by Hannah Mugford and Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.
Today, some of the most powerful heroes within the superhero genre are, in fact, women: Captain Marvel and The Scarlet Witch in the Marvel cinematic universe, Jean Grey of The X-Men, and Wonder Woman in the DC Universe. While many applaud these depictions as inspirational, particularly for young girls, skepticism has also been raised at the deeper message these “strong” women characters potentially carry. Specifically, do these heroines truly empower, or are they simply embodying a stereotypical masculine standard of strength?
A study done by the BBC in 2018 found that young female fans of the superhero genre experience a boost to their self-esteem when seeing such characters. This positive effect suggests that gender representation on screen matters, as it can be aspirational and motivating for young girls. As the president of BBC America said in response, “If you can’t see her, you can’t be her.”
However, some have questioned the concept of “strength” depicted in these characters, suggesting that it is rooted in traits that champion aggression, lack of emotion, and physical prowess. In other words, women portrayed onscreen must display a capacity for destruction and violence to be seen as strong.
Author AJ Vrana explains how she navigated this conflict when creating the protagonist, Miya, in her book The Hollow Gods. Vrana admits that she wasn’t specifically concerned with creating a ‘strong female character,’ because considering the concept seriously made her realize that she wasn’t even sure what it meant. She instead was more concerned with creating someone who was relatable to her readers; someone who had relatable problems and vulnerabilities. For Vrana, the way strength showcases itself is in how one copes with and comes to understand their problems. Vrana explains that the goal was never to eliminate Miya’s problems, but to get her from a place where life was too difficult to one where she could stand on her own two feet: “If that isn’t some iteration of strength, I don’t know what is.”
Women have historically been criticized for being “too emotional,” and the strong-woman character trope can be seen as a response to this criticism: She is fearless, unshakeable, hard, and poised to punch through anyone who stands in her way. While these traits are not exclusive to men, popular media often chooses to portray strength as such. This puts the burden on women to fulfill a pre-constructed definition of strength, instead of questioning the validity of the definition in the first place. Should everyone, regardless of gender, aspire to qualities that strip away our humanity in favour of brute force? Vrana touches on this when discussing the complexity of Miya’s courage and bravery in The Hollow Gods. She explains that there are moments when Miya is brave, but the bravery comes more from her ability to confront emotions rather than her willingness to physically throw herself into danger. Forcing herself to not show feeling because there is this expectation of ‘being strong’ is not necessarily a virtue. “Having to cast off or ignore pain because ‘that’s not strong’ – I don’t think we’re doing anyone any favours with that,” Vrana says.
With all of this in mind, there are some noteworthy exceptions within the superhero genre. For example, in the Disney+ television series WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch, creates a massively destructive force within her precisely because she is desperate to ignore and avoid her past trauma. It is only when she comes to accept her pain and grief that she can realize and embody her true strength.
By allowing her character Miya the space to express her struggles with mental health, Vrana has received praise from readers for creating a protagonist who is both strong and relatable. Readers and reviewers saw themselves in the representations of Miya’s anxiety, and that made them feel seen.
Copyright Robert T. Muller Ph.D.