Before people start to yell at me for being backward and sexist, let me start with a fairly obvious claim: violence against women is bad. Violence in general is bad of course, but when we say that violence against women is bad we’re not just saying that violence in general is bad. The “against women” part adds something to the claim. Violence in general is bad, but violence against women is worse precisely because it’s against women.
Violence is frequently involved in superhero stories. It isn’t always, of course, but it’s rather the exception when superheroes and supervillains resolve their differences through conversation. Most of that violence is directed at the superheroes, too. (A violent superhero beating up a pacifist supervillain would be almost incomprehensible.) If the superheroic target is a woman, this becomes violence against a woman.
First let me respond to the suggestion that perhaps it isn’t the same sort of violence against a woman that people mean when they say, “violence against women.” My response: do we really want to nitpick? Do we want some violence against women to be more acceptable than other violence against women? Do we want some husband who beats his wife to get a lighter sentence because he’s able to show that he “doesn’t mean it in that other way.” If you want those things, I simply can’t understand your position, and you will probably never understand mine. I suspect that the overwhelming majority of humanity is on my side though.
Second let me respond to the argument that the superheroic woman is superpowered, and thus shouldn’t draw the same response. Perhaps you mean that in essence she is a superhero, not a woman, and therefore the violence is merely violence against a superhero. If being a woman isn’t essential to her though, why all the clamor to make sure that some superheroes are women? If she isn’t a woman, then the other superheroes aren’t men, so there can be no gender disparity.
Perhaps you mean that superpowers alter her in some fundamental way so that we don’t need to see her as a women when she’s the target of violence. Again, it isn’t clear why there’s such a clamor to make sure some superheroes are women then, since becoming a superhero means becoming less of a woman. You might suggest that she becomes more of a woman, although then the would still be the target of “violence against women” and you’ve added an odd insult to all the women in the real world: they are not woman enough to endure violence. Do we really want to say that? (Again, if you want to say that, we will probably never understand each other and the world is on my side.)
Perhaps you mean that her superpowers make her somehow equal to the fight, whereas real women are presumably not equal to any fights. This radically changes the dynamic of superhero stories though, in addition to any insult to feminists. While everything in superhero fights scales up (often dramatically), the basic situation of a man fighting another man (or group of men) is realistic. Good men often fight evil men in the real world, too. The only difference is scale. I may never get in a fight that threatens a city and has global implications (a la Superman in Man of Steel, which is almost traumatically scaled up), but I may someday have to fight someone else on my own meager level. That isn’t an unrealistic possibility in and of itself. (Although it is thankfully unlikely.) If real women are not equal to any fights (and that’s the source of our conviction that violence against women is especially evil), then any man fighting any woman is objectionable regardless of scale. Giving a woman unrealistic powers doesn’t make the basic situation more realistic, it only highlights how unrealistic it is for a woman to be in that situation.
Third let me respond to the argument that violence against superheroic women isn’t objectionable because the women involved volunteer for it in some way. What makes violence against women objectionable though can’t be that women usually don’t choose it. That would make “violence against women” nothing more than “violence against the unwilling,” but even men can be unwilling. (For example, I am unwilling.) What makes violence against women objectionable has to be something either about the fact of womanhood or the choice of the attacker to target a woman. Both of those would remain even if the woman had superpowers.
With all of those responses in place, consider the most common argument in favor of making some superheroes women: the need for superheroic women as role models. Marvel has just announced that Thor will soon be a woman; let’s imagine that I start my daughter reading Thor. Thor is a pretty violent comic. Pretty soon Thor is going to get into a fight against some man, perhaps Kurse. Kurse is unlikely to refrain from punching Thor, since hitting Thor is one of Kurse’s favorite passtimes.
Now, in the real world, if my daughter comes across a man who happens to enjoy hitting her, what I’m going to want her to do is get to safety and get help. (If you don’t agree with that desire, see my earlier comments about how we will never understand one another. And stay away from my daughter.) So, what I want Thor to model for my daughter is running away and getting help.
Instead Thor pulls out her hammer and fights. What is my daughter supposed to learn from that? That it’s okay for her to get hit in some situations, perhaps as long as she hits back? That’s not helpful. That she might be able to handle the situation differently if she can be something other than a woman, or if she can be more of a woman (or less of a woman)? That’s not helpful. That it’s certainly nice not to be weaker than attackers? That’s not helpful.
What virtue is she supposed to imitate? Bravery? I’m fine with her being a coward if it gets her away from the violence. Endurance? I don’t want her to wait and see how much violence she can endure. Hope that she can eventually overcome? HOPE IS WHAT GETS WOMEN AWAY FROM VIOLENCE!!! (If you ever tell an abused woman to just have hope that she can overcome…. you are a sick monster. Give her hope that she can escape abuse.) I don’t want her to take a beating while she watches for a chance to win the fight; I want her out of the fight.
(That last illustrates a crucial distinction. My wife is a fourth-degree black belt; she can defend herself. I have no particular problems with women learning self defense; I actually think that’s a good idea. Superhero stories aren’t just about superheroes defending themselves though. Batman doesn’t just know martial arts for self-defense, for example.)
At least with respect to violence, superheroic women inspire all the wrong sorts of behaviors. Violence is a significant part of superhero stories however. Even worse because of this, things we ought never want to see come packaged with material intended to entertain us. We want to read a story or see a movie about people saving the planet, but for half of it we’re watching some woman getting beaten up for the sake of dramatic tension.
I think it’s great and positive for superhero stories to include important, complex, and powerful women. I’m not advocating a return to some sort of world in which women are nothing more than McGuffins, characters that are only included because the superhero has to be rescuing somebody. I don’t think women should be background objects, attractive but useless. I just think that when it comes to the action part of superheroics, when it comes to getting in the fights that need to happen, it’s better to leave that fighting to men.