“Supergirls” – Essay Fiesta 8.15.2011 / Tuesday Funk 5.3.2011

This was a piece I read first at Tuesday Funk, my friend (and acclaimed sci-fi author) Bill Shunn‘s reading series at the Hopleaf. I read it in a slightly different form at Essay Fiesta a few months later. I don’t usually repeat pieces like that but I wanted another crack at performing it since I didn’t feel I’d quite done it justice the first time. Honestly, this is a piece that works best in front of an audience of comic geeks or, failing that, with visual aids. I didn’t have that in either case (though the Tuesday Funk crowd was pretty close) so the fact that this piece worked at all is a testament to my ability to mine cheap laughs out of the words “bosomy” and “pantsless.”

For my previous thoughts on the intersection of comics and fatherhood, read Comic Books are for Girls and Pink.

Watch this piece:

Since February, my wife and I have been the parents of an amazing little girl named Abigail. Many months before she was born, I began to obsess over how we’d raise her in a “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” culture. My hope is we’ll raise Abigail to figure out her own identity and pursue her own likes and dislikes, irrespective of the expectations of others. I realize this is akin to saying “And hopefully she will someday own a unicorn” but that’s my hope.

My biggest concern with the color pink is the princess culture that seems to accompany it. Everyone in this room looks pretty intelligent – in addition to being incredibly good-looking – so I don’t need to go into all of the pitfalls here. But suffice it to sabuy I don’t want to raise a daughter who expects to be saved by a handsome prince. Frankly, I’d be happy if the sum total of my daughter’s experiences with princesses involved getting to the end of a level of Super Mario Brothers and getting annoyed because the one she is looking for is in another castle.

But I realize some of the girly pink stuff is going to be inevitable. My wife once told me “Our daughter might like pink and Barbies” in a tone that left unsaid the words “and that’s OK” as well as “and you might just have to suck it up and deal.” I’m certainly aware of the irony of burdening her with all my expectations in an effort to help her avoid those of others. If she’s going to be her own person then I need to tread lightly lest I send her running into the Disney Princess section of Toys R Us and have her emerge covered tiara to toe in wee royal garb.

This has not, however, stopped me from conceiving of alternative options for her.

Obviously the surest way to get a kid interested in something is to, in some way, suggest that it is somehow “bad.” So merely suggesting princesses are dumb isn’t going to work. When I first got out of college, I was a substitute teacher for classes that ranged from 1st to 8th grade. When I was trying to correct the behavior of younger kids it wasn’t enough to tell them not to do something. You have to redirect their undesired behavior to something positive. So if one of your charges was getting into an argument with another kid you would break it up but then, say, walk them over to the bookshelf and have them pick out a book.

So if the dominant societal culture dictates my daughter is inevitably going to gravitate to women in unrealistic costumes with fanciful backstories who operate from positions of authority steeped in tradition…isn’t it possible I could interest her into comic book superheroes instead?

My plan was to acquire five appropriately iconic comic book covers featuring female super heroes and use them as art in our daughter’s room. My hope was that the imagery would carry with it a certain magisterial air that would seem an acceptable substitute for the elaborate sashes and gowns of princesses. And as she grew up, my daughter would inevitably have questions about these characters and we’d share their stories, discuss their heroics and, in doing so, gently reinforce the values of self-reliance, sacrifice and adventure – all of which seemed to run counter to princess culture. Eventually she would decide uh…for herself that superheroes were cool and princesses drool.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Scott, this all sounds kind of sneaky.” To which I would respond “Yes. Yes it does.”

Anyway, I realized early on that this wasn’t a perfect alternative. There’s plenty of problematic imagery – particularly when it comes to women – in comic books. So I came up with a list of traits that would help guide me to the responsible choices:

[Fair warning to the non-geeks in the audience: This next bit is going to get super-nerdy. If the last thing you saw involving someone with a cape was Phantom of the Opera now might be a good time to go get a drink from the bar or hit the bathroom.]

1. EACH CHARACTER SHOULD HAVE HER OWN IDENTITY AND NOT BE DERIVATIVE OF A MALE CHARACTER
Even though this would knock out some perfectly acceptable options – Batgirl, She-Hulk, Mary Marvel – it seemed to run counter to this whole exercise if the entire list suffered from Ms. Pac Man syndrome and my daughter equated female identity with little more than lipstick, false eyelashes, a beauty mark and a hair accessory. (As an aside, how many of you remembered that Ms. Pac Man had a mole?)

2. EASY DOES IT ON THE CLEAVAGE
Obviously, female superheroes are going to have boobs. And for uh…whatever reason it seems that a predominant number of them have large boobs. Clearly, for women who are predisposed to saving the Earth there is some kind of correlative genetic marker for large breasts. There didn’t seem to be much of a way around this but at least it could be managed. So I resolved to favor women who wore shirts, jackets, jumpsuits or perhaps battle armor. It also meant Power Girl wasn’t making the cut.

3. NO ONE WITH AN “AND THEN SHE WAS EVIL” PLOTLINE
It would have been great to put Jean Grey up on my daughter’s wall: a female hero whose greatest power derived from the use of her mind? Perfect! Up until the point where she turns evil, becomes Dark Phoenix and commits genocide by wiping out an entire planet.

4. PANTS ARE PREFERABLE TO NO PANTS
I felt we were doing our daughter a disservice if we suggested to her that the world at large is OK with a young woman who parades around in underpants and fishnets. We’d really just be setting her up for two possible careers: pop singer or magician’s assistant. I’m not saying either of those is bad, but it seems kind of limiting. So this meant Black Canary was out and so was Zatanna – who I think was an actual magician’s assistant at some point.

The corollary to this rule was that shorts were also acceptable so obviously the X-Men’s Jubilee was a possibility. Then again, I had to ask myself whether I wanted to endorse jean shorts as a fashion choice.

But when I got down to the business of making my list based on these rules, I found sticking to them was pretty much impossible. Even my wife thought I was being a little too restrictive. On the turning evil issue she said “I think it’s OK to have been evil at some point; there is an important lesson there. Everyone gets to make mistakes, no one is born perfect and we all get a shot at redemption and triumph.”

What I eventually realized was trying to shield my daughter from pantsless, bosomy, infrequently evil characters was going to prevent my daughter from figuring out why these rules were important all on her own. By creating a set of rules about what was OK I was working against my own efforts to instill in her a contrarian spirit. Or, as my friend Veronica put it, “Well behaved women rarely make history. This covers not wearing pants.”

So yes, there might not be Supergirl if there hadn’t been a Superman first but that doesn’t mean she’s any less dedicated to truth, justice and the American way. And I came around to the notion that it’s OK that Wonder Woman isn’t usually wearing pants because she inspires others to be strong, powerful women. And Buffy Summers saved the world a lot, even if she once had to kill her vampire boyfriend to do it. All three of them made the list.

Rounding out the top 5 were the Invisible Woman from the Fantastic Four and Elastigirl from The Incredibles. Both are mothers with a strong sense of family. I figured it was valuable to teach my daughter that moms are superheroes, too.

The act of making this list was what finally made me realize the problem I originally set out to solve didn’t need fixing. If we’re otherwise smart about how we raise our daughter then she won’t need her father to save her anymore than she’ll need a prince to do so. She’ll make her mind up all by herself. There’s plenty that’s problematic about princesses of the Disney variety, sure, but there’s also Princess Leia and Zena: Warrior Princess. And just as the pictures of the women we’ve chosen to hang on Abigail’s wall aren’t to be judged solely by their costumes so to are princesses to be judged by more than the color of their gowns.

Though I still think she’s going to be heartbroken when she finds out we won’t let her leave the house pantsless.

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