Hero Is A Gender-Neutral Word


This week marks an interesting trend in fashion. Not the runway type of fashion, but the lesser-known superhero type of fashion.

Marvel made the news and the Twitter’s-Most-Wanted List this week for blundering into sexism with these shirts:

This one's for BOYS, because BOYS ARE HEROES.

This one’s for BOYS, because BOYS ARE HEROES.

This one's for GIRLS, because HOLY SHIT, we're in the 13th century!

This one’s for GIRLS, because HOLY SHIT, we’re in the 13th century!


I was not amused. Especially because the reaction from (mostly men, sadly) tended toward the defense that Marvel makes other shirts that aren’t sexist.

Like if they made one shirt endorsing the KKK but no other racist shirts, it would be excusable. Worse were the tiresome comments that people (*cough* women) who were offended by these shirts were overreacting. Because that’s just what we women do, folks. We overreact about silly things like being told we need men to save us and getting groped on the Metro.

Just read the HuffPost article and the comments if you doubt me on the pervasiveness of that defense.

I love Marvel. I do. I lived and breathed X-Men when I was a kid and through my teenage years. But they really stepped in it with those shirts.

Today I got up and ran 2.5 miles. I then walked another .75. Then came home and did a helluva lot of jumping jacks and crunches and lunges and planks and various other exercises. I was dopping around Fitocracy (which is my new favorite toy) when I noticed that a guy in a group I’m a member of had bought a BADASS Spiderman compression shirt from Under Armour. My immediate thought was, “I have to get something like this!”

Except Under Armour doesn’t make the Alter Ego line for women.

I deflated like a flan in the cupboard.

And then I felt a whole other thing. I felt anger.

I try not to let myself get mad about this stuff very often. There’s just so much of it that I would be furious all the time if I let it in. But this week has gotten under my skin in a bunch of different ways, from the weight of so many deaths around the world due to human assholery, nature flexing her muscles, or pure, unstoppable accident to these two seemingly minor incidences of sexism.

John Scalzi wrote an interesting post a bit ago in response to a reader’s question. The post was about women in geekdom, and you can read it here. He talks about both of the reactions I mentioned at the beginning of this post, among other things. It’s a very, very good post, and I suggest you take the time to read it.

Back to the blog title.

“Hero” is a gender-neutral word…or at least it should be.

“She’s my HEROINE!”

Have you ever heard anyone say that? I haven’t.

Ever since I was a kid, I remember the heroines being the ones usually tied up, asleep, or otherwise incapacitated while some big, burly dude got his save-the-world on. Cinderella’s locked in her bedroom, Ariel literally has no voice, Snow White’s comatose, Jasmine’s drowning in a giant hourglass, and Sleeping Beauty’s…well. DUH.

The men in these stories were the ones with the agency. Princes running amok, slaying dragon-witch-creatures or dressing down evil stepmothers or outsmarting pointy-faced sorcerers. The women just sat around. Sure, they might show a brain cell or two and get feisty now and then, but until Mulan, I don’t remember seeing them do much else when it came to Disney.

It wasn’t just Disney, either. It was everywhere. I remember when I saw Terminator and fell in LOVE with Sarah Connor. That was a first for me, to see a woman being heroic. Really heroic. Save the world heroic. Then came Buffy Summers. And the X-Men. And I started to see more. But to me they were always heroes. The word heroine remained relegated to the recesses of my mind, an unfortunate homophone for a hard drug.

New millenium, same old tropes.

Even with the advent of X-Men and Buffy and Sarah Connor, the same tropes are still there. Bella Swan is useless for most of Twilight, and even though Edward has the power to make her able to defend herself (and, of course, there’s THAT — he makes that his choice of whether or not to bestow that power), he chooses to put her in danger in spite of her own wishes.

The new Avengers shirts are just the latest example in centuries of this sort of thing. When I looked into Under Armour expanding their Alter Ego line to include women, I saw that they were working on it. But here’s the thing: why can’t a company (or a movie studio or whatever) have the foresight to simply roll out something awesome like that for both sexes at ONCE? Did no one from the idea’s inception to its execution stop and scratch their heads and think, “You know, it’d be sweet if we did a female line as well. I bet the badass women who buy our gear would love that.” Because do not mistake me: the women who populate Under Armour’s Sweat Every Day campaign are fucking badass women.

Heroes are heroes.

It doesn’t matter if you’re Superman getting your umpteenth movie reboot (which looks AWESOME, by the way) or teacher Vicki Soto who put herself between a crazed gunman and the children for whom she was responsible. It doesn’t matter if you’re Gabe Zimmerman, Gabby Gifford’s staffer who ran toward her when someone opened fire instead of away — or if you’re the female runner on the videos of the Boston Marathon bombings who, when the bomb went off, veered aside to help a man push his stroller just a little faster. Or the two teenage girls out west who lifted a three ton tractor off of their father, saving his life.

Heroes are heroes.

The second big problem with the female Avengers shirt wasn’t the word need. It was the word hero. Because it implied that female and hero are mutually exclusive terms.

That’s not even a little bit true.

I think it’s high time we demand that hero is a gender-neutral word.

UPDATE: Someone from Under Armour contacted me via Twitter late last night after I’d already scheduled this post.


I appreciate that they engaged with me, absolutely. However, this tweet shows EXACTLY the crux of the issue: the assumption that women wouldn’t be interested in icons of strength, heroics, and comic books. I responded by telling them that, then reiterating that I am a big fan of the company and their awesome Sweat Every Day campaign. They wrote back once more:


Scalzi would probably take a moment to outline the art of apologizing, but at least they’re fixing the issue. I just hope the women’s shirts are as awesome as the men’s.

UPDATE #2: Kristy Lyseng pointed me toward this. The Disney store/Marvel have stopped selling the “I Need A Hero” shirts after a large amount of consumer backlash that landed them on the Top Offenders list of Not Buying It. They still, however, sell the “I Only Kiss Heroes” shirt, which is just about as bad. I look forward to the day where companies will think BEFORE they make, not get shamed into thinking after they’ve created offensive things.

What do you think? Who are your heroes? Have you ever said, “She’s my heroine!” in real life? What makes a hero?


About Emmie Mears

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

Posted on April 19, 2013, in Superheroes, SuperWomen, WTF and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. My thoughts on this are pretty simple. You’re right. It really is a gender neutral word. I really don’t know why they don’t release both at the same time. It seems like they are losing money. 😕

    • Yeah, they are. The problem is they think that creating superhero apparel for women (and video games with female protagonists, etc., etc., etc.) will lose them money because they don’t see that women equate at all in their calculations of market share. Hopefully the new Tomb Raider will do something to dispel that thought, because it’s already one of the highest sellers of the year. For women who love these things, it seems like pure common sense. And for people who understand that women make up almost half the market even in these “male” sectors, it seems like pure stupidity for companies to choose to ignore it.

      They don’t make superhero movies with female protagonists because they point to the godawful examples of Elektra and Catwoman and say, “See, no one wants to see them.” Meanwhile, they invest millions to remake Superman and Spiderman over and over ad nauseum, working to create compelling storylines and brilliant scripts because they know people will go to see them. What they can’t seem to get through their heads is that people didn’t think Elektra and Catwoman sucked because they had female stars — it was because they were awful scripts and flat characters with poorly constructed antagonists. If they gave Wonder Woman the same attention they give Superman, they could create a phenomenal film that people would see. And if they had Joss write it and direct it (like he was supposed to several years ago), it’d sell like crazy.

      And yet they don’t, because they don’t think women are interested. It’s the continual blindspot that I think they MIGHT be starting to doff. Marvel/Disney listened and removed the “I Need a Hero” shirt. UA is listening to their fans and creating the female line.

      Maybe they’ll learn from their mistake and be more equality-minded next time. Who knows?

  2. From Joss Whedon’s most awesome Equality Now speech:

    [interviewer]: So, why do you write these strong female characters?

    [Joss]: Because you’re still asking me that question.

    ’nuff said.

  3. Heroine is the female form of hero, right enough. BUT, hero is not just the male equivalent of heroine; it also refers to the heroic figure concept in general, so it is gender neutral. Nobody uses aviatrix now, just aviator, so shouldn’t we apply that standard to other words in the language?

    In regard to the clothes, it’s a stupid error, that could come back to bite the manufacturers. Not only does it annoy geek women, but also their geeky friends, their partners, their parents.

  4. I was thinking about annoying tv tropes last night too. Two that piss me off most are the “plucky, tenacious (irritating) reporter” who always fucks things up for the protagonist, yet he usually inexplicably is attracted to her eventually, and the “I’m badass AND sexy AND strong AND snarky” because lord knows there can never be a bad ass female that’s not-so-hot (Hello, look what they did to Domino!) or a hot chick that ISN’T a black belt in martial arts or a pretty girl that doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder. Grrrr……

  5. “…an unfortunate homophone for a hard drug”

    This is what the word heroine always makes me think! I never use it, if I can help it.

  6. Eleni Sakellis

    You’re right Emmie, the fact that they automatically think women would not be interested in those shirts is nuts. Get it together people! When I think heroes, I think of everyone busting their butt out there to make this world a better place. And coming up on mother’s day, moms are the number one heroes. They need some funky t-shirts, too!

  7. Well said, Emmie. And since cmramey brought up Joss Whedon, I’ll say Zoe from Firefly is one of my favorites. In writing, there’s something invigorating about writing in a strong female lead POV.

  8. Talking of Damsels in Distress, you should read/see the blowback that Anita Sarkesian (sp?) got when she posted her first tropes in video games video. It got ugly fast!

    • I believe it. I really, really believe it. It’s starting to change now, but for a long time whenever women opened their mouths about sexism in geekdom, they were pounced on.

  9. Great post! Totally agree!

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