Monday, June 4, 2007
Cheerleaders are as hated as they are loved, especially by the geek community. Geek girls love/hate cheerleaders because their worth is measured against the cheerleader ideal: pert, perky, and pretty. And geek boys love/hate cheerleaders because they lust after them and have as much chance of dating one as they have of dating Supergirl in the comics they read.
Tim Kring is probably one of these geeks with cheerleader love/hate. Creator of Heroes, the runaway NBC hit TV show of the 2006-07 season, Kring created a character with a super power that fuels cheerleader misogyny. Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) is a cheerleader at her high school in Odessa, Texas. Her super power allows her to heal from virtually any injury. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Not when you see it done.
Claire heals but first she has to be inflicted with the most ghastly injuries. As the series begins, she’s making a video of suicide attempts to document her super power: she jumps off an oil refinery catwalk and falls fifty feet to a cement slab, breaking her neck, only to stand up seconds later. In another episode, she is killed when her skull is punctured by a broken tree branch. In the next episode, she wakes up in the morgue, her chest sliced open and exposed mid-autopsy. She has run through a building on fire and has stopped a nuclear holocaust in her skimpy cheerleader outfit. Those who love to hate cheerleaders nationwide can tune in each week to see the new and increasingly grisly injuries that Claire will sustain in a sick cycle of misogynist horror-show fantasy.
Beloved by geeks and non-geeks alike, Heroes has been a top 20 ratings winner in total viewers since its debut in the fall of 2006. There’s many things to like about the comic booky show about “ordinary” people with super powers, but how it treats women is not one of them.
In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Ali Larter called her character Niki Sanders “the first real woman that I have played.” For an actress known primarily for her roles in the Final Destination films, the character of Niki is certainly more complex and demanding than her previous work in the industry. But apparently in Larter’s lexicon, the term “real woman” does not equate to the kind of role that breaks with conventional stereotypes in any way.
Niki Sanders is a single mom who turns to webcam stripping when her hoodlum husband goes on the run, hardly progressive for women’s roles. If watching blonde Claire flounce about in her skimpy cheerleader outfit is not enough cheesecake for the geek boy audience, the character of Niki also affords Heroes the chance to let another blonde, sexpot show off her smoking-hot body.
Niki’s super power consists of having an evil twin, Jessica, who comes out to do the “dirty work,” which has included webcam stripping, murders, covering up murders, and sex with a congressional candidate as part of a blackmail scheme. Though Niki/Jessica is strong, possibly even super-strong, her evil twin reinforces age-old Madonna/whore stereotypes in nauseating and unoriginal fashion.
These two stereotypical and misogynistic portraits of women could have been mitigated at least somewhat if Heroes balanced these roles against more positive and progressive women characters. But through the first dozen or more episodes, Niki and Claire are the only two major women characters among the cast. Later in the season, Kring introduced more women. Of these, the good ones, the ones who might break free of stereotypes, are all killed off. The ones who live are more like villains than heroes. These women represent the same crap that’s peddled on Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy: women are essentially manipulative schemers; they can’t be trusted. Among their many duplicitous acts, these conniving, women use sexual lures to spy on the super-powered men or do the bidding of the men in charge of various secret organizations.
The limited number of women characters on the show remind us that television, like comic books, is dominated by men. On Heroes, the women in supporting roles are simply caricatures: a mother with a pet poodle, who is a Texan version of Elle Woods from Legally Blonde; a babysitting sister with beautician skills, who is not much different than the woman with the poodle; a woman who plays no more than a romantic partner for two men and ends up dead, pictured above even though she has no powers; and a wife who cheats on her husband, for no clearly-defined reason, but falls in love with him all over again when he gives her the best sex of their married life because he can read her thoughts (anyone seen What Women Want?).
None of these roles are endorsements for women’s progress in television as fully-defined characters free of stereotype. Only one woman, Audrey, played by Clea Duvall, breaks with established stereotypes as an FBI agent, though even she cannot solve her murder case without teaming up with the super-powered male cop. And after seeing a lot of her in the early in the season, she disappears, possibly because a strong woman who doesn’t look like Malibu Barbie isn’t what the audience of Heroes wants to see.
Heroes is a compelling television program with weekly cliff-hangers and an ethnically diverse cast much like ABC’s Lost. A hotter property when ABC’s geek-fest was suffering from a post-sophomore year slump, the November 10th cover of Entertainment Weekly featured Heroes, showing the cheerleader sandwiched between two of the male characters proudly heralding a revision of the show’s promotion line: “Save the cheerleader; save the TV season!” (revised from the show’s motto: “Save the cheerleader; save world!”). The picture seemed most appropriate for the show’s ethos: Lots of men and not so many women. Perhaps a better motto would have been: “Save the cheerleader from all this misogyny!”
Friday, May 4, 2007
Comics don’t always “get” women. Not as readers and even less often as characters. Many of the women characters in comics suffer brutal torture and death at the hands of editors who are as misogynistic as the villains running amok on their four-color pages. Many women comic characters wear costumes that look more like they are getting ready for their hourly dance at the exotic all-nude club than for their nightly patrol as superheroes.
But one woman character in comics has been breaking the sexist molds of comic creators for years, and in late 2006, she gave readers one of the most feminist, empowered-woman moments in the history of comics. The Invisible Woman is invisible no longer!
The Invisible Woman did not start out with “woman” as part of her name. From the inception of super heroism in the 1930s, with the notable exceptiob of Wonder Woman and a few others, most characters were labelled as “girls” – Supergirl and Batgirl – or as “lasses” – Light Lass and Shadow Lass. So it was not surprising that when new Marvel Comics creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four in 1961, they christened the group’s only female character as a “girl.” The Invisible Girl would remain a “girl” even after she married the team’s leader and gave birth to a child in what would become the new company’s First Family of superheroes.
Like most women in comics, the Invisible Girl’s powers were non-threatening and mainly meant for defense. If in a tight spot, she could hide by “disappearing,” turning invisible until the danger passed. Susan Storm (later Susan Richards) represented what society thought about women of the time: they were “girls” who needed to hide when it came time to fight the giant green monsters busting out of subterranean caverns.
Her force fields were an afterthought. (After all, she was called “Invisible Girl” not “Invisible Force Field Girl.”) She could shape giant shields or bubbles to protect herself and the members of her superhero family. Using her force fields wasn’t easy and caused her constant pain and anguish, much the same facially in the illustrations of the 1960s and 1970s as the depcitions of her giving birth. Unlike the men in the group whose powers did not cause them pain to maintain against the onslaught of their foes, The Invisible Girl would often show her “natural feminine” weakness by straining painfully to maintain the shield. When she couldn’t handle the stress of maintaining the force field, her male companions would need to save the day. For most of the first 100 issues of The Fantastic Four, The Invisible Girl would need more protecting from the threats that would endanger her and her superhero family than she did protecting of the men in the group.
Things have changed in 45 years of Fantastic Four comics. In the 1980s, John Byrne transformed the Invisible Girl into the Invisible Woman. As both writer and artist, he soon showed the comics world that Sue Storm-Richards was the most powerful member of the Fantastic Family. She could do a lot more than cower underneath her force fields. She could use them as transport devices, riding on ramps of force; she could expand them inside something else, exploding an object from within among many, many other lethal and devastatingly destructive uses. She could block nasal passages; she could stop a heart. What was originally an afterthought became arguably the greatest super power on her team and in the entire Marvel universe.
25 years after her transformation from girl to woman, the new creative team of J. Michael Straczyinski and Mike McKone have advanced the Invisble Woman yet again with a story moment that can be viewed as one of the few feminist outcries in comics, a wake-up call to fan boys everywhere that women in comics can take care of themselves.
In issue 540 of Fantastic Four, the first couple of comics, Sue Richards and her husband Reed are arguing over dubious choices he’s making in the ongoing Civil War saga in the Marvel Comic universe. To defend his actions in supporting a law that requires superheroes to register with the government or face capture and imprisonment (think Homeland Security meets Nazi Germany with super-powered soldiers), Reed claims he’s protecting his wife. In response, the Invisible Woman blasts a tube of solid and invisible force through the 50-some floors of the team’s Baxter Building headquarters. Once her husband has seen the extent of this destructive act, she says: “Do I look like I need protecting, Reed? Do I?”
Though making neat holes in each floor of their HQ may seem decidedly male with its penetration imagery, it’s a point that the supposedly super-genius Mister Fantastic, and maybe all men in comics as well as those who read them, need to understand: women superheroes have come a long way from the days in which they needed men to protect and rescue them. Not only can they protect themselves, but from the way this conflict looks like it will play out in the Fantastic Four, they will be the ones who will rescue the men.