What Makes Them SuperWomen?

Superman logo

Superman logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s right, gentle viewers, I’m at it again.

A couple weeks ago, we had a fabulous hour and a half live chat on the topic of SuperWomen in media. How there is a proportional vacuum of SuperWomen in Hollywood, and what needs to be done to show the media-makers that there is a vibrant audience for female characters who don’t just have superpowers, but who have fully-realised development, flaws, and personal strengths.

So today I want to ask the question: What makes a SuperWoman?

I’m asking in context of fantasy/comic book worlds, and for these purposes some sort of superpower is a pre-requisite. (Later, however, we will definitely be discussing real life SuperWomen whose superpowers stem more from inner strength than the ability to smash like Hulk.)

In the vein of the SuperMEN out there, what is it that makes a SuperWoman a SuperWoman and not a trope?

Here are my thoughts. Feel free to give yours in the comments.

superman aidan

superman aidan (Photo credit: pixel pro photography south africa)

1. Backstory

This is a word that all writers have a love-hate relationship with, and most readers are familiar enough with to understand. It’s one of those things that has to be done effectively, without sounding like an info-dump. Backstory is, for those who don’t know, what happened to a character before the premise of the active story begins.

For secondary characters, it could be as simple as “she used to be a mechanic,” but for SuperWomen, there needs to be more of a story there. And it should be sprinkled (not dumped) through the main story enough to give viewers and readers a sense of who this person was and how that changed or equipped her to be who she is. 

Buffy Summers was a vapid high school cheerleader before she got called to slaying vampires. You see her wistfulness for that innocence, and sometimes her outright anger. You also see her insistence that, in spite of her extraordinary circumstances, that girl is still in there. It gives her character depth and emotion.

BIcep Tattoo

BIcep Tattoo (Photo credit: Lynn Friedman)

2. Strength Beyond the Physical

SuperWomen don’t need to be paragons of virtue, but they do need to have strengths beyond their superpowers. Wisdom, character, determination, mettle.

What I believe Hollywood has done on many counts is to mistake physical strengths or abilities a substitute for these real life strengths. What decisions is this character going to make when things get rough, and why? Fully realised characters have these strengths — it’s what makes them choose to save a city instead of let it burn for personal gain. And the better the writing, the more nuanced and grey these areas get.

A kitten opens its eyes for the first time

3. Weaknesses and Flaws

Good characters have faults.

They’re not perfect, they don’t make the right decisions all the time, and they’re not always shiny and happy. The best characters can make crappy decisions and you’ll still sympathise with them because they feel like a real person to you.

These faults can be arrogance, blind spots, anger, vengeance, a soft spot for kittens, or a propensity for Twinkies. They’re anything that can potentially complicate a story. Complications are what make stories interesting and engaging.

These are just three things that make SuperWomen. Three simple things that are seen one or two at a time in Hollywood characterisations of female superheroes, but seldom all at once. This list is not finite, so I turn to you to extend it.

Sound off in the comments — but tomorrow #SuperWomen chat is back!

Same bat time, same bat channel:

When: Thursday, 4 October from 7:00-8:30 EDT (yes, I extended it a half hour this time!)
Where: #SuperWomen hashtag on Twitter
Who: YOU.
Topics for Discussion: What makes them SuperWomen? What are the characteristics of the paragons of SuperWomen? How can media better espouse these things instead of creating tropes?

Join us tomorrow for the second #SuperWomen chat, and let your thoughts be known to the Twitterverse. Sam Scott and Rebekah Martin will be joining me again as mods! Last time we got #SuperWomen trending — let’s do it again!




About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on October 3, 2012, in Superheroes, SuperWomen and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Kourtney Heintz

    I think an important aspect of superwomen characters is that their superpower isn’t what saves the day. It’s something innate to the character. Like Harry Potter. It’s not because he’s a wizard but because he is willing to sacrifice himself for the people he loves that he saves the day. 🙂

  2. I see Kourtney’s point, but when we have superMEN, they do get to save the day with their special power. So superwomen need a physical power that can handle the bad guy. ALL superheros are willing to sacrifice themselves for the people. That’s part of the trope. Even Iron Man will drop his spoiled bad boy attitude if he needs to save the little people.

    In my mind, all that’s needed is that super power. Super”girl” was not any weaker than superman was.

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