronger than women so giving them super-strength for instance, is a believable extension of an existing condition. Not so for women. For them, powers that are more passive in nature such as invisibility, telekinesis, or probability altering fit their more reserved natures better. As such, the heroes and heroines that work best are those whose super attributes are extensions of their basic masculine and feminine gifts. Not that super-heroines cannot have super-strength, but those that have that power ought to use it in different ways than a man would.
Many have seen the various Marvel Studios films starring the Black Widow character. Her ability to lay low dozens of male combatants crosses the line and snaps our ability to suspend belief for the duration of a two hour movie. With her around, who needs Captain America and his apparently useless super soldier serum?
But in overdoing the Widow’s physical abilities, the producers have robbed her of her essential femininity (her physical appearance not withstanding!) She’s essentially just one of the boys: serious, tough, distant. Her polar opposite, and the perfect reconciliation between physically capable and retention of feminine qualities is the Emma Peel character from the 1960s-era Avengers television show. There, Mrs. Peel is totally capable in any number of areas including physical ability and yet nothing about the use of her skills detracts in any way from her femininity. Unlike the movie Widow–or current depictions of Wonder Woman or She-Hulk–she could never be mistaken for a man!
In that spirit, the following list includes the most successful examples of the super-heroine ideal. Heroines who rely less on aping their male counterparts than exercising power in ways that allow them to succeed while retaining their feminine qualities.
(Caveat: This survey of super-heroines does not take into account changes in the characters instituted in the post-1980s dark age)
10) Miss America
Miss America was teenager Madeline Joyce, a rich girl who acquired the power to fly or levitate after she tampered with an experimental device before it blew up. She also received super strength from the accident but cooler editorial heads prevailed up at Timely Comics where her character was born in 1943 and that power was eventually left by the wayside. She made her debut in a modest red, white, and blue outfit for Marvel Mystery Comics before joining Captain America and the Human Torch as a member of the All Winners Squad. Unafraid to throw a good right cross or slam into a Nazi with both feet, Miss America fought crime and still maintained her dignity. She even had time for romance, marrying fellow golden age hero the Whizzer!
Before there was Thor, there was Venus! The Grecian goddess of beauty that is! Or maybe not. It didn’t matter as this Venus came from the planet of the same name and so technically, was an alien. In a resume that was more Wonder Woman-like than mythological, Venus lived on Venus among a society of females before coming to Earth in Venus #1 (1948) and assuming the identity of Vicki Starr, a writer for Beauty Magazine. There, while trying to catch the eye of boss Whitney Hammond, Venus spent her time fighting off various supernatural threats and maintaining her feminine composure in an outfit that was more flowing white robe than costume.
8) Lady Blackhawk
Making her first appearance in Blackhawk #133 (1959), Lady Blackhawk was Zinda Blake, expert pilot and an all-around handy gal to have around. Unfortunately, for the longest time, the boys in Blackhawk’s group of famed WWII fighters thought their missions were too dangerous for a woman. But after Zinda managed to come to their rescue a number of times, they wised up and finally made her a member. Dressed in a Blackhawk uniform that was at once sexy and modest, Lady Blackhawk fulfilled her duty without sacrificing her credentials as woman!
Sheena (nee Queen of the Jungle) has the privilege of being the first femme to headline her own title. That happened in 1942. Before that, the blond tigress starred in Jumbo Comics from 1937, instantly becoming the template by which an avalanche of jungle beauties followed. But there was a lot more to Sheena than simple animal magnetism. Raised in the jungle as an orphan, she learned to be proficient with any kind of weapon that could be made from shafts of wood or trailing lianas. Sure, it was pretty bold of her to prance around in that leopard skin one piece, but when she wasn’t wrestling crocodiles or water buffaloes with only a knife, she was all woman!
6) Saturn Girl
A founding member of the Legion of Super-Heroes (she and the Legion first appeared in 1958’s Adventure Comics #247), Saturn Girl, or Imra Ardeen, retained her 30th century dignity with a modest skirt/slack outfit while keeping up with the more numerous male members of the team with her mind reading powers. Though she rarely if ever traded punches with the bad guys, she led the team a number of times over the years letting her sense of compassion and understanding be her guide to success. Later, she married fellow founder Lightning Lad and the two settled down to raise a family.
5) Blonde Phantom
A noirish heroine, the Blonde Phantom made her first appearance in All Select Comics #11 (1946) before taking over the title under her own name. As Louise Grant, the Phantom was secretary to a private detective. Deciding to help him out with his cases without him knowing, Louise donned a domino mask and a slinky gown before cruising the usual noir haunts chasing down clues and cornering criminals with her .45. She did it all without sacrificing an iota of her femininity.
4) Black Widow
Not the Black Widow we all know from recent movies but the Black Widow so named by her Soviet masters on account of her never failing in the espionage assignments she was given. Dressed in haute couture with a veil over her face, Natasha Romanoff made her first appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 and also met her first defeat there as well. In subsequent clashes with Tony Stark and Iron Man, she eventually exchanged civilian dress for a uniform of sorts (black fishnet stockings, mask, and cape topped off with a webline that shot out from wrist units and shoes and gloves that allowed her to cling to walls…like her namesake). The uniform didn’t help any.
Eventually, she defected, toyed with becoming an Avenger, then joined SHIELD instead. Because most of her adventures were done under the watchful eye of the Comics Code, the real cost of international espionage could not be shown in most of her adventures. That had to wait until Bizarre Adventures #25 when writer Ralph Macchio and artist Paul Gulacy were finally able to show the real Black Widow, who was a direct descendent of such noir heroines as the Blonde Phantom and the action-oriented Lady Blackhawk. She was less the freewheeling, manpuncher/kicker of the movies than the stealthy spy she actually was.
3) Invisible Girl
A groundbreaking character that, through most of her career, epitomized the ideal of the super-heroine. She was Susan Storm at the start of Fantastic Four #1(1961) before accompanying boyfriend Reed Richards on an early spaceflight and being bombarded by cosmic rays. Irradiated, she gained the power of invisibility and later the ability to form invisible shields, making her a valuable member of the Fantastic Four. But her real importance was in the trail she blazed for her peers as she eventually learned to balance her super-heroic adventures with the roles of wife and mother. More than any other female character in the super-hero genre, Sue Storm followed a trajectory of personal development that was unprecedented in comics moving from sweetheart, to engagement and marriage, to childbirth, even miscarriage. The career of the Invisible Girl was not only historic and original, but remained true to her identity as a woman.
To the astonishment of her cousin Superman, Supergirl emerged full blown from a crashed capsule on the cover of Action Comics #252 (1959). In a costume patterned after Superman’s (except for the skirt!) Supergirl was quickly placed undercover in an orphanage as a sort of “secret weapon.” From there, Linda Lee, disguising her blond hair with a wig, managed to sneak off and have her own adventures which were frequently whimsical and often involved developing relationships with other girls (be they human, alien, or whatever) or performing good deeds. She was later adopted, became Linda Danvers, and eventually made her public debut as Superman’s cousin.
Although in later years numerous attempts were made to launch her in her own title, the increase in conflict and action never seemed to suit the Supergirl persona. The only time she really worked on the action level was when she traveled into the future to join her girlfriends on the Legion of Super-Heroes. There, she met fellow member Brainiac 5 and the two became somewhat of an item with her super strength and his super intellect complementing each other.
The original Supergirl was eventually killed off during the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series. A grave mistake because though she was as powerful as Superman, she didn’t throw her weight around as much as he did. Less of an iconic figure, she was left alone to use her powers with a more feminine spin, making friends and allowed to fall in love.
1) Mary Marvel
Created by writer Otto Binder and artist Marc Swayze, the ‘tween heroine Mary Marvel appeared full blown in Captain Marvel Adventures #18 (1942). Unlike her brother, Billy Batson, who became an adult when he shouted the magic word Shazam, Mary Batson remained her girlish self when she did the same. A key to the character’s success was Swayze’s art, which managed to depict her convincingly as a young girl (not an easy thing to do) while conveying the sense that she possessed the same powers as Captain Marvel.
But more than that, Binder’s scripts and Swayze’s art preserved Mary’s femininity, a task that proved difficult for later creators who concentrated on her Superman level powers rather than her sweet, girlish nature. More than the womanly virtues of the Invisible Girl or the friendly, accepting nature of Supergirl (whose creation was actually inspired by Mary), or the outgoing personalities of such fellow heroines as Lady Blackhawk, Sheena, or the Phantom Lady, Mary Marvel perfectly captured the feminine/masculine dichotomy without tipping the scale to emphasize the XY half of the equation.
Her creators understood who she was, that she wasn’t just a carbon copy of the male Captain Marvel. She was her own person, complete and without the need to take on qualities not native to herself as a female. Mary was kind, understanding, compassionate, and wise–tender qualities she, nor any other woman, need deny.